Some time ago, when I was a much more active contributor on TTTR than I have been of late (I’m eyeing a big comeback in 2011), I wrote a little ditty about how creative writing programs should include literary magazines in their curriculum. I spoke a little about how undergraduate workshops are letting their students down by not exposing them to a broader world of literature (lit mags, indie publishers, fellowships and conferences, etc.) and allowing just about any student who has finished an intermediate writing class into the advanced workshop. This latter point gives instructors the go-ahead to set the bar low and basically hand out an A to every student who writes two stories in a semester, regardless of whether or not they make vast improvements in their revisions or provide constructive feedback during their peers’ workshops.
At the University of Pittsburgh, Salvatore Pane is doing things a little differently, and he’s letting everyone in on it by putting his 2011 undergrad workshop syllabus on his blog (which, might I add, has a very nice design).
There’s a lot to admire in Salvatore’s syllabus. Mostly, I admire his bluntness. In the course description he straight up challenges his students to perform to high expectations:
I want to see structure, character, development. I want nuance and complexity. I don’t want filler pieces meant to get you closer to the page requirement.
This is something that was absent in my undergrad experience — an outline of the qualities that all of the best stories have, and an expectation that all students will strive for these qualities. And in describing peer critiques, Pane simply gives his students a model to follow:
In your responses, first describe what you think the writer is attempting to do and what the story is about. Then discuss the piece’s strengths. Finish with prescription, a section where you point out very specific things that still need work within the story. Go beyond grammar. Character, plot, prose, all the building blocks of fiction are on the table. You must use the description, strength, prescription model.
Instead of assuming that students know how to critique a work and turning a blind eye to the fact that some students spend more time on critiques than others — a seemingly common misconception among instructors — Pane tells his students what a solid critique looks like to him, and makes the expectation known that all students will follow his model.
And Pane also picks a solid mix of reading material for the class. You’ve got your Carver and your Dubus, but you’ve also got Amelia Gray and Matt Bell, not to mention the most recent novels by Gary Shteyngart and Lorrie Moore. By introducing his students to writers like Gray and Bell, he’s exposing them to entire new worlds of literature that consist of small online and print journals and indie presses and literary communities. It’s a good way to help young writers see that they’ve got somewhere to go after a long night alone at a desk with a keyboard and a screen.
The cool thing is that this intensive syllabus stemmed from a group of students that he had in an intermediate workshop, each of whom he thought was mature enough to handle this curriculum. If only all undergrad workshops could be that good. Nevertheless, here’s to Salvatore Pane for creating and sharing an undergrad writing syllabus with standards.