Friday, April 17, 2009

The Future of Creative Writing Programs

Is the study and teaching of Creative Writing at a crossroads? Sure! But if so, it’s always been at a crossroads. But here’s an interesting new wrinkle: Creative Writing Studies.

From the “Be Careful What You Wish For” department, here are some snippets from “One Simple Word: From Creative Writing to Creative Writing Studies” by Tim Mayers, published in College English, Volume 71, Number 3, January 2009.

First off, he needs to differentiate Creative Writing Studies from Creative Writing (or, as is more commonly written, Creative Writing Programs):

Although creative writing resists (and sets itself in opposition to) “theory,” creative writing studies embraces theory as a necessary and indispensable—even if often problematic and imperfect—element of the profession. Where creative writing disdains the supposedly dry, soul-sucking world of scholarship, creative writing studies embraces its own identity as a kind of scholarship, even as it may challenge some of scholarship’s traditional boundaries. Although creative writers (like proponents of creationism or intelligent design) assert a level of “irreducible complexity” beyond which the tools of intellectual analysis cannot probe the alleged mysteries of creativity, practitioners of creative writing studies (like evolutionary biologists) believe that, even though intellectual analysis may never lead us on a perfect, straight-line march toward the absolute truth, we ought not assume that what cannot be explained today will never be explained tomorrow. Where creative writing posits unproblematically that the best writers make the best teachers, creative writing studies views teaching as something that requires experience, training, and continual reflection; creative writing studies acknowledges that writers with only marginal success in publishing sometimes make wonderful teachers and that sometimes well-published, well-recognized, prize-winning writers make awful teachers.

I don’t know what to think of this. First off, I’ve read, and assigned, quite a bit of “theory” in creative writing classes. Scholarship too. But that final bit about “training” starts to smell like a cake recipe to me. As if writing, in the end, is a learned set of strategies. Maybe it is, but I’ve not seen it that way in the practice of writers I know, as all their strategies differ. I agree with Mayers, though, that when it comes to teaching, the value of the writing of the teacher is not a gauge of that person’s teaching ability. That is a big issue, it’s what allows Mayers to make the big leap into later saying that universities should ignore the creative work of writers and instead look at their writing about the field of writing. The big problem with that is it’s just trading credentials. One could be a very good writer about the field of writing and still be a lousy teacher . . . which gets us right back to where we started. Don’t get me wrong, I think that thinking about and writing about pedagogy, and the history of writing, and the practices of writers, are good things. I even do it myself. I just don’t see what will be gained by just that. And what will be gained by Mayers’ vision of the future:

The rise of creative writing studies may augur some fundamental changes in how creative writing operates as an academic enterprise. Some of these changes might emerge organically as the work of creative writing studies scholars gains wider recognition. Others might require explicit advocacy and struggle to be realized. Underlying all of this change would be a transformed conception of why creative writing courses and programs exist. Rather than simply producing writers, creative writing courses and programs would be conceived as part of a more expansive project, incorporating practical knowledge of (and facility with) the composition of fiction, poetry, and other so-called creative genres into a more general intellectual framework concerning literacy itself. No longer would academic creative writers be measured primarily by their ability to publish creative work with the right journals and presses. They would certainly not be discouraged from doing so, but such publication might be considered a bonus, a by-product, and it would not be so stridently required of all creative writers who wish to be in the academic game. Instead, creative writing programs would fashion themselves as producers of academic professionals who are capable of teaching not only creative writing but also composition, literature, and theory, depending on their ancillary areas of expertise and interest. The new creative writing studies would help accomplish, in the words of Kelly Ritter, the “diffusing [of the] ‘star’ pedagogy in creative writing,” the dynamic whereby a writer’s publications and prizes—and nothing else—determine that writer’s fitness for an academic position. Practitioners in creative writing studies would continue to work in poetry, fiction, and other creative genres, but, if the professional necessity of publishing such a great deal of creative writing could be gradually phased out, people entering the field or already in it might be likely to allow longer periods for reconsideration and revision, focus more on quality than quantity in their publishing efforts, and regard their accomplishments in teaching as equal to or even more important than their accomplishments in publishing.

It’s the age old question of how to assess teachers. but does this ring true to your experience (if you’re one who has experience of such things [mine is fairly limited])? I suppose at the marquee level it is, where a very famous writer is courted just because that writer is famous, so the university can say something like “Robert Frost teaches here!” But every time I see a job advertisement, and every hiring committee I’ve ever seen hasn’t only been interested in how many books someone has and what publishers they come from. What’s bothering me about this article is how the opposition is reduced to the extreme cases (if these cases even exist), so that Mayers can say, basically, “Throw the bums out.” But there will always be people who don’t teach well. And there will always be differences in what is taught and how it’s taught. And what about the “what gets taught”? Mayers:

Eventually, I would like to see creative writing, as we have known it, absorbed into creative writing studies, as we are coming to know it. . . . I fully expect that my argument will encounter some resistance. . . . many people have much at stake in the maintenance of the status quo. But there are also many more people who do not benefit from the status quo. If creative writing originated in part to provide university employment for promising writers who are unable to make a living through writing alone, can we argue that something has gone horribly wrong with that system—when colleges with 4–4 or even 5–5 teaching loads can require the publication of two books as a baseline consideration for anyone applying for an entry-level assistant professor position? Can any argument—no matter how well intentioned—for the MFA as a terminal degree qualifying its holder for academic positions really hold up under the harsh light of such a reality?

These are the issues then. Creative writers don’t teach well, and they don’t teach the right things. In my experience this hasn’t been the case. Both in my MFA and PhD programs there was plenty of other stuff than what Mayers seems to be describing. But does he have a point? Well, yes. But, given that, I don’t think he has a solution.

Is this where creative writing programs are headed? “Creative Writing Studies”? I don’t know. I’m out of the loop. What’s going on in the loop these days? Anyone?

And several fraught concepts later, I still have questions:

1. When one is in a creative writing workshop, what is one gaining? And how best to help one gain as much as one can. Or, as this article asks, what kind of facilitator is best for this endeavor (a scholar of creative writing or a practitioner of creative writing [of course “both” would be the answer, but what I think we’re being asked to vote for is the primary focus of the facilitator).

2.Is finding someone who writes well (or has proven successful in the writing of fiction or poetry or drama), and then asking that person what goes on throughout the composition process, a good or valid way to teach or learn writing? In short, is it good to have that person lead other writers into writing? Or, more precisely, is it the best or most valid way to learn? I imagine the answer to this one could be “no,” as such things seem at best unreliable (or, as we often hear: difficult to assess). That’s the craft shop model in a nutshell. But if that’s not it, is this Creative Writing Studies model the alternative? And what would actually happen in a Creative Writing Studies class that would be fundamentally different than current practice? And what is current practice anyway?

I’ll let John Ashbery sum it all up, from “The New Spirit”:

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer way.


At 4/18/2009 5:41 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

Writing isn't taught. It's birthed, it's guided, refined, and it's sharpened. Or, it's dulled, diffused, led astray, or aborted. Teaching is the same thing. It's either in a person to teach or it isn't. What makes a good or great teacher is not methods courses and evaluations, it's a continuing dialogue with the writing AND teaching process. You come to both the jobs of writing and teaching with ideas and you fight it out. The value of course work is that it exposes you to new ideas.

I am getting back into the English classroom next year because we are losing an English teacher this year and the English teacher who we have left is about as useful a teacher as she is a linebacker for the Steelers. Actually, she'd probably do better playing football because she sure as shit can't teach. I'm not a good English teacher because I took classes (minoring in English Education) but because I love writing and teaching. Teaching Writing, Literature, and History is where my passions are able to converge.

That said, it has always puzzled me that to teach college having earned a Master's degree or Ph.D., is not dependent upon being able to teach. The degree sets the pace. And I think everyone knows at least one professor who couldn't teach their way out of a wet paper sack if their lives depended on it.

I think Creative Writing programs are right to make their students take teaching classes and put themselves into the classroom. They need to see what they are in for. I think the value of an MFA program is that it straddles both the creative and academic worlds (if it is done correctly) because there really is only so much a workshop can give a participant. I also think that any MFA student should (and I am completely serious about this) be forced to teach high school writing for the experience of teaching students who are at best skeptical of the value of writing.

I think at some level, a great writer has the potential to be a goodwriting teacher, but there is no guarantee. I know I feel kind of strange having been the only English teacher at my school (for the entire decade) who is also a writer. I am not exaggerating. Not a single other English Teacher has ever revealed his or her self to be a writer. Finding a writer who is a good writing teacher (and I am not saying I am better than anyone else---just that I am passionate about teaching writing) may indeed be a job not worth wages.

Does any of that make sense?

At 4/18/2009 6:27 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yeah, Justin, it does.

There's a divide, and both sides have a point. The writer/teacher vs. the teaching strategy teacher. I don't see why someone can't be both. What worries me is that some people might be neither.

But that's good news, right? That you're back in the classroom?

I agree that all grad students should teach a high school class. At the very least they should all teach the first-year comp as well as a creative writing course.

When I began teaching 16-year-olds (in a university program) things really started to change in my mind about not just teaching, but also my writing. That was much more of an influence on both than teaching creative writing has been.

The other major influence has been having children, but that's a different conversation.

For now, leave it to say the word verification for this is "peditup," which could be a directive for us all.

At 12/08/2009 4:11 AM, Anonymous College Paper Writing said...

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