Monday, January 22, 2007

Recognizing Creative Writing as an Academic Discipline in California Community Colleges

The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) has before it a petition to add creative writing to the state-wide Disciplines List. The ASCCC will vote on this petition in April at their Spring 2007 Plenary session. This action is 65 years overdue.

According to D. W. Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) which is officially sponsoring the petition, graduate degrees in creative writing have existed since 1942 when Paul Engle started the Iowa Writers' Workshop; soon, other institutions developed similar programs: "In 1946, Elliot Coleman founded the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. In 1947, Stanford University and the University of Denver both launched graduate creative writing programs. In 1948, Baxter Hathaway founded the creative writing program at Cornell University" (Fenza).

By 1984, over 150 graduate creative writing programs flourished in the United States; currently, over 300 programs offer graduate degrees and over 100 offer undergraduate degrees in creative writing (Fenza). The Writer's Chronicle routinely reports that more than 20,000 individuals have earned M.A., M.F.A., or Ph.D. degrees in creative writing in the last two decades. Obviously, creative writing as a distinct discipline has been a reality at hundreds of educational institutions. More importantly, California Community Colleges (CCC) should officially recognize this fact too, for they have done so with other disciplines in the past.

Before English as a Second Language (ESL) and journalism were added to the CCC Disciplines List, courses in those disciplines could be taught by any community college professor with a graduate degree in English. Fortunately for students and faculty, the ASCCC corrected this flaw by recognizing both ESL and journalism as disciplines in their own right; hence, ESL and journalism instructors must possess as a minimum requirement graduate degrees in their respective disciplines "or the equivalent" (for state law gives individuals the right to apply for equivalency in any discipline).

In contrast, English as a discipline in the CCC system currently includes literature, composition, and reading--and creative writing since it's not officially recognized via the Disciplines List. As a result, almost any California community college professor with a graduate degree in English literature or composition can teach creative writing courses even though he or she might not possess any substantial training in creative writing. How can this current situation benefit students?

One could argue, "Aren't ESL, journalism, composition, and creative writing courses the same? After all, don't these students compose?" However, the student compositions in these unique disciplines have different purposes and outcomes: ESL students learn English reading and writing skills as non-native speakers and writers of English; journalism students aim to inform the public by reporting on various facts and events considered newsworthy; English composition students write expository essays controlled by thesis statements and/or research material and utilize non-fiction prose; creative writing students create poetry, fiction, and/or drama. In essence, each discipline requires instructors specifically trained to help students achieve those different purposes and outcomes.

Others could posit, "Shouldn't all English degree holders know enough about literature to teach poetry and fiction writing courses? Don't English majors learn everything related to literature, including creative writing?" By analogy, degree holders in diverse disciplines should ask themselves a similar question: "Shouldn't all nursing degree holders know enough about x-ray technology to teach such courses? Don't nursing majors learn everything related to health care, including radiology?" Hopefully, the absurdity of the latter question will help one understand the flaw in the former question. Students who wish to become radiology technicians must study with experts in radiology who are licensed and recognized by the state, just as prospective nursing students must study with nurses even though radiology technicians and nurses often work on the same patients. The same can be said analogously about English department faculty members: We work with the same students, but we often have different tasks and goals.

And for many decades potential English graduate students have had to make conscious decisions: "Should I choose the literature, composition, or creative writing option in graduate school?" If some complain, "The university I attended didn't have a creative writing program," such individuals must have lived rather academically sheltered lives: For some reason they didn't peruse the various college catalogues in reference libraries; they didn't ask creative writing professors about graduate creative writing programs; they didn't seek guidance from counselors regarding graduate-level creative writing options--in short, they didn't care enough about creative writing to do some simple research.

In California, many CSU and UC campuses offer--and some have been doing so for decades--graduate degrees in creative writing: CSU Chico, CSU Fresno, CSU Long Beach, CSU Los Angeles, CSU Northridge, CSU Sacramento, San Diego SU, San Francisco SU, San Jose SU, Sonoma SU, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, and UC San Diego (M.F.A. starting in 2007-08). Of course, several private institutions in California do likewise, including Antioch University (LA), the California College of the Arts, the California Institute of the Arts, Loyola-Marymount University, Mills College, New College of California, Otis College of Art and Design, St. Mary's College, the University of San Francisco, and the University of Southern California.

Still, some might say, "I took a few creative writing classes in college; I even published a couple of poems in my college's undergraduate magazine. I have what it takes to teach creative writing." Again, change the discipline to another: "I took a few painting classes in college; I even had a couple of paintings in my college's student art gallery. I have what it takes to teach painting courses." Nevertheless, if one takes the time to study the various graduate degree requirements in any practitioner-based discipline, one should immediately notice that taking "a few classes" doesn't give one the kind or level of expertise that others achieve when they finally earn such graduate degrees. And publishing "a few poems," often in questionable venues, doesn't make one an accomplished writer. With the advent of the internet combined with vanity presses, people have no problem finding outlets for their works regardless of their skill levels; such non-juried outlets often depend financially on the uninformed and the untrained.

If this petition is successful, California's community college students would have a state-wide assurance that their English professors would possess as a minimum requirement graduate degrees specifically in creative writing (M.A., M.F.A., or Ph.D. "or the equivalent") if they teach such specialized workshops. Of course, these creative writing professors will continue to teach other courses in composition and literature within their respective English departments like their counterparts in the CSU and UC systems.

And those who don't possess graduate degrees in creative writing but have demonstated expertise in the discipline via substantial publications, literary awards and honors, and/or extensive creative writing coursework should have no problem securing equivalency.

Consequently, no community college, large or small, would need to hire any full-time creative writing instructors: Such graduate degree holders already meet the state's minimum qualifications to be hired as English instructors provided they also hold B.A. degrees in English. And probably every community college already employs full- and/or part-time English instructors who currently possess graduate degrees in creative writing (they would be "grandfathered" into the new discipline). Given the large number of graduate degree holders in creative writing, community colleges won't have any problems staffing their creative writing sections with current or future faculty members.

Please support this effort to add creative writing to the state-wide Disciplines List for California Community Colleges by emailing the Academic Senate before April 2007 via the following address: And please contact your local community college's representatives to the Academic Senate and urge them to vote for this petition. Tuition-paying community college students minimally deserve appropriately degreed creative writing instructors and nothing less.

Works Cited
Fenza, D. W. "Creative Writing & Its Discontents." The Writer's Chronicle. March/April 2000. October 26, 2006.