The Online Writing Circle

Instructor Marc Schiffman’s travels influence how he forms a classroom community online

Editor’s Note: Introduction to Writing Fiction and The Craft of Reading instructor Marc Schiffman, M.F.A. (Ph.D. equivalent), has taught a variety of writing and literature courses over the years for the University of Maryland, as well as online writing courses for us. We asked him what makes an online class successful, how he creates a sense of community in his courses and how it all works in helping you develop your personal writing style.


I have been teaching online courses since 2001. Over the years, my graduate students have asked me, “How can I get into online teaching, Marc?” I tell them that first they need to attend an online class. The lessons learned in the online classroom force the student to engage through written language. And, it is precisely through writing that the student explores their opinion with thoughtful responses, reflection and insight. Also, given the diverse backgrounds of the students and where they live, an online class can quickly develop an active and enchanting personality.

I like what Jack Kerouac said about the written word and the craft of writing:

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

It is precisely this belief in finding the right words that is vital when I communicate with my online students. As an online instructor, I need to be aware of how a phrase or sentence can impact and stimulate students’ involvement.

Understanding culture is also important in informing your writing. For example:

In 1992, while teaching on American military bases in Okinawa, Japan, for the University of Maryland, I traveled to Vietnam.

One morning as I walked to the Museum of Chinese and American War in Ho Chi Minh City, a group of Vietnamese boys came up to me and, with jubilant smiles, tugged on the hairs of my arm. I was the only foreigner in the museum, and I quickly recognized the point of view being presented, the atrocities committed by Americans on the Vietnamese soldiers and people. From that encounter, I learned an important lesson about traveling to a foreign country: Point of view is not static but fluid.

I later traveled by bus north to Huế, an ancient Vietnamese city on the Perfume River. One afternoon I entered the Citadel, a large area with impressive natural beauty and the battleground for the Battle of Huế during the Vietnam War. I sat down in the shade on stone steps. I believe I was the only foreigner on the grounds that day.

In a nearby doorway of a destroyed structure, two Vietnamese girls looked at me, and perhaps out of curiosity, they approached, and asked, in English, “Do you speak English?”

I responded, “Yes, I do.”

We began a conversation. Once they learned I was a professor at a university, they became more congenial and expressed that they wished to study at a university in the United States. The next day we talked a bit more and exchanged addresses, and I told them I would mail them books to help with their education.

It is through this traveling process that I have experienced different cultures and began to see beyond my personal lens and through the lenses of others instead. As a writer and teacher, it is through such lenses that one can enhance a student’s experience in the online classroom.

On an academic level, many online students do not have the opportunity to physically attend a university, and it is only through online education that they are given the freedom to learn. I have had single mothers; men and women in their 60s and 70s; business executives; and students with roots in Japan, South Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Philippines and various European countries in my UC Berkeley Extension courses.

In addition, all Extension classes are fully accredited, and the same material and textbooks used in the physical classroom are incorporated into the online course. I have had students move forward in their education to pursue masters’, M.F.A. and Ph.D. degrees.

In Introduction to Writing Fiction, the students always benefit from the diversity because it provides an informative and liberating collective interaction. Once in the online course, the drive to learn the mechanics of fiction writing is infectious, and the voice that each student carries in their head is given the opportunity to come forward in their short stories.

In this course, you can write tales about family, personal history and the organic seeds that sprout in your imagination. No story idea is off limits. Also, the online format gives you the opportunity to voice your opinion without fear. You do not need to be shy about asking questions and can provide beneficial commentary in discussion forums and short-story draft submissions on fellow writers, without reservation.

This is also true in The Craft of Reading classes. Each week, you read widely and practice writing that allows you to respond deeply in your interpretations.

Your written voice thrives in this online classroom environment.