In today’s Academic Minute, Andrew Juhl of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory explains why, when it comes to pollution, the extremes are more important than the mean. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has filed an objection to a unionization bid by faculty members at the University Laboratory High School that the campus runs, The News-Gazette reported. The union organizers say that these faculty members are entitled to collective bargaining. But the university says that these teachers are part of a larger group of non-tenure-track faculty members at Urbana-Champaign, and that any consideration of a union should involve all such instructors, not just those at the high school.
Creative writing has its share of detractors, those who believe that the study of and teaching of creative writing produces deleterious effects for students and for literature. For example, in "Poetry Vs. Ambition," Donald Hall worries that invention exercises (writing warm-ups which help writers find their subject) in writing classrooms "reduce poetry to a parlor game," producing "McPoems" on assembly lines. "Abolish the M.F.A.!" states Hall with an exclamation point, and then, in Latin, he cries, "The Iowa Writers Workshop must be destroyed."
Hall’s essay reflects a particularly unproductive strand of criticism aimed at creative writing that has arisen of late. Anis Shivani is perhaps its most recent practitioner, with a soapbox on which to stand, but certainly not the only detractor. Indeed, when Shivani’s critiques of creative writing programs emerged, preceding the publication of his book Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011) many of us were approached by creative writing colleagues wanting to know what we thought of this brash new critique of the workshop. What they didn’t understand was that his assertions weren’t new at all, but by boldly ignoring the scholarly conversations that had been going on about this subject for many years — a fact made plain by what is missing in the book, specifically in the works cited — Shivani was able to create a scholarly stance that acted as if they were.
In fact, what Shivani, Hall and others practice is better termed a "new old criticism" — new because it proliferates in electronic social media, old because it rehashes simplistic assertions that have been around for decades. This argument has three major problems: First, its rhetorical stance is far more appropriate for talk radio than for a serious scholarly or public debate; its practitioners refuse to engage with the actual arguments of those with whom they disagree. Second, this new old criticism is rooted in dated and limited assumptions about what creative writing is and can be.
In reading this criticism, one can see that it is aimed at the Iowa Writers’ Workshops as they are said to have existed in the 1950s; there is no admission of the diversification and complexity of creative writing that has flourished in the decades since then. Third, this new old criticism is stuck within a narcissistic worldview. It perceives an age-old challenge — the difficulty of writers finding readers in a world where print technology proliferates — as a personal affront. The new old criticism drapes itself in a narrow banner of great art, adopting the hubristic stance that a writer can actually know with certainty that he or she is producing such great art in the moment of creating it.
So should everyone associated with creative writing programs pack up and shut our doors? This isn’t going to happen. The horse is out of the barn. Creative writing classes are more popular than ever, in part because they offer not just a means of expression but an alternative to theory-laden literary analysis.
The real questions are: How can we best design our curriculums and our classes to best serve the needs of our students? What can we do to ensure that creative writing — the teachers, the students, the courses, the programs — has a positive impact on contemporary literature? Which aspects of creative writing — the writing itself as a process and as a product of our efforts — can be taught, and what are the best practices for such teaching? How does creative writing fit into English departments, into the liberal arts generally, and into the colleges and universities where it is housed? Finally, in our breathtakingly tight economy, what kinds of careers and lives are creative writing students being prepared for?
Given the scope of its critical mass, creative writing stands as a knowledge-based discipline. Rather than associate knowledge with certainty as traditional academic models often do, the knowledge in creative writing is in the discovery that takes the writer beyond the routines and in the questions that arise and that are answered through the writing process. Study of writing through reading and writing is the methodology we use; this mode of knowledge acquisition leads to new conclusions. Knowledge through practice, through doing, through thinking about and talking about what we’re doing. To wit, we have observed that the "flipped" classroom, in which students absorb lectures online outside of class and come to class to work hands-on with the material, has become the latest trend in college teaching.
By engaging students in hands-on work on their own writing and that of others, the oft-maligned "workshop," which has evolved over the years to suit varying constituents, undergraduates, graduate students, general education students and majors, has modeled a "flipped" classroom almost since its inception. This conversation about creative writing also speaks to what has become recently known as the crisis in the humanities. Helene Moglen, in the latest issue of the Modern Language Association's Profession, gives a convincing overview of a crisis that goes back to the 1980s, with the report called "A Nation at Risk." Among the few causes of the crisis in the humanities that Moglen defines are "internal disagreements about the appropriate development of our disciplines" and "prevalent social attitudes toward education that assume irrelevance of humanistic study."
David Fenza, of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, points out, in his history of creative writing in higher education, that "creative writing classes have become among the most popular classes in the humanities." To meet demand, creative writing programs have at least tripled in number in the last 30 years, and many of us are housed in English departments. If the humanities are in crisis, creative writing is not. In fact, creative writing is not only healthy within the academy but has relevance beyond it. Contemporary literature, after all, is written by creative writers, whether or not they have earned an M.F.A. This relevance offers an example for other disciplines, a way to resist prevalent social attitudes that overlook the value and contributions of the arts and humanities to our culture and our daily lives.
Finally, many creative writing programs have recognized that while most students won’t necessarily go on to become the next Jonathan Franzen (just like most violin students won’t play with the National Symphony, or sculpture students exhibit their work at the Hirshhorn), they do want to work in creative industries. A survey of the curriculums of many of these programs, which usually offer courses not only in creativity and craft but also in new media, editing and publishing, reveals that they prepare students to do just that.
The sniping about what’s appropriate for our discipline or whether creative writing should even be an academic discipline emerges, however, from within our ranks. Hall has taught workshops and visited creative writing programs to read his work, and Shivani is a creative writer as well as a critic. Airing our internal disagreements and pitting writers against each other — outside or within the academy — does few of us any good and invites a sense of crisis in creative writing when there isn’t one. Let’s do our research. Let’s have productive conversations.
People who shoot the occasional salvo at creative writing aren’t really interested in taking part in a conversation, but we are, and we invite others in our midst to join us in this ongoing conversation about our discipline. This discussion can shape the healthy development of creative writing, position us positively within academe, and shift social attitudes toward a better future for literature and learning.
Tim Mayers is author of (Re) Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing and the Future of English Studies. He teaches at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
Dianne Donnelly is the author of Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, editor of Does the Writing Workshop Still Work and co-editor of Key Issues in Creative Writing.
Tom Hunley is an associate professor at Western Kentucky university. His books include The Poetry Gymnasium, Teaching Poetry Writing and Octopus.
Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter She edited Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom. She teaches at Chapman University.
Stephanie Vanderslice is professor of writing and director of the Arkansas Writer's M.F.A. Workshop, at the University of Central Arkansas.
In today’s Academic Minute, Tal Ezer of Old Dominion University explains why one section of the Atlantic coast is more vulnerable to sea level rise than others. And if you missed Thursday's Academic Minute (on what makes a good citizen) because of the Independence Day holiday, you can catch up on it here. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Going through the offerings of more than 30 university presses for the fall and winter publishing, I kept an eye out for two things. The first was anything of possible interest to readers who don’t come across university press books very often, or ever. Or, to put it another way, the general reader.
From time to time it has pointed out that "the general reader" is a cultural fiction; no such species actually exists, except, perhaps, as a marketing category. And this is true, to a point. We are all, ultimately, specific readers, reading our specific books. Yet quite a few more readers, with a wider range of backgrounds, will be drawn to The Letters of Leonard Bernstein (Yale University Press, Oct.) than to a monograph on West Side Story. (And yes, there is one.)
My other goal was to identify trends or patterns emerging from catalog to catalog. Most proved fairly obvious and come as no surprise – any topic making the front page of the newspaper long enough is taken on eventually. But in a couple of cases, interesting or odd connections among books occurred to me after a third or fourth tour of the listings.
So without further ado, here’s my selection of fall and winter books from American university presses -- compiled by means of hunchwork and caffeine. It won’t be exhaustive. It might get kaleidoscopic. But there’s something here for everyone.
Let’s start with a few forthcoming volumes on “the higher learning in America,” to borrow the title of a book by Thornstein Veblen that the author originally planned to subtitle “A Study in Total Depravity.” However critical he may be of the institution, former Harvard University president Derek Bok probably won’t be that stringent in Higher Education in America (Princeton University Press, Aug.) – a work almost 500 pages long and covering, the publisher says, “the entire system, public and private, from community colleges and small liberal arts colleges to great universities with their research programs and their medical, law, and business schools.”
Jerry Jacobs takes a cold, hard look at a boundary-erasing buzzword with In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (University of Chicago Press, Oct.). More in the nature of a career guide is Frank Furstenberg’s Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness With a Ph.D. (Chicago, Sept.). Please remember: that’s “with,” not “despite.” Postgraduate life would be less like Waiting for Godot if the institution follows the lead of a volume edited by Keith Hoeller called Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press, Jan.)
Among the titles recalling the scholarly worlds of yesteryear -- erudition unplugged! -- are forthcoming translations of Jürgen Leonhardt’s Latin: Story of a World Language (Harvard University Press, Nov.) and Arlette Farge's The Allure of the Archives (Yale, Sept.) The Library: A World History (Chicago, Nov.) brings together James W. P. Campbell’s knowledge of the history of architecture and Will Pryce’s photography “to tell the story of library architecture around the world and through time in a single volume, from ancient Mesopotamia to modern China and from the beginnings of the written word to the present day.”
Seeking to navigate the passage between dead-tree and new-media cultures we have Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (University of Minnesota Press, Jan.), a collection of papers edited by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, which argues "for seeing print as a medium along with the scroll, electronic literature, and computer games." A cluster of titles will consider the effect of digitality on personality, though possibly it's the other way around.
Anna Poletti and Julie Rak's edited collection Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (University of Wisconsin Press, Jan.) sounds as if it must overlap somewhat with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis's The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale, Oct.) and Alice E. Marwick's Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale, Nov.) Beyond celebrity, publicity, and branding, we seemingly have sainthood in view with Brett T. Robinson's Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Baylor University Press, Aug.).
Digital technology itself continues on course for apotheosis -- omnipresent and pretty nearly omniscient, it hasn't become omnipotent yet, but just you wait. In the meantime, The Intelligent Web: Search, Smart Algorithms, and Big Data (Oxford University Press, Jan.) by Gautam Shroff sounds fascinating and, frankly, scary: a treatment of algorithms that "operate on the vast and growing amount of data on the Web, sifting, selecting, comparing, aggregating, correcting; following simple but powerful rules to decide what matters." The days of thinking of the Internet as some kind of Wild West anarchist frontier have given way to The Global War for Internet Governance (Yale, Jan.), according to Laura DeNardis's study of "the inner power structure already in place within the architectures and institutions of Internet governance." I'm not sure if that argument confirms or undermines military science scholar Thomas Rid's assessment that Cyber War Will Not Take Place(Oxford, Sept.).
Whatever may happen in the quest for artificial intelligence, the human kind retains its mysteries. A Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard, Feb.) by Michael Tomasello will pull together the evidence for his fairly well-known thesis that we made our evolutionary leap as a species thanks to the survival value of cooperation and empathy. In his Philosophy of Dreams (Yale, Oct.), Christoph Türcke advances the theory that "both civilization and mental processes are the results of a compulsion to repeat early traumas, one to which hallucination, imagination, mind, spirit, and God all developed in response."
Joyce Davidson and Michael Orsini's edited collection Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference (Minnesota, Nov.) takes issue with the usual conception of autism as a disorder, "instead situating autism within an abilities framework that respects the complex personhood of individuals with autism." Anyone interested in that volume will also want to look for The Arachnean and Other Texts (Minnesota, Oct.), the first English translation of writings by the French psychiatrist and filmmaker Fernand Deligny, who worked with autistic children.
Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Harvard, Oct.) is the latest in a series of works by the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum exploring how affect and public life interact. That question will also to be pursued, from their own disciplinary perspective, by the contributors to Doing Emotions History, edited by Susan Matt and Peter N. Stearns (University of Illinois, Jan.). A number of Nussbaum's recent studies have concerned negative affect -- emotions such as shame and disgust, which push or pull away from social contact -- so her readers may be relieved to think about love for a while. But for those who haven't had their fill of it, there's Valerie Curtis's The Science Behind Revulsion; Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, Don’t Eat (Chicago, Oct.).
There's power and big money to be had from exploiting forms of negative affect, as Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj will explore in The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility (Oxford, Jan.) -- and on that note, let me invite you back next time, when we'll look ahead to some titles bound to incite as well as stimulate.