English Dept. to augment writing courses, faculty

In an effort to meet increasing student demand for upper-level writing classes and bolster the writing concentration, the English department is augmenting current offerings in both fiction and nonfiction writing classes, English Director of Undergraduate Studies Lawrence Manley said this week.

The size of the writing faculty — currently totalling about 14 — will also increase to 17 within two years to accommodate two new nonfiction classes and a handful of fiction classes. And with more faculty members available to advise independent projects, Manley said, two additional students will likely be accepted into the writing concentration, which includes about 20 students each year.

Prof. John Crowley’s Writing for Film course is an option for students seeking classes with a writing concentration. Student demand for such courses has increased.
Aileen Agricola
Prof. John Crowley’s Writing for Film course is an option for students seeking classes with a writing concentration. Student demand for such courses has increased.

The changes come as the popularity of writing classes is on the rise, Manley said.

“If we were going to look at a graph of the excess demand, I’d probably say it’s as great now as it’s ever been,” he said. “There’s a widening gap between the number of applicants and the sections available.”

Planned faculty additions will make the creative-writing faculty within the English department “as large as it’s ever been,” Manley said.

Next year, current Calhoun College Dean Leslie Woodard will teach a section of Introduction to Writing Fiction, doubling the current number of slots available in that course. And, Manley said, the department is still in negotiations with a fiction writer to teach an intermediate fiction workshop next fall.

Cynthia Zarin, a New Yorker staff writer and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, will teach a nonfiction course titled “Profiles and Portraits,” which Manley said will serve as a third-person counterpart to English professor Anne Fadiman’s “Writing about Oneself.” Zarin taught a section of the introductory English class ENGL 120 at Yale last fall, a class that she “very much enjoyed” teaching. She said she plans to remain at Yale for at least a few years.

There are also tentative plans for New York Times Magazine contributor Jack Hitt to join the English faculty during the 2009-2010 academic school year to teach a nonfiction class.

Rising demand for upper-level courses inspired the English department to expand its staff, Manley said.

Students interested in classes specific to nonfiction writing past the introductory level could turn to just three courses last fall: “Nonfiction Writing,” “Advanced Nonfiction Writing,” and “Journalism.” This semester, the department’s upper-level nonfiction offerings include “Daily Themes,” “Writing about Oneself” and “Journalism.”

The sparse offerings made admission difficult.

“The first few years, trying to get into those classes was really discouraging,” said William Palmer ’08, who is a writing concentrator. “I ended up writing fiction after that. It was consistently easier to get into fiction-writing classes than nonfiction-writing classes, at least for me.”

Much of the impetus for the additions came from writing faculty themselves, Manley said. In February, nonfiction writing professors Fadiman and Fred Strebeigh wrote a memo, at the request of English department chair Langdon Hammer, outlining ways in which the department should expand. Fadiman said her and Strebeigh’s ideas were in tune with those expressed by other members of the department.

As a result of the changes, ”more good writers will find a place in intermediate and upper-level writing classes,” Fadiman said.

“Yale has chosen especially good instructors,” she said. “All these new offerings and expansions in fiction and nonfiction are going to help make Yale a really important center for good young writers.”

The department will lose one writing teacher next year: Rosencranz Writer in Residence Louise Gluck, the former U.S. Poet Laureate and current Yale verse-writing professor, at the University, will take a leave beginning in the fall semester.


  • Peter

    The problem is not entirely with the number of students in a class. Having sat through five of them from advanced fiction writing to playwriting to an independent project with an adviser, I conclude that the most successful ones in terms of improving my writing were smaller classes, with eight or nine people, and the individual project. One class, which had 18 students was in a cramped room somewhere in the deep basement-like environment and was a bit too much to take. Real changes to the writing concentration will happen if 1)it is open to all majors, 2)we have a broader selection of faculty members, preferably on a rotational basis.

  • agreed

    I agree with comment number 1. English majors are not the only people who like to write, and thus should not be the only people who can enter the writing concentration. Creative writing classes rarely, if ever, reference the Western canon that is so central to the English major (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, etc.). I am a literature major who has taken a few creative writing classes, but I can't apply for the concentration because I prefer lit to English.

    Adding a couple professors is great, but nothing is going to change unless we expand much more and open the concentration to other majors. Until then, the concentration will fuel the elitism that often surrounds writing at Yale. People often wonder, "Why try writing if so few are given the chance to learn it?" Intro-level classes become advanced ones when all the students in it are already so accomplished as writers.

    More faculty could also streamline the admissions process for creative writing. I have heard that different poetry professors have divergent opinions on what constitutes good writing. If there were more professors, perhaps people could submit one poetry application instead of several--then the professors could decide whose styles match with theirs.