Challenges of 2020 bring new perspectives on space, place and humanity for creative writing students

By Emma Yarbrough | Emory Report | Nov. 16, 2020

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The seminar Bodies in the World encourages first-year students to explore themselves and their environments in the context of current situations such as the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. “We humans are having to interrogate our own bodies all the time now,” notes professor Tiphanie Yanique. “Do I wear a mask? May I touch this person?”

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What are the implications of having a body in the year 2020? How have a worldwide pandemic and social unrest on a national level changed our definitions of home? How can students take full advantage of the university environment?

Tiphanie Yanique asks first-year students in her Bodies in the World seminar to consider these questions by examining the environments they inhabit — internal, natural and manmade — in the context of current times.

“The students in the class are considering their bodies in the world and what it means to have their particular bodies, which is something that Black Lives Matter (BLM) and COVID-19 are making us all think about,” says Yanique, associate professor of English and creative writing. “We humans are having to interrogate our own bodies all the time now: ‘Do I wear a mask? May I touch this person? Am I safe? Am I in danger? Am I a danger to others?’” 

Bodies in the World is an in-person literature and creative writing course that asks students to explore their environments through poetry, fiction and nonfiction writing. The course also helps acquaint first-year students with the campus they now inhabit through class excursions such as a water-themed tour of the Michael C. Carlos Museum’s galleries or speaking with archivists about artifacts housed in the Rose Library’s collections.

“A class on the environment felt like a really good first-year seminar in part because students have to get out into the world,” Yanique says. “The way I designed it, they have to physically go into the world of the Emory campus. This felt like a useful way to incorporate the exploratory things that first-year seminars tend to have anyway, but make these elements academically pertinent.”

Beyond this exploration of Emory, Bodies in the World introduces students to literature that invites them to reconsider their concepts of home, socioeconomics and race — timely topics in  fall 2020. 

“COVID-19 happens and, all of a sudden, the concept of home becomes radically different for everyone in the entire world,” Yanique says. “We humans are having a new understanding of our home, in part because we’re spending a lot more time inside of our home. It’s enlivening and strange and confusing, but because it's strange and confusing, it's also incredibly intellectually interesting.”

“Then the newest major public iteration of BLM becomes something pertinent to pretty much the whole world — whether you're engaging with it, understanding it, in a positive way or a negative way,” Yanique continues. “Engaging with BLM in our class seemed like a good way to have students thinking about what it might mean to have specific ideas about the other, or about the self and the other, which are already concepts that I wanted to have in the class.”

With all of these concepts out in the open, Yanique has found that her students’ creative writing has taken a more nuanced look at issues of race and disease. 

“Those things are now only subtly invoked in the class in the way that students are writing their poems and short stories,” she says. “Because I've said ‘this is on the table,’ because I say ‘we will talk about this,’ it has allowed students to use social issues as nuancing elements more readily instead of overly direct elements. This has often made for really interesting and complex writing coming from the students.

For their part, the students appreciate the open classroom discussions and Yanique’s approach to critiquing their creative writing work.

“Professor Yanique is very intentional with her critiques and knows how best to give advice without controlling the pieces. She still leaves it up to us to put ourselves into the writing,” says Chase Wolfsohn, a first-year student and native of Lake Arrowhead, California. “The content of the class is also very informative as it offers many different perspectives on life through poetry and prose, which I really appreciate. I have definitely learned about the world and how individuals operate within it using what they’re given.”

Cynthia Salinas-Cappellano, a first-year student from Council Bluffs, Iowa, has also found immense value in Yanique’s approach. “Professor's Yanique's class is about love — tough love, to be specific — and giving young writers critical feedback they need to hear while showing appreciation for their craft and the work they bring to class,” she says.

“I love how we examine how people's bodies move in nature, through a pandemic and how cultural identities impact those experiences,” Salinas-Cappellano continues. “The class invites students to meditate on personal expertise in their writing to captivate an audience. It's been the highlight of my semester to learn from her and the authors she brings to our attention.” 

“These are concepts I always want to have in a creative writing class,” Yanique says. “But now they’re concepts that the whole world is dealing with. In some ways, the class is like many classes I’ve taught before, just made more seemingly urgent by the real world.