On Friday, Oct. 1, Jeffrey Hammond, Professor of English and the George B. and Willma Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts, asked an audience of students, parents, and academicians, “What do students really learn by reading Shakespeare, dissecting frogs, or studying European history?” in the annual Reeves Lecture.
In a lecture titled, “Look in thy Heart and Learn: Creative Writing as a Liberal Art,” Hammond spoke of the value of “the study and practice of creative nonfiction” in an era characterized by increasing accountability and a focus on learning outcomes. Due to the increasing pressures from budgetary contraints, colleges and universities everywhere are being forced to justify every part of their curriculum.
Hammond characterized Creative Nonfiction as “literary nonfiction, the literature of fact, the literary essay, the lyric essay, and the creative essay.” Illustrative authors include Truman Capote, Augustine of Hippo, Frank McCourt, and Joan Didion. Hammond enumerated ten learning outcomes, or “sermonettes,” for the study of creative nonfiction:
- Helps students understand the nature of knowing.
- Stimulates a student’s curiosity about the world and how it works.
- Helps students understand the difference between confronting reality and evading it.
- Seeing the value of telling the truth
- Recognizing that language is common property and accepting the social responsibilities that come with using it.
- Increasing a student’s sensitivity to the power and beauty of language.
- Learning to avoid idealized views of self.
- Helps students discover who they really are.
- An increased empathy for other people.
- Helps students to become more willing to take risks and embrace change.
Hammond examined the value of creative nonfiction as a vehicle for writers to examine their quirks, limitations, wants, timidity, interests and other distinguishing attributes. It also allows writers to invite their audiences “to look at something important through [them],” he said.
He encouraged writers to avoid plot tropes in their writing. Similarly, he cautioned against embellishment within the genre. “When it was revealed that large parts of his memoir of addiction were fabricated, James Frey leaned on a writer’s cliché: he was aiming for a truth ‘higher’ than the facts. But when facts are ignored or distorted, is the result really the truth, higher or otherwise? Oprah, who had selected Frey’s book for her club, had every right to nail him after all. The book presented itself as nonfiction.”
In concluding his lecture, Hammond returns to the question of how well his courses help his students achieve these goals, saying, “For now, I can only give a mule’s answer: the only sure-fire way to assess these outcomes would be to see how my students go on to live their lives.”