As the English Department prepares to review its undergraduate offerings next semester, the size and availability of writing courses at Yale have drawn fire from students and professors alike.
Many writing concentrators said that although they are generally pleased with the University’s writing program — particularly with the faculty — there is a persistent campus-wide demand for creative writing courses that cannot be filled by such a small program. Professors and students also said more Yalies might benefit from the strength of the writing faculty if the concentration were open to students in majors other than English.
The Writing Concentration — directed by English professor J.D. McClatchy — is part of the English major and allows students to apply four writing courses toward their major requirements, whereas English students not concentrating in writing can apply only two creative writing classes to the major. Writing concentrators must also take at least 11 courses in the English department and complete a senior project, in which they produce a single long piece or a collection of shorter pieces.
English major and writing concentrator Samantha Tonini ’07 said she applied to the program because she wanted the opportunity to work with Yale’s writing faculty on an extended creative writing project before she graduates. She said she appreciates the small number of writing professors and concentrators because it creates an intimate atmosphere in which both professors and students feel engaged in the program. Her senior project adviser, for example, spends at least an hour and a half on her work during any given week, she said.
“The writing classes offered to everybody at Yale and to English majors are really incredible, and the opportunity to work with [the faculty] one-on-one causes an incredible amount of growth,” she said.
English professor William Deresiewicz, who teaches the popular writing course “Daily Themes,” said one of his chief complaints with the writing concentration as it is currently structured is that it is only available to English majors. He said he thinks this might be due to an underestimation in the English department of the number of non-majors that would be interested in becoming concentrators.
“There seems to be a misconception among some people that somehow there’s a correlation between wanting to be an English major and wanting to be a writer,” he said.
Writing concentrator Rachel Frankford ’08 said she agrees that while a writing major on its own would not fit the requirements of a liberal arts education, it was the writing program that “tipped her toward” the English major. She said she would have liked to be able to major in another field, while remaining a writing concentrator to take advantage of the faculty in the University’s writing program.
Deresiewicz said there was some initial resistance among the English department faculty to the creation of a writing concentration. He said these faculty members were concerned that a focus on writing would dilute the English major because students would not have to take as many literature courses. Many English faculty members have a negative impression of teaching writing as an academic subject, he said.
“I think a larger problem is that a number of those [faculty] just don’t see the instruction of writing is intellectually legitimate,” Deresiewicz said. “At the same time there are plenty of schools where you can just major in writing and not do a lot of reading and I think that is a tremendous problem. I think people who write need to learn how to read as well. That’s what ‘Daily Themes’ is all about.”
Writing Center Director Alfred Guy said he thinks many members of the English Department may view an emphasis on creative writing as a distortion of the department’s traditional focus on research in literature. He said that while writing has always been a part of studying English at Yale, it has traditionally been a small component of the department’s offerings.
But Tonini said her training in English literature courses prepared her for the rigor of the writing concentration.
“I don’t think I would have been able to come to a creative writing project of a scope this broad had I not had the experience that I had as an English major,” she said of her senior project, which is a poetry collection.
While Deresiewicz said a split between the writing program and the English department would be dangerous, he pointed out that the creative writing faculty is the only part of the English faculty that is growing. Although the enrollment in the English major declined in recent years, he said, an increasing number of students have shown an interest in writing classes, so the department should adapt to these changing needs. The number of junior and senior English majors has steadily declined from 227 in 2001-’02 to 176 last year, according to Office of Institutional Research data.
Frankford said she thinks the department should work to make the entire writing program — not just the concentration — more accessible by hiring additional faculty and doubling the number of courses.
“The professors are great and it’s kind of a shame that only a few people can work with them every year,” Frankford said.
Russell Brandom ’07 said that even as a concentrator, it has been difficult for him and others in the program to get into some writing classes, many of which receive applications from hundreds of students on campus.
Brandom is the fiction editor for the Yale Daily News Magazine.
Guy said that at schools with larger creative writing programs — like Johns Hopkins University, where he used to teach — graduate students often taught the introductory courses, something that is not currently possible at Yale because the Graduate School does not offer a Masters of Fine Arts degree.
English Director of Undergraduate Studies Lawrence Manley said the issue of increasing the number of writing faculty and making creative writing courses more accessible to students will be addressed in a formal review of the undergraduate English program to be conducted next semester.
“We will be reviewing the undergraduate major in English next fall, and certainly creative writing is part of that story and it would certainly be nice to expand the program,” Manley said.