In this section, Shariann Lewitt discusses the similarities and differences of teaching MIT students versus writers in other situations.
My students are a very self-selected crowd. Genre Fiction is not an intro class — at least half the students were concentrators or minors in creative writing and fiction. All of them had some creative writing background, and several had done a lot of writing. I find them to be as much writers, and as writerly and familiar with literature and language as students I've had anywhere else, and with my own contemporaries when I was an undergrad.
Students at MIT almost invariably like and know science fiction and fantasy. Anywhere else I would probably have more historical fiction and mystery writers. There's some self-selecting in a genre fiction class, but it happens in my other writing classes too. I can depend on people knowing science fiction and fantasy here.
I certainly depend on the work ethic here. Nobody shirks. I also depend on the fact that MIT supports collaboration as an institute-wide value. The idea of workshop, of being here to support each other, really goes over very easily. That is definitely not always the case, and not only in workshops before I came to MIT, but also in the science fiction world. I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer myself, I'm a member of a professional workshop group, and at science fiction conventions they'll have someone like me teach a special workshop session. It's normal for people to write critiques that are a little bit snipy, or nasty, or write a good critique, but one in which they're showing off how erudite they, using a lot of puns or something. That kind of thing does not happen here.
I think the heavy value on collaboration that runs throughout all of the work of the Institute naturally comes through in the attitude at workshop. When I say "This is a social contract," the students get that right away. They all know how to work in a team. I don't have to police quite as much, I don't have to worry as much that people are going to undermine each other. I'm still very present obviously, but I don't have that bold clench in my stomach which has happened in some other workshop situations, when collegiality can't be taken for granted.