And What You Can Do About It
I should have known better.
I’ve learned my lesson many times that getting into “discussions” on social media is nonproductive and polarizing. It starts innocently. A friend posts a position on something. I offer an alternative view from my wealth of experience. The other person responds. I respond. And it goes back and forth until name-calling and dismissal of opposing views is involved. Sometimes it ends with somebody being defriended and blocked.
A recent dispute revolved around whether creative writing professors should restrict the kinds of genres students can use in their classes. Some professors ban science fiction, fantasy, and other forms of speculative fiction, preferring that students focus on “psychological realism” (e.g., stories that take place in the so-called real world). My friend, a former creative writing student, argued that students should be able to write about whatever they choose in creative writing classes. She said she had argued with one professor so much that she believes the professor passed her just to get her out of the class.
Take that, you stupid professor.
I am a big fan of science fiction and fantasy. I’ve authored three books set in a super-hero/science fiction world. I’ve also published a comic book and am working on a graphic novel. Speculative fiction is ingrained in my DNA. I am also an assistant professor of English who started teaching creative writing this year. While I do not ban genres in my creative writing classes (yet; we’ll see how things go), I restrict topics in my composition courses. There are some subjects I do not allow students to write about for argumentative essays, such as abortion and gun control. Yes, I understand students have strong feelings about these topics. So do most people who have been paying attention to the world for the last few decades. Strong feelings do not make good arguments. For this and other reasons (see below), I encourage students to look elsewhere for topics. I also understand why some creative writing teachers ban genres in their classes.
I sought to share these insights with my friend. But, upon learning that I don’t restrict genres myself, she concluded that my views were nothing more than a thought experiment removed from the reality of students having to take out loans to pay for classes. She further implied that I was “mansplaining” to her. I wasn’t. I was profsplaining.
So, why do professors restrict genres or topics or anything students write? There are two main reasons: to force students to be more creative in their choices and to protect the professor’s sanity.
But how can students be more creative if they aren’t allowed to write science fiction or fantasy? The harsh truth is that genre has nothing to do with creativity. Each genre relies on its own conventions, just as other types of writing do. Students who are well versed in a particular genre may know all the minutiae of that genre (such as how to kill a vampire or the maximum warp speed of a starship), but that doesn’t mean they can plot a story, create believable characters, work in subtext, develop settings, stick to a point of view, and perform the multitude of other tasks that make a story, well, a story.
Because time is limited in a creative writing course, professors focus on these basics — which can then be tailored to meet the needs of different genres. Learn the basics first.
The second reason why professors restrict genres or topics is to preserve their own sanity. Speaking from my own experiences in composition courses (and from conversations with other comp instructors), it is inhumane to expect professors to read 20 papers on abortion (unless the professor is masochistic). Students often pick such topics because they are “hot” in the news and “research” can easily be found on them (e.g. through Wikipedia and ProCon.org). These topics rarely lead to original points of view, and, when they do, they result in “preaching to the choir” arguments.
Students who choose polarizing topics rarely seek out other views. They do not grow as thinkers or writers.
So it is with genre writing. One of the best courses I took as a student was a graduate course in screenwriting. I went in with the idea of writing a super-hero/science fiction story not unlike the ones I’ve since turned into novels. The professor, after giving a deep sigh when I pitched my story, challenged me to write something else. I wrote a crime story in which a chef with a troubled past tries to save a family restaurant from three robbers. In setting it in the “real world,” I learned to spot my own weaknesses as a writer. For example, I had only enough story for a sixty-minute screenplay, not a two-hour movie.
However, I also learned how gratifying it was to take on a different type of story and figure out what to do to make it work.
I have seen this lesson repeated over and over as a writing instructor: Students take risks when they step out of their comfort zones. They become more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses as writers. And they build confidence by tackling something that first seems alien to them.
This is also why the “economic argument” doesn’t work. Yes, students pay a lot of money for college courses. Many take out student loans. But if students use this argument to control what they learn in the class, they do not grow or challenge themselves. We already live in a world where people can choose their own news and social media messages. The job of a professor is to challenge students to step beyond themselves.
So, what can you do if your professor doesn’t want you to write about Topic X or Genre Y? There’s usually not a lot you can do short of dropping the class, but there are some ways you might change how you look at the situation:
· Recognize that just because you can’t write about the topic/genre for this course doesn’t mean you can’t write about it ever. There may be many other courses which welcome such approaches. One of my colleagues, a political science professor, welcomes papers on abortion. But that’s political science. He can address the nuances of the argument in much better ways than I can in a composition class.
· Look for a “bridge” between what you want and what the professor wants. This requires a bit of creative thinking: How do you keep your original vision intact while working within the parameters of the course? I am not a fan of sports topics and usually don’t allow them in my courses; however, many of my students have written successful papers on whether college athletes should be paid. This, to my mind, is more of a business topic. Likewise, focusing on the essence of your story and adapting it to new parameters can open possibilities.
· Learn what you can from the course and move on. No writing course can teach you everything there is to know about writing. If you are serious about pursuing writing as a career, you will probably take many courses from teachers who have wildly different points of view. Learn from them all. You are in control of your writing. Take what you need.
This does not mean that writing teachers are never wrong. Some make unreasonable demands of student writing. But many learn as they go along what works in guiding students to do their best writing. Limitations and boundaries can be your best friends as a writer.