Dispatches | May 13, 2011

Last month, TMR Managing Editor Michael Nye visited my introductory creative writing workshop at the University of Michigan-Flint. He did this not in person, but via Skype. It was my first time using Skype–cobbling together a system in a classroom not quite “smart” enough to include a webcam. I borrowed an external cam that plugged into my laptop that plugged into the room’s Smart Cart; I delegated a student to steady that cam every time it lolled ceiling-ward; I cautioned everyone to stay in their seats, with cords running everywhere across the front of the room. As I do every time I use a new technology, I flashed back to high school and harried teachers struggling with classroom VCRs. Would this experiment end in defeat? Then Michael appeared on our projection screen, and a handful of my students appeared to him.

My class’s Skype conversation with Michael is one of the features of the Council for Literary Magazines and Presses Lit Mag Adoption Program, through which creative writing instructors can sign their classes up for discounted subscriptions to participating magazines. I adopted TMR for my course in part because of my familiarity with the magazine: I was on staff for four of the five years I studied at the University of Missouri, and felt confident that any issue would include “teachable” material. TMR was also a good fit for my class because it includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction–as does the intro workshop at my present institution. Even so, I faced a challenge in drafting a syllabus that would accommodate whatever the magazine happened to contain. Knowing that we wouldn’t receive our first issue until the middle of the semester, I structured the first few units of the course around definite objectives–focusing on form, point of view, image, voice–and sketched out two broadly-defined units at the end of the semester, devoted to “journeys” and “change.” As I’d hoped, virtually every piece in the Winter 2010 issue could be fitted into these categories.

One benefit of working with newly-published writing was that the students knew I had no prior connection to the pieces we were reading. We were all in the same relationship to the texts; we were all undertaking the task of getting to know this material. In groups, students would work together to arrive at readings of individual poems in a feature, then we’d come back together to share our findings and discuss themes running through that poet’s work. The intertextuality of Tarfia Faizullah’s poems, the timeliness of Brian Brodeur’s challenged the students and provided them with good models. On the day we discussed Daniel Mueller’s essay “I’m OK, You’re OK,” a student who’d misread the syllabus was devastated to be left out of our conversation about predatory clowns. Working with such fresh material gave students plenty of room to develop their own insights. In TMR‘s Winter issue, they were encountering works that hadn’t been studied extensively: not by SparkNotes, not by Wikipedia, not by someone offering to sell them a term paper–not even by me.

Having Michael in our classroom that April day demystified the work of a literary journal, a kind of publication that some students in this, a general education class, may have been unfamiliar with at the beginning of the semester. For me, it was nice to see a familiar face again; for the students, helpful to put a face to the editorial process. The Winter 2010 issue offered us another small world moment as we discussed (inevitably) the cover art. Kent Miller‘s “Maho Beach”–in which a jumbo jet buzzes beach-goers–is not only an undoctored photograph, but also the work of a former staff photographer for our hometown newspaper, The Flint Journal. I am apt to dwell on such coincidences: what does it mean that I’m here, linked to these two places, and the cover artist shares the same links? To my students, the coincidence seemed less striking: a Flint photographer was on the cover of TMR, one of the journal’s editors was Skyping with us–that very day, a classmate had announced that she’d just been published online. Why shouldn’t Flint be a hub of the publishing world? That’s exactly the kind of question I want them to ask.

Stephanie Carpenter is a former TMR staff member and Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan-Flint.