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Many Dissatisfied with Creative Writing

Students argue that an administrative commitment to preserving teaching quality in Harvard’s creative writing courses has resulted in a competitive program that is largely inaccessible to many interested students.
Students argue that an administrative commitment to preserving teaching quality in Harvard’s creative writing courses has resulted in a competitive program that is largely inaccessible to many interested students.
By Gina K. Hackett

UPDATED: April 18, 2012, at 3:07 a.m.

When the English department rejected his application to write a screenplay for his senior thesis, Samuel D. Cook-Stuntz ’10 was not surprised.

With only fourteen spots available—two each in the genres of poetry, screenwriting, and playwriting and four in fiction and nonfiction—the odds were not high that he would be able to complete his project, initially proposed as an exploration of the lives of superheroes.

And though he had studied screenwriting on his own and even took a beginning playwriting class through the Harvard Summer School, Cook-Stuntz had never secured a spot in one of the College’s creative writing courses, a prerequisite for approval of a creative thesis proposal. When Cook-Stuntz had applied for the advanced screenwriting class earlier that year, he had been denied. His advisers had told him to expect a similar rejection when applying to write a thesis.

For students like Cook-Stuntz, the challenges of both securing a seat in Harvard’s oversubscribed creative writing classes and winning a coveted approval for a creative thesis can be both academically limiting and creatively frustrating.

Students who have participated in these classes universally praise the personal attention from time-tested faculty that the program’s small size allows, but the selective nature of even the most introductory courses leaves few options for students who haven’t made the cut.

Despite the sustained demand, semester after semester, department administrators say that their efforts to preserve the quality of teaching have made difficult any attempts to grow Harvard’s creative writing program.

“I don’t know that there’s a solution to the problem that we can find right away,” says Professor Stephen L. Burt, the department’s director of undergraduate studies. “But it’s not ideal.”

A LIMITED RESOURCE

This spring the English department offered 13 creative writing courses, including both introductory and advanced courses, that were each limited to 12 students. And with only four of these dedicated to teaching fiction, one of the most popular genres, many students say that it is difficult to improve their craft after being closed out of the department’s offerings.

Currently nine faculty members teach creative writing within the department, and the department does not employ graduate students or adjuncts to teach creative writing classes.

Department administrators say that the 12-person cap is meant to preserve the intimacy and quality of the peer workshopping experience, which serves as the centerpiece of each of the courses. To determine admissions, all of Harvard’s creative writing courses require a separate application that includes a three to five-page writing sample in the relevant genre due on the first day of classes each semester. Each student also ranks their course preferences when applying.

Students who have won seats in these classes, some after a semester or two of rejection, say the experience has been unparalleled.

“It’s not your typical, highfalutin...kind of class,” says Sayce W. Falk, a 2011 graduate of the Kennedy School who took an introductory fiction course at the College. “It stretched me in a way that almost none of my academic classes did.”

John Bryant ’13, who has taken two fiction writing classes, says that the selective nature of the class creates a more invested group of students.

“I have only glowing things to say about the professors,” he says.

But Bryant can be seen as representative of both the benefits and drawbacks of the intimate program. Although he numbers the fiction workshops among the best courses he has taken while at Harvard, it took him two tries to gain a seat in the introductory class, and his petition to write a novel for his senior thesis was recently denied.

Moreover, students who are truly interested in pursuing creative writing say that the structure of the English department, and the creative writing program’s position within it, has changed the course of their studies. It is not possible to concentrate in creative writing, and within the English concentration students can only count two semesters of these classes towards the 11 requirements of the non-honors track.

Siena R. Leslie ’12 says she would have concentrated in creative writing, not linguistics, had that been an option.

“I think the whole thing is outrageous, and Harvard should really prioritize its creative writing department and take it far more seriously,” Leslie says. “Because the courses that I’ve taken in creative writing have been among the top courses I’ve taken at Harvard in terms of quality.”

TRY, TRY AGAIN

Daniel says he has applied to “basically all” of the fiction courses that the English department offers. But for the past three semesters, this junior biology concentrator—whose name has been changed to preserve his future chances in the creative writing admissions process—has been denied.

Each time he didn’t find his name on the lists posted in the department’s Barker Center offices, Daniel contacted the courses’ professors to ask how to improve his writing for the next round of applications. His inquiries, he says, were met with one general piece of advice: “just try again.”

For students like Daniel, this guidance may not be helpful. Applications for creative writing classes are denied without any opportunity for official or even informal feedback, leaving many with the impression that natural talent or an extensive background in the subject are key to winning a spot.

A handful or so of beginners are accepted into creative writing courses each semester, according to Burt.

Bret A. Johnston, who serves as director of the creative writing program and teaches two fiction workshops, says that experience is not a factor in a student’s admission.

But while Leslie says there was a range of experience levels in the playwriting class she took in the department, she would have easily called each of her classmates real “writers” before they even stepped in the door. Leslie herself had been writing plays for several years before taking the class, and the national poet of Wales was among her classmates.

“It definitely does neglect the people who don’t have any experience,” Leslie said.

The lack of an open enrollment introductory class can be an insurmountable barrier, semester after semester, for those without any previous training.

“It’s a shame in the sense that talent shouldn’t be the only qualification for creative writing classes,” says Carla S. Ferreira ’12, who has taken two creative writing courses while at the College. “I think that pure interest...and wanting to learn the craft should be an important factor.”

For Ferreira, the problem is clear.

“It’s just that there’s not enough to go around,” she says.

A COMMON PROBLEM

Although Harvard is not alone in its lack of creative writing opportunities, recent growth at many peer institutions highlight the relative dearth of options that Harvard gives to students interested in these genres.

“Offering only limited creative writing opportunities—and those reserved for students who are already good—is very common, especially at private schools,” Alfred E. Guy Jr., the director of the Yale College Writing Center, wrote in an email. “It’s so common that those schools who do a better job really stand out.”

At MIT, for example, every student who seeks an introduction to creative writing is guaranteed a spot in a class, according to Thomas Levenson, the head of MIT’s writing and humanistic studies program.

Many other Ivy League schools similarly offer introductory courses that do not require applications.

Yale offers a “giant” creative non-fiction course that meets in 35 sections of 15 students each, according to Guy. At Harvard, only two creative non-fiction courses are offered each semester, which pales in comparison to offerings at Princeton and Yale, said Evan W. Thomas, a Princeton journalism professor who taught a program in writing during Harvard wintersession this year.

Guy adds, however, that Yale’s poetry and fiction offerings, just like Harvard’s, leave some students without options.

The programs at Yale and Princeton also outnumber Harvard in the size of their creative writing faculty. At Yale, students can concentrate in writing within the English department, and Princeton offers a certificate in creative writing, according to the program websites.

“Both of our schools have a lot of money, and nurturing your voice as a creative writer pays giant dividends for your soul,” Guy wrote.

AN OPEN INTRODUCTION

After graduating from Harvard without writing a creative thesis, Cook-Stuntz says he has mostly stopped pursuing the craft.

He never wrote his screenplay after his thesis proposal was denied. Now, he is content to kick around ideas, write notes, and “file it away in case I ever decide to come back to it.”

Although students who have taken creative writing classes agree that raising the limit past 12 students per class would reduce the effectiveness of the workshop experience, many emphasize the importance of adding more opportunities for students of all levels.

Leslie proposed that the program offer a “true” introductory class with more students, perhaps doing the workshopping in smaller sections.

The main obstacle to this solution, for both students and administrators within the department, has been concerns about quality over quantity.

“Our students have a truly remarkable record of having their work published and produced, of landing spots in the world’s top graduate writing programs with outstanding funding, and of forging stellar careers in the world of letters,” Johnston wrote in an email, adding that the personal attention from world-class writers that the current program offers would be difficult to preserve with any major expansion.

The long-term solution—the hiring of more full-time faculty or lecturers—is partially out of the department’s hands, with higher ups in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences largely responsible for such confidential, large-scale solutions.

But recently, a more immediate and perhaps revolutionary change has been put on the table. At this Monday’s meeting of the department’s student advisory committee, students proposed the creation of a large, open-enrollment introductory class. The class would be taught in a lecture format, in order to accommodate more students who have a strong desire to take creative writing.

This proposal, which is now being discussed by the department, would be a solution to “part of the problem,” Leslie said. But more importantly, it would be the first step in a much called for expansion of an already high-quality program.

“Harvard likes to be number one, and in this area, it’s not,” Thomas says.

—Staff writer Gina K. Hackett can be reached at ghackett@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the correction:

CORRECTION: April 18

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Samuel D. Cook-Stuntz ’10 did not take a creative writing course at Harvard. In fact, he took one creative writing class in his senior year.

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