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Writing Classes Turn Students Away

By Ben A. Black, Crimson Staff Writer

An impressive creative writing portfolio helped Margaret D. Maloney ’06 get into Harvard, and she intended to take advantage of the University’s popular creative writing program to hone her craft.

However, her literacy aspirations suffered a serious setback when she arrived in Cambridge.

Her writing portfolio wasn’t enough to get her into any of Harvard’s creative writing classes, which are some of the most selective classes in the course catalogue.

“There’s so much rejection at Harvard,” Maloney says. “The last thing that I had to really try out for that I got into at Harvard was the freshman talent show. After that it’s all been downhill.”

Maloney says she has decided to be a linguistics concentrator, in part because of her rejection this semester from creative writing courses.

“I did lots of creative writing in high school, and it was kind of what I expected to do at Harvard,” Maloney says. “I thought I was going to concentrate in English and focus in creative writing. I always thought I was going to be a writer, that’s sort of what I came to Harvard to do.”

Maloney shares her experience of rejection with scores of other students. Harvard’s creative writing classes often receive more than 400 applications each semester for about 156 spots, according to Director of Creative Writing Patricia Powell.

The Department of English and American Literature and Language, which runs the creative writing program, is considering taking steps to satisfy the demand for creative writing classes. But for now, many students have found that they will not have the chance to study creative writing at the College.

A Blockade of Writers at Door

At the start of every semester, hundreds of students crowd into an Emerson Hall classroom, filling the aisles and the hall outside, hoping to get into a creative writing class. Maloney, who says she applied to six creative writing classes this semester and didn’t get into any of them, says she was intimidated from the moment she squeezed into Emerson.

“When I went in to that room, I thought to myself that there are like 14 classes, hundreds of people in the room, and it’s like applying to Harvard all over again,” Maloney says. “I knew then that there was a very slim chance of me getting into the creative writing program.”

The English department offered 12 creative writing courses in the fall and 15 this spring. The classes focus on areas ranging from fiction to poetry, screenwriting to environmental writing. Taught by established writers, the classes are structured as workshops where students critique each other’s work and practice reading as a writer rather than as a critic.

The courses have long been popular with students willing to put together a five-page application for each class.

In 1995, about half of the students who applied to creative writing classes in the spring semester were rejected, when about the same number of spots were available.

Individual students often submit applications to different classes, and some offerings are more popular than others. Powell says there were about 250 applications to the five fiction sections alone.

“The difficulty has to do with the fact there’s so many of you and so few of us,” Powell says. “That’s the main problem, there are not enough of us.”

No New Faculty Planned

Chair of the English department Lawrence Buell says he knows of the difficult time many students have getting into creative writing classes.

The size of the creative writing faculty has increased slightly over the past few years, but the department has no immediate plans to increase further the number of faculty positions in creative writing, according to Buell.

He says that the number of creative writing instructors was increased from four to five this year.

Brighde Mullins, a playwright who teaches screenwriting and play writing classes each semester, joined the program this fall.

According to Buell, the department is also offering a “longer-term appointment” to Visiting Lecturer on English and American Literature Jamaica Kincaid, who is now teaching one fiction class.

Beyond these moves, however, Buell says the department has no additional plans to hire more faculty in creative writing.

“I’d like to, but that’s down for a future department discussion,” Buell says.

Buell says the fiction classes are the main issue since there were so many more applicants than spots.

He says he feels the English department has sufficient offerings in the other areas of creative writing.

“The question goes like this: should a college-level creative writing course be open to anybody who desires to take it fundamentally, or should there be a threshold of quality or preparation before being let in?” Buell says. “If we accept the second position, that it’s reasonable for the student to audition, so to speak, then I think that we’re pretty close to a balance of supply and demand in poetry and nonfictional prose and play writing.”

“There is, this year, certainly a problem in the asymmetry of supply and demand in fiction,” he says.

Although no new faculty positions are planned, Buell says that there will be one more fiction class next year because the responsibilities for coordinating the program will switch from Powell, a fiction teacher, to Doug A. Powell, a poet.

But that means there will be one fewer poetry class, since the coordinator is exempt from teaching one class.

Kincaid may also teach an additional fiction class.

“We will have more fiction sections next year, more workshops,” Buell says. “Whether that will suffice remains to be seen.”

Creativity Sells

According to CUE Guide ratings, creative writing classes are some of the most well-liked in the College. They often get near-perfect ratings.

Mandy H. Hu ’02-’03, who is in English Csr: “Fiction Writing I” says the courses are “dramatically different from all the other classes here, save for maybe the VES [visual and environmental studies] classes.”

“They’re creative, you know?” Hu says.

Creative writing thesis writer Reema Rajbanshi ’03 says creative writing courses offer a unique experience.

“One of the things I think I enjoyed a lot was that when you take those writing classes you get to know people in a way that you never get to know them in any other activity here, because you get to know so much about what haunts them, their fears and desires,” Rajbanshi says.

Although many students say they agree on the value of the creative writing classes, they are divided over the courses’ selectivity.

Rajbanshi, who did not get into any fiction classes this year, says she approves of the rigorous admissions process because it motivates students to take the class and makes them value the experience more.

Maloney, however, says that there is too much applying and denying at Harvard after a student is admitted to the College.

The Merits of Selectivity

Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric Jorie Graham, whose poetry won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, writes in an e-mail that the creative writing courses are environments where their participants “learn how to make.”

“They learn how to take ‘experience’ and use craft to undergo that experience more deeply on the page, and therefore, subsequently, in their lives,” Graham says

Graham says that creative work involves a “form of practice whose rigors are demanding in ways that perhaps differ from critical classes, but can, and often do, benefit from prerequisite preparation.”

Because students have many opportunities to apply to a workshop during their time at the College, Graham says that she thinks that it is acceptable—and might be beneficial—for some applicants to be turned down.

“People do have four years in which to take a class, and if they don’t get in one semester that might be a good thing—it might give them time to keep reading and writing till they are more ready for such a class,” says Graham.

Buell says it is difficult to balance the department’s educational philosophy with satisfying student demand for classes.

“There’s an issue here about the way creative writing is taught,” Buell says. “We do it in sections of 12, and believe that doing it in a labor-intensive, workshoppy sort of way is the way to go.”

“We could modify that and up the enrollments, but I don’t know if that would produce a better learning experience,” Buell says.

Powell, who was an economics major in college, says she believes that anyone could benefit from taking a creative writing class.

“I think at the introductory level everyone should have a chance at trying a fiction workshop,” Powell says. “That’s what I think. We don’t all agree on this.”

—Staff writer Ben A. Black can be reached at bblack@fas.harvard.edu.

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