Writing Groups and Breakout Rooms
Can a senior seminar based on collaboration survive a pandemic? If Dr. Tevis is teaching it, it sure can.
This fall’s creative writing seminar proved that Zoom classes can be just as rewarding as in-person ones. However, the power lies with the teachers, and the class, to make them so.
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I had been looking forward to my creative writing senior seminar ever since I declared my English major, almost three years ago. Every major's capstone is different, but in my view, the creative writing capstone is unique. Students work on a single creative project all semester, making it more like a studio art class than a research seminar. I was excited about being part of one of the close-knit writing communities that form in these types of small, dedicated classes. Then, COVID hit.
The creative writing senior seminar is based on collaboration—writers gather and help one another pursue individual projects tailored to their specific goals and interests. How does that work when the students cannot meet face to face? What does it look like when they cannot share their work in a comfortable and traditional environment? I was worried that the class I had anticipated for so long was going to be irrevocably changed by the online format. I was not sure that it would be possible to replicate an authentic and supportive writing group over Zoom, so I entered the semester hesitant and apprehensive.
I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Starting with the first class, Dr. Joni Tevis was able to facilitate the growth of a true online community in her senior seminar. When asked how she transitioned to an online format, Tevis said, “For me, listening closely, and really sharing the time that we have together, is the key, whether that’s in-person or online. It worked because we had such a committed group of writers in the class.” From day one, every writer in the class was encouraged to listen well and participate often, making the difficulties of being in separate places quickly melt away as we all became comfortable speaking up and asking good questions.
In fact, according to Tevis, there were advantages to the online format. An important component of the senior seminar is the guest speakers. Every semester, visitors come to talk about their experiences as authors, poets, and writers. The goal is for the students to get a picture of what writing might look like after college. Usually, these visits are logistically difficult, as the contemporary writers we study live all over the country, but this semester, writers could speak to our class from anywhere. We got to hear from author Edward McPherson (who had already planned to address our class) and two poets, Sean Hill and Claire Bateman, neither of whom would have been able to speak to us if not for Zoom.
There are also aspects of the online classroom that actually made community building easier. In each class we would start with a short grammar presentation and then a writing exercise. During the assignment, Dr. Tevis would often play a song or a piece of music to get us all moving. Little things like playing music during exercises or presenting material together made the classes more fun and brought us closer. According to Tevis, being online actually made it easier to easily jump between presentations and exercises and, of course, play music for everyone.
Tevis said, “If everyone in the class is willing to show fidelity to the task at hand, and integrity with each other and to what we’re trying to do-individually as well as communally—and the personalities click, something special can happen.” Last semester’s English 476 was not exactly the senior seminar we had all expected, but it was certainly an impactful experience.
Dr. Tevis’s class proved to us that despite the difficulties, creating a real community online is possible. Changes had to be made, and the format and feel of the class altered as a result, but the important parts of the class stayed the same. We all gained experience as writers, heard from professionals who were able to give us sound advice, and formed close friendships, even online.