A New Form of Academic Engagement

December 29, 2006

In her president’s column in the spring 2006 Modern Language Association newsletter, Marjorie Perloff focuses on the expansion of Ph.D. programs in creative writing (including doctorates in English that allow for a creative dissertation). Perloff argues that the growth of creative-writing doctorates was a reaction to politicization and specialization within the English discipline: “An examination of the catalogues of recently established Ph.D. programs in creative writing suggests that, in our moment, creative writing is perhaps best understood as the revenge of literature on the increasingly sociological, political, and anthropological emphasis of English studies.”  

She also cites recent job advertisements in English calling for candidates specializing in a range of theoretical approaches, which relegate the teaching of literature to “a kind of afterthought, a footnote to the fashionable methodologies of the day.”

Perloff is right on both counts: These are central factors that have led to the growth of creative writing Ph.D.s. But she also misses an important element, one that grows out of, but also underlies, the others. It is that people want what they think and write to matter, not just to their colleagues, but also to the world at large. Creative work, and the doctorate in creative writing, holds out this hope.

The doctorate in creative writing comes in various forms, but most are very similar to literary studies doctorates. I myself am a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Denver, writing a creative dissertation -- a book of poetry, accompanied by a critical introduction. As a graduate student, I’ve fulfilled the same coursework requirements as my literary studies peers, with the addition of four writing workshops. I’ve taken comprehensive exams in the same format as my literary studies peers. I’ve taught more or less the same courses as my literary studies peers. The only significant difference between my doctoral work and my literary studies colleague is in the dissertation.  

Sometimes, in fact, it strikes me as a bit comic to be doing the creative dissertation, but then I think about the fate of my work. I want my work to find its audience, though I realize that poetry has lost more readers, perhaps, than scholarship has over the last 50 years. Yet I believe that creative writing holds out more hope of finding readers, and of gaining readers back, than scholarship does. Hundreds or thousands of poetry books are published each year, and are more likely to find their way onto the shelves of bookstores than are scholarly studies. For fiction writers, the prospects are even better -- after all, there’s still a market for novels and short fiction.

However, it’s not just for readerly recognition that I want to do this creative work. It is because literature matters to how people live their lives, not just emotionally but intellectually. I speak here specifically of literature, but I think the principle holds true for any kind of creative work, even works we wouldn’t ordinarily think of as artistic, such as historical or psychological or anthropological studies.

Just a few days ago I was talking with a good friend of mine, a fellow graduate student working on her dissertation. My friend’s enthusiasm for the work and the discoveries that she is making, her eloquence on her subject, and her physical animation in talking about it were obvious, even if some of the nuance of her project was lost on me. But then she stopped herself and said, “Of course, nobody really cares about this.”

She described the frustration of talking about her project with non-academic friends and family members, how it takes too long to explain the work she is doing to people outside her specialty area, how their faces fall blank as she goes on too long in explaining the foundations of the debate in which she is involved. She laughed and said archly, “It’s not so bad once you get used to the idea that no one is ever going to read your dissertation except your committee.”  

I have had similar conversations with other friends working on dissertations, not just in English, but across the humanities, though the sense of writing into the void is particularly marked among those in my discipline. Let me say here that I don’t want to challenge the value of discipline-specific, specialized scholarship -- after all, it would be foolish to say that the intellectual work of teaching and writing does not require specialist knowledge, or that the ideas formulated in scholarly work don’t find their way to non-specialists through good teaching or through popularizers or public intellectuals, though we could stand a few more of them. Those academics who write for an extra-disciplinary audience, as Mark Oppenheimer pointed out in a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, play an important part in connecting the academy with the non-academic world, and shaping common conceptions of disciplines such as history. He wrote: “They have the influence that comes with writing for journals at the intersection of academe and the culture at large. They interpret scholarship for people who prefer to read journalism, and their opinions reverberate and multiply, if in ways that we cannot measure.”  

This is not a plea for greater “accessibility” or for a return to a “generalist” approach to English. Nor will I rehearse the yearly mocking that the titles of papers at the MLA convention get in major newspapers across the country.  But I do think that the sense that nobody’s listening or reading the work of scholars outside their specialized communities points to a real problem of the contemporary humanities department: the loss of audience, and with it, the loss of a sense that the work should matter to a larger, educated, non-academic audience.  

There’s no doubt that scholars have produced critical work in humanities subjects that does matter. I think of Raymond Williams, never the easiest of writers, but one who rewards the effort made in engaging with his work and who, perhaps because of his quasi-academic status, writes in such a way that his ideas could be understood outside the academy. I also think of John Berger, Susan Sontag and Fredric Jameson.  These are writers who can be exciting for readers coming from outside the academy, and who can influence the way readers experience texts, and even life.  

However, with the increasing professionalization of the university, the potential audience for scholarly work has diminished as scholarly writing has become more specialized and jargon-ridden. None of what I say is news, I know. But the creative doctorate as an approach to making scholarly research and thinking matter in the world is news, and very good news.  

I think it is important that what we do, literary scholars and creative writers both, makes a difference to how people outside academy walls think. In the history of rhetorical theory, there is a recurring, commonplace idea that the person trained in rhetoric will, through the ethical training in that discipline, constitutionally be able to contribute only to good actions or ideas that improve the state or the community. Cicero put the idea most succinctly, and most famously, in his definition of the ideal orator/citizen as “the good man speaking well.” Learning to “speak well,” however, required years of intense training in the minutiae of the discipline, a close study of the history of oratory. 

While this ideal resolutely -- and somewhat courageously -- ignores what we know about human behavior, I do think that as an ideal it offers an important model to live up to. I see the Ph.D. in creative writing as an opportunity to undertake the same kind of close study of literature and writing as ancient rhetoricians would have undergone in their study of oratory, and as a way to position myself to bring that knowledge and experience into both my writing and the classroom without having to give up, or shelve for a long period, my creative work. In fact, it was in support of my creative work that I took up doctoral study.  

Cicero’s formulation of the ideal citizen leads me back to my own ideals about the creative dissertation. The creative writer makes a difference not by telling people how to vote, or by engaging in the public sphere with anti-government screeds. Rather, the way literature can matter is by offering a model of the world as it is, in the hope that readers will be moved to action in the real world. Literature is a form of epideictic rhetoric, perhaps the form par excellence of the epideictic:a poem or a novel or a film argues for the values that its authors believe are important to the way we live our lives. 

For example, Bertolt Brecht, in his essay “The Modern Theater is the Epic Theater,” makes a list of what it is that epic theater does.  According to Brecht’s list, the epic theater:

turns the spectator into an observer, but
arouses his capacity for action
forces him to take decisions
[provides him with] a picture of the world
he is made to face something…   
brought to the point of recognition

I read Brecht’s description of epic theater’s functions as a modernist reworking of the ideal orator tradition, the tradition of the artist offering his readers more than polemic -- offering his readers an experience from which they can learn about their own lives.    

The creative Ph.D. is vital to making this possible, if it is possible, because literature (any art, in fact) does not come from nowhere. Or, more importantly, it should not come from nowhere.  Good writing comes from intense study and reading, the kind of reading that people don’t typically have time for in the frenetic world of contemporary business or the professions. Moreover, what I would call good writing, the kind of writing that, regardless of genre, has something in common with Brecht’s epic theater, requires its author to have a sense of its location between the past and the present.  

The Ph.D. in creative writing gives writers the time and training to explore their fields that they may not get in M.F.A. programs, no longer get as undergraduates, and certainly do not get in high school. At the very least, doctoral work exposes writers and artists to a liberal education that prepares them for analyzing, framing and being in the world in any number of different ways. Doctoral-level reading, doctoral-level thinking, doctoral-level writing will make possible the art that creative Ph.D.s will produce. I think here of Flaubert’s quip that, in preparation for Bouvard and Pecuchet, he had to read 300 books to write one (though the reference might cut both ways, as Julian Barnes has described that book as challenging in being “a vomitorium of pre-digested book learning”). I could call on Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot as well, were I eager to lay myself open to misguided charges of cultural conservatism. 

But the human need for learning through art goes beyond liberal or conservative approaches to writing and teaching. The experience of literary study at the highest level gives writers the cognizance of literary history they need to produce the epic theater, the epideictic, of our time -- to be good men and women speaking well, writing well, leading and teaching.  

The issue for creative writing is that of quality. The value of the creative doctorate is in the opportunity it offers to unite the best elements of the scholarly study of literature or art with the best elements of the study of craft. The writers and artists who come out of creative Ph.D. programs will not only be better guardians of our various and multiform cultural heritage, but they will be better teachers, better thinkers, better innovators. Their research and learning, in the form of creative and critical work, will matter both in the academy and beyond.

In her column, Perloff poses the rhetorical question of where the doctorate in creative writing leaves the idea of the doctorate as such. “Hasn’t the doctorate always been a research degree?” her concerned professor asks in the face of invading creative writers. Yes, it has been, and for creative writers, it remains vitally so.


David Gruber is assistant to the director of the University Writing Program and a graduate teaching assistant in English at the University of Denver.

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