In the first parts of this series, I discussed why I teach 4 genres, how teaching 4 genres is more efficient, and how small group workshops help me juggle 4 genres in one class. That covers about the first 50-60% of a semester, but now I’d like to turn to what I do in the rest of the semester: the full-class workshop and the midterm and final portfolios.
Once we have worked our way through the four genres, I open the class up to workshopping with the full class. We can usually handle 2-3 texts in a 50-minute period. If there aren’t too many students in the class, I will schedule 2 people per day, but if necessary, I schedule 3 per day at least some of the time to allow everyone at least 2 times to bring their work.
Because we’ve already discussed genres individually, we can handle cross-genre workshop sessions, where one person may bring a poem and another may bring fiction, nonfiction, or a play script. I don’t limit students to bringing one short piece and one long piece, though I do sometimes allot a little more time to a longer text.
Because some of the students have already seen part of the text in their small group workshop, our discussion is often more efficient, yet students get the value of more perspectives on their writing, and they get to see how their classmates have revised and developed the work they saw previously. It’s great that this structure allows us to workshop a piece more than once in different stages of the writing, so we can really discuss the process of revision.
Discussion also goes better, thanks to the lessons students have learned in the small group workshops. They are more willing to make suggestions about each other’s work, and more willing to take those suggestions. I remind them at the outset that the best time to bring work to the workshop is when it is more than half-baked, but not completely finished. You should be far enough along in your drafting process that the class can give you useful feedback (not the obvious comments about an early draft you could have figured out on your own), but not so far along that you are finished with the piece — you should still be receptive to suggestions.
Because students are more comfortable making suggestions, I usually don’t have to lead the discussion too much. I will play devil’s advocate at times, making suggestions that the group isn’t considering, and I will raise issues that I think it would be good for the class as a whole to consider, but I try to save my own comments on the piece for an individual conference with the student.
In course evaluations and reflective exam questions about the workshop process, I have consistently noticed that students value the full-class workshops the most, but they also appreciate the small group workshops. And some have even come to realize that the freer discussions in Small Groups helped their discussions later.
I say the Small Groups are freer, even though I give them initial steps to consider and questions to discuss. Once they’ve done that part, their discussions can go wherever they want (and sometimes, I suspect they ignore my instructions and just talk about their work after awhile). In Small Groups, I allow the writer to respond to the group; in Full-Class workshops, I ask the writer to be silent after they have read from their work. They will have a chance to respond briefly at the end, but during our discussion I want us to ask our questions of the text and each other, and not to rely on the writer for answers. That can be difficult, and sometimes we break that rule, but it can be a good guideline to have (though not the only model for workshopping).
The Full-Class Workshops are where students take the work they’ve done already, choose the writing they are most interested in, and adapt it to the genres they want to write for their final portfolios. It makes sense to allow them to choose whatever work they want for workshop, since I try to place very few restrictions on their final portfolio.
Midterm and Final Portfolios
I always assign a midterm and a final portfolio. I’m an advocate for giving students some sense of their grades before they are done, and a midterm portfolio of work in progress is a way to let students know if they are generating enough material and taking it far enough by that point in the semester. The final portfolio contains their polished, finished work. Most of the work in the final portfolio will also have been in the midterm portfolio, though some new work may be included, and some work from the midterm portfolio may not be in the final portfolio.
I assign midterm and final portfolios in all of my undergraduate classes. In the the intro class, where we are working on 4 genres, I allow students to choose what genres they include in both portfolios. The midterm portfolio is usually due as we’re just starting to consider genre. And since we’ve already covered all 4 genres by the time we get to the final portfolio, I don’t feel I have to see finished work in all 4. I do require at least 1 story and 2 poems (or I might consider part of a play or essay to be a lyric form). The point is that I want to be sure they have a variety of finished work, and that they are working with narrative and lyric forms. But the scene of a play done for the drama workshop might be transformed into a scene for a short story. Or their essay might get turned into a poem. A lyric essay would qualify as a poem, as would a prose poem. A dramatic monologue or dialogue could qualify as a poem, too.
My goal in teaching 4 genres is to get students to explore different modes of writing and to discover a kind of writing they may not have thought they could do. It is also to see how all the genres inform each other, so I don’t mind it if students gravitate towards one or two genres. I want them to try something outside of their comfort zone, and I tell them that I will grade their strongest work first and the genre that isn’t their strong suite will be graded as the part of the portfolio where they were trying something new.
Still, I keep experimenting with ways to word the portfolio requirements so they don’t privilege fiction and poetry over nonfiction and drama. I like the idea that there are narrative forms and lyric forms. If I were to expand my requirements to more than 2, I would want to consider rhetorical or essay forms and performative forms. If I do add these in the future, I probably wouldn’t require that students submit at least 4 pieces, one in each form, but instead that their work reflect these 4 modes, but that they may be combined. A poem may be both lyrical and performative, in the same way that a play might (and might also have a narrative). A nonfiction piece might have narrative and lyric moments, and a story might have lyrical passages.
Those criteria would be a little harder to identify, and might require an artist’s statement that discusses how the different forms are reflected in the portfolio. I’m not quite ready to go there ye,t though I often include an exam question that asks students to be self-reflective about their writing.
For now, I’ll stick with a portfolio that includes some prose and some poetry, some narrative and some lyric. Teaching in 4 genres has been an evolutionary process. I have found it more rewarding and challenging the more even-handed I’ve become, and I expect that my methods will continue to evolve as long as I continue to teach.