Students express concerns over English department’s creative writing emphasis

Students express concerns over English department’s creative writing emphasis

Photo Credits: JAMIE CHEN / AGGIE

Application process has potential for unclear expectations

The UC Davis English department offers undergraduates in the major a creative writing emphasis by way of acceptance to and completion of three upper division creative writing classes. Some students, however, have expressed concern regarding the perceived ambiguity in the application process to these upper division classes.

The creative writing emphasis allows students to produce material in three writing genres: poetry, fiction and nonfiction, denoted as P, F and NF respectively.

“English 5F, 5P and 5NF are the gateway classes in creative writing; these are the first classes you take,” said Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing Katie Peterson. “If you want to take more classes, you apply to get into 100F, 100P, and 100NF. They are all workshop classes. The way they are taught is you go and you write things and then you bring them back to the classroom community. You get feedback and you learn to be a better writer through seminar based discussion. You learn what good writing is and what your writing is.”

Each class has space for roughly 17 students, and there is on average one section of 100F, 100P and 100NF offered every quarter. There will be two 100F sections this upcoming quarter, however.  Students apply for a place in the class through an application that requires writing samples. The professor teaching that quarter’s class decides which students from the application pool will be accepted into their class. Students who are denied are not offered direct feedback or justification as to why they were not accepted.

“I’m interested in screenwriting and media writing, and I think creative writing could cover these areas more than being just a communications or journalism major,” said fourth-year English major Kenny Menjivar. “The application process itself isn’t that difficult, but I haven’t gotten into fiction all year, and I’m still trying to get the emphasis with that. My [English 5F TA] was telling me different professors have their own tastes … I went to one of the major advisors last quarter and they told me it’s all up to the professor. I was a little mad at first, but I figure at one point I’ll get in.”

According to Peterson, the quality of the student’s work is the underlying factor to determining a student’s acceptance to the course.

“Every professor reads the applications and makes the decision on their own,” Peterson said. “The professor chooses the best writers, so the criteria [for acceptance] is the best writing. They chose the writing that is the most alive and dynamic. I can’t speak for everybody, but I know when I am faced with the applications for 100P, I choose the best poems. I know there is a popular view that nobody agrees what the best is, but I think if you chose a life in the arts you don’t think that’s true. There can be agreement what the best is. I choose students who are interested in poetic form in some capacity, whether it is the form of slam poetry or the sonnet. I choose students who think poetry is more than putting feelings down on a piece of paper. I choose students who are memorable. I often find myself choosing students who are interested in things other than themselves.”

A quote by poet Elizabeth Bishop summarizes good writing in multiple forms to Peterson.

“There are three things she looks for in good writing: accuracy, spontaneity, mystery,” Peterson said. “For me that covers it. I’m looking for things that show the writer knows what they are doing, I’m looking for things that surprise me and I’m looking for things where I walk away and there is quality of continual thinking.”

While fourth-year English major George Liao was initially denied to the emphasis, he was accepted upon reapplying. To him, focusing on growing as a writer was the cause of his eventual acceptance into the emphasis courses, rather than attempting to write in accordance to a style the professor of the class might want.

“[The emphasis] is really excellent, I’ve grown a lot since I’ve been here,” Liao said. “The classes are small and it’s concentrated. You get to work with other writers and see yourself grow and them grow as well. Writing is an expression of self. The more you adhere to yourself, find truth and instill it in your writing, it shows and the better writer you become.”

Writing for the purpose of adhering to a specific professor’s style goes against the writing itself, according to Peterson. A trust in oneself as a writer is fundamental to the creative writing program and is supported by the variation within the application process.

“What [you should think] is what is my best piece of work, rather than trying to guess what the professor will think is your best piece of work,” Peterson said. “The minute you start doing that is when you start becoming truly ambitious as a writer because you’re thinking about your own judgement. That is your best resource when revising a piece of work, as opposed to thinking ‘what does this person want from me.’”

Moreover, this nonlinear academic path is part of true instruction in the arts.

“It is much easier to know what instruction in the sciences looks like,” Peterson said. “The tradition of the instruction of arts in this country is a rich tradition, but it’s much less deeply respected and much less understood. And being an artist of any kind, you have to be the best judge of your own work. It is a really self-governing thing to do to want to be an artist. There is no rubric or set of criteria that is going to tell you what good writing is […] I think we’re less used to being comfortable saying one piece of writing is better than another than we are saying one set of coordinates in a problem set is more accurate in one problem set than another.”

Nonetheless, students can feel stress in the simplicity and inherent ambiguity of what is expected from them in the application as well as the number of students who apply. Moreover, these factors add stress to academic planning.

“I’m supposed to graduate, but if I don’t get into fiction I might have to take it in the fall,” Menjivar said. “But I don’t want to wait and see what the professor is going to say, so I might just play it safe and apply to nonfiction or poetry. But you do also get priority for a class as a senior so maybe I will get in with priority. But a lot of people are applying to fiction and there are only 15 people in the class, so I might take the easy way out. I think it’s random, it all depends on what the professor wants”

Moreover, according to Menjivar, students are notified a “week or two before the quarter starts” whether they are accepted or denied from the class which can complicate a schedule.

“I probably won’t find out until spring break if I get into my class for Spring Quarter,” Menjivar said.

According to Liao, the underlying issue that causes complications in student planning is the unequal ratio of student demand for creative writing classes and the supply of classes offered.

“I think perhaps if they opened up more 100 [series] classes that would be good,” Liao said. “Hopefully they will look into that to allow more capacity to bring students into these classes. Other majors are also impacted, and other students on campus also have to find other ways around it.”

The English department has taken steps to address student concerns about the creative writing emphasis.

“I had a meeting last quarter, and I’m going to have one next fall, with students before the application process to talk about the application,” Peterson said. “One of the things I did during the meeting was talk to them about how to select their best pieces of work and how to revise them.”

Peterson suggested seeking one-on-one attention with a professor or taking other creative writing classes can help improve a student’s work in order to better re-apply for an emphasis course.

“I think you can seek out that thing with the professor or take English 5 again,” Peterson said. “Fiction is the genre of our day, it is what everyone wants to write. But as long as you’re writing you’re probably improving. English 5 is there every quarter. Poetry classes often have less students who want to get into them, and you can learn a lot about writing a story through a poetry class. Non-fiction, too.”

Written By: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org