Where I’m Coming From: The Origins of My Workshop Practice

How A Writer’s Craft Can Be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 3

Let me just put it out there: I’m a straight white guy, so you’d be justified in asking what right I have to write about anti-racist anything. My goal in writing this series of posts is not to co-opt the discussion or to tell anyone how they ought to teach, but instead is to reflect on the thoughts of others whose ideas ought to shape the way I teach. As a textbook author, I also want reflect on the book I’ve written and how it might be used in an anti-racist setting. With A Writer’s Craft, I didn’t set out to write an anti-racist book, which is why I say it “can be” and “can be more” anti-racist. As part of that reflection, I feel it is only fair to reflect on and reveal the origins of my own workshop practice.

In discussions of anti-racist creative writing pedagogy, often the Iowa workshop model is held up for criticism. I didn’t go to the Iowa Workshop, though was born and raised in Iowa, went to Knox College not far away, and made many pilgrimages to Iowa City to attend readings and visit Prairie Lights. One of my good friends did go through the Iowa Writers Workshop as a poet, and from her stories, I can certainly believe that the portrayals of the workshops there are fairly acurate. It sounded like a stressful, highly competitive atmosphere, though I’m sure it also has its bright points.

At Knox, two of our main creative writing professors, Robin Metz in fiction and Robin Behn in poetry were Iowa grads. Samuel Moon, the poetry professor when I first arrived, had gone through the University of Michigan. I know we were trained in a workshop model that was at least influenced by Iowa. Neither Robin Metz nor Robin Behn followed it closely, though I do remember they used the rule that the writer had to be silent while their work was discussed, which many writers have criticized as colonialist. I don’t remember that rule being quite so oppressive, though I don’t think we stuck to it religiously, especially with Sam Moon or Robin Behn, and as a white guy, I might not have noticed if we did. With Robin Metz, I remember long and heated discussions, and I think the writers were allowed to engage after a time, maybe because we also were allowed to drink and smoke during our evening workshops.

I won’t say we were never egotistical or overbearing — I’m sure we were. We were also young and foolish, and it was the 1980s. We had several very good writers of color in our group: Tawanna Brown, Audrey Petty, Vita Cross, Jonathan Joe, Dennis See, and Khusro Mumtaz spring to mind. I can’t speak to their experience of our workshops, but I do think that our professors treated everyone equally and we had (and have) great respect for those writers. I hope they experienced it that way. For all its flaws, Knox provided a sound pedagogical foundation, and many of us have gone on to successful writing careers.

My second education in writing, though, was at the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago, where I was fortunate to work with Marc Kelly Smith, a founder of the poetry slams, and David Hernandez and Street Sounds, who often performed there. I consider this my almost/anti-MFA period. Academic poetry was not privileged in a poetry slam environment to say the least, and there were many writers of color we were in awe of. One fall, I had the good fortune to work with Robin Metz and David Hernandez in a writing workshop for Robin’s Urban Studies students — I made coffee and got to sit in on their discussions, and I got to learn from David’s kind, encouraging mentorship. Marc Smith, Sheila Donohue, Cin Salach, and I formed a poetry performance group we called The Bob Shakespeare Band. For a while we had a Tuesday night poetry show at a another Chicago club, performed at the Green Mill, and took our show on the road to a college on Chicago’s West Side and to Ann Arbor for a slam competition. We had a lot of fun, and I relearned or unlearned much of what I’d learned in college about poetry and writing in general. Collaboration, multi-vocal poetry, and audience participation were all parts of what we explored.

Later, I did my graduate work in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. I studied Dutch, German, French, and English, plus lots of literary theory and non-English texts in translation. It was there that I was first exposed to postcolonial literature, for instance, and there that I became a graduate instructor in English and learned to teach composition. I’m grateful that Texas was on the cutting edge of teaching comp as rhetoric and using peer critiques in writing instruction. My Knox workshop experience stood me in good stead, but I also learned a lot from the rhet/comp program, from my fellow grad students, and my own students.

I remember one student — I’ll call him David Alvarez, though my memory of his real name is a little foggy. I know his last name started with A because he was first on my roll. He was a bright student, but he struggled with writing. He was the first person to tell me about racial profiling, long before it became a thing. He described how he and his friends were often stopped by the police as suspected immigrants, even though he was a seventh-generation Texan. His first language was Spanish and he spoke with an accent, so in school he had always been told he couldn’t write, yet he was very intelligent and really only lacked confidence. I remember sitting with him in my basement office (a closet, really) and having him tell me about his ideas for a paper. I took notes and when he finished talking, I read them back to him. He was amazed and wondered how I had come up with those ideas. I said he told them to me. I had just summarized and rearranged a little. I handed him his outline, and suggested that he record his ideas for papers and then write down notes from his recordings. Writing in English presented challenges for David thanks to all the negative feedback he’d gotten, but he had great ideas and could write much better than he believed he could.

I hope my class boosted David’s confidence, but I’m not writing about it now to brag. Instead, I want to emphasize what I learned from him: how not to pre-judge someone for how they look, how they dress, or how they talk. I had a similar experience at Mississippi Univerisity for Women, where I’ve taught for over a quarter century. A few years ago, two black men showed up in my World Literature class and sat in front at the edge of the room, both with their hoodies up. I will confess that my first reaction was to assume that because I could hardly see their faces they would be disengaged. I’m grateful to colleagues and African American writers I know who’ve been outspoken about wearing hoodies — this was not too long after Trayvon Martin was killed, as I recall, so it could even be seen as a political statement. I gave these students positive written feedback on their writing assignments (something I haven’t always taken the time to do for students when I’ve had a lot of grading). Pretty soon the guy in front started speaking up in class and his friend who sat behind followed a few days later. My attitude changed because I took the time to notice. They might have checked out if I hadn’t, and that would have been my fault. They also might have stayed quiet, but still done well in the class. They were both good students, in other words, and they only needed to be invited into the discussion.

I’ve been that student. After high school, I spent a year as an exchange student in Belgium, going to a high school and living in a family where everyone spoke Dutch, or Flemish to be more precise. When I arrived, I had utterly no knowledge of the language, though we did receive a week-long language and culture school in the summer. After that, we had to learn everything on our own and from our families by immersion. So I’ve been the student who was confused and on the outside of every group. I was also the exotic American exchange student, so most students and teachers wanted to help me out, but it was still an incredible challenge, and I think it helps me put myself in my students’ shoes when they are facing those challenges.

Flemish is really just a name for the dialects of Dutch that are spoken in the northern half of Belgium, and the Flemish are incredibly proud of their dialects. I learned the standardized Flemish taught in school well enough to translate Flemish poetry later. I also learned enough of the dialect spoken in Ghent that I could understand my host-grandfather and my host-mother when they spoke it. And I learned that speaking a non-standard dialect doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent, but instead is a sign of your close ties to your community. This is a lesson I’ve taken into my composition and creative writing classes.

My creative writing pedagogy has also been informed by the pedagogy panels I have participated in over the years at AWP, and I’m grateful to them for introducing many of the ideas that have been transforming workshops for decades. My good friends from Knox, Anna Leahy and Mary Cantrell introduced me to this group, where I also have become friends with Stephanie Vanderslice. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am without the conversations we’ve had.

My creative writing students have also been instrumental. When I first started teaching and got comments on my course evaluations that students thought I wanted them to write a certain way or write like me, I probably was defensive. But I’ve also learned to listen to those comments, to try to find ways to ask questions, provide options and choices, and let students do more of the talking. This was one reason I started using small group workshops in which I ask students directed questions about excercises they’ve written. The directed questions and instructions for commenting on and adding to each other’s writing helps keep those workshops focused, but what I’ve discovered is that their conversations about each other’s writing around the edges of the planned discussion are often what is the most productive. These small group workshops also serve as training for the larger group workshops later, and they have led to revising the workshop model to loosen up the rule that the writer must be silent (a topic I plan to revisit later in this series of posts).

I teach at a state school that is 80% women and nearly 40% African American. I have had students of all colors and all genders and gender identities. I remember the first student who asked to be called by a different name — she wanted to use a male-sounding name, and this was some years before trans rights became part of the national conversation. Because writers often use a psuedonym, I said it was fine. After that, I’ve always asked whether someone has a preferred name that isn’t what’s on my roll. Some years later, another student asked the same question, revealing that he was trans and I was the first professor he had approached about it. We had a discussion about what it would mean to take a name other than Savannah in class, since we were several weeks into the semester at that point. We agreed on what name would be best, and that was the name he used for the rest of his time in our program. I even got used to his rather graphic poems about serial killers.

I don’t mean to suggest that I am perfect. I know that I have biases and that I still have a lot to learn. What I do mean to suggest is that I have been fortunate enough to have good mentors, friends, and role models. I’ve learned to listen to my students and to realize that a colonialist workshop model would never work at a school like mine — I would have the authority to use it, don’t get me wrong, but it would be terrible for my students. An anti-racist workshop also needs to be an anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist workshop. It challenges instructors and empowers students. It is in a fairly long tradition of rethinking creative writing pedagogy of which I’ve been fortunate to play a small role and to learn from those who have been leaders. That is what I’m attempting to do now by engaging with these books through this series of posts.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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