Dissertation Research

“Teaching Creative Nonfiction Writing to Undergraduates: A Critical Expressivist Enterprise” presents the results of a case study of creative nonfiction (CNF) pedagogical practices in undergraduate composition studies and creative writing courses at a top ranked school for its study, exploring how those who teach CNF are shaping knowledge about the genre. This project analyzes within a rhetorical framework the various subject positions CNF teachers assume in relation to their writing and teaching as well as the teaching methodologies they utilize. I do this to articulate a theory of CNF pedagogy for the twenty-first century—what I call a praxis of emergence—that represents the merging of individualist and public intellectual ideologies that I have observed in teacher interviews, course documents, and pedagogical publications about the genre. For students new to the genre, so much depends on how CNF is first introduced through class discussion, representative assigned prose models, and invention activities when it comes to creating knowledge about exactly what contemporary CNF is/can be and how writers might best generate prose that fits the genre’s wide-ranging conventions in form, content, and rhetorical situation. Understanding how and why instructors promote certain ideologies in relation to CNF becomes increasingly important as this mode of personally situated, fact-based, narrative-privileging, literarily stylized discourse continues to gain popularity within and beyond the academy. My manuscript provides an extensive exploration of this line of inquiry while additionally supplying readers with practical classroom tools to enact aspects of the best practices that emerged from the study and that I have utilized in my own CNF courses.

Chapter 1: Teaching Creative Nonfiction Across English Studies

I begin by presenting an overview of the project, describing my impetus to provide readers with “an epistemological snapshot of the teaching of [CNF] as it becomes an integral part of English studies in the twenty-first century.” Through my analysis of the limited scholarship available on the teaching of CNF from both composition studies and creative writing contexts, I highlight the need for qualitative research about CNF teaching practices given the disproportionate amount of scholarship that has been published about this topic in relation to how popular CNF courses are becoming at the undergraduate (and graduate) level.

Chapter 2: Creative Nonfiction Instructor Study Methodology

In this chapter I continue to provide context for my project by describing the IRB approved empirical qualitative research methodology I utilized to study the teaching of CNF via both creative writing and composition studies perspectives at a large research intensive university. I explain how the study focuses on the subject position each teacher holds in relation to how they perceive CNF—interpreted from their spoken discourse and course documents—and then looks to the connections between those subject positions and the language each uses to describe how they explain CNF rhetorical/craft concepts to students.

Chapter 3: Places to Stand in the Teaching of Creative Nonfiction

Much like Wendy Bishop in her “Places to Stand,” I find the act of defining the possible places to stand in relation to disciplinary ideologies to have powerful epistemological potential for both teachers and students because those ideologies are linked to the ways that knowledge is shaped within and beyond universities internationally. Therefore, in this chapter I look to scholarly discourse from creative writing studies and composition studies to define, historically contextualize, and complicate the three instructor subject positions that I have placed on a continuum in order to better explain the dominant ideologies that appear in CNF teacher talk: CNF discussed as art for art’s sake (individualist) is at one extreme, CNF discussed as a type of writing that maintains personal agency while serving larger public purposes (critical expressivist) in the middle, and CNF discussed as useful only for its impact on audiences within and beyond the academy (public-intellectualist) at the other extreme (see chart below).

Chapter 4: Defining Exigencies: The Teaching of Creative Nonfiction as a Predominantly Critical Expressivist Practice

I present the results of the case study in this chapter, organized by subject position, to illustrate the range of perceived aims of CNF writing across composition studies and creative writing. Using coded interviews and course documents from eighteen graduate assistants/associates of teaching, adjunct instructors, and faculty who teach CNF-themed honors and advanced composition courses as well as those who teach undergraduate CNF workshops, I argue that more often than not the pedagogies these instructors utilize represent moves toward the critical expressivist subject position as it is defined in chapter 3. However, those trained primarily in creative writing tend to fall between individualist and critical expressivist (focusing on transaction with readers via craft) and those trained primarily in composition studies tend to fall between critical expressivist and public intellectualist (focusing on transaction with readers via aims of social change).

Chapter 5: Toward a Praxis of Emergence

Building on the results of the CNF teacher study, this chapter offers what I call a praxis of emergence, comprised of common creative nonfiction teaching practices theorized using principles of public transactional rhetoric, stylistics, and contemporary theories of identification. I argue that teaching practices integrating the study of stylistics alongside discussions of how creative nonfiction functions as literary public discourse, the study of kairos alongside discussions of immersion research methods, and the study of audience alongside discussions on the nature of creative nonfiction’s reality claim, can lead student writers—especially undergraduates new to composing creative nonfiction—to generate socially situated personal writing meant to emerge toward others. I articulate this praxis as an open-ended framework of features and goals within which teachers of creative nonfiction can engage with the concept of rhetorical situation, inspiring students to enfold themselves not only with their texts and the feedback from their teachers and workshop groups, but also to enfold the contexts and communities outside of the classroom about whom and/or for whom they write.

Chapter 6: Encouraging Emergence: Spatial Immersion as Inventive Practice

I conclude my manuscript with an argument for the inventive, embodied practice of spatial immersion as one among many possible examples of a CNF praxis that promotes emergence toward others in an effort to work against solipsistic tendencies in undergraduate CNF writers new to the genre. This practice asks writers to gain critical context on their writing topics by immersing themselves in a “space,” broadly conceived, to observe, investigate, reflect, and sometimes even draft. I put theories of public pedagogy, critical geography, and critical expressivist rhetorics in conversation with explanations of the craft of nonfiction immersion writing in order to articulate and provide examples of this approach.

Model of CNF Instructor Subject Positions