Unpacking the Creative Writing Degree

The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing and The Creative Writing Research Group Present:

Unpacking the Creative Writing Degree

11am Tuesday, April 11, 2017
TIA House SS1059
Department of English
University of Calgary

Presenters:
Jane Chamberlin
Peter Forestell
Rod Moody-Corbett
Jess Nicol

Moderator:
Larissa Lai

The inclusion of creative writing as an academic discipline has allowed for a secondary area of study that hinges on writing about creative writing in the university setting: creative writing pedagogy. In his 1989 essay “The Future of Creative Writing Programs,” George Garrett wrote that he had a “notion that the future is going to be very different from the present scene, and it is at least possible to invent a scenario in which the future is an improvement over the present or, at least, solves some of the intractable problems of the present even as new and, so far, unimagined problems arise” (60). However, the current field of creative writing pedagogy is plagued with the same tired questions of thirty years ago—does the workshop work? How can writing really be taught?—and overused pedagogical phrases like “show, don’t tell” and “read like a writer.” The field, often studied from an American or Australian perspective, has remained largely stagnant, and, contrary to its name, rarely discusses concrete pedagogical strategies or practices for teaching creative writing.

While we do not pretend that we are alone capable of breaking free of these enduring, historical concerns of creative writing pedagogy, our papers will argue that Canadian PhD programs in creative writing—numbering only two, available in English departments at the University of Calgary and the University of New Brunswick—hold a unique possibility to stimulate creative writing pedagogy and re-frame some of the over-used concepts outlined above in a Canadian context.

Perhaps the most troubling contemporary aspect of teaching creative writing is not whether or not it can be taught, but that instructors lack a disciplinary structure and group of theories that serve as the foundation for any pedagogical practice. By scrutinizing creative writing pedagogy at the levels of both learning and instruction, our papers consider how the creative writing PhD in Canada might produce more engaged and aware teachers, writers, and professionals. We each examine pedagogy as applicable to one of the following: the structure of the program, creative writing curriculum, the writing workshop, and the creative dissertation.

Our papers raise urgent questions, including: How does the placement of doctoral-level creative writing programs in English literature departments encourage a productive blend of creative and critical thought and pedagogical practices? If today’s creative writing PhD students are unlikely to find stable employment as instructors or full-time creative writers, how can such a program better prepare them for meaningful careers? Can the creative writing PhD inject the workshop with plurality and dynamism, thus helping students navigate the tricky issue of aestheticism versus cultural pluralism in the classroom? How might a reformation of exegetical materials accompanying the creative dissertation help graduates better undertake the pedagogical theorization required by the discipline of creative writing studies? The four papers in this panel offer sometimes contradictory explorations, reflecting the productive challenges of our individual categories of interest, as well as practical solutions to the various problems we have presented in this proposal.

Garrett, George. “The Future of Creative Writing Programs.” Creative Writing in
America: Theory and Pedagogy. Ed. Joseph M. Moxley. Urbana: NCTE, 1989. 47-62. Print.

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Jane Chamberlin is a PhD candidate in the University of Calgary’s English Department, specializing in creative writing. Her storytelling experience extends into the realms of advertising and marketing, and she has worked with Prof. Aritha van Herk to develop and present graduate-level creative writing courses for students outside the English department.

“Writing to Live and Living to Write: Skill Development in the Creative Writing PhD Curriculum” : Using A 2013 SSHRC-funded publication, “White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities” as a jumping-off point, this paper explores strategies that creative writing PhD programs could employ to address employability challenges for graduates. As the white paper suggests, universities should consider “changing the PhD programs themselves, reforming doctoral training so that it leads to a multiplicity of career paths instead of only one” (1), since academic jobs are increasingly scarce. This transformative process could take years, but in the meantime English departments could make more granular changes to their creative writing curriculum to help PhD students transition to a non-academic workforce – without detracting from the vital work of preparing for and writing the dissertation. After examining UK and Canadian graduate programs that build bridges between creative writing and non-academic careers, this paper proposes several practical methods for improving the employability of creative writing PhD graduates.

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Peter Forestell is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Calgary, studying creative writing and effeminacy in gay male cultural productions. His fiction has been published in Plenitude Magazine and his non-fiction has been longlisted for the CBC Creative Non-Fiction Prize.

“How Plagiarism Affects Pedagogy”: This paper considers how being the victim of plagiarism influences my participation in creative writing communities and my pedagogy. In light of this instance, I suggest that the creative writing workshop should be considered a site of risk, not just aesthetic, but personal, affective, and financial as well. Furthermore, I suggest that creative writing PhD programs, in particular, should give greater attention to teaching, as creative writing studies shifts from an exclusively practical discipline to one which blends practice and pedagogy.

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Rod Moody-Corbett holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick, and is pursuing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Calgary. His work has appeared in a number of Canadian journals, and his short story “Parse” was a finalist for the 2013 CBC Canada Writes Short Story Prize (and winner of that prize’s People’s Choice Award). In 2014, he was named a finalist in The Paris Review’s “Windows on the World Contest.” His work is forthcoming in Coming Attractions (ed. Mark Anthony Jarman).

“Canon Fodder: Concerning the Creative Writing Candidacy List”: This discussion undertakes a close examination of the Creative Writing modules at the University of Calgary and how these modules might be improved to better cater the burgeoning writer’s necessarily aesthetic needs. As the demands of a writer differ from those of an academic, efforts must be made to include works of structural and stylistic significance, while at the same time ensuring critical and historical breadth.

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Jess Nicol is a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of Calgary. She studies creative writing and fictocriticism, and her work has been published in filling Station magazine and at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

“Reading Like a Teacher: Questioning Pedagogical Reading Strategies”: Due to the fact that Canadian doctoral programs in creative writing (CW) are located within English departments, students and instructors are expected to think, write, and teach both creatively and critically. Within such programs, though, creative and critical approaches are treated too often as separate ways of learning and producing, so students and academics see themselves as developing creative skills and critical skills to serve different ends. Writing poetry and participating in a fiction workshop are different than submitting a grant proposal and studying Old English, right? I disagree. In fact, the structure of these doctoral programs presents a unique environment to combine creative and critical approaches through the genre of fictocriticism, so that both types of skills can ultimately be harnessed toward a thoughtful, intentional CW pedagogy.

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