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Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education: An Interview with Stephanie Vanderslice

Stephanie Vanderslice

Back in another phase of my writing practice, I participated in the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Pedagogy Forum. I met many very talented and dedicated teachers of creative writing through those activities. Stephanie Vanderslice is one of them.

I was delighted to learn about Stephanie’s latest book, Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education: Programs and Practices that Work, which has been described by its publisher (quite accurately, in my view) as a “passionate, iconoclastic, survey of Creative Writing as an academic discipline” in which the author “provides a provocative critique of existing practice. She challenges enduring myths surrounding creative writing – not least, that writers learn most from workshops. Through case studies of best practice from America and elsewhere, Vanderslice provides a vision of change, showing how undergraduate and postgraduate programs can be reformed to re-engage with contemporary culture.”

Stephanie Vanderslice is also the author, with Kelly Ritter, of Can It Really Be Taught: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy and Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates: A Practical Guide and Sourcebook. She has published fiction and creative nonfiction in several journals and anthologies such as Knowing Pains: Women on Love, Sex and Work in Our Forties and Mothers in All But Name. An associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas, she teaches creative writing and blogs about writing, teaching writing, and her love of all things French–with a little twenty-first century family life thrown in–at www.wordamour.wordpress.com.

I am thrilled to host this interview, conducted via email, in which Stephanie responds to some questions that arose as I read her book. I must add that I’ve already told Stephanie that I look forward to continuing this conversation with her, offline or on. There is truly so much to dig into in her book, and so much more to talk about. For instance, despite an authorial comment explaining that (and why) her work hasn’t encompassed low-residency or online programs, I believe strongly that Stephanie’s arguments, findings, and recommendations merit attention in those contexts, too.

Without further ado, please welcome Stephanie Vanderslice.

Erika Dreifus (ED): Stephanie, congratulations on the publication of this thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and altogether important book. Please tell us a bit about how you came to write Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education: Programs and Practices that Work and how the book came to be released by its U.K.-based publisher.

Stephanie Vanderslice (SV): Thanks, Erika, and thanks for the opportunity to answer these questions. The story of how I came to write Rethinking Creative Writing is an interesting one and one that is intimately connected to the rise of the internet in the past fifteen years.

In 2001 the American expatriate author Tracy Chevalier spoke at our university and I was charged with organizing the event. In the course of our conversations, most of which were through email since she lives outside London, Chevalier mentioned that she had attended the University of East Anglia, widely recognized as the “Iowa” of the UK. I had just begun to think critically about the teaching of creative writing in the US and began to wonder how it was taught in the UK. Fortunately, with the burgeoning web at my fingertips, pursuing this question was easy. I searched and found the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE—the British equivalent of AWP) website, with its enormous database of articles on teaching writing and through that database discovered the work of Graeme Harper, the “godfather” of creative writing pedagogy and theory in the UK. He’s since proved a generous correspondent and friend.

I was learning, though my online research, that creative writing had “grown up differently,” in the UK,in some very interesting ways, but felt I needed to much more “on-site” research to confirm and deepen my knowledge. I earned a sabbatical in the spring of 2006 and my university’s research fund underwrote a six week study tour of programs in England. Among the programs I visited were Bath Spa University, St. Mary’s College-London, Sheffield Hallam University, Manchester Metropolitan, the NAWE headquarters–it’s quite a long list. I got to interview a large number of writers, teachers and students and to sit in on many graduate and undergraduate classes, basically got to immerse myself in the scene of creative writing in the UK. I also made many friends who continue to enrich my knowledge, specifically Mimi Thebo (a transplanted Kansan at Bath Spa) and Steve May.

While I had embarked on my study tour intending to write a book about how creative writing is taught in British higher education, when I returned, I decided I needed to study creative writing in American higher education in much greater depth, as well as, to the extent that I could, the creative writing scene in Australia and New Zealand. In effect, I wanted to open the doors on creative writing in the English-speaking world so that we could all learn from each other, learn what we were doing well and what we could be doing better. I spent the next three years doing that, although it was a little slower-going because I had already “spent” my sabbatical time on studying the UK.

I had written about half of the book when I saw, on a UK creative-writing listserv, an announcement from Anthony Haynes, my publisher at Professional and Higher, that he was starting a new line of creative writing imprint. I had worked extensively as a reviewer and written some essays for Graeme Harper’s creative writing series at Multilingual Matters (and I’m still thrilled to be an Associate Editor for the journal he founded in 2004, New Writing: An International Journal of Creative Writing Theory and Practice) and was considering approaching them about a book. But when I saw that another publisher was venturing forth with a creative writing series, I became so excited I wanted to support that. To an extent, I’m kind of a person who likes to get in on the ground floor of things too and since this is the first book in Professional and Higher’s imprint on creative writing, well, you can’t get much more ground floor than that.

I’d really love to see an American publisher recognize the growth of creative writing pedagogy with a series in the US. It frustrates me that this hasn’t happened yet.

ED: One of the most interesting aspects of your book, for me, is its potential usefulness to both faculty and students. Your research findings and suggestions should, as you suggest, attract attention not only from program faculty and staff who should be considering how their programs serve their students, but also from students who may benefit from a more contemporary and comprehensive sense of what you refer to as “the kinds of institutional attitudes and qualities to look for in a graduate writing program.” Can you please briefly summarize some of those attitudes and qualities?

SV: Absolutely. In order to get the most out of their experience, students really need to consider programs that support the directions they want to go in and that show signs of really looking forward in supporting students’ growth. A lot of this, as Tom Kealey notes so well in The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (I advise a lot of my undergraduates on MFA programs but the first thing I have them do is read that book), comes through, or should come through on the program website. Does the program show signs of really caring what happens to you after you graduate? Some of them are very clear about this up front, they’ll tell you this and then they’ll back it up with evidence—through internships and courses as well as speakers’ programs with agents and publishers or arts organizations. Some programs, like [the one at] Columbia University, even have speaker series that deal directly with what happens after you graduate. Programs should list not only the publications of their alumni on their site, but also the other kinds of jobs in the creative industries that their students have found. There should be lists of courses and a model program of study and it shouldn’t be all workshops with a few lit courses thrown in. Rather, there should be a rich variety of courses that reflect the current scenes of craft, publishing, teaching and new media that demonstrate that the faculty of that program are getting creative with designing curriculum that will help students transition into the world they will graduate into, not the world the faculty graduated into five, ten, or twenty years ago. Prospective students should also ask to talk to faculty and students at that program in order to find out if it’s the kind of place that will really support their artistic development.

Over the years, attending AWP and other conferences, I’ve been impressed with the level of sophistication prospective students have reached, thanks to the web and to Kealey’s book, although I still see students who choose MFA programs for the wrong reasons, who apply because can’t think of anything else to do after they graduate, or who choose a program because the place where it’s located seems interesting to them for whatever reason (beyond being supportive of the arts or a literary center). I can’t think of a worse reason to pick a program than location—you’re only going to be there a few years, for God’s sake. I did this myself as a novice—I didn’t even consider Iowa (who knows if I could have gotten in) because it seemed too far away from my East Coast roots. And some students still do it, “hey, I’ve always wanted to live in Atlanta, I’ll pick a program there,” or, “Boston sounds pretty cool.”

The main reason I think reading Rethinking Creative Writing can be useful to students, though, is that it can show them the history of creative writing in higher education, including creative writing “old school” as I refer to it, but suggest that they want to choose a program that has moved beyond that. Creative writing “old school,” doesn’t cut it anymore. [The book] can show them what’s possible and remind them that they deserve that.

ED: As I read through the book, I began to wonder about the extent to which similar problems—and discussions—may be occurring in other disciplines. In other words, how much of the calcification or resistance to change that you have identified in certain aspects of creative-writing education—and how much of the innovation you have similarly highlighted in certain programs within the US, the UK, and Australia—may find echoes outside creative writing? Put another way, how much is endemic to creative writing, and how much may be due to customs, tradition, and”lore” in academia or even society more broadly?

SV: Certainly, there is a some calcification in many disciplines, especially in higher education and especially in terms of innovative pedagogy. There are still many disciplines, creative writing included, where pedagogy is a dirty word. You teach how you were taught and that’s it, end of discussion. To reflect on the ways one might best prepare students for the discipline which they are entering in the twenty-first century is at best seen as a kind of mystical pursuit and at worst a complete waste of time, time that could be more gainfully spent on writing or scholarship. I simply don’t buy that. Sure, you don’t have to make writing about teaching a big part of your career, as I have, but if you teach, you’re responsible for staying abreast of the scholarly conversations around doing it well—and you can easily do that and be a highly productive writer or scholar. I know plenty of people who have done and are doing both. You owe it to your students. If you’re a teacher and you’re not making a good faith effort to stay current on teaching in your field and to reflect on your pedagogy,what’s working and what isn’t, then, I think you need to rethink the ethics of your career choice. There are plenty of other jobs you could be doing to support your writing.

Ironically, this view is not necessarily popular in academia, regardless of discipline (although some are more calcified than others). I have always advocated it but I probably wouldn’t be doing this so boldly if I didn’t a) work at a university and especially in a department that was relatively progressive in these matters and b) have tenure. I know a lot of writers who are actually afraid to write or even talk about pedagogy because they don’t have tenure yet. I’ve heard some real horror stories. And there are still those rare writers even in the younger generation who have bought the whole,“you only teach to put bread on the table” gospel and continue to proclaim it vociferously (even if some of them are secretly pretty good in the classroom). So while there’s a new generation of writer-scholars who really do care about their teaching lives, we’re still working against that old lore that it’s not possible to do both and if you’re trying to, you must be falling down on your writing or research.

In spite of that, I’m still pretty hopeful. A lot of factors, the way the publishing world is evolving, the rise of more informed, discriminating students and more innovative teachers and the pace of new technology are combining to drive change and usher out the old guard. It’s not happening as quickly as I’d like, but it’s definitely happening. And I certainly hope Rethinking Creative Writing will help to hurry that along.

ED: Toward the end of the book, you suggest that people who are newer to discussions of creative-writing pedagogy would help themselves and help advance the ongoing discussions if they’d become familiar with the extensive bibliography on the subject that is already available before they plunge into the intellectual conversation. As you demonstrate, this bibliography is considerable. Please suggest three (and only three!) articles/books/resources that you believe would be essential introductory reading.

SV: It is considerable, so picking three is really difficult. If you’re hoping to join the discussion, though, recognize that being willing to consider what’s already been written before you jump in is an important step. I review books, papers and panels for conferences and essays for journals all the time and I read widely in the field and I can tell you that honoring the discussion that’s come before is still not always a foregone conclusion. Three important books that I would point an introductory reader to would be Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, which even though it has a literary focus is truly comprehensive in its coverage of the history of creative writing in higher education; Anna Leahy’s edited collection, Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project, and Dianne Donnelly’s edited collection Does the Writing Workshop Still Work, which takes an in-depth look at what Leahy aptly calls the “signature pedagogy” of our field.

These three books have their pulse, I think, on where we’ve been, where we are now and where we might be going. But there are lots of important books I’m leaving out—it’s killing me, really, there is so much critical work I admire, [Wendy] Bishop and [Hans] Ostrom’s early contribution, Colors of a Different Horse and Tim Mayers’s (Re)Writing Craft and Graeme Harper’s body of work, to name just a few. So I would read those first three books and then I would read very carefully through their bibliographies and come up with a list of work that seemed relevant to my own pedagogical interests and read that as well.

ED: Please share one key message that you’d like readers to take away from Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education.

SV: It’s not about the numbers that fund the program or the check that pays our mortgage and allows us to keep writing in a world where those who make a living strictly off their writing are the exception, not the rule. It’s about our students. Good creative writing programs know this. A good creative writing program and a good creative writing teacher is always evolving and always teaching toward the future.

ED: How can readers find and learn more about Rethinking Creative Writing?

SV: Rethinking Creative Writing is published by The Professional and Higher Partnership under their new Creative Writing Studies imprint. The publishing strategy is to market the books first to libraries, in e-book format, and then to individuals, in e-book format and in print form. It’s currently available in two formats – ePub and PDF.

Librarians can obtain the e-book easily from MyiLibrary, which is the library supply arm of Ingram Digital. They can also purchase it, as can individuals, from most of the e-retailers supplied by ePubDirect — there are dozens of them, including Sony, which is currently the cheapest, and Borders. Anyone who’d like to recommend that their library acquire a copy can download a simple recommendation form from the publisher’s website.

ED: Thank you, Stephanie. I truly hope that Rethinking Creative Writing reaches a wide and receptive audience!

(Editor’s note: This interview was based on a complimentary review copy of Rethinking Creative Writing that I received from The Professional and Higher Partnership Ltd.)

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