In 1939, the American writer Ernest Vincent Wright published a novel named Gadsby. Nothing too special about that you might think, except that this 50,000-word work of fiction did not contain the letter ‘e.’ Can you imagine even writing more than a word or two without the letter ‘e’? Me either.
Gadsby is an example of a lipogram, a piece of writing with a particular letter of the alphabet deliberately excluded. It is part of a tradition of constrained writing, in which the writer deliberately self-imposes some limitation. There is a long history of constrained writing in poetry – think of the sonnet, limerick, or haiku – but writers have experimented with various kinds of constraints, such as six-word memoirs and stories with exactly 100 words. The French author Georges Perec wrote the novel La Disparition without using the letter ‘e’, and subsequently penned Les Revenentes, which contained no other vowel except ‘e’.
I’ve been thinking recently about how creativity arises within constraints, and this is true in education too. As a teacher I have been tempted to think, “If only I had…” or “If only I could get…” But teachers have always had to work with what they have and what the circumstances impose on them. Most teachers can’t choose their students, their class size, their classroom, the curriculum, their schedule, and on and on. Sometimes they have to work with multiple skill levels in a class, or have limited access to equipment. Many teachers feel resistance toward some of the administrative limitations placed on their work or balk at attempts to ‘standardize’ their teaching (I’ve been there), and most manage to work within those limitations. But teachers are also able to take what they have and make something magical happen: a unique, creative learning experience that couldn’t have been anticipated at the outset.
As university-based English language programs enter the fall semester online (and with reduced numbers), and many other programs continue their online teaching, it may seem that the online environment is limiting. Indeed, the lack of face to face contact and informal encounters with students is another limitation imposed on teaching. But it is encouraging to keep in mind that even within this set of constraints, creativity can blossom, new techniques and procedures will arise, and online language teachers will continue to create magic on their own terms.
Let’s embrace the constraints and let the magic happen. Just as we’ve always done.