Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes

Developmental Writing Tip: Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes

Last week, we talked about the benefits of teaching poetry in literature-based writing courses.

I explained that, in my writing classes at the University of Georgia, I incorporate four major genres of literature, and I began to make the argument that a semester of literary study can be deeply beneficial for students who are learning to write. This week, we’ll pick up where we left off with the second post of the series: Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes.

Like poetry, teaching short stories in your writing classes can also cultivate unique skills in your developing writers. Being conversant in the language of the short story will not only help students compete intellectually, but it will also help them develop and hone their own writing skills.

Teaching Short Stories Helps Students Analyze Essay-Length Works

One of the most common requests from upper level content professors is that students learn how to effectively analyze a text’s theme. When students get into 300- and 400-level courses, it’s crucial that they can quickly pick out the main points of a writer’s argument. Regardless of the text, a student must be able to consume it relatively quickly and determine its key elements.

Note-taking and outlining are both important skills for students to acquire if they hope to be able to meet standards when it comes to thematic textual analysis. And guess which classes students begin to develop these analytical research skills? You guessed it–freshman composition.

My English 1102 classes (Composition II) always spend at least one day in the library learning how to research. On this day, I schedule an appointment with a reference librarian for a Library Instruction Day. I can’t even begin to describe how useful this day is for the students. Getting familiar with many of the primary online research databases will help them for the rest of college. I strongly recommend you contact your school library and start doing this if you aren’t already.

Our library instruction day is scheduled around Paper 2, which requires students to choose a short story and conduct what is essentially a thematic analysis of that story. In this assignment, students must identify a theme in the short story and show how that theme is revealed in the narrative. Because I want to challenge them to join a critical conversation, I also request that they use a research database like MLA or JSTOR or even Google Scholar to locate a critical piece about their chosen story. They then must engage with that critical interpretation in their own papers.

Students, therefore, are tasked with identifying a theme, interpreting that theme, and crafting an argument that adds a meaningful contribution to the critical discussion of that theme. I call this assignment an “Interpretive Critical Essay.”

After completing this assignment, students have begun to get comfortable identifying and discussing a theme. They’ve also gained valuable research skills and learned several tips and tricks for incorporating quotations and signal phrases into their papers–two skills that will serve them well as they grow as writers.

I believe that demonstrating these skills by teaching short stories is one of the most effective ways we can do it. My students tend to enjoy short stories more. Most of them have grown up thinking fondly about fiction. Beyond that, we’re more inclined to recognize themes in short stories because the stories of our childhood predispose us to look for a “moral of the story” or a message.

Sometimes this tendency to moralize a story causes students to interpret them with cringe-worthy clich├ęs like “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but at least it’s a starting point for our discussion. It’s a ready-made theme that opens the door for a deeper interpretation.

If you design your short story unit and paper prompt deliberately, teaching short stories can be a great way to scaffold thematic analyses and research skills.

Teaching Short Stories Allows Students to See a Variety of Different Writing Styles

I mentioned last week that using poetry in a writing class is a great way to help students develop their own personal writing voices. This is perhaps even more true when it comes to teaching short stories. By assigning readings from a wide variety of writers, students get exposed to several different styles.

Although students may not be consciously mimicking a writer’s style, simply reading stories from different authors subconsciously affects their own personal styles. I’ll never forget the first time I read Faulkner or Denis Johnson or Melville. Everything I’ve written since has been affected by the styles of the writers I respect.

I believe we learn by watching and emulating. On Twitter the other day, Kerry Hasler-Brooks agreed. As Kerry pointed out, reading these “profound” voices helps students create their own authorial voices. One of the unique advantages of the writing class is how intimately connected reading and writing are–moreso than in any other class. We read things and we write about them. The writing classroom, then, allows us to read and then mimic like no other course does. It’s the perfect place to develop one’s voice.

In my classes, we read Kate Chopin and Alice Walker, William Faulkner and John Updike, Ernest Hemingway and Sarah Orne Jewett.
Students see very different styles and tones. And, although I don’t actively encourage them to emulate those styles, there’s no question that these famous writers sometimes rub off on the young writers. To which I say, “Great!”

Teaching Short Stories Helps Students Concentrate

If you’re of a certain age (like me), then you remember a time when you could pick up a book, sit in a chair with it, and read for hours and hours without interruption. No internet or social media or cell phones to distract you from the text. I didn’t even have a cell phone in college. Gasp!

Times have obviously changed and distraction-free reading is largely a thing of the past. Even I, an English professor, rarely go more than 15 or 20 minutes without looking at my phone. I know, it’s shameful.

And most of our students have lived their entire adolescence like this. Cell phone never moving more than six inches from their bodies at all times. Frankly, I don’t know how they get any work done, but they seem to manage. The point, though, is that the work they do is almost always rife with distraction.

Think about how we’ve learned to consume content on the internet. We read differently on the internet. We look for subheadings and bullet points. We skim. We skip around. Our eyes travel up and down and even right to left. Reading on the internet is the most distracted kind of reading, if we can still call it that.

That’s why I like teaching short stories. From a good, old-fashioned short story collection. With real pages. Short stories use rhetorical devices that nonfiction does not. Foreshadowing, suspense, symbolism. If a student skips sections or doesn’t finish the story, he’ll probably miss key plot points (We don’t learn how to do that until grad school. Ha.). With a nonfiction essay on the other hand, a student can wing it and still have a pretty good idea what’s going on.

So I assign short stories to help students develop some of those important concentration skills that the outside world is constantly undermining. Once we get a few pages deep in a good short story, we might decide to stick around for a while.

These are some of the reasons I’m currently teaching short stories in my writing classes, but what about you? Do you teach short stories? Why or why not? What’s your favorite story to teach and/or read?