What Are You Teaching In Workshop?: O Captain, My Captain!
by Salvatore Pane
I’ve been reading Cathy Day’s blog lately and all her insightful posts about her undergrad fiction workshop as they went through NaNoWriMo, and the whole time I’ve wondered why more fiction teachers don’t share their syllabi or process or what have you. I’m a sucker for community. It’s what drew me to a university known for its creative writing undergrad and eventually to the MFA itself. Now that I’ve graduated, I miss that feeling of being part of something. There are substitutes. HTMLGIANT. The Rumpus. We Who Are About to Die. Uncanny Valley. And so on and so on. But I don’t know many first year teachers who are teaching workshops, composition and community college. So I thought that maybe I would write about my experience here a little bit, include a draft of my new syllabus, and then if anybody wanted to share similar thoughts that would be great.
This is my fall semester intermediate workshop class. I showed up the last day and they were not only dressed like me, but they’d brought in a Spider-Man cake and noisemakers. To be sure, it was one of the most touching and humbling moments of my life. I’m not exactly sure why the students responded so positively to the class and to me (I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that they all really got along and the level of criticism was really advanced), but I hope that it has something to do with how I tried to take them seriously as writers, that when they came into my class they weren’t student writers, they were just writers. (Much of my pedagogy comes from this video of Tom Bailey minus all the crying) A lot of them came into the class complaining about how previous workshops focused on inane guidelines (one student said he’d come from a workshop where students had to fit so many imperative, declarative and exclamatory sentences into stories), and I think they responded to how difficult I made the class. I ran it more like a graduate workshop and tried to focus on publishing and literary journals. We looked at PANK, The Collagist, Flatmancrooked, just an absolute ton, and the first student publication (of what I really think will be a lot) will go live on Metazen late this month.
Despite the difficulty (I’d go on about why I think this class is a lot of work, but I’ve included the syllabus below), 15 of 19 students signed up for my advanced fiction workshop in the spring which is the next step up in the program. I honestly couldn’t be happier (although, it poses some syllabus problems because I can’t use any of the same stories from this semester), and have taken this as a mandate to push them further, to expect more from them, to transform them into writing workhorses who believe in perspiration over inspiration and the daily writing schedule. So, with all that in mind, below is the first draft of my new syallbus. Please let me know what you think and feel free to share your own. Have you ever taught a workshop? What have your experiences been like if so? If not, do you want to, do you plan to? Why?
3X33: Short Fiction by 33 Writers edited by Mark Winegardner
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Welcome to Advanced Fiction Workshop
In this course, you’re going to write and read a lot. This is not going to be easy because becoming a writer isn’t easy. There will be no easy A’s, and no easy weeks. Writing is a constant struggle, and this course will reflect that truth. However, and I can guarantee you this, if you’re serious about the craft of fiction, if you’re willing to put in the work, you will be a better writer at the end of the course compared to the first day.
Each student will put up 15-20 pages of literary fiction for workshop twice during the semester. You can write a traditional short story, multiple flash fiction pieces, or a novel chapter, but remember, you have to demonstrate the fundamental principles of literary fiction in all of your workshop pieces. That means you shouldn’t hand in a novel chapter that is less than a page. 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.
Substantial revisions will be required. Substantial revision does not mean fixing grammar. Substantial revision usually means a complete rewrite and perhaps multiple rewrites. Students must also post 500-100 word critiques for every student story we workshop. Similarly, you will read a large amount of stories from 3X33 and a few handouts. Students will post 500-1000 word critiques for every assigned story we read. In addition to those critiques, you will write two 1200 word papers in which you do a craft analysis of the novels Super Sad True Love Story and A Gate at the Stairs.
Reading so much literary fiction will allow you to build a library of published stories in your heads. Students are expected to use their knowledge of writers like ZZ Packer, Richard Yates or Lorrie Moore to comment about peer work up for discussion. Students will make parallels and use the published work to inform their critiques of peer work. The majority of the course will be spent workshopping. The goal of the course is for you to not only become a better writer, but to become an active literary citizen who can participate in the ongoing dialogue concerning fiction.
You will be prepared for every workshop class by doing the following:
1.) Write comments in the margins of stories up for discussion. You MUST use the comments feature in Microsoft Word. All comments will be transparent to the entire class. I want you to upload your marked up versions of workshopped stories to Blackboard. Failure to do so will negatively impact your grade.
2.) Write a 500-1000 word critique for each peer written story we read this semester. You must critique the story based on its own intentions. For example, if the writer is attempting to write in the realist mode of Ray Carver, do not suggest a woman who gives birth to a newborn baby every night ala Amelia Gray just because you don’t like realism. On the flip side, do not knock a postmodern story because you prefer realism. Judge the story the writer wrote, not the one you want to write. Try and help them see how they could better serve their material and unique world vision. 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.
3.) Post your critique and margin comments to Blackboard by 8PM the night before workshop. All critiques will be visible to all members of the class, and I encourage you to read what your peers are saying about every story. Name your thread on Blackboard after your favorite line of the story in question. If you don’t turn in these materials BY 8PM, you will lose points.
Example of a good critique:
[There’s a critique I wrote here in graduate school, but I’m removing it from the blog because I never told the person whose story I culled from. If interested, look in the Crow Room.]
Notes About Workshop
When you are being workshopped, it is very important that you are quiet, take notes, and do not respond to anything verbally. To reiterate, you are not allowed to talk when being workshopped unless I specifically ask you something, and that will be very rare. You are not there to defend your story. Your story must stand on its own.
Please proofread your work. If a story is excessively sloppy, I will not workshop it. Do not depend on your classmates to fix your grammar.
Distribution of Manuscripts
Stories are due from every student at specific points in the semester. Upload them to Blackboard on the due date by 9AM. If your story is late, your grade for that story will drop by an entire letter. If you are more than a day late, you will get an F, no exceptions. You are responsible for printing out your peers’ stories for discussion on workshop days.
Blackboard Reading Posts
On most weeks, you will be required to read at least one outside short story. On these weeks, you must post a 500-1000 word critical response to said story on Blackboard under the appropriately titled forum. Posts must be uploaded by 8PM the day before we discuss the story. If your post is late, you will take an F on the critical response in question. During the first two weeks in which we will be discussing two professional short stories a classroom session, you are required to write three 250-500 word responses each class session, one for each story we read (the exception being Super Sad True Love Story when Paper 1 will be due). Post your responses on the appropriate Discussion Board forum. There’s a forum designated by name for every professional story.
Let me be very clear on this. This is not a forum for you to explain whether or not you like the piece in question. I don’t care. What I’m looking for is a craft analysis. These stories are published. They’re not up for workshop. What can you learn from them? If you simply talk about why you love or hate a specific story, you will take an F on the critical response in question.
Two papers will be due in this course, one for Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shytengart and one for A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. They will be due on Blackboard the night before class at 8PM like our reading critiques. The goal in these papers will be to do a craft analysis and pick out a few pieces in the work in question that specifically helpful to your development as a writer. Do not analyze these novels in a vacuum. Feel free to tie in your own work or other books you have read.
After everyone has been workshopped once, I will break you up into Fiction Pods of four and five in which you will read each other’s revisions and then run mini-workshops. I will explain more about Fiction Pods when we reach that point in the semester. Keep in mind, you will be required to meet with your Fiction Pods for 90 minutes outside of class on two separate occasions during the semester. You will also have to e-mail me where and when you met and a very brief summary of the meeting.
I want to be as clear as I can on this. If you miss class four times, you will fail. There will be no make up assignments. Don’t come back to class. The ONLY excuse I will accept is a doctor’s excuse. I am not going to make any exceptions on this front.
If you are unprepared for discussion or workshop, I cannot give you credit for attendance that day.
This is what you have to do if you want an A in this course. You have to put up two thoughtful workshop pieces. Then you have to take the time to substantially revise them. You have to be engaged in classroom discussions and add something relevant every class. You must do all the Blackboard posts and turn them in on time. You do all these things, you get an A. You slack off, turn stuff in late or short, doze off in class, and you’re not getting an A.
Here’s the grading breakdown. 70% of your final grade will come down to your final portfolio, i.e. all of your revised work at the end of the semester. The other 30% comes from Blackboard posts and participation. Please note: participation is mandatory. If you are not contributing to every single workshop, you are not going to get a good grade. This is a workshop course. The same goes for Blackboard. If you consistently fail to turn in work on time, you’re not going to get a good grade.
On the final day of class, you will be expected to turn in two revisions of your workshop pieces. Late portfolios WILL NOT be accepted.
After your workshop, please schedule a conference with me during my office hours. Revisions will be due at the end of the semester, but you can turn them in at any point. Conferences are mandatory!
Students are only required to attend one event outside of class. On April 7th, writer Lydia Davis will read in the Frick Fine Arts Building at 8PM. You are required to attend and write a short, 500 word craft analysis of her reading. ATTENDANCE IS MANDATORY. If you cannot attend, you must go to a make up reading that I will assign.
Cheating/plagiarism will not be tolerated. Students suspected of violating the University of Pittsburgh Policy on Academic Integrity, noted below from the February 1974, Senate Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom reported to the Senate Council, will be required to participate in the outlined procedural process as initiated by the instructor. A minimum sanction of a zero score for the quiz or exam will be imposed.
Plagiarism, as defined by the University of Pittsburgh’s Academic Integrity code, is when a student:
Presents as one’s own, for academic evaluation, the ideas, representations, or words of another person or persons without customary and proper acknowledgment of sources.
Submits the work of another person in a manner which represents the work to be one’s own.
Knowingly permits one’s work to be submitted by another person without the faculty member’s authorization.
If you have a disability for which you are or may be requesting an accommodation, you are encouraged to contact both your instructor and Disability Resources and Services, 140 William Pitt Union, (412) 648-7890 or (412) 383-7355(TTY), as early as possible in the term. DRS will verify your disability and determine reasonable accommodations for this course.
Thurs January 6
Amelia Gray “Babies” and “Dinner”
Tues January 11
Raymond Carver “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” 3X33
Tobias Wolff “The Liar” Blackboard
Dave Eggers “After I Was Thrown in the River but Before I Drowned” Blackboard
Thurs January 13
Antonya Nelson “Naked Ladies” 3X33
James Alan McPherson “Why I Like Country Music” Blackboard
Donald Barthelme “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning” 3X33
Tues January 18
Gary Shytengart Super Sad True Love Story
Thurs January 20
Tues January 25
Thurs January 27
Jonathan Lethem “Super Goat Man” Blackboard
Tues February 1
Thurs February 3 – Guest Workshop w/Travis Straub
Tues February 8
Thurs February 10
Andre Dubus “The Fat Girl” Blackboard
Tues February 15
Thurs February 17
Matt Bell “His Last Great Gift” Blackboard
Tues February 22
Thurs February 24
Richard Yates “The Best of Everything” 3X33
Tues March 1
Thurs March 3
Workshop 22 (IF NEEDED)
A.M. Homes “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero” Blackboard
SUNDAY REVISIONS DUE
Tues March 15
Lorrie Moore A Gate at the Stairs
New Stories Due
Thurs March 17
Tues March 22
Thurs March 24
Tues March 29
Thurs March 31
Workshop 10 (IF NEEDED)
ZZ Packer “Dayward” Blackboard
Tues April 4
Thurs April 7
Workshop 14 (IF NEEDED)
George Saunders “Sea Oak” 3X33
Tues April 12
Thurs April 14
Tues April 19
Thurs April 21