Two years ago, my honors freshman composition class came to a halt while we considered the purpose of Haruki Murakami’s meandering prose in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. As I attempted to get the discussion on track, I realized I had not done enough to invite my students, creatively and critically, into the textual landscape—a crucial step in preparing students to navigate other terrains in academia and beyond. As I pointed out the signposts I had become familiar with during previous runs through Murakami’s text, the students began discussing their own experiences with the text. In my teaching, I stress both the challenges and pleasures of reading and writing and emphasize that writing is not only a discipline that requires stubborn perseverance but a craft that can become as intuitive as putting one foot in front of the other.
By introducing writing students to a wide range of literary traditions and styles and incorporating an assortment of contemporary texts in writing workshops, I expose students to the genre of nonfiction and provide examples that will help them consider how literary nonfiction writes against and borrows from other kinds of storytelling such as journalism, fiction, and poetry. To complement this exposure, I challenge students with exercises that require them to map an assigned essay, noting which parts are devoted to scene, to narrative summary, to reflection, to flashback and to back story—or, if mapping a critical essay, students note which parts are devoted to thesis, summary, topic and analysis. After they identify the essay’s form, they use their maps as a guide to writing an essay of their own. From this, students are able to better grasp how function and form compose the road over which their readers can run.
My scholarly and creative interests in science and nature writing generate other exercises for the writing classroom. Building on prior assignments that develop students’ understanding of form and content, I require students to write an essay on an altered state such as runner’s high and to structure the essay in a similarly altered way. This assignment encourages students to stretch structural conventions and to interrogate their own notions of nonfiction’s boundaries through testing the relationship between themselves as the author and themselves as the narrator. In past semesters, I required students to write a personal essay in which they incorporate research. This task seems contradictory for many students because it demands a critical evaluation and negotiation of the personal with the universal, but that is exactly the point. Additionally, I encouraged students to use intellectual resources in creative ways in order to create new approaches to style and voice.
Once students have warmed up by writing a personal essay, they are less intimidated to write critical comparisons of assigned readings, which in turn builds their intellectual base and endurance for writing a research paper. Moving from the personal to the critical gives students a different audience and requires them to make appropriate changes in from and content. Writing workshops allow students to learn through trial and error what techniques work best in various contexts. They learn how to read and craft different signposts that develop their ideas in formal ways their audience can follow, and because students receive comments from all their classmates, they come to understand there is not one but many directions a writer can run and still help their audience to the finish. Understanding this contingency is crucial for students to gain an appreciation for writing while showing them that “form” does not mean “formulaic.”
My writing pedagogy also influences the way I teach literature, though teaching literature brings different challenges. In the same way a runner finds it difficult to convince others that running is not torture and can, in certain situations, lead to a powerful feeling of euphoria, students of literature sometimes need to be coaxed into taking the first step into a text. To do this, I frame historically distant literature for readers in a modern setting. For example, in my Early American literature class one semester, we examined the similarities between the Salem Witch Trials and the epidemic at La Roy High School in New York in which a group of 13 females and one male exhibited Tourette’s syndrome-like symptoms. We also compared Thomas Paine’s theses in Common Sense and The Age of Reason with the Richard Dawkins’ secular humanist/ atheist agenda outlined in The God Delusion, and considered Mark Twain’s “Taming the Bicycle” in light of the recent popularity of fixed-gear bikes.
While the difficulty that comes with reading classic, canonical literature is not an issue with students of writing, who benefit from focusing on contemporary works, I stress in both literature and writing classes that literary breadth must be complemented with deep focus, which is a matter of learning how to see the textual landscape—the pace and way in which turning points evolve and resolve and to see how diction and structure at the sentence level prepares the reader for such narrative peaks and valleys. I encourage students to see the landscape more fully by running into it with perseverance and to work for the moment when intellectual struggle coalesces with intellectual pleasure.