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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Qualifications? What Qualifications? We Don't Need No Stinking Qualifications!"

As some of you know, not long ago I spearheaded a petition, with the official sponsorship of the 28,000-member Association of Writers and Writing Programs (long live the AWP!), to add creative writing to the California Community Colleges' (CCC) Disciplines List. Although that specific petition failed to garner enough votes at the statewide Spring Plenary session in 2007, the status quo still negatively affects thousands of creative writing students in the CCC system.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of California community colleges allow any English instructor regardless of his or her documented area of expertise to teach creative writing workshops as well as any other highly specialized course offered within their respective departments. And some CCC campuses and their English departments utilize seniority as the sole or ultimate criterion to determine faculty teaching assignments.

This mal-ethos is beyond logical comprehension, for I know of no four-year public institution that essentially says (by policy or procedure), "We don't care what your degree says; anyone can teach anything he or she wants that's offered in his or her department."

Yet, most community colleges officially pronounce via college catalogues and websites that "the students come first." (Was it P.T. Barnum who mentioned something about a "sucker is born every minute"?)

Any novice of critical thinking can quickly surmise that a profound contradiction subjects California's community college students to academic pot luck: "Maybe this semester I'll finally get a well-trained poet or fiction writer as my creative writing instructor." CCC students depend on us to look out for their welfare; they automatically assume that their creative writing instructors know what they're doing; sadly, many of these students aren't aware of some of their instructors' shortcomings until they get to a four-year institution (that is, if they can survive and prosper in those advanced workshops, for some fail because they didn't receive the kind of informed training their student counterparts commonly benefit from on CSU and UC campuses).

However, even more disturbing is the nonchalant ability of far too many English department faculty members in the CCC system, most of whom are white, to be overly generous when it comes to their own qualifications. One would think that community college faculty members would have learned from their own experiences as undergraduate, graduate, and even post-graduate students that they benefited specifically because their colleges and universities did not allow anyone to teach anything in the curriculum.

Should four-year institutions and universities administer a simple exit exam to correct such nonchalance? "Once you receive your degree, will you be qualified to teach anything as a professor in your respective department?" The results of such exams could save the public millions in salaries, health benefits, and pensions by denying degrees to those who answer in the affirmative: potential employers would receive exit exam results with official transcripts. As for those who pass the exit exam but do otherwise once they gain academic employment, their degree-granting alma maters should have the ability to legally revoke degrees just as state motor vehicle departments can revoke drivers licenses from reckless drivers: "We've received evidence that you're teaching creative writing even though your graduate degree is in composition; therefore, unless you can prove possession of a graduate degree in creative writing or "equivalency" in creative writing within 30 days, we must revoke your degree in composition and notify your employer that you no longer hold a graduate degree from our university."

For those of us who are people of color, such academic self-generosity on the part of some white English faculty members in the CCC system is just one example of institutional racism. If one queries many white English faculty members in the CCC system who've sat on hiring committees as to why they didn't hire any people of color, they'll often cite "questionable qualifications" to justify their hiring results. But the issue of qualifications is quickly minimized--it vanishes outright for some--when it comes to who should teach creative writing: "Oh, I want to teach creative writing. I took a creative writing class or two during my college days and I even had a poem published in the local Penny Saver! And our contract says seniority rules, so there!" Comedy has its uses, but when community college students pay tuition for workshops taught by unqualified faculty, their daily reality is anything but humorous.

California's community college faculty members who don't possess graduate degrees in creative writing (these degrees have been available since 1942; over 300 graduate creative writing programs currently exist in the U.S. alone) or who don't have "equivalencies" in creative writing should not be allowed to teach such workshops if CCC articulation agreements with the California State University and University of California systems are to have any worth--and if our creative writing students' welfare actually matters.