Take a Culture-Writing Class with a Professional Writer This Summer

Eileen G’Sell, writer and lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis, has been teaching writing and humanities courses at the University for more than 10 years. Her recent book, “Life After Rugby,” is a collection of incisive observational poetry, about which we’ve interviewed her previously.

G’Sell also writes criticism, profiles and reviews which have appeared in VICE, Salon, Hyperallergic, the Rumpus and ALIVE, among other publications. She shares this experience in her newest class, a culture-writing workshop focusing on the content areas of travel, food and media. The workshop is part of Washington University’s Summer Writers Institute (SWI) this July, currently open for registration.

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Tell me about your love of culture writing and its importance. 
I’m really thrilled to have the opportunity to teach this class—it’s the first time a culture-writing class like this will be offered at SWI. One thing I’ve noticed is that culture writing often exists in a liminal space between creative writing and strict journalism. The course I’ll be teaching touches on topics like food writing and restaurant reviews but also media writing, like film, television and music. I’m very excited about it, because it really speaks to my own publication history, especially in the past few years.

Specifically, in the culture writing realms of travel, food and media, there’s a lot to cover. But even though they each speak to culture, this type of writing can be very voice-driven and personal. It’s definitely distinct from the personal essay class, but you really get to know your own voice when you hone it as someone who observes the outside world. In my writing, I don’t really feel that I made the conscious choice to become a culture critic. But what I noticed as I started doing more and more of it was that my voice was becoming stronger. I was able to take greater risks about how to infuse my perspective as an individual into talking about larger cultural issues and experiences. I really look forward to showing students how to do that.

Even the more journalistic reportage can still be very voice-driven and personal, because your perspective is yours. What you choose to point out is your choice, which might not be what someone else chooses to point out. The way we interpret our surroundings can also create variety. For instance, I did a column for [Washington University publication] The Common Reader called “North of Delmar,” which had a real travel element to it, because for many St. Louis citizens, crossing that divide could be considered travel to somewhere very foreign and different. That community is not foreign or empty; it’s a community. That example has a socio-political element to it but definitely incorporates themes of place, travel and moving through space.

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Photo courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis.

How is teaching for University College different from the other types of teaching you do? 
This is the first summer I’ll be teaching at the Summer Writers Institute. Starting in 2011, I taught at the Creative Writing Institute for high school students through WashU’s Summer Experiences Program, which was probably my favorite two weeks out of the whole year. I loved teaching them because it was youth and excitement married to rigor. Students were very invested in their writing, and they came from all corners of the United States; some even came from other countries. There were times that the workshop was so sensitive and thoughtful and diverse that I felt it was such a blessing to even be in the room, let alone lead it. It was creative writing: mostly fiction and poetry.

I felt that teaching for the Summer Writers Institute would be an exciting new challenge, and I knew it would have a similar type of diversity as far as student ages, backgrounds and experiences. As a teacher, it’s really satisfying to engage with different types of people. In the undergraduate program at WashU, there is a level of homogeneity as far as the student’s backgrounds, but at University College that is absolutely not the case. I started teaching at University College back in 2007 and was originally just teaching composition courses. I really liked how wildly different my students were, and the context. There’s something about teaching adults that’s just really different from younger students. There’s also a surprising amount of humility amidst adults who voluntarily decide to continue their education. I’ve been able to form different types of relationships with those students.

Though you teach in academic environments, you also take your higher-level humanities courses into a local prison, where it’s unlikely that inmates get similar opportunities to write and learn. What has led you in that direction, do you think? 
Well, for one, I really don’t like moral judgment and classism—especially as directed to those in arguably the lowest rungs of society: the incarcerated. Highly educated people can often perpetuate classism unwittingly by assuming that those who are educated are better—that they’re somehow more virtuous and make better moral decisions. Often, that’s just not the case. Well-educated people didn’t arrive there just because of hard work—rather because they were born into circumstances that made that type of hard work possible. However, getting a degree and educating yourself can absolutely make you a stronger person, because you’re strengthening your brain. It can help you contextualize your own human experience. That’s what the humanities are really about, and seeing where you fit in in this big, glorious, awful, messy human history. When I see students making those kinds of connections—whether on the Danforth Campus or in a Missouri correctional center—it’s a privilege to even participate in that kind of exchange. So for all of those reasons, I really love being in the humanities with adult students in the context of continuing education.

Do you think writing is a skill that can be taught? If so, why?
Yes, because I’ve taught it for most of my adult life. If I didn’t think writing could be taught at all, as an impatient person, I would be entirely dissatisfied with the futility of my career. However, I don’t think you can teach talent. A propensity for language or an ear for language, rhythm, syntactical terms and the beauty of language—those elements of writing are more intuitive and talent-based. I do have many students who take my classes and are extremely talented—but even then, I think you can always teach people to become better writers.

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Cover image courtesy of Unsplash.

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