Our students need more “stars to steer by”

Our students need more “stars to steer by”

My #AWP17 panel was at 4:30 PM on the second day of the conference, just at the point where all the introverts need to escape to their rooms and the extroverts need happy hour.

I was also competing with a reading and Q&A with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This was the line waiting to get in. So incredible. I would have been there, too. Believe me.

In the end, turnout was light, so I’m sharing my opening remarks here.

Stars to Steer By:
Rethinking CW Curriculum for the 21st Century

The 50th birthday of the AWP Conference is a perfect time to reflect. I’ve been a part of our discipline (as a creative writing student, then teacher, then administrator) for 30 of those 50 years. And these are the questions that have brought me here.

Question 1: Why do so many of my students believe that unless they become published writers and/or college professors, they have somehow failed?

Question 2: Have we built creative writing programs that (intentionally or not) funnel undergrads into graduate programs? and graduate students into academia? A revolving door?

Question 3: If so, why does this happen, and should we do something about it

Thousands of people earn graduate degrees in creative writing every year, but there are typically only about 100 tenure-track jobs to which they can apply.

[This is where I asked my fellow panelists this question: In all your years of teaching CW, how many of your students have ended up in tenure-track positions? For me, the answer is: 1, and she was actually in the audience, which was cool. For Mary Biddinger, the answer is: 1. For Terry Kennedy, the answer is: around 10. For Porter Shreve, the answer is: around 10]

Instead of tenure-track jobs, my students’ post-MFA choices include:

  1. contingent faculty positions (some with health insurance, some not, some full time, some not, some well-paying, some not) or
  2. a non-academic career they often feel unprepared to pursue.

Remember too: many more thousands earn undergraduate degrees in creative writing each year.

Based on my own experience, the number of undergraduate creative writing majors and minors is high. That’s the good news. The bad news is that undergraduate creative writing majors feel just as clueless about what to “do” with their degrees.

I put this panel together because I want to advocate for a paradigm shift in which we are more deliberate about showing students a variety of ways they can lead writing lives–rather than just hoping that they’ll figure it out for themselves.

I want to talk about how new curricular models could facilitate such a paradigm shift–both specific courses that can be added to a creative writing degree and completely new configurations with new requirements.

Putting this panel together was easy. I just thought about writers I know who have administrative experience. People like:

Mary Biddinger

She is Professor and Assistant Chair of the English Department at the University of Akron, where she is on the faculty of the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Since 2008 she has edited the Akron Series in Poetry at the University of Akron Press.

Terry Kennedy

He is Associate Director of the MFA Writing Program at UNC Greensboro, Editor of the online journal storySouth and Associate Editor of The Greensboro Review. In addition to coordinating the visiting writers series, he teaches the undergraduate poetry workshop and a course on entrepreneurship & independent press publishing.

Porter Shreve

He directed the CW program at Purdue and then moved to California and created a new kind of writing program which he now directs: MA in Professional Communication at the University of San Francisco.

But I also invited:

Ashley Mack Jackson

She was my student at Ball State’s MA program in CW. She represents, I think, the next generation of CW students, the ones who will enter a different landscape than the one I entered in 1995. She studied at Howard University, earned a BA in CW at IUPUI, an MS at University of Maryland in Non-Profit Management, and an MA in CW with us. She adjuncted in Indy for awhile, then returned to Ball State as a full-time academic advisor, and then got a full-time teaching position at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis.

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

I teach at a university that made a big commitment to experiential learning about 10-15 years ago. Our department now offers five experiential-learning courses that count towards the English major:

  1. Book Arts Collaborative: year-long course in which students learn book binding and letter-press printing, as well as how to sell creative products and offer classes to the community.
  2. Broken Plate: year-long course in which undergraduate students edit a national literary magazine
  3. Digital Literature Review: year-long course in which undergraduate students edit an online scholarly journal of undergraduate research, led by members of our Lit faculty.
  4. Jacket Copy Creative: year-long course in which undergraduate students staff a creative agency (design, social media, professional writing) serving their primary client, the English department. This is taught by our Rhetoric faculty.
  5. Creative Writing in the Community: semester-long course in which undergraduate students teach kids in underserved communities how to write their own stories and poems (akin to the 826 model) taught by CW and English Ed faculty.

The problem is that at the moment, only some of these classes are “on the books.” We offer them using various special topics course numbers. Which means that not all of these classes are “visible.

What if we required students to take one of those classes as their “bridge” class? It could serve creative writing majors in a different way than it does now: Instead of asking CW majors to decide their genre (fiction, poetry, CNF, or screenwriting), our curriculum would prompt them to think about what kind of writing life they envision for themselves— entrepreneurial endeavors (book arts), literary publishing (Broken Plate), academic publishing (DLR), professional writing/marketing (Jacket Copy), or non-profit/literary advocacy (CWiC).

STARS TO STEER BY

I started using that phrase “Stars to Steer By” when I became the Director of Undergraduate Studies in my department. It’s how I’ve come to describe the connection between the English major and career outcomes.

The prospective students and their parents ask: So: Creative Writing? English? What can you do with that?

“Just about anything,” I always say. “There are as many potential careers as stars in the sky.”

It’s like the poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield, which says, “…And all I ask is a tall ship and star to steer her by.”

(I wish I could say I got the idea for this phrase from an English class. No. I got it from an episode of Star Trek.)

What are those “stars,” those potential careers for creative writers?

Here are a few: archivist, social media strategist, communications director, publicist, content manager, librarian, high school teacher, non-profits, alt-ac positions at universities in student affairs and career centers, fundraising, event planning, law, legal assistant, tech writer, editor, literary agent, author, public relations, human resources, marketing, advertising, journalism, corporate communications, creative agencies…I could go on, but I’ll stop.

But here’s the thing: We don’t ever point out those stars to our students. The only stars they see are us–especially if they’re first generation college students, as I was. CW faculty aren’t “stars” as in “celebrities.” We are “stars” as in “examples of what you can do with a degree in CW.”

So is it really any surprise that, lacking other navigation coordinates, students follow the exact routes we ourselves took when we were their age? I must admit that this is exactly what I did. Unconsciously. My college professors were the first writers I ever met. Is it any wonder that I followed in their footsteps?

WHAT I’VE LEARNED AS AN ADMINISTRATOR

If the name of the major doesn’t imply the career outcome, students won’t choose it.

For example, our Rhetoric and Writing major is very small, but if we changed it to Professional Writing or Professional Communications, it would get larger. All we’d have to do is forsake the word rhetoric, which has been the foundation of a classical, liberal arts education for thousands of years. You know. No biggie!

Many students (in my department) choose creative writing as a major because they think it implies the career outcome.

Creative Writing seems more practical to them. Egads! And to make matters worse, they often feel as if they have failed to “use their major” if they don’t become authors. Conversely, they believe that unless they have a creative writing major on their transcript, they can’t be a writer, or unless they have our Film/Screenwriting minor on their transcript, they can’t be a screenwriter.

College is not an identity store.

Students want to know what they’re supposed to “be.” Everyone’s been asking them for years and years, and they desperately want an answer. They choose majors that will provide an identity from the outside in. You major in journalism; you’re a journalist. You major in marketing; you’re a marketer. But creative writing, English, the arts, the humanities don’t work that way.

A year ago, I met a young woman at a small liberal arts college who was majoring in German. A friend asked her, “Why are you majoring in that? Do you want to be German?”

College can be an identity machine.

At other schools where I’ve taught, the first question creative writing students are asked is “Which genre are you?” Their friends and professors ask, but so does the curriculum itself. But at Ball State, we require students to work in two or three genres. There’s no opportunity to specialize at the undergraduate or graduate level. I really like this approach, but one of its flaws is that when a student wants to apply to an MFA program, and you ask them, “So what genre are you?” they don’t know how to answer the question—because the curriculum never asked them to choose a star to steer by.

I started thinking: If a curriculum can be constructed in such a way to help students identify their preferred genre, could it also be constructed in such a way to help students find their stars to steer by? their direction after college?

I’ll stop there for now and share the comments and ideas of panelists in a later post! The plane is getting ready to board…

But I want to say this to conclude: I don’t think I’m going to use the AWP panel as a way to create a conversation about curricular/higher ed/writing program matters anymore. Panels like this don’t fare well against the competition. And that’s fine. Everybody goes to AWP for slightly different reasons, and my reason is probably only shared by a small percentage of attendees. Maybe there’s a better way to spark a conversation about how structural change can be accomplished? I will keep thinking about that, and I welcome your ideas.

Thanks.

Teaching

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