Teaching creative writing online without tears: Discovering the many ways online and creative writing best practices overlap to enhance digital learning

Stephanie Vanderslice

In the last ten years, my experience with teaching online has been one of approach and avoidance. I am neither a digital native nor an early adopter, but I am no Luddite either. I had unofficially been teaching creative writing online in the summer for a few years before our university recently asked each program to “officially” convert a lower division course to online delivery. When I say unofficially, I mean that I used my own learning management system, wri- ting@coloradostate (sadly now discontinued), in my opinion a much more user- friendly and intuitive platform than Blackboard, our university’s LMS. In addition, I had also developed my course completely on my own, without the assistance of one of our instructional designers. Both of these were required to officially convert the course, however, and, importantly, to receive the small stipend that came with doing so, which had been one of my motivations to volunteer when no one else raised their hand. To make the course “official” it was also necessary to take three online courses from the Online Learning Consortium—something which I, a perennial student, actually enjoyed and found the easiest part of the process.

Since I already had some experience teaching hybrid/online courses, I initially delved into the project with a kind of naive enthusiasm, believing all that was required was tweaking my courses and organizing them more clearly into modules; that is, transitioning from the “syllabus” mindset into the “module” mindset that, according to the instructional designer (ID), better represented the online experience for students. Even after our first meeting, when the ID gave me an extensive course “grid” to facilitate the conversion of the introductory creative writing course I had been teaching for more than 20 years to an online format, I remained undaunted. Before the next meeting, I dutifully filled out the course grid, enumerating the goals and objectives for each week of the course, and took the online pedagogy courses, filling half a composition book with notes on optimal online course delivery and enjoying really sinking my teeth into something new. Based on the online classes I was experiencing, online teaching didn’t seem that different from what I already did in the classroom: leading students in weekly discussions of readings from my go-to Intro Creative

Writing books, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic (2016) and Heather Sellers’ The Practice of Creative Writing (2007), numerous in-class exercises to give students plenty of material to draw from in their writing projects, responding to student writing, and online workshops and discussions. In fact, the online courses I took from the consortium had much the same format: in addition to initial community building exercises, they revolved around a familiar constellation of reading, discussion, writing, peer and instructor review. As I designed my own course, I introduced links to additional resources for students wherever I could, in case they wanted to go above and beyond what they were doing in class, including author interviews and other further reading but, for the most part, I stuck to the reading, student writing, and online discussion.

My enthusiasm began to dim when, after about six months of work, when I thought I was almost finished, the ID informed me this would not be enough. In addition to core content, each module had to have a welcome and introduction, then an explanation of the content, the content itself, and additional illustrations and videos to enhance the content. A module without illustrations and videos, I discovered during this experience, was no module at all. Despite the fact that most of the online courses I had already taken were sans illustrations and videos, I was sent back to the blackboard (pun intended), actually to YouTube, to find videos to correspond to every module I taught, including scripting and filming four videos of myself explaining aspects of craft. I’m not going to lie; I was beginning to get frustrated. Finding, vetting, and including all of this video was challenging and then figuring out, via online tutorials, how to upload it into the module where the ID wanted them was pushing me to the breaking point. The inscrutable idiosyncracies of Blackboard were also driving me to distraction—if I heard the ID tell me one more time, “Yeah, Blackboard is really weird that way,” I was going to scream outwardly instead of just inwardly.

The tipping point might have been when, over a year and a half into the process and with less than a month before the class was set to start, the ID got a faraway look in her eyes and said, “What if ... you create a fictional student for the course and write a story about them navigating each module.”

“I don’t think I can do that at this late date,” I said as honestly and evenly as I could without crying, though in retrospect, I did blink a lot. To her credit, that was when the ID backed off. I wasn’t her personal pedagogical guinea pig, after all. The summer was running out and I had a course to teach.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about this experience and I’ve continued to research best practice in online pedagogy—research that has admittedly revolved around determining whether I’m really required to include videos and pictures with every single module and other best practices for teaching online. This was in part because every time 1 met with my ID the finish line for creating a quality online course moved further away. Fortunately, the more research I read the more I believe my, ahem, enthusiastic ID and I were operating from a somewhat different understanding of the foundational pedagogy of an undergraduate creative writing course. She was used to assisting faculty in converting

12 Stephanie Vdnderslice

lecture-based, traditional courses to an online format that necessitated more student engagement and instructor facilitation, online courses where according to Casey, Shaw, Whittingham, and Gallavan (2018), “the learning is more active than passive in nature,” allowing the “instructor to serve as a facilitator to provide scaffolding of content for the learners, but the learning is actively enhanced through an in-depth exploration by the learner.” But, as a teacher of creative writing whose courses were not generally lecture-based, my courses were already designed that way. My face-to-face classroom, like most creative writing classrooms, relied not on the lecture but on “well-conceived discussion prompts that invite discourse,” “cooperative group work,” and “performance- based adaptive assessments that allow the learner to demonstrate understanding of content,” all elements that were also features of online best practice (Casey, Shaw, Whittingham, and Gallavan, 2018). Whether online or face to face, my students learned by discussing what they were reading and putting it into practice in writing exercises 1 responded to along with their peers. They learned by doing, not by listening and watching.

So what started out—and perhaps continues to be—an investigation to defend my own teaching practices against a particularly energetic ID has evolved into an exploration of the ways in which the face-to-face undergraduate creative writing classroom pedagogy may already mirror best practices in online education and be thus relatively easily translated to a virtual format. Perhaps an illustration—yes, even I think illustrations have their place—may optimally demonstrate this theory. Let me draw your attention to the Venn diagram I’ve created to show how the two pedagogies, online pedagogy and creative writing pedagogy, overlap (see Figure 2.1).

Diagram illustrating AWP Hallmarks for undergraduate creative writing

Figure 2.1 Diagram illustrating AWP Hallmarks for undergraduate creative writing.

As you can see, the online creative writing course has the opportunity to combine the best of both worlds. Students must necessarily engage with each other and, importantly, with the content, in online discussions, and they must actively apply literary terms they’re learning. Moreover, they interact directly with any number of digital technologies, including the technology of the learning management system itself. Online discussions and workshops, moreover, mean that everyone in the class participates in the peer review and critiques, not just the particularly vocal students. Finally, and perhaps most obvious, all of this engagement happens in the form of writing itself, which only serves to enhance student’s metacognition and fluency.

At least this meeting of both worlds looked promising on paper, anyway. But as the months progressed in this, my first “official” online creative writing course, I couldn’t help but start to worry. What would the students think of a class where they were really on their own to discuss the content, where I only chimed in, as per the professional development I’d received, periodically to summarize the discussions rather than leading them. Where I observed peer review/workshops from the sidelines like a coach rather than directing them like a conductor.

So maybe my evaluations might not be so hot this semester, 1 rationalized. Even veteran teachers make mistakes, right? How else can a teacher take risks, find out what works and what doesn’t? It’s all part of the learning curve.

To my surprise, I didn’t even get to the student evaluations before the feedback started coming in. For years, my Introduction to Creative Writing course has ended the semester with a final portfolio of “best, revised” work as well as a critical introduction describing their development as writers over the course of the semester—fairly typical for that kind of class. What was surprising was the introductions themselves, which were, on the whole, far more substantive than introductions 1 had received in the past, where introductions seemed to range from superficial to reflective and considered. These students seemed to have become very familiar with the act of writing about writing itself because the online, writingintensive nature of course required that they do it all the time. I have since taught this course a second time with virtually the same result. Moreover, as I heard myself telling my partner this past fall, “These online students are really strong; their portfolio introductions are almost all incredibly detailed and articulate, compared to the introductions in face-to-face courses, which tend to range from weak to average to very strong,” I caught myself as I remembered telling him the same thing the year before, about the students in the first online course I ever taught.

What was even better was that in their articulate, considered descriptions of their own development as writers they often tied their progression directly to the online class workshop. Several students reported, in fact, that they found online discussions of their work and that of their peers to be fertile opportunities to really think about what makes a piece of writing work for a reader, opportunities that helped them develop far beyond the “writer-based” stage where many of them had begun the semester. Upon consideration, this outcome isn’t surprising either—students have been writing to make themselves understood to their peers in the course all semester, every time they engage online, not just in their first creative attempts: writing is their sole form of communication. Naturally, this kind of engagement might have the effect of speeding up their development as writers of reader-based prose.1

1 spent five years early in my career as the Writing-Across-the-Curriculum (WAC) coordinator at my university, which involved not only knowing WAG theory but also presenting it to my colleagues across the university in workshops and seminars, often extolling the value of expressive writing-to-learn activities— activities that involved students not in writing for a grade, but in writing to explore their own knowledge and learning, such as journal entries and informal, ungraded responses. Such low-stakes writing-to-learn activities can, as seminal WAC research such as Janet Emig’s landmark essay “Writing as a Mode of Learning” articulates, supercharge learning because writing is at their heart. Writing is an effective mode of learning because it engages the learner in thinking and doing (Emig, 1977). Consequently, the online creative writing course enhances student learning because it involves many more of these writing-to-learn activities. Students must actively engage in the course in writing in an online creative writing journal and in literally dozens of written peer responses and responses to texts and literary readings. No wonder their final portfolios seem to indicate that they have learned more.

The AWP Hallmarks of effective creative writing pedagogy also emphasize close reading, something that the online creative writing course features in abundance. In both my face-to-face and online classes, students read dozens of examples of the craft elements described in Sellers’ The Practice of Creative Writing in the creative works sections at the back of each chapter—short stories, poems, essays, graphic novel and script excerpts. But the students in the online class must write responses to these creative works and read the responses their classmates have posted, in order to respond to them in the online discussion as part of their grade. If the online creative writing course’s primary focus, then, is writing, writing, writing, the secondary focus is reading, reading, reading. Reading the texts, reading the examples of craft, reading their peer’s creative work, reading their peer’s responses to their work and that of others, and reading to their peer’s responses to the reading. Students in an online creative writing course write more and read more than their face-to-face counterparts, both essential elements of any effective pedagogy.

Certainly, these observations are not scientific but based on the anecdotal observations of one particular online class that may be unique. But they give me hope and they bear out preliminary research that tells me that there is a great deal already working in the online creative writing classroom, without the bells and whistles, without images and videos or writing a student-centered novel to illustrate the course. Indeed, in some ways the online creative writing classroom is the face-to-face creative writing classroom on steroids. This epiphany doesn’t mean that I’ll turn away from online innovations—this semester, for example, I’m trying out, on the suggestion of the ID, Answergarden, a new classroom feedback and brainstorming tool along the lines of Wordle that helps aggregate and highlight trends in online conversations that can lead students to thinking even more reflectively about group discussions. But at heart, 1 feel more confident in all the ways the nuts and bolts online creative writing class actually delivers the optimum in creative writing pedagogy and online pedagogy. It is this confidence, in fact, that allows me to take risks and try future innovations like Answergarden, without tears. If such innovations fall flat, I know that as long as I’m engaging students in core creative writing and online best practice— extensive content discussion and peer review—they will get what they need to develop as writers and to be ready for the next level of coursework our undergraduate major demands of them: forms and workshop courses. After all, preparing them as students and as writers for the next level of our curriculum is really what matters. In fact, it’s likely online students will get more than what they need from this prerequisite to every other course in our curriculum, that they will be better prepared, with more experience in writing and reading and more experience in participating in their online classroom community independent of their instructor, than their face-to-face counterparts.

Of course, at this point, these findings are still anecdotal. The next step would be to compare the learning rates of students in online introductory creative writing courses against the learning rates of students in a face-to-face course. It would be interesting, as well, to compare student metacognition about their learning in both courses as well as what they remember learning in both courses. iVIoreover, it would also be interesting to follow a cohort of students in both kinds of courses throughout our creative writing program, examining their comparative performance on our outgoing portfolio assessment.

Creative writing pedagogy is so deeply embedded in the signature pedagogy of the face-to-face workshop that those who have not experienced the online workshop—instructors or students—might find it difficult to imagine that such a workshop, absent the physical classroom community, could be effective at all. Initial results suggest the opposite, that the online creative writing workshop is not only an effective pedagogy; it may even be more effective. Regardless, an exciting area of research has emerged to determine if this is true.


1 Linda Flower’s distinctions between writer-based and reader-based prose, developed in understanding cognitive-based theories of writing acquisition, also shed important light on creative writing development. Reader-based prose, as Flower (2018) describes it, takes the reader into account, while writer-based prose consists of the writer talking to himself. The transition from writer-based to reader-based writing is of critical importance to the progress of the nascent creative writer, a transition that often begins to happen in introductory creative writing classes when students first encounter readers outside themselves.

Works cited

“AWP Recommendations on the Teaching of Writing to Undergraduates.” AWP: Writer’s Chronicle Features Archive, Jan. 2019, www.awpwriter.org/guide/directors_handbook_ recommendations_on_the_teaching_of_creative_writing_to_undergraduates.

Casey, K. Michael, et al. Online Teaching: Tools and Techniques to Achieve Success with Learners. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Eniig, Janet. “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” College Composition and Communication. Vol. 28, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 122-128.

Flower, Linda. “Revising Writer-Based Prose.” Wac.colostate.edu, January 2019, wac. colostate.edu/jbw/v3n3/flower.pdf.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. London: Penguin, 2016.

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