TEXT review

What’s in a workshop?

review by Marcelle Freiman


Dianne Donnelly (ed)
Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?
New Writing Viewpoints
Multilingual Matters, Bristol 2010
ISBN 9781847692689
Pb 238pp AUD38.20 Amazon price


The question of whether the writing workshop still ‘works’ is timely given the extent to which it has become ubiquitous. The workshop is, as Donnelly rightly says, writing’s ‘signature’ pedagogy, and as such should be coherently reviewed for its efficacy, suitability and pedagogical rigour. Although I came to the book wanting a radically new structure, if this was possible, for an alternative way to teach writing, particularly given the increasing moves to large classes and teaching creative writing online, having read it, I recognise the extent to which the writing workshop is pliable, adaptable and resilient. Although it is also flawed and problematic for students and teachers, no-one, including these contributors, has come up with a better way of teaching.

At the same time, it is obvious that writing workshops conducted in today’s universities bear little resemblance to the early, selective workshops where experienced writers brought in their writing for peer feedback in groups facilitated by well-regarded published writers, and this was considered enough. Tracing the change from those early (and un-questioned or critiqued) writing workshops, it is obvious that universities and university teachers have changed; tertiary education has become a much larger enterprise with a markedly varied student body; writing programs have developed at Bachelor, Masters, MFA and PhD levels; and creative writing has become a discipline related to the humanities and creative arts. Systemic change, the nature of universities and the characteristics of a very diverse student cohort have driven changes in all university teaching, including writing.

Donnelly acknowledges all of this in her ‘Introduction: If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It; Or Change is Inevitable, Except from a Vending Machine’ (the final phrase to conjure the humanistic nature of workshops). Donnelly’s aim for this collection is as a substantial contribution to the debates and dialogues on writing, and ‘to explore current practices of creative writing’s signature pedagogy as part of an overarching inquiry into the field with a secondary goal to ascend creative writing studies as a distinct discipline independent in its own scholarship’ (10) – that is, to assert such a professional identity alongside that of literary studies and composition studies.
The dominant context of this book is that of US based programs and disciplines. In this collection of 17 essays (including Donnelly’s introductory essay), 13 are authored by US writing academics, there is 1 essay by an Australian, and 3 essays from the UK and Scotland. This is not to say that the essays do not offer anything to teachers in Australia and the UK, but rather that the dominant US contexts, particularly in terms of composition studies, create a different track of pedagogical and disciplinary research to that which is more familiar to Australian and British teachers. In particular, in Australia there has been more uniform development of the university sector and academics and teachers are accustomed to interrogating their teaching through research scholarship.

But global changes in student cohorts, university demands and culture and technology present challenges to established teaching models everywhere. For example, Donnelly points to cultural self-absorption of the ‘Google Generation’ (10), and their inability to focus on study and on others in the classroom. Other contributors discuss changing to entry-level abilities, course requirements and the need to vary workshop teaching in response to student learning needs. The contributors approach these challenges creatively: the writing in the essays is lively and insightful; and their experiments, observations and analyses provide much to engage with for writing teachers internationally.

In this book, the ‘idea’, or assumed understanding of what the workshop is, is applied as a teaching model. It is a dynamic context for teaching and learning, and while what happens there is examined, the different challenges for the workshop at different levels and in a range of program structures is not comparatively dealt with – rather, individual teachers write about their teaching experience without broader reference to creative writing teaching as a discipline. There are very real differences between the workshop for MA or MFA students when compared to undergraduate and community college students. These differences affect every aspect of teaching, from class size to entry-level capabilities and desired learning and/or publication outcomes. Andrew Cowan director of Creative Writing at East Anglia University in the UK addresses this issue in his recent article in TEXT, ‘A life event, a live event: The workshop that works’, where he discusses Donnelly’s text and several others. The model of ‘workshop that works’ most cogently, in Cowan’s view, is one that: aspires to publication; predominantly involves peer-review activity at graduate (or postgraduate) level; and which is highly collaborative, as against other feasible models, many of which are canvassed in Donnelly’s book.

Differences for writing workshop levels are based, in Cowan’s discussion to find ‘what works’ (the question posed by Donnelly), on the requirements for learning, and content, at course and program levels. Commenting on the PhD workshop, which also includes higher degree level literary reading and criticism, he writes:

… it offers itself less as a corrective to the traditional workshop than as an alternative, and thereby takes its place among the promiscuity of models that might, in summary, be arranged along a horizontal axis that has as one pole the wholly taught, exercise-based class for beginners and at the other pole the wholly discursive workshop for advanced (perhaps already published) writers, with a vertical axis that begins with recreational or high-school-level classes and ascends through the BA to the MA and MFA, and then on to the elite MA and MFA programmes exemplified by the likes of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (npn7)

Cowan’s matrix is useful in locating the variations and possibilities of what constitutes workshop teaching at different levels. It provides the kind of definition that should be considered in any full discussion of the relevance and viability of the workshop model. There must be other possibilities available for what ‘works’ in a workshop, beyond peer review. In the framing of the current discipline it is important to be clear that these interventions go beyond the needs of individual teaching and classes, and include factors such as degree and programme standards. At the very least, Donnelly and others point out, the workshop is a space for learning in which a variety of activities can take place, including, as appropriate, peer-review of student work.

The essays in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? demonstrate a range of approaches, questions, experiences, contexts, analyses, frustrations and enthusiasm, from teachers of university creative writing who are clearly passionate about their teaching and committed to their students. Many variations of the workshop are presented here: the inclusion of literary readings; hands-on writing exercises in class; informing one’s teaching with various theoretical perspectives; taking into account students’ diversity and cultural and gender differences; ethics; issues of power and autonomy.

This is a rich collection, yet in some ways, the essays in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? give the impression (to an Australian reader) of scholarship on the writing discipline being done in a vacuum. Almost none of the research refers to extensive work already done by Australian and UK scholars on framing the discipline of creative writing published in TEXT and in the foundational collections of essays, such as Creative Writing: Theory Beyond Practice edited by Nigel Krauth and Tess Brady and Creative Writing Studies: Practice and Pedagogy edited by Graeme Harper and Jeri Kroll. Perhaps another project could be a dialogue between their approaches, generated by their differences as well as their similarities.

In preparing their contributions, writers were asked to address the title question of whether the writing workshop ‘still works’, and to engage with ways of revising and reinvigorating the ‘tired workshop model’ (Donnelly, 23). Although much of this collection presents work based on workshop ‘case studies’ of what teachers do in their teaching practices, the essays also function well beyond being a teaching manual. They (variously) analyse in-depth, theoretically and reflexively, seek research-based frameworks, and create pedagogical methodologies, which they argue, ‘work’ for their teaching. They have sought what is advantageous and what is difficult in workshop teaching and learning, for teachers and students. None of them are prepared to jettison entirely the workshop model, but rather to find ways to transform it, resulting in manifestations that are exciting and original. For example, Katherine Haake’s ‘Re-envisioning the Workshop: Hybrid Classrooms, Hybrid Texts’ offers the framework of the workshop as a ‘contact zone’ based on the work of Marie-Louise Pratt’s ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’ as a way of dismantling the assumptions of the workshop and students’ writing, at the same time using ‘auto-ethnography’ to enforce the validity of their own vernaculars. Sue Roe in ‘Introducing Masterclasses’ focuses on readings and comments by writers and other creative arts practitioners, such as artists, on their processes to stimulate discussion and reflection on creative practices (a fiscally economical approach to the idea of masterclass). Leslie Kreiner Wilson offers the daring ‘Anonymous Floating Workshop’ as an alternative model in ‘Wrestling Bartleby: Another Workshop Model for the Creative Writing Classroom’ and Mary Ann Cain explores the potential of spatiality and otherness in the workshop, incorporating ‘Third Space’ theory into her teaching in ‘A Space of Radical Openness’. These four essays appear in the fourth section ‘New Models for Relocating the Workshop’ which presents, I think, the most innovative theoretical thinking in this collection.


Works cited

Pratt, ML 1991 ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’ in D Bartholomae & A Petroksky (eds) Ways of Reading, 5th edition, MLA: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25595469 (accessed 3 March 2011) return to text


Dr Marcelle Freiman is senior lecturer in English and creative writing at Macquarie University and executive member and past chair of the AAWP. Her current research interests include creative writing as discipline, practice and research; post-colonial and diaspora literatures; and poetry, her area of creative writing practice. She has published articles in TEXT, in New Writing: The International Journal of Creative Writing and contributed chapters to Creative Writing: Theory Beyond Practice (eds Brady and Krauth) and The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet (eds Cousins and Howarth). Her poetry publications are Monkey’s Wedding (Island Co-op, Woodford, NSW) and White Lines (Vertical) (Hybrid Publishers, Ormond, Vic) and she has published numerous poems in literary journals.


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Vol 16 No 2 October 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth, Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo