Ecology of the Workshop: A Philosophy
My philosophy of the workshop comes out of Matthew Goulish’s “On Response,” in which he writes:
“We have two kinds of extremely delicate ecologies that it is our mission to protect here: the ecology of the individual practice, and the ecology of the community. […] When the critical mind is engaged to praise the success of a work or to police its failures, the result nearly always threatens the ecology of the practice, mostly because those very subjective assessments masquerade as objective rules. […] Understanding your own practice means understanding that nobody else can really enter into its stream, just as you cannot really enter into the stream of another. So with that impossible position in mind, what do we do?”
The ecology of the workshop in my classes is predicated on the author’s participation, not the Silent Author, because the goal of a workshop is not to fix broken work and it is also not a place for the work to stand on its own, as it would in print. The goal of a workshop is to bring an author’s work into conversation with what surrounds it, which may be other texts, alternate readings, or simply the aesthetic of the group. As Goulish argues, the point is not to praise or find fault, even when the ultimate goal is to make a work more effective. By putting the writer—not the piece itself—back at the center of the workshop, we work towards a more constructive mode of critiquing work and supporting the author in their writing process. Students may choose whatever mode of workshop they choose, a list influenced by Karen Craigo: for instance, “The Interview,” where each student asks the author a probing question, supported by the textual references. Students might ask “Why did you choose flash as a form?” rather than critiquing the choice of form; they may ask “why did you choose a distant narrator?” instead of declaring “I didn’t like the narrator.” Putting the author back at the center means that writers can bring early drafts, but they must be able to talk about their craft choices. Involving the writer in the conversation means being able to ask the writer your piece reminds me of Writer X—have you read their work? The point of the workshop is to participate fully in the ecosystem of the community.
Rethinking the Silent Author workshop means more effective feedback. With undergraduates, this attention is required simply because they do not have the craft vocabulary to constructively critique a work on its merits; in a graduate workshop, the danger is sending the writer into territory they do not wish to go. In a recent nonfiction workshop, a student brought a very early draft which would have been difficult to workshop in the Silent Author method. The result would have been crushing to the student, because as Goulish writes, “you cannot really enter into the stream of another.” Instead, we started by identifying threads, which included adolescence, alienation and wanting to belong, relationships, femininity and gender issues, and more. The piece worked to the heart of “how do we create family?” How do we talk about intimate partner violence, especially in the African American community, a community has, historically, suffered great violence? How do we talk about intimate partner violence in the home when the community has been denigrated for its family structures? How do we talk about mothers and daughters and the relationships and histories between women to knit themselves closer together in the face of all of this history? To impose definitive feedback at this stage would have been damaging to the author, her confidence, and the work itself.
Privileging the author is also necessary to counteract the silencing of women and writers of color. When the author is involved in the conversation, we avoid Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche’s “danger of the single story” and we avoid needless critiques of “authenticity.” This approach also decenters me, as the workshop leader, a location that positions my contributions as somehow more valuable than peer feedback. I am simply part of the ecosystem. However, I am not a Silent Instructor: I bear the responsibility of civility and productivity in the discussion. But I am still the instructor, which means discerning from the day’s work what craft to discuss as a class: in a recent round of work from my MFA students, I realized all the pieces needed sustained work on scenes, so I devised a mini-lecture on scene-building, comprised of craft information, examples from our common texts, as well as a specific writing exercise. Doing so builds the ecosystem of practice between us, making the workshop valuable to the community as well as the individual.