Fred Leebron: An analysis of the modes of distance learning

In our Pedagogical Conference in Paris (Nov, 2012), Fred Leebron (USA) opened a substantial debate about two modes of distance learning: the tutorial model and the workshop model. Leebron analyses in his text the different perspectives and values that each of these experiences offers. However, from a pedagogical point of view, the American author favors the workshop model for training future teachers of creative writing

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An analysis of the modes of distance learning

Fred Leebron (USA)

When I was hired in 1999 to design a low-residency MFA program for Queens University of Charlotte, there were only five or so other low-residency programs in operation in the United States, and they all favored the tutorial model in which students corresponded with faculty one-on-one during distance learning. It was clear to me that the way then for a new MFA program to break new ground would be to somehow utilize the workshop format in distance learning.

Now, there are over fifty-five low-residency programs running in the United States, and both the tutorial format and the workshop format are being employed during distance learning. Which format is better, and why?

I wish it were as simple as that, but frankly both formats have their advantages and both formats have their disadvantages. I know this intimately because I am now directing a second low-residency program that I designed, and in this one, operating in Europe under the auspices of Cedar Crest College but serving both American and European students, we use the tutorial format. As the director of both of these programs, I hear firsthand from both faculty and students regarding their compliments, concerns, and, yes, even complaints. I also teach in both programs, and thus have a working experience with both models.

As the director at Queens, I’ve long believed that the tutorial model creates the illusion of one-on-one instruction, because all of the instructors within the tutorial model are of course assigned more than one student each. In addition, I’ve believed that while the tutorial model precludes the workshop, the workshop  model does not preclude the tutorial. By this I mean that no tutorial model can effect a workshop during distance learning, because the overriding principle is one-on-one instruction, whereas the workshop model allows for one-on-one instruction by the simple fact that each instructor’s reaction is to the student directly, and is merely copied to other students in the workshop group; that, by its nature, is one-on-one instruction. In addition, in the workshop model, students at the residency of course have individual conferences with their instructors; thus, they develop individual, tutorial-style relationships with their instructors over the course of the semester.

Given these observations, and the desire to provide student writers with more than one set of eyes and one single critical reaction during any manuscript exchange, and, in fact, to attempt to decenter at least just a bit the faculty role in the development of creative writers, why would anyone choose the tutorial model over the workshop model in a distance learning or low-residency program?

In fact, there are a number of excellent reasons. The first, less obviously, pertains to administration. In order for any workshop to be successful, it has to provide some kind of critical mass. At Queens, we’ve registered this mass as a minimum of three and a maximum of four MFA candidates in any given workshop, and we guarantee each of our faculty that same student «load.» Thus, there is much pressure to create this configuration, and then, of course, to reconfigure it based on last minute issues with both students and faculty withdrawing from or even attempting to add themselves to the semester’s program. Clearly, in the tutorial model, there is not this problem of a minimum critical mass. So, it is true that from time to time the workshop model will have to deviate from its own guidelines, due to whatever unexpected situation (personal or professional) that might arise and affect any participant’s attendance in a given semester.

The other reasons for favoring the tutorial model are more aesthetic and likely more obvious. MFA candidates who prefer this model simply do not want to devote additional hours to reading one another’s work; they’d rather devote those hours to reading work from an individualized reading list that they devise with their instructor. Faculty in the tutorial model often prefer not having to monitor and respond to student commentary on each other’s work, a significant requirement for faculty in the workshop model. Some faculty also believe that the workshop model cannot succeed in distant learning, because a «real» workshop requires face to face interaction, and not the exchange of emailed letters.

In fact, the workshop model requires less «original» teaching to be a positive educational experience. First, the students’ colleagues, if they are trained by the program (like we attempt to do at Queens), become adept at providing rigorous and objective feedback. Thus, anything an instructor might «miss» in an individual response is often covered by the student responses. Second, this additional set of responses almost always challenges the instructors to think beyond their initial responses and to grapple with additional perspectives on the work at hand. This responsive teaching can become a key and essential component of distance learning workshops in the same way it is crucial to face to face workshops.

It is true, then, too, that the tutorial model demands more original teaching from the instructor. In making this crossover to the tutorial model, as the director of the Cedar Crest program I found myself having to make up for the absence of the workshop. I had to look at student work from as many different perspectives as I could imagine, to achieve the range and level of feedback that would most challenge the student. No one else was going to look at the work, so it had to come from me. Usually, in any feedback I give as an instructor, I worry about overwhelming the student with too many things that could be addressed in revision; part of this worry derives from the fact that the workshop, as a system of multiple critical perspectives, always will provide a lot of feedback. Without that feedback, I lost the worry and instead offered as much critical response as I could imagine. In addition, I found myself developing alternative curricula to further address the workshop absence. The primary component, as noted above, is the highly individualized reading list. Just as important, and in order to provide for a bit more community in this very private scenario of study, is the incorporation of monthly webinars that bring together the entire program’s enrolment to discuss elements of craft that are useful across all the genres.

In my own experience, ultimately, it seems that the workshop model is better for training future teachers of creative writing, because they gain more experience in critiquing manuscripts and they gain from seeing/reading their instructors’ critiques of all the manuscripts in the workshop group. These elements comprise significant additional exposure to methods and means for teaching creative writing. Which model helps writers develop to their maximum potential is up for substantial debate. The workshop model betters writers by advancing their critical skills and by offering them a greater range of critical reaction to their work. The tutorial model betters writers by having them read more widely and deeply in the literary canon; it is hard to argue against the concept that a substantial part of becoming a better writer requires reading more literature well.

The tutorial model, arguably, also requires more from the primary voice of instruction—the faculty mentor—and so more «expert» opinion comes into play, from what I can tell. Yet one of the reasons I developed the workshop model was because I questioned the instructor-centric world of the tutorial model. No instructor can always be «right,» and any number of instructors can not only be «wrong» but also somewhat oblivious to their «wrongness.»

Regardless, any writer serious about craft will have to read well beyond his or her MFA curriculum, and any writer serious about teaching will have to deepen his or experience by reading more in the field, extending his or her critical experience, and extending his or her classroom experience. No matter which form of distance learning a student chooses, there will be plenty left to learn even after the MFA degree is achieved. The choice of whether to enrol in the workshop model or the tutorial model might well come down to the temperament of the individual writer.

If he or she craves more community and more range of experience, then the workshop model might be the better fit. If he or she craves more privacy and individuality, more of a sense of being that single writer in a mentorship relationship with a single teacher, then the tutorial model is the better fit.

This final analysis, of course, is based on the construct that all other elements— the faculty, the location, the other curriculum involved—would be equal. Since this is hardly ever the case, the tutorial vs. workshop model is going to be just one of many indices that contribute to any MFA candidate’s decision to enroll in a program, and, correspondingly, any instructor’s decision to teach in a program as well.