Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Our Schools are the Back of the Bus!"

In Edward James Olmos' film Walkout, Paula Crisostomo, played by actress Alexa Vega, astutely utilizes an interesting and cogent analogy to spur her fellow students to action; she notes that the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that Dr. King led is similar to their collective plight in East Los Angeles high schools in the late 1960s: "Our schools are the back of the bus!"

Many community colleges are "the back of the bus" when it comes to creative writing. Unlike most four-year institutions that routinely demand graduate degrees in creative writing from their tenure-track faculty (in addition to substantial publications, honors, and awards--the "publish or perish" axiom has merit), many community colleges allow their rank-and-file English faculty to teach any courses offered in their departments.

Thus, creative writing workshops taught by untrained faculty have detrimental effects on students. For example, almost universally, students in workshops taught by such unknowing mentors focus mainly on the themes and subject matter of their peers' works and rarely, if ever, receive training in terms of craft. "I think this poem is about man's inhumanity to his fellow man," or "I like the subject; I can relate to the feelings"--in short, unqualified creative writing instructors focus primarily on what a poem or short story means or says, not on how a poem or short story means or says something. Craft awareness and instruction is crucial for all fine arts instructors and their students; craft expertise largely defines and delineates those who ultimately can make names for themselves as practitioners and those who can't.

If students can't get craft instruction in their beginning workshops, they'll have a far more difficult time once they enroll in intermediate and advanced workshops. Those who have become publishing practitioners need only remember their student days in workshops: Remember the student poets and fiction writers who seemed destined to drop out simply because they were out of their depths? Some of us felt pity for them, for we ascertained that they were victims of previous mentors who were also out of their depths:

"I studied with Professor X at Acme Community College."

"Does he publish? I've never come across his name in periodicals or in bookstores."

"No, but he shares his poems with students and always has positive things to say about students' poems. He's wonderful, not like our creative writing professor who never seems to be happy with my work. I mean, do you understand all that technical stuff he mentions in the workshop?"

To use a personal anecdote, I first took creative writing workshops at a community college taught by someone who possessed an MFA from a highly respected university. Although he hadn't published a book-length work, he did have a fair amount of work published in various literary journals and anthologies. More importantly, he had studied with numerous mentors who were--and are--well-known practitioners, and he made a point to note his training on the first day of instruction: He wanted us to know that, although we might disagree with him on certain points or matters, we should understand that his criticism is informed by his many mentors--and their mentors. Essentially, he passed along what he learned from his mentors; he wasn't interested in merely saying, "Well, I would delete this adjective and I would move this noun to this position." He wasn't interested in self-aggrandizement by suggesting that we write like him; rather, he was interested in passing along the craft knowledge and concerns that his mentors took from their respective mentors. I studied with that first creative writing instructor for three semesters; I didn't even receive credit for my third semester of creative writing workshop attendance at that community college, but I wanted to be prepared for my next mentor, Philip Levine, when I transferred to complete my BA in English at Fresno State University; through Levine, I benefited from what he received from his mentors, including Yvor Winters, Robert Lowell, and especially John Berryman. After Levine, I studied with many other impressive, talented writers: I spent approximately 300 weeks in creative writing workshops as an undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate student.

For one of the best things students in the literary arts can do for their work is to study with skilled, well-trained literary artists.

But we do great harm to those with literary aspirations if we don't give them properly trained creative writing instructors; we're relegating them to "the back of the bus."

And four-year institutions might very well decide, just as Dr. King did, that supporting the status quo isn't beneficial for them too since they will have to deal with underprepared transfer students in their advanced workshops. If they revoke creative writing course articulation agreements with community colleges, such action might spur community colleges to do the right thing since tuition without instructor qualifications is just as harmful as taxation without representation.


Sheryl said...

This is a moving post. I can only hope some administrator out there with a conscience takes the time to read what you have to say. I signed your petition and someone emailed me asking me my position and where I lived by the way. Community Colleges and poor schools in general are cutting budgets back while universities that charge an arm and a leg to wealthier students receive more aid from states on top of the added tuition. It's sad and scary. This IS the harsh reality of our society. Suddenly also hard work is irrelevant, publishing is irrelevant, and what is relevant in the end I ask? B.S.? Ughhh, maybe I shouldn't ask questions such questions to myself. Ughh.

Sheryl said...

Sorry about the errors. I'm prone to them.

Robert Vasquez said...

Dear Sheryl,

Thanks for responding.

Yes, I agree with you that administrators who put students' educational welfare first could do much to correct this phenomenon--and creative writing faculty at four-year institutions can spur their administrators to reconsider their course articulation agreements with nearby community colleges. Students are told that these workshops are similar to those offered at the four-year level, but few--if any-- four-year institutions would allow unqualified faculty to teach creative writing workshops.

All the best,


Sheryl said...

Dear Robert,
I hope you post again after your summer! Some days I want to add a post here, but I prefer to read your wisdom. I'm leaving to El Paso next week (I hope!). Gas is sky high. Then I'm going to Chicago for the co-hort residency thing. No employment in the interim or for the summer which is of course not a good thing! But somehow we make it, whether it be a grueling teaching load or a summer w/o classes! I understand your desire not to churn out poems too fast, but rather wait until they are strong. I greatly admire it today! Greatly. Let's hang tough!

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