Students take over our queue!

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Creative writing professors Wade Geary and Huan Hsu teach at Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands. This week, their students will be reading the SmokeLong queue, discussing the stories, and ultimately picking a favorite for us to publish in our next issue. We talked with Wade and Huan about their class and what they hope their students get out of such an exercise.

What can you tell us about your college?

Wade: Amsterdam University College (AUC) is a fairly new liberal arts and science program; this year will mark its tenth in existence. It’s part of an expansion of university colleges within the Netherlands. Like the city of Amsterdam, the institution is quite international—close to 50 percent of the students are from outside of the Netherlands.

I feel pretty lucky to be teaching at AUC, especially to be teaching Creative Writing at the school. There aren’t many places on the European continent where students can take creative writing courses at the university level, especially in English. Many countries rely on art academies for these sorts of studies.

What is the creative writing course structure?

Wade: I’ve taught the course at AUC for seven years now. Some of the students are studying literature, but there are several that are in other areas of the humanities or even in the sciences. This means the students view writing creatively in pretty diverse ways. And the course structure itself—split into three sections (Romance, Exposure, and Refining)—tries to celebrate a variety of writing practices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the structure is borrowed from a math education researcher who studied how to get students interested in mathematics.

Huan: I think you’re being a bit modest here about the course structure, which I think is really effective in addressing the tyranny that genre can have on a creative writing syllabus. So rather than a rigid trudge through fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, we start reading (and writing) all three genres from the start, and put the focus on allowing students to explore, engage, and fall in love, hence the Romance. The upshot of this is that when we do get into the genres in the Exposure section there’s already a foundation.

Tell us about your students.

Huan: This is my fourth year teaching the course and I think my class composition is pretty typical of the creative writing sections: 23 students, mostly women (only 6 guys), comprised of second and third years (AUC, like many European universities, is a three-year program). As with the college at large, about half the class is from the Netherlands and half from the rest of Europe; there are usually also a handful of exchange students. All the students are typically well-educated, well-read, well-traveled, and far more sophisticated than I was as their age. They are sharp, motivated, and empathetic. All have excellent spoken and written English. They are so fluent that I have to constantly remind myself how marvelous it is that so many students are writing creatively in their non-native languages.

The writing backgrounds of the students vary widely, as do their ambitions. Some are just beginning to engage with creative writing in a structured environment; some know the New Yorker inside and out and have taken writing workshops before. Some are likely curious to explore the limits of their abilities—how far can they go with writing? Some seem to simply wish to scratch an itch. All of them do share the common trait among writers of feeling the urge to write—to say something—even if they aren’t yet sure what to say or how to say it. Many of them keep writing journals. I’m pleased that very few, if any, appear to be taking this course just because they think it will be easy. They all seem quite invested in getting the most from the class, and stretch themselves accordingly on the assignments. They are strong critical readers when it comes to other people’s work.

How familiar are they with SmokeLong?

We assign an exercise early in the semester in which the students have to explore SmokeLong and find at least one story that they really loved and explain why. Most find more than one, and there is often quite a bit of overlap both in terms of stories they love and also stories they dislike, and the subsequent discussion in class is usually so lively and critical that we’re always convinced that they are up for the responsibility of selecting a winning submission.

What do you hope they’ll learn from reading submissions from the slush pile?

Wade: An activity like this makes the act of writing more tangible. They’ll see that writing doesn’t exist within a bubble and isn’t only discussed in a classroom. And that the world of writing is multi-faceted, where editing is equally important.

Huan: Exactly. I think teachers naturally teach in reaction to their own experiences as students, and one of the things I disliked about my creative writing education was the sense that professors were gatekeepers for the larger writing world and thus enforced a hierarchy that turned established writers into celebrities beyond reproach and kept writing students (and their opinions) at the bottom. Questions about, say, how literary journals worked or which you should read were dealt with in a way that discouraged curiosity, punished inexperience, and suggested that students had to first be deemed “ready” to engage this larger world. Often this anointment could only be attained by gaining the favor of the instructor, which often meant hammering away at a story until it became “good” (whatever the instructor meant by that). This might be how that oft-maligned “workshop story” comes into being. I completely agree with the reasoning at the heart of this philosophy, that too many young writers get caught up on publication and that all writers should focus on process and not outcome. But the orthodoxy in practice was annoying (and counterproductive to developing writers, in my opinion) then and completely outdated now—it’s about as tone deaf as journals that still forbid simultaneous submissions.

So all this was in my mind while I was guest edited for SmokeLong a few years back, which, first and foremost, was just a lot of fun. There was a sense of falling in love with reading and writing again (Romance!), and a reminder of how a great piece of writing can inspire by making it all seem so easy and natural and possible. And that’s what we want our students to feel. Likewise, many submissions also affirm by not being great. In fact, it might be more helpful for young writers—who can struggle with confidence and courage and often get paralyzed by some imagined gulf between them and “real” writers—to see bad or mediocre writing to remind them that there’s nothing to fear. And it occurred to me as I was reading and deliberating over my selections that I was doing exactly what we ask of our creative writing students when it comes to fiction: considering narrative and storytelling and voice and character and completeness, to name a few.

Given that the process of guest editing practices all the skills we are trying to build, and given my belief that writing should be demystified and democratic, why shouldn’t a group of bright young writers—and SmokeLong readers themselves—be trusted with determining the most worthy journal submission? In my experience, students—like all people who want to be successful—thrive when challenged, when trusted with responsibility, and when they feel their work is meaningful. Finally, it’s logistically more feasible to ask our students, who have little time between academics and extra-curriculars, to review about 80 flash pieces in a week than full short stories.

Your students have guest edited for SmokeLong several times now. Can you reflect on this partnership?

Wade: We’ve been delighted that we’ve be able to cement the SmokeLong editing activity into the Creative Writing course as we’ve found several reasons to feel good about the activity from a pedagogical standpoint. The activity perfectly fits within the structure that we’ve given the course.  We have purposely scheduled it during the tenth week as it is right when the students enter the “Refining” stage. As we hoped, the activity allows them to implement the vocabulary they’ve learned over the first half of the semester; conversations have become more focused as they move beyond basic notions of why a piece is or is not “working” into a place where the students can start to pinpoint specific reasons (language, narrative, et cetera) for how a piece “succeeds”.  One could argue that this evolution is a natural progression in a class like this, but I think there is something to the fact that we are discussing pieces that are being submitted for publication and not just for workshop.  That subtle difference somehow signals to the student that more is at stake in the discussions – and it reinforces the democratization of writing that we hope to instill.  While we don’t want our students to solely focus on publishing within the course, we also don’t want publishing to be seen as an abstract achievement for only those that, as Huan stated previously, have been anointed.  In the end, I think the students view their task of giving a fellow student feedback during the workshops with more importance since they understand exactly how helpful their observations might be for an author that is aiming to publish. And as beginning writers, the activity has given the students an incredible amount of confidence.  Our initial hopes have really come true in this sense. Reading through a slush pile has made it easier for them to see that there will always be submissions that fall short, which allows them to understand that they don’t have to wait for permission to consider submitting a piece. There is not a undefined space between them and practicing writers; in fact, they are already practicing writers themselves!

About the Reader:

This week, all submissions will be read by creative writing students at Amsterdam University College. The students will collectively choose a favorite submission during their reading week for us to publish as a weekly story. Submissions will also be read by our editorial staff.