Dana Goodyear on Using Figment to Teach Creative Writing

Figment co-founder Dana Goodyear is not only a staff writer for The New Yorker and acclaimed poet. She’s also a writing teacher. Here she shares her experience using Figment Groups with her master’s students at the University of Southern California.

Last winter, my friend Reza Aslan, a bestselling nonfiction writer with a master’s in fiction from the Writers Workshop, asked me if I could introduce Figment to the undergraduate creative writing workshop he was teaching at U.C. Riverside, where he is a professor. He was a little bit desperate. His course, which the previous year had been capped at twelve—typical workshop size—was, due to a surge in interest and a shortage of teachers, going to be seventy students. There was no way to workshop with a group that size—you might conceivably go through the entire semester without being able to address each student’s work even once. Besides, his class was about the writer’s life, and he had a full slate of interesting visitors lined up, not to mention and ambitious reading list. He wanted to run the workshops through Figment during the time between classes, and devote class time to visitors and a discussion of the reading. I visited the class and introduced them to Figment and, by Reza’s account, workshopping that way was a success. His one complaint was that there was so much work on Figment that he had to come up with elaborate codes for his students to use in tagging their pieces so that he and their classmates could find the pieces to read and comment on. And that he had no way of communicating with his students through the site: he was posting their Figment assignments on Blackboard, and it seemed like one step too many. I told him to bear with me.

Six months later, we introduced Private Groups on Figment, walled-off versions of the site where educators and librarians can post assignments, read in-progress drafts of pieces by group members before they are made public on the site, and, through the Comments, run virtual workshops. (Shortly after that, we launched Public Groups, which are available to everyone, from super-fans of certain writers to people who like Korean food and anime.) In my graduate-level writing class in the Master of Professional Writing Program, at the University of Southern California, this fall, I used Figment for every single assignment. On the private message board for my group, I posted links and articles I wanted my students to see.

My eight students commented vigorously and thoughtfully on one another’s work, setting the tone for in-class workshops that were deeper and more detailed than such discussions often are. They reported that having the work posted on Figment all week, and reading their classmates’ responses to it as the week progressed, drained workshop of that heart-pounding egomania and fear that makes it impossible to absorb feedback. They took in the notes calmly, at home (or wherever they accessed Figment) and used class time to ponder the question that usually gets left out: where to from here?

A few weeks ago, Reza asked me to come back out to Riverside and present Figment to this year’s creative writers. There would be a hundred and fifty in the class this year, he told me. I made plans to go see them, excited to show off the tools that would make it possible for him to work on an intimate scale with such a large number of students. The next day, I got another email from him, with no text, just the subject: “Creative Writing now enrolling 300!” Here we go!

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