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In Defense of Writing Programs

12 Jun

Actually, this isn’t technically a defense of writing programs; I don’t think writing programs need defending*.  Rather, it’s a quick look at what I believe to be some of the unexamined (or at least not widely cited) benefits of writing programs.  In a much discussed review essay of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, Louis Menand lays out the raison d’etre of the book and one of the inescapable features of the modern (post-war) literary era:

As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature. McGurl’s claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.

The proliferation of creative-writing programs is sometimes cited as a sign of fiction and poetry’s decline; if poets and authors had to produce works the literate public actually wanted to buy from their local bookseller then more people would be reading (or at least there wouldn’t be so much surplus literature produced that few people are interested in reading).   But these are two separate claims: 1) That the supply of literature, in some way, determines demand (through some unseen magical process) and that 2) There is an overproduction of literature.  The second claim is most likely true, but it also irrelevant (at least considering the other possible options).  It’s a matter of how we want to go about supporting literature and the arts.  This requires a little bit of explanation

Writing programs do not choose who the next great writer will be.  Readers, critics, and publishers help determine that.  So if writing programs don’t necessarily produce great writers, what are they good for (besides the aforementioned benefits, which aren’t particular to writing programs)?

  1. Writing programs make up a large, decentralized subsidy . This is my Hayekian argument for the MFA. Most art produced can’t survive the whims and vagaries of the market by itself, so it needs support from other sources.  This is okay, given that, for whatever reason, we make a lot about appreciating the arts and like the idea of having a country that produces its fair share of great cultural works in addition to cutting edge technology and iPhones.  Universities and colleges are a good public/private mix of funding that doesn’t pursue one type of literature or any one school of writing within literature.  So (for the sake of argument) Columbia University can have a “house style” if they like, but that still leaves several hundred other programs that can have their own different house styles (NB: From my experience, this isn’t the case–programs rarely enforce a party line and exclude writers who won’t toe it.  But there are many programs that favor certain kinds of writers and thus tend to attract student interested in writing in that style.  The bottom line is that even if programs produced a kind of “house style,” its unlikely that they would all produce the same one, giving us a variety of literary works to choose from.)
  2. Writing programs are an alternative to other kinds of literary study found in English departments. In many ways, Creative-writing programs ask many of the traditional questions of literary study, without as much of the academic apparatus of theory and cultural studies: What makes this text a great work?  How do the author’s choices affect our understanding of the work?  What is it that we admire in a text?  That is not to say that the Literature faculty of English departments are not concerned with these questions.  I’m not trying draw an arbitrary line between those Theory weirdos deconstructing Moby Dick, and the true defenders of traditional culture in creative-writing programs (I’m aware the some people who dismiss big Theory commit little theory).  But I do think it says something about the practice (or at least the study) of literature when many undergrads choose creative-writing classes as their entry into the discipline (especially considering that many–if not most–of those students will not become published writers, at least not professionally).

This last point is something I’d like to explore further, but for right now I think these are the two biggest, unexplored arguments in favor of the increasing influence of writing programs(to my limited knowledge–please highlight anyone who has raised either of these points elsewhere**).  As an institution, creative-writing programs are decentralized, which means that it’s responding to different demands in geographically (and aesthetically) different locations, and that this demend represents a popular alternative to the kinds of literary analysis and interpretation done in other parts of English departments.


* Not because writing programs are self-evidently useful or productive, but because the sorts of things programs are good for (time to write, a community of writers) are either valuble to someone intersted in writing or they aren’t (or are provided through other means–in which case an MFA is unnecessary).

** Actually, now that I think about it, David Wojahn makes a similar argument to my second claim in his book Strange Good Fortune.

The Classroom as IR Theory

19 Feb

I’ve been asked to think about who my students are for my pedagogy of teaching literature. Which of these crude IR theory/economic/comparative politics analogies about general education classrooms (at the college level) seems more apt:

  1. The neoclassical model: Students are all rational actors (but not perfectly rational) that maximize their utility, which is expressed via grades. They respond to incentives (such as quizzes) which will improve their grades, but won’t read as closely (or sometimes at all) if there is nothing at stake. Grades–and not the information or experiences imparted in the classroom–are the measure of utility.
  2. The Malamud-Goti experience: Students are the citizens of a post-authoritarian regime: in this case secondary (and likely public) education. They have been socialized to accept the teacher as the arbiter of What is Right and wait to be filled with knowledge. Given more freedom, they will default to rote learning–living an educational life of “oppression,” they will choose a “banking” approach to learning.
  3. The realist theory: The default condition of the classroom is anarchy. Students are self-interested and respond to grades rather than an ideology of educational enrichment. (You can substitute other IR theories here at will).

This isn’t only about college classrooms–it’s also about making tortured and entertaining connections between totally disparate disciplines. Comments welcome (including ones about classroom experience in general or high school pedagogy.)

Addendum: I freely admit these are cynical takes on the classroom experience, but that is part of the difficulty of a general education class; students with no real interest (at least not as part of their major) are asked to take classes that are unconnected to their discipline.  Of course, a college or university offers these classes as part of a “complete education” (however they conceive that) and many of the skills that make one a successful student in one area of study overlap with another.  But at bottom you’re teaching future engineers and MBAs how to read Robert Frost poem.

English Professor for VP!

13 Feb

Michael Bérubé makes his pitch as Obama’s running mate over at TPM Café:

But the important point is that while Obama speaks to millions of Americans passionately and movingly, I will speak to dozens of American academics drily and droningly. The Obama/ Bérubé ticket will thereby achieve “affective balance,” which, my personal research shows, is far more important in this era of Instant Messaging and YouTube than cosmetic forms of “balance” based on geography, demography, or ideology.

Ah, but Bérubé would provide geographic balance as a professor at Penn State, helping Obama net the all important central Pennsylvania vote and ensuring that Obama wins the center of the state, not just Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  Such an alliance would secure the state for Obama in both the Democratic primary and the general election¹. This seems like sound electoral strategy to me, one that not even Rick Santorum could resist, at least not if he wanted to remain in the good graces of Penn State’s Alumni Association.

¹  Unless McCain nominates Joe Paterno as his running mate. Crazy? Cons: JoePa is 147 years old. Pros: He is immortal and cannot be killed by conventional means, making him a good man to step in should something happen to the President.

A Call For Open Campaign Events

18 Nov

The Center for Political Participation at my alma mater Allegheny College has started a new initiative called the Soapbox Alliance to promote open political events as an antidote to the staged and restricted “town hall” gatherings and rallies. Allegheny is asking other colleges and universities to join them–spurred in part by a 2004 on campus rally featuring Dick Cheney:

The College’s practice had been to welcome private groups to use its facilities with or without charge, depending on availability and circumstances. Without a relevant policy in place, it had no sound basis to deny this request despite its strong distaste for the idea of a closed “town meeting” and frustration with the increasingly prevalent practice by both major national political parties of selecting receptive audiences to enhance the likelihood of generating upbeat media coverage.

The CPP is asking that “at least half of the available seats must be made available to the general college community through a non-biased distribution,” with the rest going to an organization’s supporter (or whoever they decide to invite).

Although I’m supportive of greater openness and participation in politics, I’m skeptical that many colleges will sign on. Do colleges really host that many “closed” events? Why agree to limit a particular type of event that might generate some press for your university–a type of event that rarely occurs anyway–except to signal your support for civic responsibility and “good citizens”?

Jessica Valenti Addresses Her Acolytes

25 Sep

“May the Spirit of the Blogosphere bless you and keep you safe from Ann Althouse, or at least her readers from your comment fields.”

Okay, so that’s not what’s going on here. In actuality, she’s talking with Devon Ward-Thommes and Rachael Lyons, the non-fiction and poetry editors, respectively, of George Mason’s feminist literary journal, So to Speak, after her Fall for the Book talk. It was a good introduction to modern feminism for a lot of the freshman women (and men) in the audience, who were either just beginning a Women’s Studies course or interested in learning more about her book. There was even a Power Point presentation and everything! (Including a mention of this great rock n’ roll camp for girls). Rock on young feminist women, rock on.

Canon Talk, Now With 20% More 80s References

24 Sep

Michael Bérubé, he with the best-named-endowed-professorship (366 career wins!), applies his nuclear-force Humanities intellect to the Debate That Won’t Die (sorry Mike), and calls Ross Douthat out in the process:

Perhaps the sorry state of contemporary canon-commentary is best exemplified by Ross Douthat, who picks up the NAS study and writes, “obviously, having Morrison and to a lesser extent Woolf in that group is somewhat depressing.” Obviously, you just gotta love the “obviously.” In a stroke, five of the most accomplished novels from the high-modernist era—Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves—have now been so pwned by Ross Douthat!

If you read the whole thing, you can essentially skip all of your English classes¹ for the next week; you become that much smarter.

¹ Except of course, my class. Aw, who am I kidding, you weren’t planning on showing up anyway.

Canon Fight! or What Became of the Epic Poem

20 Sep

I’m more than a bit tardy to the literary canon back-and-forth between young Zeitlin and Mike Meginnis, but I was busy with things associated with a graduate program focused on literature and writing (he said knowingly, suggesting actual expertise–for once).

A couple quick points about literary forms to set the stage, suggest some problems, then onto my central argument. First, it’s interesting that both discuss the evolution of the novel next to the largely defunct epic poem. The biggest factor in the demise of the latter was the introduction of the former; as literature progressed, people became more accepting of “mere prose” as a literary genre. Realistic novels began to supplant poetry as the medium for communicating narratives, as the Romantic tradition pushed poetry to the more introspective lyric mode, a mode which tends to dominate poetry today. We don’t read epic poems today because we’ve made a greater distinction between poetry and prose than was made in the past.

From the Greeks we received the idea of poetry as the essential mode of literature–prose was for newspapers and pamphlets. But this turn is as much cultural and aesthetic as it utilitarian; I don’t want to belabor the invention of the novel as an “evolutionary” step in narrative. Strictly speaking, one can write a narrative as easily understood in poetry as one could in prose (it just wouldn’t rhyme as much and would be less recognizable to readers today). The complicated category of prose-poetry comes to mind here, and demonstrates how hard it can be at times to list criteria that makes a work “definitely a poem” or “definitely prose.” But I don’t want to stray too far the core debate. Continue reading