A Creative Space in Academic Writing

An Interview With Writer and Berkeley City College Professor Julianne Leigh

By Abbey Kingsbury

Julianne Leigh is an English professor at Berkeley City College. She teaches two of the general education requirement English composition courses: English 1A and 1B. But there is nothing general about Professor Leigh’s classes. As a writer of fiction herself, Leigh broadens her lectures to allow for creativity, and teaches students that they have “permission to not be perfect.” This is not to insinuate that Leigh’s classes are without pressure and expectations, but she truly finds joy within her students’ triumphs in finding their voice in writing.

If you could teach any kind of English class what would it be?

If I could create my own? It would be a creative analysis class. Every time I can do an exercise both in 1A and 1B where I can have a creative opening the response I get from the students is so exciting and when I go home I’m just like, thrilled. If I could rewrite English 1A, I would love to be able to do it that way. But there are limitations because of the requirements of the course.

But you still did a really good job of incorporating that.

I try.

Do you think creativity and fiction writing skills have a place in formal academic writing and, if so, in what way?

Absolutely. I’m thinking about the way we think when we’re doing straightforward, traditional linear analysis, it’s extremely important. The kind of analysis you do when you’re creative is equally important, and I think [educators] are talking about that. The real development of ideas — it comes from the creative side as well. I mean, it’s a synthesis of both. But I think what happens is that we get in a time-crunch, and that comes from all sorts of different factors, so then we focus on the most straightforward process: the traditional five paragraph essay structure that is used so often — that more deductive pattern where you state your main point and then you prove it, as opposed to doing the inductive style where you come to it at the end. We don’t tend to teach that so much in the early writing classes because, again, there is no time.

That’s a good point about time.

See, I have limited the number and the range of creative assignments because I believe that there’s a need for a strong foundation in the basics. If you don’t have an understanding of language — if you don’t have a foundational understanding of what you’re doing with the language — then I think it’s more challenging to be powerfully creative. But you know how my opening line goes, “There’s no such thing as wrong language.” It’s just a matter of when you’re going to use what language and for what purpose.

creativespace pullquote

Yeah, that’s something I really admired about your classes always.

It is hard, I have to say I think this is probably obvious and I think a lot of instructors find themselves in this position: I hate the grades, because they’re so limiting and they’re a value judgment that’s overly simplistic. But again, I have no choice, so I have to work with that. But it’s constantly my challenge. I think you know how much I want to share the power and the joy of learning how to write and discovering how we think through language. I do find it hard trying to keep everyone excited about that and to keep going, and at the same time have to be someone who critiques with a grade.

Right, and the stress.

And the stress involved, yeah. I always cared about those kinds of scores too, so I’m very sympathetic. But it’s a little bit like, if you want to be an artist or a dancer or do any kind of athletics, you have to pay attention to form. So that’s part of it.

That’s a really good point. I feel like I learned a lot in your class and it was really — it was a great class. But I didn’t feel the same sort of stress over deadlines that some of my classmates expressed. I don’t feel like it interfered with my learning at all, I feel like it enhanced it actually.

I think some people are going to do well with as much room as possible and some people really need that rigid timeline. Working with adults, working in the Program for Adult College Education for so many years, I’ve developed a flexible style, with deadlines. Not every instructor does that, and I totally respect every individual instructors take on that. And I’ve always said that I believe in giving a little room to students. I was given it, and I had a wonderful professor when I was in grad school who basically said she wants to give people as much room as possible but she doesn’t want to get them in trouble by it.

Do you have any advice for someone who always struggled with English class or with writing in general?

Try to balance the challenging aspects of the process with enjoyable writing — the type of writing that is purely for exploring what you can do with language — so you can take that edge off. And again, that’s one of the philosophies behind the in-class writing exercises where there’s no judgment at all — it’s just totally free — to see what we can do, both for ourselves and others, without anyone else’s sort of intervention at all.

So, practice free-writing?

Mmhmm. Free-writing, but then the hard one is to give ourselves permission to not be perfect.

That’s a really big one.

I think that takes a lot of practice. I have a friend who teaches an art class, and she just basically feels that when you’re taking a beginning instruction, of course you’re not going to know everything. It is a work in progress, and that’s okay.

I have a question that stems from something I’ve noticed that’s happened in my classes. How do you feel when, near the end of the semester, the class size shrinks in terms of attendance?

It’s hard, especially when it gets really small — I’d even use the word “devastating.” And it’s frustrating, because I don’t really know what to do about it. I’ve tried to set up the class to make it as practical for adults and young adults, who obviously have many different obligations, but there is just so much work required in these composition classes and it’s time consuming. What I do to keep myself from getting too disappointed by the smaller class size is just put more time and energy into the students that are there, and sometimes the discussions that come up in a small group are really valuable.

I can definitely attest to that.

I went to a number of different schools, and I took a number of different kinds of courses and writing workshops in grad school, they were pretty small. I mean the first weeks of school the room is packed, and everyone is excited about being there — that is great! I think students have to remember to give themselves a lot of credit for hanging in there.

So this is sort of a similar question but, English 1A and 1B are required GE’s, why should we be excited to sign up for your class?

Because knowing how to write is helping you know yourself better, and it’s a political act. And it gives us the tools to make change, and I’m passionate about that.

Do you have anything in particular that you love about teaching at BCC?

Oh, oh the students — and I’m gonna get all emotional — I get so much from the students. Always. Always. It’s a very meaningful experience. I find that working with people who have so many obligations … I find it inspiring to see the amazing thought and care and energy that students put into their work.

At the top – Photo courtesy of Julianne Leigh

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