Breaking the Silence: Using Creative Nonfiction in the Classroom

One of the most eye-opening revelations of critical pedagogy in the 1990s was that learning technical academic discourse—whether how to formally analyze the meter of a Shakespearean sonnet, the articulation of a mechanism for an advanced engineering course, studying the evolution of the myth of American exceptionalism in a history seminar, or how to read warranted implications in a mathematical proof—is a terribly difficult and arbitrary process that leaves many confused students overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness. When we consider that students are often simultaneously learning 4-5 competing sets of technical academic discourse on the fly, and that this stress would be most pronounced among cohorts of incoming freshmen, it comes as no surprise that longitudinal studies have found that students are most likely to succumb to feeling  helpless to marshal so many discourses all at once during their first two semesters in college. Although we tend to think of this problem in the narrow framework of improving academic competency in one particular classroom at a given moment in time (e.g., how to prepare students for an upcoming midterm or for an upcoming research paper), WAC pedagogy reminds us that no class unfolds in a vacuum, as it were, and, furthermore, that the most instructive perspectives for teaching often originate from a dynamic interdisciplinary approach. With this in mind, I would like to discuss the wide-ranging benefits of giving a valued place to regular (low-stakes) creative nonfiction writing activities in the classroom.

As we all know, student learning outcomes are a process, and not a product. Each student’s relative success unfolds within the interdisciplinary fabric of not just their other coursework, but through the sociocultural richness of their other personal interests and commitments outside of school as well. WAC philosophy invites us to use writing to seize on the untapped potential of these interconnections, and one of the most intriguing ways of doing so involves featuring regular creative nonfiction writing exercises throughout the semester. I should note, in passing, that these writing activities need not add to an instructor’s workload or radically change how an instructor would calculate  the final grade for a course. In fact, the most straightforward and organic way to add creative nonfiction writing to a course would be to subsume it under participation or extra credit. It is precisely the “low-stakes” nature of these regular writing activities that can benefit students.

My interest in implementing creative nonfiction writing in the classroom can be traced to the work of  rhetoric scholar Douglas Hesse. Having witnessed the parallel evolution of creative writing into an autonomous academic program and studied the subsequent explosion of creative writing programs in American higher education, Hesse looks towards the model of untrammeled “process” writing and workshopping that takes place in creative writing seminars for inspiration to reinvigorate the conventional teacher-student dynamic. And while Hesse concentrates on how to adapt these intensive writing methods to first-year English composition curricula, my starting-point is that these very same principles and techniques can have far-reaching liberating effects across and between disciplines.

A regrettable consequence of the bureaucratization of higher education is that departments are often fenced off from each other in competition for ever-more exiguous resources, and, as a result, in can be very difficult for instructors to consider their course goals and design beyond the cloistered compound of their respective departments. However, building on Hesse’s innovative theories, I would submit that providing a regular (low-stakes) space for students to creatively reflect on their development—in terms of learning course material in addition to the holistic totality of their evolution as college students and young adults—would empower teachers and students alike to creatively tease out and engage with the intersections between their respective courses and other fields of study and experience. Indeed, what student or teacher wouldn’t benefit from creatively thinking and writing about (these are but a couple hypothetical examples) the thought-provoking parallels between the indeterminacy principle studied in a Physics class and Gödel’s theorems in mathematics, or, perhaps in a seminar on modern American poetry, how the terms and concepts of theoretical science are wed with a Romantic poetic vision in the work of A.R. Ammons? These intersecting perspectives would deepen and enrich each other by facilitating students’ in-depth understanding of their coursework.

Hesse maps out the terrain of writing into two distinct, and seemingly diametrically opposed worlds—the “Terra Facta” or “Terra Argumenta” of “thesis and support, information, . . . assertion, and evidence”—in short, our quantifiable expectations of student proficiency which form the basis of grading criteria in any given course—and the “Terra Imagina” of fiction whose “open lands” are exhilarating precisely because they don’t lead anywhere in particular. Without getting bogged down in a minute recapitulation of Hesse’s argument, the gist of his intervention is that our academic discourses all too often leave little or no room for the “Terra Imagina” of fiction—the open-ended terrain that imaginatively involves students in the writing of their own narrative as they find and develop interconnections between new forms of knowledge. Viewing Hesse’s theory through the lens of WAC pedagogy, I suggest that an interdisciplinary approach to using creative nonfiction writing in the classroom can provide an inclusive educational framework for students to explore, synthesize, and reflect on their own learning paths.