Four kinds of research

Back again.

I’m teaching a course on Digital Writing this semester and have asked the students in it to set up and keep their own idea-centered blogs. They are required to make at least one 400-word post each week, in addition to any number of shorter posts.

So I thought I’d try to do the same.

My goal for the coming semester is to post something to this blog every Thursday. (I didn’t set aside a regular time for blogging, as distinct from other writing, during last semester, which I suspect is one reason for my lapse in posting.) Since I teach on Mondays and Wednesdays, I anticipate that most of these posts will take the form of reflections on my classes that week. The category for these posts will be Teaching notes.

For my first note here, I’d like to reflect on my Creative Nonfiction class last semester. The course went very well. There’s no reason for it not to, as students work on projects they’ve defined and are offered plenty of supportive response to their work in progress. Everyone in this section produced some remarkable writing. But I’ve been concerned that the default form of so much nonfiction seems to be memoir, and I wanted to encourage students to try out different forms of writing as well. Here’s how I put my teaching goals in a previous post on this site:

I’ve decided to take a different tack next semester—to define the kinds of writing I want students to attempt a little more precisely. Here’s how I put in the materials I’m now developing:

A lot of different kinds of writing get called creative nonfiction, and I have no interest in predetermining the forms that your work for this course might take. But there does seem to me a limited number of topics—or at least kinds of topics—that nonfiction writers tend to return to. I’ve thus designed a series of exercises (Xs) whose main aim is to get you to try your hand at writing about a range of topics. They include

  • X1: A past event
  • X2: A current event
  • X3: A place or object
  • X4: A text (review)
  • X5: A person (interview or profile)
  • X6: An idea or issue

My hope here is to push students to engage more with the world, and not just with their own experiences, in the pieces they write. But I’m also a little nervous about reinventing some version of the modes of exposition—narrate an event, describe a place, argue for an idea, etc. (Learning from last semester, 5/21/2010)

For the most part, this approach worked pretty well. At least, the students in the Fall 2010 course seemed to experiment with a wider range of writing than many of those in the Spring 2010 course had. But I think I was right to be worried over specifying “kinds of topics” for students to write about, and how those topics might end up being linked to certain modes or genres of prose. That’s really not what I’m after.

What I now think I want to specify is that students base what they write on different sorts of work or research. As I see things now, most nonfiction pieces draw on one or more of these kinds of work:

  • Autobiography or memoir: The author writes from memory of past events and experiences.
  • Observation: The author reports on events in the present.
  • Person-based: The author talks to other people and reports or describes what they have to say.
  • Text-based: The author draws on or responds to any of wide range of texts.

What distinguishes the last three forms of work from the first is that they all force writers to look outside of themselves for their subjects, to ground their writing in the material and social world around them.

Many of the students last semester were really engaged by the requirement to conduct some sort of person-based research, and several also enjoyed writing in response to texts in a non-academic mode. The observation-based essays were more problematic— in large part, I think, because that I did not insist that students write about an event in which they did not participate. As a result, many students wrote about recent events in their own lives, which turned into a slightly disguised form of memoir.

I’m not anti-memoir, as Ander Monson and others say they are. But I do think that beginning writers can sometimes get caught in a kind of autobiographical trap—in which writing what you know turns into writing what you’ve experienced, or sort of half-remember experiencing, or now feel about what you half-remember experiencing. What I like about specifying certain forms of research is that one can imagine all sorts of writing emerging from such work. Asking students to ground their writing in observation-, person-, or text-based research is a way of asking them to be responsible about writing non-fiction, about documenting what they think they know. When I teach Creative Nonfiction next fall, then, I plan ask students to draft four different essays, each of which draws strongly on one of these kinds of research, and then to develop two or three of them into finished form.

 

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About Joe Harris

I teach composition, creative nonfiction, and digital writing at the University of Delaware.
This entry was posted in Creative nonfiction, Digital writing, Teaching notes. Bookmark the permalink.

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