Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Teaching Writing Online: An Interview with Matthew Lippman

This interview originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of The Practicing Writer newsletter, a free monthly newsletter for fictionists, poets, and writers of creative nonfiction.

These days, many writers consider taking writing courses online. Many writers consider teaching them, too.

My own recent foray into poetry writing has been facilitated, and much enriched, by the two classes I've taken to date through the Gotham Writers' Workshop. Both "Poetry Writing I" and "Poetry Writing II" have been led by Matthew Lippman, and in this interview Matthew shares some insights and experiences from his online teaching career.

Here's a little background about Matthew: In 2005 he won the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize for his manuscript, The New Year of Yellow, which was published in January of 2007 by Sarabande Press. He has been a high school English teacher for 11 years. Currently he teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Chatham High School in upstate New York, and has been a member of the faculty, Writing Division, in Columbia University's Summer Program for High School Students, as well as an instructor at The Gotham Writers' Workshop. In 1990 he received his MFA from the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, and in 1997 he was granted a master's in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. His poetry has been published widely in such journals and anthologies as The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn, and The Best American Poetry of 1997. In 1991 he was the recipient of the James Michener/Paul Engle Poetry Fellowship from the University of Iowa; in 2004 he won a New York State Foundation of the Arts grant for his fiction.

Recently, Matthew responded to questions about his online teaching career from Erika Dreifus.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Please tell us how you began your online teaching career.

MATTHEW LIPPMAN (ML): I got involved with the Gotham Writers' Workshop teaching live classes in 2001 and this led to teaching online. It fell into my lap and I was a bit curious since I had only taught live classes before. I was not "trained" to teach on-line, just took my style, my voice, and applied it to the lecture and critiques. The transition from teaching in front of a class of students to sitting at a computer and "running a course" was seamless.

ED: As a teacher, what would you say are the key differences (if any) between "live" and online workshops?

ML: The physical. There is nothing physical involved with online teaching other than sitting at a computer. I don't know what anyone looks like. I can't gauge the mood of a class because there are no spoken voices, there is no body language. But I have always been amazed at how I can get to "know" someone through their work, their involvement in the class discussion.

ED: As you see it, what are some advantages (and disadvantages) for a writer contemplating teaching online?

ML: It's good work if you can get it. It's a busy endeavor, this modern living, and if one has the opportunity to work from home talking/writing/discussing/critiquing the art of poetry (as I do) it's a blessing. This on-line correspondence has a freedom to it in that I can be anywhere and be involved with other folks who are interested in a similar genre. The flip-side is that I don't get to meet anyone. One thing about teaching that has always been rewarding for me is the human element and this has always involved face-to-face interactions. I don't get this online and it can be a drag. Especially because I like people.

ED: You've recently begun offering poetry instruction online one-to-one as well as the group workshops. How did this opportunity develop?

ML: Former students began to inquire about continuing on in their "poetry studies." I started working with two of them, and they really appreciated the kind of attention their work was getting. I think this is the beauty of the one-to-one experience--the extensive attention that the poetry receives. And it just felt like the natural progression of the instruction. One can garner a lot of information and feedback from a class, from a teacher, but if you are in that one-to-one environment, a whole other door opens up--the door of detail. What I mean is I can spend an hour on a poem, combing through it, reading and re-reading, to give it the best and most thorough critique that I am able to.

That said, I have never advertised or put any monies into getting the word out. Your newsletter and blog are the first venues in which I have let the outside world know about what it is I am doing.

ED: What has surprised you most about your online teaching experiences? What piece of advice do you wish someone might have offered you before you began teaching online?

ML: I am most surprised by how "intimate" relationships can be. It's funny to say the word "relationship" but it is true. I have created relationships with people and these connections are developed ones that feel alive and real. I would never have expected this to be the case just typing and typing and typing into a faceless and white screen. It's frightening and interesting all at once.

As for advice: I would say that it is very important to be extremely honest about the work. I try to compose my lectures like I would speak them. I want my "voice" to come through--the generous spirit, the humor, the intellectual vision. So, I've tried to write my lectures as if I were talking and not as if they were essays for a journal submission. In the critique process I try to attain a balance between the flattery and the critical. It is my job to let folks know what is not working and steer them to a more successful revision. But I don't want to discourage and so it's very important to me to find moments in the poem that come to life and are illustrations of what is beautiful in the writing. Really, that's what the whole poetic undertaking is about, making something beautiful out of the mundane nature of language. I am always trying to strike a balance in my criticism and would encourage this of anyone getting into the business. Don't be overly critical and don't be overly glowing. Find a middle point, be attentive, be confident, be open. And lastly, try and meet the poet's work on its own terms. The first woman I ever worked with, after a month of reading a hundred or so of her poems, told me that what she felt most grateful for was that I had read her work objectively and did not impose my own aesthetic sensibility on it. Of course, that's not going to happen all the time, in every moment, but it certainly is something to strive to attain.

ED: And on a related note, what counsel/resources would you offer writers who want to develop their own online teaching careers?

ML: The most important element to teaching is creating a space--a classroom environment, an on-line environment, a board room--that is comfortable and safe and challenging. This requires, from the teacher, that he/she build trust between him/herself and his/her students. At the center of this trust, is having a voice that is open-hearted, generous and honest. So, once you have created this voice, established this as a teacher, then you can go out looking for students. I have been lucky in that there were folks that I was working with who wanted to continue their work and found me.

As I have said, this one-on-one consulting is something that found me. As for teaching online courses, there are a number of institutions that offer classes. Here are the links for some of them:

Gotham Writers' Workshop
Writer's Digest Online Workshops
UCLA Extension Writers' Program

I would say, first, develop a teaching voice that works well and then investigate these institutions, contact them, send them a cover letter and a resume in hopes of finding employment. They are the best online institutions in the United States. Good luck.

And thank you, Erika, for giving me the time to expostulate a bit on what it is I do.

[To learn more about Matthew Lippman's one-to-one poetry consultations, and to see a sample critique and locate Matthew's contact information, please click here.]

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