Writing Specialist Confidential: Becky Richardson, Art & Art History

Writing Specialist Confidential: Becky Richardson, Art & Art History

When I think of a writing workshop, I imagine the space, scale, and context we’re so familiar with in PWR: fifteen or so students gathered around in a circle, discussing a particular assignment or challenge. We spend much of the time focusing on the drafts-in-progress, on giving and receiving feedback in small groups, and then, if there’s time, implementing some suggestions on the spot. In this ready-to-hand scenario, I know everyone’s name. I probably already know the ins and outs of students’ drafts and challenges.

In contrast, many of my workshops for Art and Art History have expanded my definition of what a workshop can look like and what it can do. When Alex Nemerov proposed a workshop for his “How to Look at Art and Why” -- a course that is one of the most recommended at Stanford -- I had to reimagine this genre. Professor Nemerov has been called “Stanford’s art history preacher,” and his lectures for the course are given to a packed Cubberley Auditorium. This past fall I sat in on many of these lectures, including the one Nemerov gave on Charlotte Salomon, a German-Jewish artist who painted nearly 800 pieces in a series titled “Life? Or Theatre? A Play With Music.” On this morning, like every other Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning of the quarter, students file into the auditorium. We pick up a hand-out from the piles near the door. I fish a pen out of my bag and survey the names and terms on the handout. At the top of the sheet there’s a list of the lecture’s key figures and works; on the lower half, there’s a list of the “supporting cast”¾the  artists, movements, and texts that will be alluded to more briefly. The lights dim. Nemerov’s lecture weaves together close analyses of some of the most famous paintings in Salomon’s series while unfolding her biography. But Nemerov withholds a key fact of her biography until the final minutes: that, after all the traumas in Salomon’s life and all the seeming escapes, she died at Auschwitz.

Sitting in on these lectures made me think about how I could frame the writing assignments in the workshops to reflect both the intellectual and the emotional challenges and opportunities that come with analyzing art in Nemerov’s course. I wanted the writing workshops to feel continuous with the rest of the course¾to reflect back not only the learning goals but also the learning environment. There’s an intimacy and intensity in these lectures, a shared purpose.

But I was struck by the sheer logistical challenges of offering workshops for a class that fills Cubberley Auditorium and that involves four or five TAs who all teach two sections, held in the Cantor, without pens and paper let alone desks. Because of the size and spaces of the class, the writing workshops I gave were designed to meet outside of class time and in the evening, in large spaces like Oshman Hall. To make this fit with students’ schedules, I offered the workshop multiple times. But even so, this means turnout at a given workshop might be anywhere from 40 students to 100.

Initially I worried about what these workshops would look like in a lecture hall where I have to use a microphone for everyone to hear me. I wondered what hands-on activities would look like when chairs were bolted into place and I couldn’t possibly check in with every group let alone every student.

Any worries I had immediately took a backseat as Professor Nemerov and the teaching assistants discussed their observations about what students most needed from the evening workshops: how to build from personal observation to analysis to interpretation; how to balance research and their own voices; how to write with a sense of thesis-driven purpose. This, at least, was familiar territory!

While designing workshops like this one, I especially appreciated having had the chance to sit in on some of the quarter’s lectures and to meet regularly with the teaching team. In all my workshops for the Department, my hope is to try to merge the terms and environment of the particular course with the way I’m setting up the challenges and opportunities posed by the writing assignment at hand. In my workshop this past fall, I reminded students to embrace the search for nuance over the allure of arriving at right-or-wrong answers. I echoed the teaching assistants’ emphasis on starting with their personal reactions to a piece of art¾to build from automatic writing exercises around their chosen piece towards an essay that helps readers inhabit that reaction. I compared the research they do for their essay to the handouts we get in lecture¾how their thesis will focus on analyzing the artist and works at the “top of the sheet,” while their research will support their argument, much like Professor Nemerov’s list of references at the “bottom of the sheet.” I ended the workshop with a reminder that this essay is their chance to think and re-think and look and re-look at a piece of art and a question they have.

This is not to say that every workshop I’ve run has been to a packed lecture hall! I’ve also gotten the chance to indulge in that vision of a small group gathered around a table, whether it’s with honors students thinking about how to sum up their theses in a ten-minute presentation; graduate students discussing how to assess student writing; or visits with individual sections of a class to discuss a writing assignment with the students, their teaching assistant, and their professor. I’m currently preparing for a workshop with Nancy Troy’s students in her course on Modernism and Modernity. Our goal for this workshop is to support students as they move through an assignment sequence that demands careful attention to rhetorical situation, language, and revision: the students first describe two pieces of art at the Cantor in 250-word object labels. Then they revise and pare these labels down to 150-words each. Finally, incorporating feedback on the earlier versions, they revise one of these further, down to 125 words.

I’ve enjoyed experimenting with the range of ways that one can get at the same goals with students, whether it’s 5 or 50 students in a workshop, and whether they’re writing 10-page research-based essays or 125-word object labels. This lesson has rhymed with the other key realization from my work with Art and Art History so far. When I entered the position, I sent email introductions to every single person listed on the Department website¾anyone teaching anything got an email from me, whether they were an adjunct teaching art practice courses or a tenured professor. Although the Department is home to a diverse range of approaches, from art practitioners to art historians, I kept seeing the overlap in their commitments to help students learn to communicate effectively and creatively.

I have been struck by how much the Art and Art History Department values thinking across writing and speaking, critical and creative work. Students learn to present their work in compelling ways across presentations as well as written and creative projects. Thesis writers present their work at a mid-year symposium to the wider Department. All the incoming graduate students give short presentations to introduce the Department to their work. The MFA students submit written theses about the development of their art practice while at Stanford. I’ve very much appreciated working with faculty and graduate students who share these commitments to building writing and speaking into the process and the product of both intellectual and creative endeavors.