Graduate workshops are pretty interesting environments. They are often no more than 15 people (and that’s a big group). How a professor runs a workshop will vary, but the general idea is that each person gets to review 2-3 stories a semester, getting verbal feedback during class and a one-page response from each person. I have had some great experiences in workshop, but every now and then it’s possible to come across a workshop that is a less than perfect dynamic. You have to keep a few things in mind when dealing with workshop issues, such as where these people sitting around the table might be in a few years. You never know who you might need to ask for a blurb, or get a hook up with an agent. It’s best not to burn any bridges.
1) The best way to solve any problem in workshop is to talk to the professor. I don’t mean tattle on someone who is skipping class or complaining that someone is only writing 3/4 of the page for their response rather than the whole page. The big issues that require talking to the professor tend to be if you aren’t getting any feedback at all from someone, or if their feedback is completely off-topic and unhelpful. I once heard a story of a woman telling another person in her workshop that she would not read any of her stories because her religious kept her from doing so. Wow. These are the issues that are best resolved by going to the professor. You don’t go to complain, you go to ask what the correct course of action is. Chances are they have had a similar problem happen in another workshop they’ve taught so they have some good advice, but if not, at least you have their blessing to stop reading and responding to someone who doesn’t respect you or your work.
2) Expect to read things that will piss you off. If this is the case, you can’t let your frustration get in the way. Even if it “violates your religion,” you have to respect the person submitting the story. Does the content piss you off? Read for style, grammar, and word choice–leave the content to the others in your class. It’s more important to offer what you can in a positive way rather than get emotionally invested and cause problems in workshop (even if you’re passive aggressive about it and only go off in your written response.) If you need to rant, don’t tell anyone in your workshop–it will get around. This is what your pets, roommates, and signifiant others are for. Do not sacrifice the positive dynamic of a workshop because you don’t agree with someone’s opinions.
3) You don’t have to get along with the people in your class, but you have to respect them, unless they don’t respect you. You can go either way with this. If they don’t write you a good, helpful critique (or any critique at all), you can either be the bigger person and still put effort into yours in return, or you can put as much effort into their critiques as they put into yours–just make sure you talk to the professor first, and let him or her know that’s what you are going to do (they will most likely understand, or be able to advise you, or even fix the problem) otherwise when the other person goes to complain, you look like the jerk.
4) If you’re not getting the feedback you want, be better prepared when you get to class. Go in with questions to ask as the end of the critique and meet with the professor out of class to discuss what was said or not said during class. Often times the professors will let the students do most or all of the talking, but they may have more to offer you in a one-on-one setting.
Basically if you are having a problem and want it fixed you really have to talk to the professor. It’s their job to make things run smoothly, so they will do their best to solve any problems that might arise. But it is also on the shoulders of everyone in the workshop to be kind, respectful, and as helpful to others as you want them to be helpful for you. Expect many more posts about workshops–they are the most important part of your higher education creative writing experience.