Acclaimed author Alice Elliott Dark, an Associate Professor in Rutgers-Newark’s MFA program and the English Department, shares her thoughts on the best ways to teach writing. This Q&A is part of the P3 Collaboratory’s Faculty Spotlight series, which profiles RU-N faculty on their research and success in and out of the classroom. The P3 Collaboratory is the university's comprehensive center for teaching, learning, faculty development, and publicly-engaged scholarship.
Dark is the author of two novels, Fellowship Point and Think of England, and two collections of short stories, In The Gloaming and Naked to the Waist. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many anthologies. She is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. In Spring 2023, she was awarded the Warren Susman Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Q: How does your research, scholarship or professional experience inspire your teaching?
A: I teach mainly in the MFA program where I help early-stage fiction writers learn their craft and develop methods for writing and revision they can carry forward to a future when they are writing on their own, without deadlines or feedback from a teacher or classmates. When I was beginning to write fiction, I spent years reading books about craft and doing close readings and analysis of texts to understand how to plot a story, what constituted a compelling character, how a setting could convey a tone, and so on. Teaching writing led me to push myself to clearly articulate these craft aspects of the project of fiction so I could show my students how to deploy them in their stories. Sometimes they balk at what can seem mechanical and uninspired, and I ask them to imagine the nascent composers over at Julliard learning musical forms and annotation. The point is to learn and metabolize craft essentials so students can compose with freedom. I have a vast collection of books about how to write and share them with students. I am also able to share my experiences with having work published and offer guidance when graduates have a project ready to market. I do always emphasize, however, that I teach writing because I believe in writing as a beautiful way to explore one’s own humanity and to appreciate and become skillful at logically ordering thoughts and ideas.
Q: What is one innovative or unique teaching practice you’d like to share?
A: A few years ago, I read The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism [by Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Juno Jill Richards], in which four young academics wrote to each other about their responses to the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. The introduction to the book suggested that this experiment might inspire other new approaches to criticism. Indeed, it inspired me. I taught two Zoom undergrad classes during the pandemic. In both I asked students to write me letters about the reading every week. These letters took the place of some or all formal written assignments. I didn’t mark them up but responded to them in kind. In both classes, one writing intensive and one Gen Ed, student letters got longer and more thoughtful as the semester went on. I considered it a successful method. It conferred a sense of privacy and direct communication that students responded to by breaking free of the confines of the word “assignment” and eagerly sending me their latest responses.
I adapted this assignment for a graduate literature class I taught in spring 2023 on the Neapolitan novels. We created a Google doc and everyone wrote their observations about the reading in the doc every week, starting with “Dear Class.” This method was highly effective and elicited scholarly work as well as poems and personal reflections. Every student said that it was the best class they’d ever taken. I used the same method in a pandemic gen ed class also on Elena Ferrante’s work and found it successful in that context too. In that instance, they addressed their letters to me. I believe it worked better than a discussion board because of the sense of intimacy the format created. Students shared more of themselves than they do in typical essays or academic papers, and that seemed to lead them to become more deeply engaged with the reading. By the end of the semester, in both the grad and undergrad courses, their responses had lengthened way beyond what I required.
Q: How does this work advance the university's mission as a publicly-engaged anchor institution?
A: The list of MFA graduates who have published books is long and growing. Our students include faculty and the Rutgers-Newark MFA program in their acknowledgments. This is a great way for the public to understand the work we do, and it attracts more excellent students.