Composition Studies vs. Creative Writing

May 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

>Brian Evenson is the Chair of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University. It is a well-respected writing program. A few years ago, after taking the position at Brown, Evenson published an article called “Notes on Fiction and Philosophy” in the journal, Symploke. It is significant because he was candid about writing, pedagogy, and the future of fiction. According to Evenson:

To move to an understanding of late 20th and early 21st century fiction, the first step is to move out of the 4th century B.C.: to let go of the Aristotelian notions that still dominate most thinking about fiction in writing workshops today. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the institutionalization and burgeoning of writing programs has here been that most of these programs are much less interested in pointing to fiction’s present – let alone fiction’s future – than in preserving fiction as an eternal past tense. Discussions of setting, plot, character, theme, etc., their parameters derived from Aristotle, seem hardly to have advanced beyond New Criticism’s neo-Aristotelianism; and when a workshop student says “I didn’t find the character believable,” usually the model for believability is firmly entrenched in 19th century notions of consistency that have probably less to do with how real 21st century people act (not to mention 19th century people) than with specific, and often dated, literary conventions. (96)

The aesthetics of newness are just as present in the Creative Writing world as they are in academia in general. In my previous post, I discussed the “newness” that surrounds the term multimodality. In this post I want to make connections to the innovativeness a writer and teacher like Evanson calls for and the overlap in newness coming from Composition Studies and the pressures on writing programs from the university at large.

What’s interesting to me about Evenson’s lament above is that modernism, with its emphasis on the new, has been unable to shirk its own overwhelmingly conservative past. It is the aesthetics of modernism that dominate the educational (and presumably commercial) environment. This is not simply to label Evenson a “modernist.” I think Evenson’s aesthetic concerns speak to larger cultural forces, forces which affect the university at large as a place where human understanding is collected and produced.

No matter how much emphasis there is on experimentalism, experimentalism as a mode itself is constitutive of a limit experience. There is a boundary; it must be determined and broken. Again here, I see a connection to psychedelic culture, in which aesthetic decisions often arise from the perceived limits of perception or consciousness. Experimentalism remains the mode of modernity and postmodernity as well. Limits are sought, defined, and eventually broken. Or, as is the case with the Oulipo writers, constraint or limit becomes the source of the production itself.

I was recently in the audience for a graduate student presentation at the University of Denver. The student had received a fellowship for her fourth year of funding to write her dissertation. Her dissertation, as a creative writing student, was a version of her novel. The presentation was to be the summation of a year’s worth of work, a sort of public announcement to say, “This is what I’ve done with my funding; hope you like it!”

After the reading, during question and answer time, the student was challenged (rather aggressively), by a Literary Studies professor (a professor who specializes in drama from the English Restoration) on the basis that her novel had not actually done anything new. An argument ensued over what degree of control any author might have over the reception of his or her work, what sort of control the author has over the reader. The student, interestingly, played along with the challenge, defending what her intentions were.

It was a Poetry professor, who, after multiple attempts to get a word in, suggested that it may not have necessarily been the point to “reinvent” the novel. I thought about his comments in relation to Evanson’s piece. Evenson claims:

I am of the opinion that the most authentic service a writing program can do writing students is to give them an aesthetic base, introduce them to different philosophies and aesthetic ideas – current as well as past – making available to them different models for understanding fiction. For, just as what readers see in a text is determined by the models they bring, consciously or unconsciously, to bear on a text, so too the writer’s ability to construct and revise his own text is determined by the differing philosophical and aesthetic ideas he has both consciously and unconsciously internalized. What is important is not so much finding the right model – there isn’t one – as allowing writers to locate themselves within a field that contains varied philosophical and aesthetic possibilities, and to see their own position as always potentially fluid. Indeed, if there is a future in fiction, I think it lies in the active dialogue that can occur between fiction and philosophy / theory, a dialogue in which each prods the other toward new possibilities, where each poses questions that the other is compelled to answer. (97)

I go into detail to explain Evenson’s position as a counterstatement and a challenge to Composition Studies.

This is because, in the professional sphere, there is a divide between Composition Studies and Creative Writing. It is an unbelievably stupid divide, but it is very present, and it nevertheless affects careers. It is not always a clear-cut divide. There are many creative writers who teach composition, and there are many within composition studies who write beyond the discipline itself. In a way, to write about the divide is to write the divide. And indeed, the climate will change from university to university, department to department, but it is relatively easy to note points of tension. Still, I believe the divide exists as a cultural force that is ultimately damaging.

I have been writing about multimodality lately, and I’ve been trying to tease out some of the implications, the connotations surrounding the term. In the writing world, multimodality is a term associated professionally with Composition Studies, not Creative Writing. This is not to say creative writers are not multimodal. Indeed, as one creative writer informed me, multimodality is merely a term Composition Studies uses to appropriate and colonize the “creative” disciplines, a domesticating term.

In some ways, it’s a tension between theory and practice. Arnold Schoenberg, in his Theory of Harmony points to ways music theory teachers of his time created a system of aesthetic rules which they dogmatically stood behind because they had no proper way to evaluate student innovation. The theorist was a theorist because he wasn’t a good enough practitioner.

In the writing world, the stereotypical example of Schoenberg’s kind of theorist teaches composition. Composition classes at their beginning were remedial and mandatory (see Robert Connor’s Composition Rhetoric for a more detailed account). They remain mandatory, and professionally, they remain remedial. This perpetuates the assumption that those who teach composition are doing so because they are not good enough at whatever academic area they “really wanted to be in.” It is similar to the stereotypes of the “Community College Professor” and the adjunct: not-quite-professional-or-distinctive-enough-to-be-taken-seriously-as-a-professional. Unglorified graduate students or non-intellectuals, content with a status quo income, whatever prestige comes with no manual labor, the perfect job for type-A’s who want to think of themselves as having some authority so they run their own classrooms, go home to suburban families, or to play Rockband on Wii. A friend of mine, a fiction writer, recently summed up the difficulties creative writers have in graduate school when they are “forced” to teach composition or take pedagogy courses related to composition: “It’s like getting married, being so excited to spend the rest of your life with that person, and then being told that you will have to accept that your partner will sleep with other people. It undermines everything you did to get where you are.”

Moving through the University system, one knows where the symbolic power lies. Let me give you another example.

At the institution where I am in progress toward my degree in Rhetoric / and Theory in English, the University recently instituted a Writing Across the Curriculum program. Separate from English Studies, the Writing Program emphasizes writing skills across disciplinary divides. In theory, this is well and good. This is partly because it emphasizes writing as a skill that is not learned at one time, as well as emphasizing a skill that does not remain the same in each context. It attempts to show professors from various disciplines that they must take a more active role in instructing their students as to the conventions specific to their discipline. Conversely, as a centralizing feature, there is an emphasis on rhetorical skills, writing for different audiences. Students explore a variety of exigencies and take writing intensive courses in their own majors. Instructors in those departments receive special attention to help create writing intensive courses.

Well intentioned as these goals are, the writing instructors for these courses continue to be the “bitches” of the university. Even in a writing program where most instructors already have PhD’s, there is the feeling that they merely do service work for the university at large – a university more concerned with training business professionals, soccer moms, and philistines in general – at the expense of research in their field. Perhaps my situation is different than other graduate students’ situations at large state institutions, where English professors are paid up to $30,000 more a year, despite my private university’s “elite status.”

As a graduate student, I worked for two years in the University Writing Center. During that time, I fielded phone calls from a Sociology professor who had been on sabbatical for a year and was wondering if, during her time away, writing had changed because her students’ writing was awful. She was calling to complain because she sent them to the writing center after their first paper, and now, grading their second paper, they had not improved. Anyone who has worked as a writing instructor or “tutored” in a writing center has a similar anecdote. Perpetually built into the narrative of that profession is that you are seen as the writing janitor by both students and academics outside the small enclave of people who regularly perform self-help types of staff meetings where we try to pretend that we are fun and maybe a little bit kookie. I personally enjoy one on one work with students, but I know damn well I will never get paid as well to be a writing center consultant than the two years I spent doing it for my funding in graduate school. Professors who claim that graduate student must accept that, whether they like it or not they will most likely have to teach composition wherever they land a job only reinforce the hierarchical structure which is itself destructive.

In English Studies, if Composition classes are still held within an English department, they are taught by a majority of graduate students and / or adjunct professors. As such, they are looked down on by everyone. Even professors with positive attitudes toward teaching Composition have research interests above and beyond teaching Composition. I myself have now taught Composition for seven years, and though I respect it as necessary (and even enjoy it at times!), I can’t help feeling like an indentured servant. People in English Studies specialize in everything they can to avoid teaching Composition, leaving those who do teach it to be considered less intellectual and less important. This has been going on since the 1870s. Symbolic power goes a long ways.

As a result, a culture has developed – a self-perpetuating one – where not only is teaching Composition seen as unintellectual, but where those who do take teaching Composition seriously have insulated themselves against other academic disciplines as a defense mechanism.

Over the past forty years or so, Composition Studies has risen as a discipline whose identity is a reaction-formation against traditional notions of English Studies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the parallel development between the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and the conference of Associated Writing Programs (AWP). As Doug Hesse, who is among the elite in Composition Studies, claims in the tellingly titled article “The Place of Creative Writing in Composition Studies” [my italics]:

The distinctions between these meetings and their sponsoring organizations are tellingly metonymic of contrasts between academic creative writing and composition studies. CCCC features writing teachers who are also scholars of rhetoric, writing, and communication; AWP features writers who are often teachers and, very occasionally, scholars of writing. CCCC has maintained more or less a membership steady state with a fairly narrow target membership of people who hold teaching positions. AWP has been relatively entrepreneurial, seeking not only writers in the academy but writers beyond. Over the decades, the exhibits at CCCC have dwindled with every publisher consolidation to a couple of booths; in 2009 the exhibits at AWP occupied three large halls in the Chicago Hilton with hundreds of presses and journals. In 2010 the exhibit space at Denver’s Colorado Convention Center was even vaster. (2)

Hesse’s concerns in this paragraph speak directly to the ability of the AWP “types” to speak to a vibrant publishing world outside the university. While there is not necessarily an economical advantage to this wider exposure, it does arguably speak to a wider (and definitely more innovative) audience. This is odd because, as Hesse continues:

Content with growing on its own terms, creative writing in all but rare cases performs no service role, aspires to no “across the curriculum” infiltration of chemistry or sociology, worries little about assessment. (2-3)

So, while Creative Writing, according to Hesse, shirks a sort of civic responsibility, it maintains a cultural resonance that Composition Studies lacks. Hesse admits that Composition Studies “types” are envious of Creative Writers who get to teach “eager students, ” and “no one asks, ‘why can’t students coming from your course not even develop a single character” (3).

The Creative Writing world, meanwhile, if they hear these complaints at all, hear it as a kind of incessant moaning deserving the response: why do that? Or, as one Creative Writing professor explained to me: “It’s not that I don’t respect Composition as a discipline…I respect it the same way I do Engineering or Chemistry.”

With statements like this, Hesse’s job is challenging, for he concludes in his article that Composition Studies must be more attentive to Creative Writing.

When creative writing and composition studies have little to do with one another, the division truncates not only what we teach but how writing gets understood (or misunderstood) by our students, our colleagues, and the spheres beyond. (Hesse 5)

While Hesse calls for more integration, he also clearly reveals his allegiances, which does not necessarily make him a good candidate for peacemaker.

It remains to be seen whether “creative writing” will soon explore multimodality to the extent composition studies has, or whether many of its practitioners and apologists would see student videos as manifestations of “creative writing.” I hope it might be because the new media offer a complex (if not altogether neutral) turf to which we might bring our different traditions, exploring more commonalities even as we respect our dissimilar orientations and aspirations. Failing that, though, I suggest that composition studies unilaterally explore the place of creative writing – of creative composing – in teaching, in scholarship, and in our expanded sense of ourselves as textmakers. (25)

I fundamentally disagree with Hesse when he says, “It remains to be seen whether ‘creative writing’ will soon explore multimodality to the extent composition studies has.” However, reluctantly, I agree with his conclusion. I say reluctant because, as Hesse’s sentencing suggests, the cultural divide between Creative Writing and Composition Studies may be too difficult for academics of his generation to bridge. From what I see as a young professional, the disciplinary divides between these two disciplines are poisonous, and Hesse is too quick in his last sentence, his research (which relies on creative writers’ statements published in Composition Studies sources), and the title of his article to relegate creative writing beneath the disciplinary heading: Composition Studies. My fear is that Hesse’s article, well-intentioned as it seems – and correct in some ways – insulates his community while ostracizing “Creative Writing.” If it is read by creative writers at all, it will be read as imperialistic and uninformed as to what actually occurs in Creative Writing Classrooms.

My next post will try to explain some of these concerns in detail.

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