Social Contract Theory Meets the Creative Writing Workshop
Perched above the west entrance of Columbia Law School’s Jerome Greene Hall is a 23-ton bronze monstrosity of a sculpture, Bellerophon Taming Pegasus. The sculpture depicts the Greek hero Bellerophon brawling with Pegasus, whose hooves, wings, and tail jettison out; the winged horse struggles to free itself, much like a netted fish feverishly floundering about. As the myth goes, Bellerophon successfully domesticates Pegasus with the goddess Athena’s golden bridle, and with Pegasus’ help, slays the fire-breathing Chimera and is bestowed the glorified title of Flying Knight.
The sculpture was commissioned for the Law School’s main building in 1964, and the artist selected for the commission was Lithuanian-Italian Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. When asked about his choice for the design, Lipchitz said that he didn't want to succumb to the stereotypical depiction of the law as blindfolded Lady Justice with sword and scales. Instead, he opted to resurrect the lesser-known tale of Bellerophon’s plight, reinterpreting it as an allegorical personification of the power of law-making to give structure to natural order. “You observe nature, make conclusions, and from these you make rules…and law is born from that,” the artist once said.
I first heard of the lore behind this sculpture when I toured the Law School as a pre-law college student. I still remember my skepticism as our tour guide—a second-year law student who appeared to have drunk the “law is the cure-all” Kool-Aid—passionately narrated the myth to me and fellow prospective students on a sunny afternoon at Revson Plaza. He wanted us to see Bellerophon as the story’s laudable protagonist, and why laws were necessary for a just society. But I couldn’t shift my focus away from the terror-struck Pegasus, who, in the arrested moment that the sculpture captures, is choking, gasping for air, its eyes bulging out. I wondered, as I bled sympathy for Pegasus, why would anyone want to forcefully subjugate this majestic wild beauty? If this is the law’s true purpose—to restrict human freedoms and subdue natural tendencies—then should I reassess my career choice?
I’ve been thinking about this sculpture in the context of the creative writing workshop. Each student-writer is like a young wild horse, roaming in a lush meadow of boundless imagination. Bellerophon is the workshop instructor, or more broadly, the workshop’s formalized structure, with its prescribed rules, guidelines, and decorum. It’s tempting to ask: Why would any creative writer wish to submit themselves to be bridled? Likewise, why would any writing teacher wish to constrain innovative minds and free thinkers? Put another way, isn’t the confining structure and power dynamics of the workshop antithetical to its core objective of unleashing ingenuity and independent criticality?
It is counter-intuitive, yes, but just as I’ve come to see the rule of law as necessary to a well-functioning society, I’ve also witnessed how establishing clear rules of engagement among workshop participants can support a community of trust, respect, and yes, creativity. Here, a brief detour to revisit Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract theory might be illustrative. In his seminal political-moral treatise, The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau distinguishes between two types of freedom: natural freedom and civil-moral freedom. If “natural freedom” involves an unlimited right to all things that our will and power allows for (evocative of Thomas Hobbes’ “right of nature” in Leviathan), then “civil-moral freedom” is the right to be protected and free from excessive intrusion through submission to a general will. The claim he makes is that people in a society exchange the former type of freedom for the latter. Paradoxically, it is this moral freedom—“an obedience to the laws that one has proscribed for oneself”—that Rousseau believes is true freedom in a society.
How does the “social contract” take shape in workshop? I submit that the workshop itself is a small-scale society, a commune populated by independent student-writers. Like citizens who agree to abide by the laws of the nation-state, each student-writer submits to the workshop-community rules—or as Rousseau put it, enters into “a form of association”—with fellow workshop-community members. What each student-writer gains in return for undertaking the attached obligations and responsibilities is the right to participate, freely and equally. In this way, the workshop becomes the physical manifestation of a foundational concept of writing: the proposition that writing is never purely individualistic but always situated and focused on social involvement and consequences (see, e.g., “Rethinking Writers and Writing: Writing is a social rather than an individual act” in Shelley Reid’s Solving Writing Problems (Manuscript Draft 2020); and “Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity” in Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (2016).
"The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked." - Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
As with any university course, the most comprehensive and concrete form that the “social contract” takes is the syllabus. Some see the syllabus as an edict, laid down unilaterally by a God-like instructor. And while it’s true that the instructor creates the syllabus, I believe the document can be looked at as an overarching agreement for the course, effective only upon a “meeting of the minds.” Any student who disagrees with its terms—course objectives, readings, assignments, grading, policies—can walk out the door or “negotiate” by requesting specific exceptions.
The success of any workshop depends on the engagement and focus of the class, and in this respect, the syllabus for a workshop course presents an opportunity to enumerate shared goals and community values that promote these aims. This can take the form of embedded “pledges,” for instance. In one of my creative writing courses conducted remotely due to the pandemic, the professor inserted into the syllabus a “Zoom etiquette pledge,” to the effect that each student agrees to remain attentive, be present for one another especially when a classmate is speaking or presenting their work, and keep their cameras on, except during breaks. Each student was required to email the professor confirming that they had read and understood the terms of the pledge and the course requirements—in essence, an attestation.
A more student-centered example is the community guidelines. This typically takes the form of ground rules that are compiled at the beginning of a course with input from the entire class and through an instructor-led discussion (read: instructor is not the sole decision-maker). I once took a non-workshop writing seminar with a peer feedback component where our instructor started the second class (after spending the first going over the syllabus) by putting up a blank Word document on the shared screen and asking for student input on peer feedback guidelines. Students volunteered their thoughts on what guidelines they’d prefer, and our instructor in real-time typed up those points. As a class, we agreed on how peer feedback would be shared—in this case, that it would only be given upon a student’s explicit request, that it was at the student’s sole discretion if they wanted feedback in the first place, and if so, in what way (see an earlier blog article on asking for the writer’s feedback preferences). We also agreed to ban the use of certain terms that were derogatory, outdated or insensitive unless it was in a direct quote from an assigned text.
Another community guideline we collectively agreed upon that day: students were encouraged to individually notify the instructor of any trauma-inducing topics or triggering words and could excuse themselves from class as necessary—in turn, reflecting our shared core value to honor and care for one another’s emotional well-being (see earlier blog article on reaffirming core values in workshop). This proved to be especially important as many student-produced works shared with the class touched upon highly personal and sensitive topics.
The advantages to setting clear and transparent workshop rules are numerous. They include supporting the following teaching and learning principles:
· Principle #1: Aligns learning expectations generally and level-sets the terms for peer interaction – i.e., brings everyone on the same page and makes the implicit explicit.
· Principle #3: Promotes fairness and equity – i.e., the rules apply to everyone; no one is “above the law,” not least the instructor; however, care should be taken to ensure all voices are heard, so as to protect against what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority.”
· Principle #4: Creates an atmosphere of cohesion and trust – i.e., students are encouraged throughout the guideline compilation process to articulate their needs and fears, learn more about one another, and hold each other accountable.
· Principle #5: Promotes engagement and responsibility, two of the key learning approaches identified as essential for success in college writing (see Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing published by the CWPA, NCTE, and NWP) – i.e., when students feel involved and invested in the learning process, they take more ownership in their education.
· Principle #6: Fosters metacognition, another key learning approach named in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing – i.e., prompts self-reflection on goals, values, and potential hurdles, as well as those of their peers and their wider communities.
· Principle #7: Diffuses “hot moments” – i.e., should a conflict arise during discussion, the instructor could seize it as an opportunity to remind everyone of the shared learning objectives and community values to help balance the interests of those involved.
For Rousseau, the social contract is the foundation of a fair and just society; it is the ultimate protection against the threat of the demise of individualism and freedom. So, too, can the agreed-upon community rules be a significant pedagogical tool to improve the workshop experience for all participants.
As I reflect back on that afternoon of my tour of the Law School where I'd eventually matriculate, I realize now that I had been unfairly dismissive of our tour guide. Indeed, he had a point about the potentiality of the law—that its rules, systems, and institutions, if properly harnessed, could be a force for social justice. As he proclaimed to us that day so Rousseau-esquely: Rules are where freedom begins, not ends.