Lemons to Lemonade: Opportunities to Use the AWP Virtual Conference in Your Creative Writing Classroom

November 17, 2020

When I heard the AWP conference might be virtual this year, my thoughts immediately turned to the opportunity this presented for my students. Every spring, I leave them for a week, telling them I’m off to a professional conference and that I’ll bring them something back (thank you, bookfair swag). For all they know, I might as well be going to the moon. Sure, we are able to bring a fair number of graduate students and a few undergrads to AWP every year due to a generous private travel endowment for our students. But for the rest of our creative writing majors, due to overwhelming travel costs, attending a national writer’s conference is so far out of reach they can’t even imagine what such a thing really is or how they might benefit from it.

Not anymore. With the conference going virtual due to the pandemic, our funds can cover any majors or grad students who want to attend. And if we didn’t have those funds, I wouldn’t have any qualms about requiring my students to register for the conference by assigning one less textbook—the $50 cost is comparable. The opportunity to participate in a professional conference on this scale is just too rich.

I’m teaching 3 different courses next semester: Teaching Creative Writing (a mix of graduates and undergraduates), Literary Citizenship (undergrads), and Forms of Fiction (undergrads), and I’m planning to make the conference a major project in each class. The conference is so diverse and varied, with so many different sessions, that I know that whatever the class, students will be able to find sessions that suit them.

The first part of the plan will include leading my students through the conference schedule and having them choose a minimum of 9 sessions to attend, then, turning in a 2-3 page summary of what they plan to attend, with a sentence or so each on how they think those sessions will help them as a writer. The conference will be 5 days long, so that’s only 2 sessions a day if they can attend in real time. If they have to miss a few due to other sessions, classes, or commitments, however, they can always watch those later since all the sessions are being recorded. 

The second part could include a few options:

  1. A 5-7 page paper written after the conference discussing the sessions they chose, with special attention to what they have been able to take away for their own writing. 
  2. Live tweeting every session with a minimum number of tweets, say 5 (this could be especially useful for my Literary Citizenship students who are learning about the role of social media on the literary landscape)
  3. Blogging about their experiences at the conference either on their own blogs or for our MFA blog. 

If reading this is giving you your own ideas, it would be great if you could share them in the AWP Program Directors or AWP Faculty & Mentor Lounge Facebook groups.

Certainly, this project is going to require a lot of advance preparation. I’m going to spend an entire class (I’m online next semester) on how to choose sessions and how to get the most out of them. Some time on conference etiquette—in person and virtual—will probably also be in order. And I’ll certainly spend another class teaching students how to navigate the conference platform itself, including what to do if they encounter technical issues. I’ll open up a discussion board for each class where they can share their schedules and look for times they might be attending the same events as their classmates. Finally, halfway through the conference, I plan to host a debriefing social hour where students can drop in and talk about how it’s going, what their impressions are, and ask any questions.

Teachers and students are really struggling right now to make sense of the online classroom landscape, with special attention to using it in a way that makes students feel connected with one another. Giving them this common experience to share seems to be one way to do that, as well as a way to help them feel connected to the writing community in ways that simply never existed before. In the past, I used to look for ways to bring mementos from AWP to my students, in the form of bookmarks, books and chapbooks, pens, and other promotional items from the bookfair. Now, for the first time, I can bring them the whole conference.



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