Wednesday, May 04, 2011


The essential thing about a workshop is, of course, the work. A workshop is a place to work on your ideas, not play with them, and I usually introduce my writing workshops by explaining the etymology of "debauchery".

F. débaucher is, according to Littré and Hatzfeld, derived from n. bauche, of which the precise sense and origin are according to the latter unknown; according to the former it = ‘a place of work, workshop’, so that desbaucher would mean orig. ‘to draw away from the workshop, from one's work or duty’. (Oxford English Dictionary.)

Today, the word means "a vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures", but it stems from "seduction from duty, integrity, or virtue; corruption." The current sense of "debauch" apparently emerged in the seventeenth century, i.e., at the beginning of the modern era, when we began to separate the pursuit of profit from the pursuit of pleasure. A workshop is not a playground, and it is not a brothel. It is not that there is no pleasure to be had in a workshop, it is just, and very definitely, that it is not "fun", it is not a vicious indulgence in pleasure. It is the deeper pleasure that the craftsman finds in working seriously with materials.

This morning I want to write something about the workshops I offer, especially to those who would like to invite me to visit their own institutions. Here in Copenhagen, I run 8-week workshops that meet once a week for three hours. I expect participants to devote at least one hour a day to their writing outside of our meetings. "Seriousness", to my mind, is established by demanding a commitment to the workshop (a commitment to attend all 8 meetings) and a commitment to the work itself (by demanding that writing be prioritized during the period of attendance). Also, by expecting people to spend more time writing than meeting, I am trying to bring the materiality of writing into focus. The workshop is not an opportunity to talk abstractly or "in principle" about writing, it is a place to assess the concrete results of a practical activity.

So, when I do these workshops out of town, I demand some preparation from the participants and (this is a new thing) I demand that they set aside as much time during my visit for writing as they do for meeting. So, if I'm doing, say, three 3-hour workshop meetings on the afternoons of three consecutive days, I will expect the participants to be writing (doing specific assignments) for three hours each morning. I want them to come to the workshop with a very concrete sense of their writing as a text—a piece of work. If I'm doing only one meeting, I will expect them to write the morning I arrive as well.

As preparation I expect the following. First, they must select a writing project to bring to the workshop and one published piece of "exemplary" scholarship, i.e., a recognized work of quality in the tradition that they are working in. These selections provide us with our materials. Next, they must produce an "after-the-fact" outline of their own writing project, i.e., a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of the text. This is ultimately just a list of each paragraph's key sentence. Finally, they must choose one paragraph from the text they are going to be working on and give it a minimum of 30 minutes attention: they must read it out loud, edit it for style and grammar, make it as coherent as they can. They must bring the prose in that paragraph up their highest personal standard. The result of this preparation should be sent to the workshop coordinator and to me one week in advance of my visit. This is the best possible way of focusing the attention of the participants on the craft-dimension of writing and of giving me an insight into the linguistic and academic level that the workshop should be run at.

Suppose, then, that I come for a three-day visit to meet with a group of, say, eight PhD students, who have all prepared in the way I just described and have committed 18 hours over three days to working on their writing (9 alone, 9 with me). This establishes a space of serious pleasure, a place to work. In the morning of the first day, before we meet for the first time, they will be given the assignment of writing (presumably re-writing) their abstract, introduction and conclusion according to my increasingly famous formula. We will then meet for three hours.

In the first hour I talk in general terms about "how to write". The second hour is a master class in which the after-the-fact outlines of two participants are discussed with their authors in front of the rest of the group. The third hour consists of an editing demonstration: I project a submitted paragraph up onto the screen in an active Word window and edit it for 30 or 40 minutes, explaining my actions as a go. I then give them their assignment for the next day.

Their assignment will be to spend 1 hour on the theory section, then 1 hour on their methods section, and then 1 hour getting the two to fit together. They bring an after-the-fact outline and a sample paragraph from this work to class that afternoon. Again, I spend the first (less than an) hour talking about what a good theory section and methods section should accomplish and then master-class one or two outlines. The final hour or so is again spent editing a paragraph and giving them an assignment.

The assignment for the third day will be to write some empirical prose. "Empirical" prose is methodologically qualified and theoretically informed. So the previous day's work will have set up the task for them. They simply write about something that "is the case" in the terms they have articulated. They bring an after-the-fact outline of the three-hours of work to the class and, again, a sample paragraph. We master-class the outline and I edit the paragraph. Then we wrap things up for about twenty minutes.

While there is no need to have everyone in the workshop be at the same level of academic development or the same stage of completion on the selected project, some uniformity here may be a good idea. One way to do this is to have me come twice, doing a "getting started" and "getting finished" version with 8 or 10 weeks of individual work in between. The workshops would proceed in essentially the same way, but with different assumptions about the participant's familiarity with their own texts, and my principles.


Jonathan said...

How has this worked for you in practice? It sounds like a great format for a workshop, but I'd be interested in a follow-up on how this has turned out. How do the PhD students respond to that very intensive format?

Thomas said...

One of the problems with this in practice is that the participants often don't seem to think I'm serious before they meet me. So the preparatory stuff doesn't get done quite right. My sense, however, is that they leave understanding what they should have done and with a quite precise sense of what they would have gotten out of it if they had put more into it ... and had higher expectations of the workshop going in, actually.

I'll say something more specific on Friday.