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.
At a time when many question the relevance of history, it is noteworthy that the U.S. Supreme Court case that prohibited the federal government from undercutting a state’s decision to extend "the recognition, dignity and protection" of marriage to same-sex couples, hinged on arguments advanced by professional historians.
Rarely have historians played as important a role in shaping the outcome of a public controversy as in the same-sex marriage cases. Legal, family, women's, and lesbian and gay historians provided key evidence on which U.S. v. Windsor ultimately turned: that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) represented an unprecedented and improper federal intrusion into a domain historically belonging to the states. As Justice Kennedy affirmed, "the federal government, through our history, has deferred to state law policy decisions with respect to domestic relations."
But historical scholarship did more than substantiate a single pivotal argument. It framed the majority’s broader understanding of marriage as an evolving institution and helped convince five justices that opposition to same-sex marriage is best understood as part of a long history of efforts to deprive disfavored groups of equal rights and benefits. In the end, the majority opinion hinged on "the community’s ... evolving understanding" of marriage and of equality and the majority’s recognition that DOMA imposed "a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states."
Briefs filed with the Supreme Court by the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians demonstrated that far from being a static institution, marriage has profoundly changed its definition, roles, and functions, and that today's dominant marital ideal, emphasizing emotional intimacy, has nothing to do with gender. Currently, marriage's foremost public function is to distribute benefits, such as those involving health insurance, Social Security, and inheritance, making it all the more valuable for same-sex couples.
Furthermore, these briefs proved that contrary to the widely held assumption that marriage has long been defined by its procreative function, this was not the case. Marriage was justified on multiple grounds. Especially important were the notions that marriage contributed to social stability and provided care for family members. No American state ever forbade marriage to those too old to bear children.
Without reducing the legal history of marriage to a Whiggish, Progressive. or linear narrative, the historians showed that two broad themes characterize the shifting law of marriage in the United States. The first is the decline of coverture, the notion that a married woman's identity is subsumed in her husband's. A second theme is the overturning of earlier restrictions about who can marry whom.
Slowly and unevenly, American society has abolished restrictions on marriage based on people's identity. As recently as the 1920s, 38 states barred marriages between whites and blacks, Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Indians, "Malays," and "Mongolians." It was not until 1967 in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that threw out a Virginia ban on black-white marriages, that racial and ethnic restrictions were outlawed.
At the same time, there has been an ongoing legal struggle to recognize women as full rights-bearers within marriage. Instead of seeing their identity subsumed in their husband's -- the notion that spouses cannot testify against one another was originally rooted in this principle -- women gradually attained the right to sue, control their own wages, and manage their separate property.
Perhaps the most powerful recent symbols of this shift are prosecutions for marital rape and elimination of the presumption that a husband is head of the household for legal purposes. Opposition to the liberalization of marriage, the historians demonstrated, has rested on historical misconceptions and upon animus, rooted in ethnocentrism and religious sectarianism.
Marriage today bears scant resemblance to marriage even half a century ago, when the male breadwinner family prevailed and dual-earner and single-parent households were far rarer than today. The contemporary notion of marriage as an equal, gender-neutral partnership differs markedly not only from the patriarchal and hierarchical ideals of the colonial era, but from the notion of complementary spousal roles that predominated during the age of companionate marriage that prevailed from the 1920s into the mid-1960s.
Change, not continuity, has been the hallmark of the history of marriage. Even before the 20th century, marriage underwent certain profound transformations. Landmarks in this history included:
Enactment of the first Married Women's Property laws in the 1830s and 1840s, which established women's right to control property and earnings separate and apart from their husbands.
Passage of the first adoption laws in the mid-19th century, allowing those unable to bear children to rear a child born to other parents as their own.
Increased access to divorce, beginning with judicial divorce supplanting legislative divorce.
The criminalization of spousal abuse starting in the 1870s.
Marriage's persistence reflects its adaptability. DOMA represented an unprecedented federal attempt to fix the definition of marriage and impose this definition upon the states and their inhabitants. Specifically, DOMA represented a federal effort to prohibit lesbian and gay Americans from securing the same civil rights and benefits available to other citizens. DOMA stigmatized a specific group of Americans and represented federal discrimination based on a particular religious point of view. In Justice Kennedy’s ringing words: "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity."
History, in the same-sex marriage controversy, was not simply "preface" -- an interesting but ultimately insignificant detail in cases involving equal treatment under law. History lay bare a series of dangerously misleading assumptions -- above all, the notion that same-sex marriage deviates from a timeless, unchanging marital norm.
Steven Mintz, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life and Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, signed the American Historical Association brief.
So many exciting and innovative efforts are under way to deliver the best educational value to as many students as possible. Since joining the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation a year ago, I’ve spent considerable time talking to college presidents, chancellors, faculty members, grantees, and other partners. We continually learn from higher education leaders and use what they tell us to assess how we can support their creative and inspiring efforts.
Their commitment to innovation is real and exciting. However, I’m also finding that some institutions are chasing innovation without exactly knowing why they are doing it, leading to a very clear rumbling of what I call "innovation exhaustion."
I encountered this at the Education Writers Association (EWA) national seminar, held recently at Stanford University. From reporters to college officials, everyone is after the next big thing, whether it’s MOOCs (massive open online courses), online education, ed-tech startups, competency-based courses or e-portfolios. But to what end?
At the EWA event, speakers said that in the swirl of innovation, some parts of the higher education community have lost sight of the purpose of innovation. The purpose of innovation, it was repeatedly stated, is to achieve more affordable and better education pathways so that more young adults are able to move into sustaining careers. I could not agree more.
Why are so many coming down with an acute case of innovation exhaustion? For the presidents and chancellors I’ve met with, their innovation exhaustion comes out in an obvious and growing frustration with MOOCs. For them, MOOCs are a perfect storm of hype, hyperbole, and hysteria – and yet many have plunged headlong into them without a real clear sense of why or how MOOCs can help more students succeed. And that is what I see as the primary problem with innovation in higher education.
Everybody seems to be chasing something, but very few people actually know what or why, or what they’d do if they ever caught it.
For example, governors and policymakers are gushing over MOOCs because they see them as an opportunity to drive down costs. They believe MOOCs will enable institutions to deliver education to more people, more cheaply, even though we are far from knowing whether MOOCs are a viable thing or are just a passing fad. The Gates Foundation has invested in MOOCs to help determine if they have the potential to help more students earn the degrees they seek while maintaining or even improving learning outcomes.
Trustees and board members also are pushing college presidents to innovate because they don’t want their colleges and universities left behind. I call this "me too"-ism, where innovation itself becomes the goal without a clear and compelling strategic purpose.
As these pressures build from above, demands are also percolating up, as faculty are beginning to dig in and ask hard questions which press on academic freedom. (Why shouldn’t a professor from one university be able to offer instruction to students around the world? Why shouldn’t accredited academic institutions be permitted to bestow credit on students who take such courses and pass them the way we do all the time with transferred community college and Advanced Placement credits?)
It seems to me, at least with respect to MOOCs, that we have skipped an important step. We’ve jumped right into the "chase" without much of a discussion about what problems they could help us to solve. We have skipped the big picture of where higher ed is going and where we want to be in 10 or 20 years.
I haven’t heard many people talking about innovation in these terms. During a time of tight budgets and scarce resources, policymakers in particular are right to take on controlling costs and increasing efficiency. And they’re trying to do it through technology and innovation. But I believe they’re missing something important.
States and policymakers should be looking for ways to use innovation to drive up the value of a college degree while increasing the system’s productivity (its ability to provide more students with credentials that lead to sustaining careers). In fact, there are many who believe that focusing only on driving down costs could break the very systems that we have spent generations, and billions of taxpayer dollars, creating. Worse, no one wants to cheapen education by diminishing its value to students.
Those of us invested in higher education’s future need to align this enthusiasm for innovation with clear institutional goals so that these efforts result in more students earning the degrees and credentials they need to be successful in the workplace, in society, and in life. Working carefully and deliberately, we can showcase the different reasons why innovation is being embraced and show where they can take us as a society.
As for faculty, I know that there are many in the academic ranks — maybe even a majority — who believe strongly that their mission is to uphold the public importance of higher education and to better the lives of their students. We all want that.
To this end, there are many exciting efforts under way to improve the value of a college degree while increasing the system’s productivity, often through new courseware, tools, and systems for tracking student progress. These include adaptive technologies that adjust to a student’s needs and abilities, such as learning modules that tweak the type and difficulty of their material in response to a student’s pace and skill level. I believe once faculty witness the power of these tools to keep students engaged and on track to graduate, once they see a clear purpose and strategy behind such innovations, they will embrace them.
It will not be easy or quick to get to a point where all sectors of higher education are delivering high value education to more students. But there are a number of institutions well on the way — Arizona State, Georgia State and Southern New Hampshire Universities, to name a few. We need to support and encourage these thoughtful innovators, and help them articulate what we know to be true: That innovation is a means of increasing the value of higher education and improving its impact and ability to improve student lives.
Like most Americans, we at the Gates Foundation support efforts to deliver the best educational value to as many students as possible. We envision a postsecondary system that drives social mobility and economic development for us all. I believe we can get there through strategic innovation that puts student success front and center.
Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @dan_greenstein.
Have enrollments in traditional liberal arts fields dropped? Debates over the issue turn up everywhere, and Nate Silver -- the popular New York Times analyst of polling and statistics -- has taken up the issue. He argues that it all depends how you frame the question. If you ask whether certain majors are less popular, you may find that they are relative to other majors. But part of that is because the college population has expanded over time, with many of those going to college -- who might not have in earlier generations -- picking practical majors. But if you look at the percentage of all college students majoring in a given field, you may get a different figure. So, for example, English majors as a share of all majors have fallen in recent years, but English majors as a percentage of all college students have been relatively constant.
Lawyers and a disability rights advocate stressed that faculty members must be proactive rather than reactive in making sure their online courses and materials are accessible for students with disabilities.