Friday, April 22, 2011


Several times during the MFA, it's come up in classes and in conversation that learning writing outside of the university tends to focus more on the writer's independent process and development than individual submissions of work, and that the utility of the workshop model seems to be more in the way that a group setting can encourage productivity and audience awareness than in its actual feedback and advice. This is a strength I see in community models as well, which is why I floated it as a potential answer to Mike's question a while back about what studying writing without the MFA might look like. 

My main curiosity and hesitation with fully embracing the studio, or perhaps "round table" model has been the question of how this would work exactly in the context of a university program or curriculum. The demand for creative writing tracks and minors and BFAs and MFAs is high, and my feeling is that universities are going to want sufficient assurance that a studio or round table model is going to provide some kind of evaluation of its students to justify its place as a degree program. But does imposing evaluation kill the model? Part of the payoff that comes from these kinds of writing groups is their informality; the lack of evaluation (other than, say, the gentle pressure the model exerts to learn from and keep up with your peers) seems, somewhat paradoxically, key to the ultimate gains in conscientiousness and work ethic that writers often get from participating in such groups.

In most people, learning creative writing looks
a lot like two Eustachian tubes trying to
weave a basket from one another. 

Of course, creative writing programs struggle with the role of evaluation in general. Leaving the question of whether or not creative writing can or should be evaluated on its merits aside, by what rubric can the vast variety of creative writing work be judged? Even grading based on effort tends to strike people as hollow or incompatible with the potential differences in writers' processes. Is it for an instructor to say that it is always better to spend weeks and weeks carefully composing and re-composing a draft rather than shooting through a draft in the heat of inspiration? Is time spent a good enough measure? What about number of pages? Number of works? Evaluation quickly becomes tricky because it is dependent on what variables one decides to define as measurable. And in that decision, often, are value judgments, based on the writer's own processes, preferences, and notions of what makes writing work.

I would give this submission an A for apprehending the
human condition and a C+ for effort.

We've highlighted it here before, because we appreciate the work she's doing to redefine the workshop, but it bears mentioning again that Cathy Day has a full plan for a studio-esque course posted on her blog. Here's the course description:
In this class, all students will be required to produce at least 50,000 original words, the first draft of a new work. This will not be done only during November’s “National Novel Writing Month,” but rather over the course of the entire semester. The course will be characterized by: intense focus on the writing process and on developing a writing regimen; weekly word count check ins; “studio” in-class writing time; practice in creating an outline or storyboard of a book; small peer groups for feedback; and analysis of a few contemporary novels that will serve as models.
So right away you can tell that this course plan brings in the studio elements of small group "check-ins" and in-class composition while choosing a few familiar measurables: word count, attendance, participation in and preparation for discussion, a tangible project. It seems very smart to me, and well worthy of being a class counted toward the awarding of a minor or a degree. But I do wonder how this model would look if it were not a novels course but a poetry course--would word count still be a good measure of progress? Or the number of poems?--or, more to the point, the model for an entire program's worth of courses. Can the studio model be so convincingly applied over top of the workshop course across the board?
Does this mean it's working?

I often think creative writing courses would be stronger, more effective, and more accurate representations of student progress if they dropped the sort of wishy-washy measure of simply "turning in" (a verb phrase, fellow MFAs, we will not use for the rest of our writerly careers!) for something more akin to what writers really do: establish habits, or fail to establish habits. But how to measure the establishment of habits, and whether or not that is actually a reasonable requirement even at the MFA level, remains a difficult question for me. I would really love to talk to some art MFAs and instructors someday about how studio classes generally work in their program, and how they either determine methods of evaluation or, alternately, manage to convince the university that evaluation based on anything other than attendance and visible progress is unnecessary. I would talk to the art people I know, but in the only place I see them gather they have a bad habit of jabbing passersby with their pool cues and stocking the juke box with hours worth of Foo Fighters. 

Anyone want to lobby for abandoning the MFA altogether? Would anything really change if we didn't have degrees and the potential for teaching positions? I am open to being told this is a stupid question. I am also open to the possibility that the degree I'm about to get means very little about me as a writer.

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