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Past Winners of the Teacher of the Week

Matthew Vollmer

   

The Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER) recognizes Matthew Vollmer, assistant professor of English, for employing innovative pedagogical approaches in the creative writing classroom, most notably the encouraging of students to study, emulate, and expand the conventions of a variety of written genres, thereby creating opportunities for writers to produce an array of new and exciting narrative forms.

Whether Matthew Vollmer is teaching Intro to Creative Writing, Fiction Writing, or Graduate Fiction Workshop, he strives to help his students see the creative writing classroom as studio, laboratory, and performance space, in part because he believes his purpose as a teacher is to teach creative writing in a way that will complicate—rather than clarify—his student’s understanding of what it means to write stories, poems, essays, and forms of non-fiction, and to challenge them to re-conceptualize their notions of self-expression. Vollmer’s approach to teaching creative writing is informed by over a decade of teaching writing, and as such favors a process-based approach that asks students to consider form, genre, in order to create artistic products that allow students to acknowledge the importance of studying genre, as well as to call into question the notions that genre is stable—rather than evolving.

In 2009, Vollmer won the Sporn Award. Students have expressed their appreciation via course evaluations (one student cited that his course had “changed me, not only in English, but all disciplines”), letters of support via the Sporn dossier (“There is no such thing as a hopeless writer to Matthew Vollmer; he’ll do anything that can be done to help a student, any student, improve. He’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong but he’ll make it funny and entertaining, and makes you feel good about what you’re doing, makes you enjoy trying to write.”). Vollmer’s colleagues have also voiced enthusiasm; in 2011, Ed Falco, after observing a section of Advanced Fiction (a senior capstone course), wrote the following as part of a peer review: “Matthew’s approach to his class is unique, fascinating, and invigorating––invigorating in the sense that I see him approaching the teaching of the traditional elements of fiction in a way that makes them new and relevant to his students. He is clearly doing a solid job of teaching the craft of fiction, but he comes at the task from the perspective of innovative, unconventional writing, writing that appears to be thumbing its nose at traditional approaches to craft. Matthew is currently interested in what he calls ‘fraudulent artifacts,’ writing that, as he explains in his syllabus, ‘unfolds like a series of letters (ala The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis), instructions (ala Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help), diary entries (ala Bram Stoker’s Dracula), or interviews (ala David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men).’ He asks his students to produce these ‘fraudulent artifacts,’ and then works with them to determine the effectiveness of the narrative that’s smuggled into the writing. In the class I visited, Matthew and his students discussed a piece of writing that used the conventions of recipe writing, in other words, a student tried to smuggle a good story into a document that purported to be a recipe. In the course of discussing what was effective and what was ineffective in the story, the class wound up talking about the traditional elements of fiction. The piece needed more ‘character development.’ It needed more of a ‘narrative arc.’ I found this discussion fascinating, not because the students had brilliant insights into these traditional elements of fiction, but because it was as if they were themselves discovering the importance of characterization and narrative structure. The writer hadn’t written a short story and then taken it to her peers, who in turn critiqued the character development and the narrative arc––which is something that typically happens in a workshop. Rather, this student wrote a recipe, tried to work a good story into it––and then discovered in the workshop that a good story really does need character development and a narrative arc. The angle of approach is everything here. These students were discovering the place of craft in storytelling, rather than being taught that a good story is well crafted. Big difference.”

Unlike many traditional creative writing courses, students in Vollmer’s classes aren’t simply allowed to make up whatever they want and submit it to be workshopped—that is, the classroom is not a stage upon which they can trot out their stories or chapters and hope to get feedback on what they hope might be the next Harry Potter versions of Harry Potter (which remains, for better or worse, the most referenced work in his courses). Instead, students must to respond to writing prompts that force them to wrestle with specific elements of creative work, like metaphor, myth, point of view, etc.

Limitations, Vollmer has learned, are effective. The work of his students in creative writing courses has always, by nature of the course, been interesting, fun, and zany. But that work, Vollmer realized, started to come alive when he presented them with assignments that forced them to work under a particular set of limitations. When he asked them to write a story in the voice of a pirate, or as a series of e-mails, or as a series of instructions—in other words, in ways that asked them to create stories whose characteristics, in some ways would be predetermined—the students took more risks, or pushed against expectations in unpredictable ways. Take something away, he learned and a student comes to appreciate what they can create with or without that thing. In other words: restrict possibilities, and—viola!—you open the door for the student to create in ways they never thought possible.

Students build a strong sense of community by sharing their work aloud, and Vollmer tries to nourish a positive spirit of collaboration by creating opportunities for them to respond to the work they hear in positive ways. In his classroom, students experiment with a wide variety of forms, the act of which forces them to think about the rules of genre, as well as how to abide by those rules and break them: they write stories in the forms of e-mails and Facebook wall posts and Twitter feeds and guidebooks and catalogue descriptions, stories in second-person and first person plural, stories that play with repetition and digression, stories that arise from the perspectives of monsters or celebrities or inanimate objects. Teaching students to appreciate the ways that stories or essays can masquerade in a variety of forms allows them to view all language-events as possible containers within which a narrative might be contained, and thus wakens them to the possibilities of language and its diverse structures, and prepares them to see the world as text, and as such, a thing that can be endlessly re-made.

Homepage: http://www.faculty.english.vt.edu/vollmer/index.html





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