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Training 'Geeks' to Write Creatively

Joanne Greenberg, right, urges engineering students to get creative in her fiction-writing class.
Jeff Brady, NPR
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Joanne Greenberg, right, urges engineering students to get creative in her fiction-writing class.

At the Colorado School of Mines, one of the premier engineering schools in the country, some students are setting aside their calculators and putting on their creative-thinking caps. Professor Joanne Greenberg's fiction writing class offers technically oriented students a chance to explore their artistic side.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports as part of a series on the nation's most popular college courses.

In the following essay for NPR.org, Greenberg, herself a published author, describes what it's like to teach creative writing at the engineering school.

Teaching Humanities at Mines

I've been teaching these courses for 22 years and enjoying the experience greatly. The students are bright, highly motivated and many are from small towns and ranches, and so are no strangers to hard work. No one has told them how brilliant they are, or that they are the hope of the future, so they don't have to walk around posing for the close-up. They're compassionate, creative and many are nerds. The nerdiness means that there are huge areas of life and experience they haven't investigated, a sublime opportunity for any teacher.

I began here teaching an anthropology class. Mines students and graduates go all over the world as engineers. I told them that it wouldn't be the bad bridge or the mining accident that might sink them, but not knowing anything about the people among whom they'd be working. I think my fiction writers are as good as any in creative writing classes anywhere in the country. My encomium would fall flat if I hadn't taught at other places. I have. The students are alert and responsive. Here's one example:

Steve had been a jazz musician for a while and submitted a good jazz band story with a little too much self-consciousness, lots of jazz-riffs and solos. "Steve -- do you see how telling this detail is here and here, how crisp this metaphor is here? Why heap all this other on?" He looked at me, levelly and said, "Are you telling me to cut the crap?" "Well, in the nicest way possible, yes." Two weeks later he came in with a moving memoir of his relationship with his uncle, who was a street person. "Steve -- there's no crap in this at all." His eyes widened, "I thought you told me to cut the crap."

Telling the difference between what's crap and what's not is one of the big steps in writing fiction, doing anthropology, thinking about ethics or living a life.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.