This article, written by Cat Rambo, is from the January 2020 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Teaching is an art. A good teacher can help their students infinitely more than a bad one—and one expression of that is the ability to lead discussion groups and workshops, leading the students to come to realizations that will help them understand the concepts in ways they cannot learn through one-sided lecture.
Like any art, innate talent helps, but discussion and workshop facilitation definitely can be learned. Part of that learning is aided by thinking about it beforehand, during, and after. How do you, as a teacher, create a space in which as many students as possible will flourish, one in which no one is unable to participate? How do you build a process that encourages creativity while making sure everyone has their turn?
I have taught workshops of varying sizes over the past three decades and my process continues to evolve and change. Here are some of the more important things I’ve learned through experience or observation.
Every group is different, and every group comes with its own idiosyncrasies and voices. Enjoy the mix for the happy ephemeral phenomenon that it is, while drawing conclusions from its generalities in order to apply these in future iterations of the material. Many of your attendees will be very anxious. At least a handful will surprise and delight you with their talent, and sometimes staggeringly so.
I’ve always done introductions, having the students tell me their names and a little bit about themselves, but in recent years one thing I make sure to add is their preferred pronouns. Asking for those both allows me to accommodate their needs and acknowledge who they are as much as pronouncing their name correctly does.
If it’s a workshop where students are expected to critique each others’ work, attendees should have received both manuscripts and clear guidelines about how to structure their critique well in advance. Students can feel anxious about what’s going to happen in a workshop if they don’t know what the structure will be like, so I try to include an overview that lets them know what to expect: the class will go for two hours, with a 5-10 minute break in the middle; the writer doesn’t have to reply to comments if they don’t want to; we’ll have overall questions at the end. New writers in particular can be uncertain; there’s no shame in giving them a little handholding to encourage them into the water to swim.
Facilitating discussion means making sure people understand what the guidelines for participation are and how to take turns in conversation. Don’t let people interrupt each other but don’t be nasty about it, just be polite but firm. Don’t be afraid to pause in order to let people think of questions, even though it may feel like an uncomfortably long silence, and if you need to, ask leading questions like: Can you think about examples of what we’ve been talking about in your own life/your writing/media/literature? Or: How do you think you might apply this in your own writing?
When answering questions that someone has asked, repeat the question first. That helps people who didn’t hear it the first time, as well as allowing you to clarify things that may not be immediately apparent. I prefer to have the students asking questions and myself answering them, but there is a give and take to such things that will vary with the students and the circumstances.
Overprepare. You get better at judging how long things will take as you gain experience, but there will always be that class where things go awry and no one has turned in the work. Have a couple of writing exercises up your sleeve and while the students are working on it, use that 5-10 minutes to assemble discussion questions or other points to cover in order to get yourself through the class time.
You never stop learning from other teachers. Sometimes it’s a new technique or a good metaphor. Be good about crediting your fellows for the clever sayings. It’s also handy to listen to the students and find out what worked for them or not—one of the things I’m working on is following up better in 2020, such as asking students what parts of workshops they liked/disliked, as well as what was particularly effective. Learning from other teachers also keeps you from ossifying and just spitting out the same theories and observations over and over again.
Teaching writing is, I think, one of the ways you can become a better writer yourself. Often I do the writing exercises along with the students in my classes, to the point where I think somewhere between a third to half of my published flash fiction pieces were the result of such writings. It’s also something that makes you articulate and challenges your own practice of fiction and the rules by which you write. It’s never bad to look at those with an interrogatory eye in order to move beyond them.
When leading a discussion, don’t be afraid to go with the flow. Sometimes the oddest questions may be the most fruitful, or those questions may lead to additions for the future, sometimes even inspiring entirely new classes. The question of how to maintain a fruitful writing practice in the face of increasingly grey times, for example, led to a class on hopepunk that has become one of my favorites to teach and one which was even referenced in a Wall Street Journal article on the subgenre.
Post class, encourage your students to let you know about their publications and victories as they go forward. One of the nicest things about teaching is a chance to see the coming wave, and to know some of the voices that are rising in fiction and creating new stories. Watching a student succeed is one of the most satisfying feelings I know.
Novelist and short story writer Cat Rambo is the founder of online writing school The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers. Her 200+ fiction publications include works in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and Clarkesworld Magazine. Her space opera You Sexy Thing appears in January 2021 from Tor Macmillan. She is a former two-term president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.