The Gag Rule and Slaves to the Academic Bath House

Rosalie Morales Kearns wrote for CCCC in her article “Voice of Authority: Theorizing Creative Writing Pedagogy” about Creative Writing classroom’s use of the “gag rule.” I’ve had my own experiences being gagged by the Creative Writing classroom. My BA is in Creative Writing from the same university where I go to grad school now. My experiences in the grad program have been decently progressive. Creative projects beyond the academic paper are encouraged for midterm exams and final projects and topics that push the limits of Comp/Rhet are typically praised rather than dissuaded. This experience was not mirrored during my undergrad despite the progressive attitude of the faculty.

A Black Ball-gag

During a summer fiction workshop, I was in a class with three other students. The small number imposed the idea that this workshop would be an “intimate look at the artist’s work.” But when my piece was up to the ringer of fellow students, I was not allowed to speak until the very end of the workshop. For an hour, the students would discuss my work against their preconceived ideas of what “good fiction was.” I listened as they tore my piece apart despite coming out of the workshop with general praise. It always feels like you’re being torn apart when you’re not allowed to have any last words before it starts. Morales Kearns calls this “fault-finding mode.”

Morales Kearns writes, “there are several justifications of the fault-finding mode. According to one line of reasoning, a creative writing degree is of necessity a trial by fire; you have to run the workshop gauntlet so you learn to toughen up and survive all those rejection slips from publishers. Whether the pain is good for us is a question I will leave to the physical therapists and the philosophers” (795).

At the end of the workshop, they take the metaphorical gag off and let me speak. In this moment, I’m not allowed to defend my piece. I have two options and these two options were the same for all but one workshop class I took in my undergrad: one, you can ask the students in the workshop to look at a specific section of the piece and ask for approval; two, you can thank the students in the workshop and go cry in the computer lab no one uses down the hall.

The one class that didn’t enforce this gag rule was a poetry workshop taught by Maggie, another contributor to this blog, but us students gagged ourselves anyway because we were conditioned to believe our voice did not have a place within the reception of our work. “This is how it is in the real world,” I hear a lot of Creative Writing professors say. “You wont get to defend your work once its published.”

Anne Rice does, but okay.

Patrons of the academy are always calling it “the real world” or “the outside world” especially in the arts. These worlds get more specific when you start talking to people closer to your graduation date. The “real world” starts to sound like “NGO World” or “Research Park.” Does making work at the university seem like public service rather than a nine-to-five elevate the academy to an outer-earthly realm?

Morales Kearn’s solution to the Creative Writing classroom takes from the Composition classroom is dismantling of power. Morales Kearns argues that Composition classes don’t seek to punish the writer but encourage them by not correcting errors but pushing for expression (797). Morales Kearns writes, “a non-normative workshop discussion would not position the work is inherently flawed and would not position the author at the bottom of the hierarchy. […] Instead of silently cringing at the bottom of the heap, the author takes part in the discussion, even leads the discussion” (801).

This makes so much sense that it’s frustrating to me to know that the arts have not kept up the the same power-dismantling practices that composition has in the same university. Why do we do workshopping? Why don’t we do peer review? Why don’t we rhetorically analyze rather than rhetorically criticize? Why do we impose on the students that they are to take the advice of their peers as if they are lesser than and then in two days, during the next class period, shift the power roles?

I tried to do this dismantling in the ENG 101 class I taught but also dip my toes in the water of the Creative Writing classroom by assigning the students a piece of Creative Nonfiction for their first essay. I told them that this assignment was to value their own experiences and perceptions as much as they value the published authors in our textbook – I hope they bought it. For this essay, I only offered positive criticism. Constructive criticism came in different iterations of “this is good – do more of this” and “this is interesting; expand here.”

In their next two essays, a rhetorical analysis and a comparative essay, they had to write “Positionality Statements.” I told them to put it in their introduction. “This is where you write why the reader should trust your opinion,” I said. “And don’t say ‘you should trust me because’ because no one talks like that. Write what your connection to the topic is and why you care to write about it.” Hopefully they saw the value in it. Here, I tried to connect the real world with the academy. They’d only been in the academy for about ten days when I asked them to muddle it up with their experiences outside of it.

I wrote a poem about the gag rule using Morales Kearns’s perspective and recited it at a poetry open mic hosted by our Creative Writing department. The speaker of the poem was a student, the unwilling submissive, while the classroom was the bath house containing his domination. The instructors that once put the gag on me in their workshops gave me some good laughs when I spoke of Kurt Vonnegut being a “leather bear” and Eudora Welty being the “madame” of the bath house.

Was I in the real world or the academy? Where were they? Where were Vonnegut and Welty? This was a school event, but we were all half drunk from the bar that hosted the event. These were my teachers, but now I worked in the same department and pay my rent with the same tuition money. I sign our emails with Prof. So-and-so and Dr. this-and-that, but at the bar I call them by their first name and say they’re cuckolding their students into a microphone and they laugh. With me, even.

If I get this poem published, I can put it on a CV of creative works when I apply to universities after I graduate. To them as creative writers, this low art is high academic language. This is what they study, and this is why they host such events. Their values have shifted in favor of the public and in favor of the creative, but the students remain bound to their seats in their classroom roundtables.

In the same magazine that published Morales Kearn’s work, CCCC published a response to Morales Kearns by Stephanie Vanderslice exactly a year later. These responses usually seek to further the field of study but are almost always painfully mean-spirited. This is the academic Jersey Shore.

Vanderslice writes “much scholarship has been written that specifically addresses issues Morales Kearns examines in her essay, scholarship that the author fails to acknowledge” (759) and continues to criticize with, “one can’t help but wish the author had situated [the “gag order”] more accurately in the context of the field” (760).

Vanderslice is effectively filling in the gaps in research that Morales Kearns has in her own work by offering in more foundational texts, and for the most part, Vanderslice is right in the connections she makes. But, when does Morales Kearns’s experiences not become her own? Since when was her specific perception of work only worthy of entering an academic conversation rather than beginning a new one? Why do academics value the “I said it first” so strongly? Why doesn’t the real world work from this hive mind technique?

What context is more necessary that the classroom itself? It sounds like Vanderslice is wishing Morales Kearns ate more humble pie before she could have feelings and thoughts of her own. She may be right that Morales Kearns should have discussed people that have already approached this problem, and that Morales Kearns’s foundational text should not have been sixteen years old, but then again, if Morales Kearns sees how nothing has changed, when why would she? Morales Kearns isn’t trying to join a conversation but start a new one. When did the foundation of knowledge shift away from the mind and onto the published page?

Why is Vanderslice trying to gag Morales Kearns with the perceptions of other writers Morales Kearns did not consider? Who taught Vanderslice to value the conversation over the lived experience? When did discussions on pedagogy become more necessary than teaching the classroom? Why do I have to put my publications on my CV before I put my teaching experience?

A black-and-white, candid photo of Ansel Adams behind his camera in front of a pin tree. He wears a fedora.

Is there a painter out there who gets credited for painting the first landscape and are all other painters then forced to cite the previous painter? If I take a picture of a mountain, am I copying Ansel Adams? If the piano student gets rapped on the fingers for every mistake, they won’t continue to take lessons (Kearns 796). If the creative writer is gagged during every workshop, writing loses its passion, invention, and power. I lost mine, and I’m still fighting to get it back.

Kearns, Rosalie Morales. “Voice of Authority: Theorizing Creative Writing Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 4, 2009, pp. 790–807. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40593430.
Vanderslice, Stephanie. “Response to Rosalie Morales Kearns's ‘Voice of Authority: Theorizing Creative Writing Pedagogy.’” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 4, 2010, pp. 759–760. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27917872.

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