The Dehumanization of Creative Writing in Undergraduate Education


Recently, there has been a dramatic growth in creative writing programs in higher education. According to data from 2009-2015 Associated Writing Program (AWP) catalogues, the number of undergraduate creative writing programs in the United States has increased from 313 to 720, a growth rate of 130% in six years.

At this time of rapid growth, many institutions are reexamining their goals for creative writing instruction, and this article discusses the underlying tension between institutional desires to make the value of creative writing instruction transparent in a quantifiable, data driven way, and individual desires to help students make meaning and value that engages, as Robert Penn Warren wrote, “knowledge of human nature, human needs, human values” (“Knowledge and the Image of Man,” 191).

This tension can be seen on the AWP website itself. In “Our History and the Growth of Creative Writing Programs,” a statement directed to a more general audience than other subsections of the extensive website, AWP makes several assertions similar to those of Robert Penn Warren’s. For instance, they assert that “Writing classes often demonstrate the efficacy of the human will—that human experience can be shaped and directed for the good: aesthetically, socially, and politically.” They argue that in addition to the study of literature, “In creative writing classes, students also analyze psychology and motives, the dynamics of social classes and individual, regional, and national beliefs.” However, on that same website, in the new “AWP Recommendations on the Teaching of Creative Writing to Undergraduates,” a culmination of several years of research, the AWP Board of Trustees articulates a much more quantifiable approach to undergraduate creative writing instruction, and one that sharply diverges from graduate writing instruction. They argue that “Whereas the general goal for a graduate program in creative writing is to nurture and expedite the development of a literary artist, the goal for an undergraduate program is mainly to develop a well-rounded student in the liberal arts and humanities, a student who develops a general expertise in literature, in critical reading, and in persuasive writing.” The recommendations focus on critical analysis of literature, isolating and emulating “craft techniques,” and “practice in writing.” In the 2,849 word document, the word “human” is altogether absent, as is “social” and “political.”

While the glaring absence of humanism in AWP’s recommendations for teaching undergraduates is striking, it is also understandable. Creative writing as a discipline is still fighting to be taken seriously in the academy. By focusing on an articulation of the quantifiable and transferrable skills that creative writing can offer, AWP makes the case that creative writing is complimentary and relevant to all undergraduates regardless of their disciplines. This, in turn, is helpful for universities currently struggling to justify the worth of humanities-based courses. While “human” is not a part of AWP’s recommendations, the word “craft” is one of the most repeated key words, occurring nineteen times in the article.

This focus on craft echoes the current language in most academic institutions. Taking a cursory look at top-tier creative writing course descriptions for undergraduates shows that “craft” is the most often-repeated key word. For instance, the first learning goal for University of Michigan’s Introductory Creative Writing course is: “To hone writing craft, style, and mechanics in at least two of the following genres: fiction, poetry, and/or drama.” The first sentence of Stanford’s Introduction to Reading and Writing Poetry explains that students “will write and read widely, exploring various aspects of poetic craft, including imagery, metaphor, line, stanza, music, rhythm, diction, and tone.” While University of Iowa doesn’t include the word “craft” in their undergraduate course description, they emphasize the workshop practice they made famous through their graduate program, and they currently subtitle their graduate creative writing courses “Art and Craft.”

“Craft” is inarguably a vital word in the contemporary creative writing classroom, however, it is also a word whose meaning has been recently radically altered and diminished. Originally, craft was synonymous with both art and intellectual power. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first accounts of the word occur in the late 800’s:


c893 1. Strength, power, might, force

c888 2. Intellectual power; skill; art

Now, due to radical changes in how many undergraduates are studying creative writing, who is teaching these courses, and how the university is attempting to justify liberal arts education, strength and intellectual power is no longer addressed as a craft-based goal. University of Iowa’s course titles that all begin “Art and Craft” most succinctly articulate the split. Stanford chooses to define craft in terms of specific literary devices, and University of Michigan puts craft in the same partition as grammatical mechanics.

Some might argue that this changed definition of craft is not that important, that students are learning the same things under different names. This new naming, for instance, is what University of Iowa is highlighting in its course title “Art and Craft,” and the program recently boasted writing teachers like Marilynne Robinson, someone who is very vocal about the need for students to experience the university as preparation for “citizenship and democracy” rather than training students to be a “docile, most skilled, working class.” Some might think that students are still learning fundamental lessons about the ways in which literature participates in social and political practices, that they are still learning to be sharp-minded and critical about the systems they operate in, and that they are engaged in a process, as the AWP “History and Growth of Creative Writing Programs” statement asserts, that can “demonstrate the efficacy of the human will.”

In some particular cases, this is probably very true. However, the reality is that not only has the number of creative writing courses for undergraduates radically changed in recent years, there has also been a large shift in terms of who teaches these courses and how much power and resources these teachers have. During the 1970’s, adjuncts and lecturers made up 20% of the higher education teaching force. Just forty years later, that number has risen to over 50%  (Gwendolyn Glenn, “Rise in Adjunct Faculty in High Education”). Combined with the graduate students who also teach university courses, the chances of undergraduate students taking a course with a tenure track professor who has sustainable resources, considerably more time to write and connect with other writers and their ideas, and who benefits from institutional respect, is very slim. For instance, in Fall 2015, 100% of the sixteen sections of introductory creative writing courses at University of Michigan (English 223) were taught by either GSI’s or Lecturers, 100% of the twenty-six sections of University of Iowa’s Creative Writing Studio Workshop (CW 1800) were taught by either GSI’s or Lecturers, and 100% of the eight sections of Stanford’s Beginning Fiction Writing (English 90) and the Introduction to Reading and Writing Poetry (English 92) were taught by Lecturers. While graduate students and adjunct lecturers are often excellent teachers who often make impossible sounding workloads and resources possible, they have little to no input into the ways in which courses are structured, administrative goals are established, and the ways in which their teaching is evaluated. What generally results from this situation is a system of university administrators establishing a long list of quantifiable standards for these teachers to demonstrate in order to keep their semester-by-semester jobs. The more their performance is streamlined, quantifiable, and easy-to-track for already over-worked committees typically outside the creative writing discipline, the greater the chances are that these instructors will receive future employment.

In the introduction to A Poetry Handbook, one of the most renowned how-to-write-poetry books, Mary Oliver advocates teaching creative writing in this limitedly-defined craft-based way, and her argument takes an alarmingly essentialist position: “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made. This is true also of painters, sculptors, and musicians. Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and redesigned for the next person . . . Whatever can’t be taught, there is a great deal that can, and must be learned. This book is about the things that can be learned. It is about matters of craft, primarily” (1). Chapter titles such as “Imitation,” “Sound,” “Line,” and “Form” make clear that, to Mary Oliver, craft is a set of literary devices that does not extend to explorations of identities or socio-political contexts. She writes, “Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one’s own work—these are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and diligent, as well as inspired, get there” (18). Ironically, the same moves that most creative writing institutions are making to reduce the meaning of craft solely to mechanics and literary devices in order to serve a greater population is also a move that neglects to give students opportunities to seriously engage with intellectual issues they were not “born” for.

Establishing opportunities for undergraduates to explore craft in a fuller way that includes rigorous attention to the line, a background in literary devices, and connects this learning to larger contexts about what they are writing about and why would help all undergraduate students understand the social value of literature, and it would give them a responsibility to their craft that goes beyond themselves. In this digital era where the most creative experience many students get is crafting their Instagram account, helping students connect their writing practices to issues that go beyond transferrable skill sets is vital. The organization Voices of Our Nation (VONA) is an excellent example of what can happen when craft is approached in this fuller way. VONA was established in 1999, and allows all writers of color—from beginning to advanced—the chance to work together in multiple genres. According to their mission statements, VONA has three goals, and the first one is about craft: “In VONA’s multi-genre workshops, developing writers of color explore their craft in an atmosphere of support and understanding.”

Some might ask why craft needs to be accompanied by “support and understanding”? What do we need to understand and support about metaphor or word choice? In the recent book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, Eric Bennett explores the ways in which Cold War politics affected the creative writing programs at University of Iowa and Stanford, noting that America’s fear of totalitarianism and quantified systems that emerged from World War II, affected the creation of these foundational MFA programs. Students in these programs were taught that writing and the study of literature was necessary and urgent work that explored questions about human values in order to create a better world. Certainly, this vision for literature was steeped in romanticism, but it was also attempting to question institutional agendas of professionalization and the deepening of the university interest in creating students with specialized knowledge bases. Bennett articulates that one of his primary missions of the book is to make clear that approaches to creative writing and literary conventions which “go without saying — assumptions that are invisible because seemingly timeless — once emerged from contingent historical circumstances” (162). During this current time of dramatic growth in creative writing programs there is an alarmingly consistent new institutional assumption that the undergraduate study of craft can be separated from the human and socio-political world the students occupy. This assumption allows universities to frame the discipline of creative writing as a set of saleable skill sets, which they believe will justify the discipline’s existence in a 21st century climate where, because of high costs and often unmet (and unrealistic) pre-professional aspirations, the purpose of higher education is often criticized. The problem is that this new packaging does not articulate any specific goals or skill sets that will help students question and engage with the current socio-political problems they are facing, and to engage with these problems in the complex, individual ways that the discipline of creative writing has been historically meant to foster.






Julie Babcock holds an MFA from Purdue University and a Ph.D. in the Program for Writers at University of Illinois-Chicago. She is the author of the poetry collection Autoplay (MG Press, 2014), and her fiction, poetry and reviews appear in The Rumpus, PANK Magazine, The Collagist, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Indiana Arts Commission and is a Lecturer at University of Michigan.