Poets & Writers

Practice Imagining Change

IOPEN the creative writing courses I teach with this vow: “I’ve seen far too many workshops become an indoctrination into an instructor’s taste—a semester-long exhortation to love what the instructor loves and to hate what he does too—and I am going to do my best to avoid that.” The statement is meant to protect students from the shame I felt when, in the first semester of an MFA program in fiction, I listened as the director mocked a writer whose books my parents, my sister, and I all loved.

I absorbed the verdict as truth even though the disdain felt like snobbery: I would never tell someone they were wrong to love what they loved. It wasn’t that I wanted to please my professor—I’d already voiced my dissatisfactions with his course. What I wanted was to master the social mores of a culture that, in some unconscious and unexamined sense, I’d entered the MFA program to join: the culture of the tastemaking class.

It wasn’t despite but because of the shame I experienced that the first creative writing courses I taught reproduced the canon of that program almost exactly. I wanted to shield my students from the embarrassing ignorance I’d discovered in myself; I thought they should know what “good taste” entailed. A pedagogy course had introduced me to the problem of education as acculturation—a means of assimilating students into the dominant culture of a powerful class—but I discussed acculturation only with students in my composition courses, not in my creative writing workshops. I wasn’t yet paying attention to the connection between the problematic constructs of “bad grammar” and “bad taste.” I was still a student of “good taste” myself.

I’ve seen far too many workshops become an indoctrination into an instructor’s taste—a semester-long exhortation to love what the instructor loves and to hate what he does too—and I am going to do my best to avoid that.

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