Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
ENG19A: Introduction to Creative Writing at Brandeis University
Writing with Humor & Wonder for Catapult (eight-week online course)
Speakeasy Project Poetry Workshop (four-week online course)
Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program (six-week online course)
The Art of Telling at Writers & Books (two-part generative workshop)
Introduction to Fiction: Asian American Storytelling at Texas Tech University
Introduction to Creative Writing at Texas Tech University
As a teacher, I am committed to providing my students with rigorous, productively surprising, inquiry-based learning opportunities. I strive to create courses that center students’ questions, that allow them to develop their own imaginative and analytical processes. My goal is to have students walk out of a class still wanting to talk about a text, a literary move, a critical intervention, an urgent social issue. I build my courses around encouraging and challenging students to become active members of a creative, scholarly, and compassionate community. In addition to reading and writing voraciously, my students are expected to attend outside workshops, readings, and talks; to take advantage of the campus library and other institutional as well as local resources. Practices I want every student to cultivate: deep curiosity, ethical responsibility, respect for cultural and personal differences, engagement with aesthetic complexity and emotional precision, delight in the powers and possibilities of language.
A typical course of mine begins with a deceptively simple question, which students and I return to repeatedly: “What can poetry do?” or “Why do we need stories?” or “What do you want your writing to do?” At the same time, I ask students to draft their own questions about writing and literature. This activity starts students on the path to owning their educations and their identities as participants in a shared artistic and intellectual space. Three principles are core to my student-centered pedagogy of inquiry and experimentation: 1) excitement, 2) empowerment, and 3) connection.
I value my students’ capacity for discovery. My classroom offers encounters with language and thought in unexpected ways. I want students to have fun; I do not need them to love writing, but I do want them to be motivated by something other than grades—some real, living stakes they have chosen to invest in. My assignments aim to disrupt the habitual, the rote, embracing instead the surprise, the purposeful detours of imaginative work. With this principle in mind, I employ unconventional, interdisciplinary, sometimes funny prompts. My prompts are like dares: try this, see where it takes you.
One assignment I give that involves excitement is called “What Five Objects Are You From?” I ask students to make a list of objects they associate with “home,” however they define it. They then have to write a piece that weaves together the “lives” of these five objects. A follow-up assignment would involve students writing persona poems from the perspectives of two of the objects. I find that students are surprised that a piece of writing can begin and gain momentum in this associative, dialogic, and open-ended way.
I value my students’ capacity to use and develop many valid forms of writing. Students are often afraid to write, to enter into their own intellectual and creative lives, afraid of and bored by what they see as impenetrable academic lingo, the one “correct” way to write. My teaching asks students to honor their own and others’ literacies and language practices, meaning the language(s) they speak at home, the vernacular(s) they use with friends, the fresh combinations they are enacting in and out of the classroom, moment by moment. With this principle in mind, I employ a multitude of socially relevant texts by a diverse set of authors and invite students to contribute readings, as well.
An empowering research-based writing assignment I use is called “Why and How Do You Care?” Students research a current topic that they find particularly compelling or troubling: gun violence, terrorism, corporate corruption, immigration policies, etc. They must find two sources that support the view they already hold, two sources that give a different view, and at least one international source (in English translation or in another language they happen to speak). After reading each carefully, students give presentations on their sources, including why they find them credible. Finally, students craft a creative piece drawing upon their research. A specific poetry assignment would involve students “translating” the research they’ve conducted into two pieces: one that turns information into a lyric narrative work and one that sticks closer to the information in the vein of documentary poetics. This assignment immerses students in thinking through why they’ve become invested in a topic, and how they’re learning about it.
I value my students’ capacity to be contributors to literature and culture, as people extending and complicating the conversations around them. I want students to try making connections between seemingly disparate phenomena and through active participation, experience “knowledge” as something malleable, alive. Rigor, in my classes, means considered, strategic, and innovative use of one’s agency. With this principle in mind, I provide and encourage students to provide opportunities for effecting change in real world contexts.
A particular connection-oriented assignment I use is called “Whose Sounds Do You Want to Carry with You?” Students select a contemporary poem they feel invested in. They then design and present a playlist of songs that they associate with the poem or imagine the speaker of the poem listening to. They have the option to send this playlist to the author, thus starting a literary dialogue beyond the typical fan letter or expected set of “we read your work in our class” questions and comments.
It would be too simple and obvious to say that my courses are reading- and writing- intensive. Fundamentally, they are inquiry-intensive. The readings, generative exercises, workshop discussions, and other activities—the entire format of my courses—push students to devise their own writing practices, their own interpretative frameworks, and most importantly, their own questions. If one way does not work, try another way, another. My task, as a teacher, is to help students value and exercise many different ways of knowing, thinking, creating—including those they may not claim as their own, yet.