Antioch teacher helps people unleash creativity

We’ve talked a lot here lately about science and technical education, which has us thinking about the whole idea of online learning. This week, we share some thoughts from Rebecca Kuder, who teaches creative writing online as the Concentration Chair for the Individualized MA in Creative Writing program at Antioch University Midwest in Yellow Springs. Here’s the conversation.

Q: Let’s start off with your background.

A: I’m from Yellow Springs, and I’ve been working at Antioch McGregor, now Antioch Midwest, since 1997 — first with the BA Completion Program, and then in IT. I had a baby and took some time off, and then came back as a member of the faculty in the Individualized Master of Arts program, teaching creative writing courses.

Q: From IT to creative writing? That’s an interesting switch.

A: Well, I grew up as a hippie kid in Yellow Springs in the ’70s, and I was always very interested in writing, storytelling, and making stuff with my hands, making art — and sock monkeys, I love them and I make them, too — and so I was always on that path. I ended up in Seattle for a while, and I moved back to this area to work for the BA Completion program to do faculty training — helping the faculty use computers better, to learn to teach online and use web-based stuff. It was really fun, and I loved that there were clear answers to it. I had always been interested in teaching, as well, but back then I was intimidated that in a more academic setting, it seemed like there were not clear answers, and it seemed that as a teacher I would have to have them. I eventually got more comfortable with the idea that in teaching, there do not have to be clear answers.

Q: Especially with teaching creative writing.

A: Right. In fact, lots of people have said before that you can’t really teach writing. You can practice writing, but there is this fallacy about being able to teach it. What I do is to create spaces where people can practice the practice of writing — creating an environment where people feel challenged, but also feel safe. Maybe, providing a scaffolding from which they can do tricks, leap off — or, maybe, creating a container even if the stuff they’re working on is essentially uncontainable.

Q: How do you do that?

A: Well, most of the classes I teach are online, or a hybrid where we meet in person initially, for a brief bonding time to get to know each other. And then the courses are taught online, usually asynchronously. We don’t all Skype in together at once. I have people all over the place, and it’s hard to have times to be together live. But the beauty of it is we get to know each other as writers through our words online. A byproduct of online writing courses is that by participating in the discussion, we are writing — so that we’re exercising the muscles, and delving into that stuff. It’s important, to me, to set pretty clear guidelines for the students and think about the scaffold, the boundaries. In a lot of courses, you’re reading dead peoples’ work; in this, you read your peers’ work, and that is kind of sacred.

Q: So, you’re a fan of online courses? Are they the future?

A: I think they’re the present and the future — but I need to say first that there are online courses, and there are online courses; the way different schools do things varies widely. For instance, where I work at AUM, there is always face-to-face or some sort of contact, and I think that’s important for online teaching to work. But I think there are ways to do it well. I’m always learning.

Q: What do you think about the trend of massive open online courses (MOOCs), and sites like Coursera?

A: I think it is interesting, and it’s great that the world of academe is opening up to the general public. I can imagine being a retiree or someone who wants to do their own self-paced learning, and for them, this kind of access is wonderful. But honestly, I signed up for a MOOC and didn’t have time to finish it. The jury is out, as I guess they say. Also, though, I’m a bit of a Luddite — I have a collection of fountain pens and always write my first drafts on paper, and I always will. So I’m kind of ambivalent about technology. I think the blogosphere is interesting, but the tactile experience of paper is still important for me, as a writer.

Q: Ironic, given your job.

A: Oh, totally! I like many things about technology, but I cling to my books.

Q: Talk about your own writing.

A: I write fiction mainly, mostly novels. I write more slowly than some people, because I really care about sentences and words, which means it takes a little while longer and I’m hard on myself in editing. But I love that process, as well. Still, I can get hung up on phrases and jargon I hear people using out in the world, and get really nerdy about it. But that’s the clay I want to work with. I have had some short stories published, and some essays and poems. I’m getting more into memoir and creative non-fiction, as well. I’m seeking a publisher for a novel and am finishing up my new novel.

Q: In your blog (rebeccakuder.com), you talk a lot about creativity. Discuss.

A: I remember at some point encountering the term “interdisciplinary aesthetics,” and I thought, what a great term. I Googled it, and it turns out there’s an academic field that deals with those kinds of things — the flow of creative acts, one thing into another. All my life, I’ve been in very creative learning environments, and I studied theater as an undergrad. But after college, I didn’t stay with it, so for a long time I felt my degree was wasted. But when I was writing my novel, I did this whole sketch-out of scenes, and I blocked out where the important objects for each character were, and I realized I was doing a stage manager’s bible. So I approach writing as a theater-minded person. I like this idea of how different sorts of art affect each other — how music, for instance, can be a backdrop for what I’m working on, even if it doesn’t actually appear in the work. So I throw that sort of thing out on my blog. There’s something about how we look out, and how we hear — as a writer it’s all about observations, what we feed ourselves. So I try to feed myself things that inspire me.

Q: What is one thing you would tell a beginning writer?

A: Write early and write often. Not necessarily early in the day, though that could also be good. But just practice, practice, practice — and also, read, read, read. I have heard people who say they are writers proudly claim they don’t read, and I find that a little alarming.

Q: You’ve been here most of your life; what is one thing you would change about the area to make it better?

A: Funny, I was talking about that the other day with a friend. She talked about this Midwestern thing we have, that we’re too nice and have this complex — how Cincinnati and Cleveland are always the butt of jokes, or how sitcoms always have this character from Ohio. She said, if we’re sheepish about the things we don’t have in this area, we should really just stand up proudly and say, OK — here are the things we do have. We can be in the party, too.

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