Resurrecting Phoenix: How University Writing Programs Exploit Student Writers

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I always loved the written word. However, after many years in higher education as a professor at two- and four-year institutions and an evaluator for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, I have come to the conclusion that two things need to happen. First, the English major as we know it must be scratched, and all PhD programs in literature and most in writing should be put under moratorium for about ten to fifteen years. My following explanation of the first should give clarity to the second.

What I did not know when I entered community college with my spiffy GED in 1994 was that most English professors don’t actually write, or let’s be fair, they don’t have time to write. Or let’s be fair, if they write they usually write the academic essay, and they teach us to write — not my intention to offend anyone here — students the dumbed-down version of the academic essay. These are the essays that professors would write for journals, journals, mind you, that don’t pay them a dime, on a dwindling promise of tenure or of what used to be prestige. These publications are not focused on the profession’s advancement of literature; instead, the focus is on the advancement of the individual professor. Harold Bloom comes to mind, for example. It you are an English major, you know him. If you are important, you have no idea who he is.

Simply put, what is missing in literature and writing programs is creativity. Writing is a form of art and writing is not teaching people how to write; rather it’s allowing them to find their own way to write. It may be more effective to ask students to plagiarize an essay first and then ask them to write it in their own words. After they do so, then tell them to write their own story but use a similar structure. After they write their own stories, then tell them to try a different form, any form that comes to mind.

What I just explained is pretty much how Geoffrey Chaucer started writing as did Shakespeare. They were motivated. Is my student motivated enough to look for another form? Probably not. She just wants to get a good grade so that she can get through and graduate and get a good job. She may not even know what job she wants. If I can inspire her with provocative subject matter, something colleges and universities are cracking down on, she may get motivated and that’s how art happens. That just may be how a career happens also. Creativity pushes limits, and that is the key to good critical-thinking skills that are useful in the real word.

Writing happens when one finds voice, and it may even be more useful in business or in a profession where people have to be creative and think of new ways to get things done. But that cannot happen if we stick too much to form, and I fear that the English Major, the literature major, is too much of a dinosaur. It’s one that is on life support for the sake of faculty members that need to have jobs more than because there are jobs to be had.

Being anal may be a current popular trend in sex, but it kills the creative process.

Literature is wonderful, and many miss out on the experience of a good but difficult book, but programs are only as good as colleges and universities are flexible. Higher education, in general, has become so laden with outcomes assessment that it has assessed itself into being virtually useless. There will never be an English paper rubric that can effectively assess an essay. Creativity is too difficult to assess; so is art. Being anal may be a current popular trend in sex, but it kills the creative process.

How many points do you want to give for my essay on my childhood dog being shot? Emotion aside, impressions are subjective, as they should be, and art is about emotions and moving people to feeling. Grids are not very good at that. Sure we have to use classical argument. Sure we have to be logical and adhere to grammatical rules, for example, but that has little to do with the purpose of the English major, nor does argument take up much time in Freshman-level writing courses. Argument may be one paper or a part of an assignment. Most of what is taught in composition class is outdated and, well, “clunky” and just does not fit well with the current needs of students.

Though there are benefits to this kind of writing for the mind, such writing as a form is completely useless to what most call the real world. It has no application whatsoever. For example, who would use Modern Language Association style formatting in their daily lives? No, we all hyperlink.

To add to this, even in the more foundational writing courses that make up the “bread and butter” work-horse courses for most English faculty in the United States tend to emphasize such things as Comparison and Contrast, Definition, Classification, Argument, Example and so forth modes or essays, and such rigid essays don’t actually exist in the real word. These are combined where useful, so by the time most students finish their English instruction, they learned forms of essays that have little or no practical value, and they learned how to cite in a format that has little to no flexibility.

No, I am not suggesting that we throw away literature and writing. I am suggesting that the English major adapt to the rapidly changing environment, well, more rapidly.

Here is a sampling of the major courses we should teach that are relevant to people’s lives and would make people more flexible in the current marketplace and adaptable in their personal and professional lives:

blogging for seniors, the pleasures and frustrations of Indie writing, writing and social media, non-fiction and blogging, the social media poet, book reviewing online, dealing with trolls, using online sources online, how to fix what you already published, writing when you don’t have time, Indie writing, using social media and literary classics, Tweeting Shakespeare, literature and sexuality, literature and girlhood/boyhood, literature and transgender, literature and Facebook, social media and social movement, using the visual online, using analytics, the visual, and the literary, YouTube and Feminism.

Most teachers would struggle to write well on a platform like WordPress.

See any you would like to add? Writing “on the spot” or under fast-approaching deadlines is more the norm than when our “ancestors” had a team of editors or time enough to bang out something on a typewriter. Most teachers would struggle to write well on a platform like WordPress.

What about creative writing programs?

Most writers that staff creative writing programs are unknown. Even a successful writer cannot make you a successful writer.

In sum, don’t waste your money when you can get a good editor that helped published writers for a fraction of the cost. These are mostly scams, ways that departments look to make money and keep enrollments up. The larger the department, the more funding they get and clout. Less means less. Most writers that staff creative writing programs are unknown. Even a successful writer cannot make you a successful writer. Buy a computer, read literary, yes, literary works, and write like hell. After you write a thousand pages, get an editor, throw out 98% of it, and write it again.

Even your dog, right now, as you are reading this, is writing his six-volume manifesto on “Why Dogs Hate Cats is Misleading: Rover’s Responses to Chee Chee’s ‘Ode To Those Awful Pussy Cats.’”

Unless the Disney CEO looks at you and decides to “Make you a Star,” the only way that’s happening is with a lot of work, a lot of failure, and a whole lot of luck (a nice twerking ass may help). Even your dog, right now, as you are reading this, is writing his six-volume manifesto on “Why Dogs Hate Cats is Misleading: Rover’s Responses to Chee Chee’s ‘Ode To Those Awful Pussy Cats.’” My advice to aspiring writers, advice I would have taken if I would have had it at twenty: skip college, work any job, save money, and hire a good, honest editor, and write a book. You will learn more with an editor with a sharp eye and a BA than you will from four years in an English program. Editing is a gift more than it is a learned profession.

Sadly, the profession is predatory to both our professors and our students. For over twenty years, funding at the state and federal levels has been drying out, yet more and more are going to school. Administrators are under severe pressure to make learning a number, so they are forced to cut classes and credit hours to fit under caps often at the cost of program quality. As a teacher, I see needs, and it is my job to meet those needs and teach for the greater good, but I cannot teach because the system does not allow me to do so.

Most faculty-student ratios that colleges promote on their websites are lies: they don’t consider part-time teachers faculty (and they don’t treat them that way either).

Our class sizes keep increasing. We have no money for graduate assistants or teaching assistants, and many veteran teachers are being “offered” early retirement. Where I teach now, one can take a package after teaching only ten years. Many are doing it. The result is that colleges are left with more newbie teachers and much less creativity in the classroom. Most colleges in the country rely on adjunct labor that often pays one-fourth the salary (and with no benefits) than a full-time professor makes for the exact same work. If it’s quality you seek in education, very few offer that anymore. Do you want your kid to learn from a teacher that makes less than your kid does at McDonalds? If so, send them to college. Most faculty-student ratios that colleges promote on their websites are lies: they don’t consider part-time teachers faculty (and they don’t treat them that way either).

I never signed up to exploit students and trap them in a profession so that they can work at a minimum wage job at a large chain book store when such existed or give them false hope at becoming a published writer. The truth is that they can publish themselves. I really doubt that if Herman Melville was alive if any agent would accept Moby Dick. Who knows? Great works don’t always sell a lot. Great works don’t always get an A+ in class, and great works are seldom appreciated during their own time. Art sucks but we need it. If anything we should teach people how to appreciate art, and that has to happen on a larger scale than with only the humanities.

These days, everyone wants to write, but no one wants to read.

What does matter is thinking on one’s feet and that requires being creative and flexible. This creates a kind of teamwork between people that gives them leverage, a kind of dependency for each other that is positive. These days, everyone wants to write, but no one wants to read.

I love college. It’s a wonderful experience, but what makes it wonderful is learning and the people you meet. It’s the talking. It’s the ideas and the discussion and the creativity of it. It’s the beauty of it. Few remember the content unless it changes their lives.

Until the English major gets with the times, I would read what punishes the reader, and write what rewards the reader. Yes, writers have to write well, use grammar on occasion, and be humble, but that can be learned on any good, focused platform with educated readers.

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Author: dropoutprofessor

A professor of English and Social Sciences that enjoys writing. Hope you enjoy my posts. All published work on this blog is my own. Pictures are used under license from Depositphotos.com or Shutterstock.com, unless otherwise noted.

3 thoughts on “Resurrecting Phoenix: How University Writing Programs Exploit Student Writers”

  1. I totally agree with everything here. I have a BA and an MA in creative writing, and some people came onto those courses for the wrong reasons, dropped out or found what they needed to do to be happy (and often it wasn’t writing). This doesn’t mean the institution is bad, of course, but I really think university courses in general should be more transparent about what is on the course. Even if the curriculum changes each year it likely doesn’t change much, luckily I knew someone the year above me who enrolled on the same course I was applying to, so she told me everything I needed to know.

    Whilst at uni, I found that writing definitely doesn’t suit the marking scheme. It worked for essays, and I am one of very few who enjoyed the poetics and reflections (as it gave me time to actually look back and see just where an idea might have been born), but ascribing a numerical value to a piece of writing is probably impossible. Subconscious bias to or against genre shouldn’t factor in, but I feel that with some people I knew from other courses it certainly did.

    I took the BA as a way to basically go on a 3 year writing trip, using most of my spare time to chisel poems out of the walls and develop a sci-fi concept that has turned into a book that I am almost finishing now, six years later. If I wasn’t afforded that time I don’t know if I would have had the same thoughts and the same connections, as a lot of talks with tutors and visiting writers had shaped my philosophy in a way staying at primark working in the stock room could not. Yes there’s the internet, but I knew on some level I needed to be poked into looking for things, so for me a degree was a brilliant opportunity to perfect my craft. I took the MA because I had not yet perfected my craft, and admittedly put less effort in than on the BA, but I was continuing with a BA project. The main issue with deadlines was that I had 3 beginnings to what might be readable novels, but they all got dropped for the next project or deadline that was looming. So whilst I had time, it was chopped into pieces that each required a different style. I think for me university was a place to grow as a writer, but not where I could get a massive complete piece of writing done (managed a small game and some short stories and poems, but like I said, lots of novels started and then got put on a shelf for later and I’m only catching up with myself now).

    I should have probably just written my own blog post…

    As an endnote, I logged on to wordpress today to change or delete my account, as I never use it. It was suggested at uni as something to do to develop a readership, but it was to me just a quick way to find out that I have little interesting to add to the white noise. Just as I was about to go into my account settings your writing appeared somehow, so I think I’ll stay for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for posting. I hope you feel good about what you earned during college. I, too, loved my writing program at Arizona State, but, like many art degrees, it can be a challenge to make a living on writing alone. I have been writing for 40 years. It’s very painful at times, but I find that I keep coming back to it. Actually, I just started here yesterday. I am on Medium (Yogi Ortner) and Wattpad. I am writing here for fun and a hobby. I think with essay posts, it’s tough to get a regular audience. They can get very popular but then die out shortly. It’s tough to get consistency. All I can say is to write because you love to write. When I get a chance, I will look at your work here.

    I love English literature and what I learned in college. I would love English to survive. I can tell you that employers have come to me and have said that graduate students at major research schools can no longer write well enough to work in such places as courts or for state government. That is really sad, but it has to get much worse before anyone tries to really change it. There is no way around it: if you want better educated people, you have to cut down faculty-to-student ratios. We do have to spend wisely. I found it odd that when I was at Columbia University, there are so many resources. When teaching at community college, we have very few resources. It should be the other way around, but you and I know that this is not how our system works. It funds and rewards those that are well funded and rewarded and it takes from those that have little funds and no rewards.

    I do hope you stick around.

    Like

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