Creative Writing, Tenure, and the idiot savants caught in between

After stumbling upon an interesting discussion about the publication of literary journals, specifically poetry, then after rambling long enough to throw in one Han Solo reference, I was reminded of an incident that occurred in the English dept. while I was getting my MA. 

According to the story, the administrative branch of the university was revising/updating tenure policies and requirements in a number of departments.  After being told it was completely unrelated to these changes, a few faculty members in the creative writing program were asked to list some of the “top-tier” writing journals.  Rightly so, this arose suspicions, and the faculty asked and asked again if this was related at all to the new tenure policies.  They were reassured it wasn’t, and instead were told it was just a survey (they might have even been given some unrelated reason the survey was being taken, I can’t recall).  After all, such a label as “top-tier” doesn’t always translate between disciplines in equal value: what might be the “prestige” equivalent of, say, Eighteenth Century Review to 18th Century scholars, isn’t necessarily going to be the most “prestigious” literary journal to creative writers.  Furthermore, the sheer number of literary journals often vastly exceeds the number of other journals devoted to other disciplines within literary studies.  But, hey, it doesn’t have anything to do with tenure, so sure, here is your list of the “top tier” literary journals. 

A few weeks later, the new tenure policy is put in place, and it includes a requisite that CW instructors seeking tenure are required to place a number of pieces in top-tier journals (just imagine big, sarcastic quotes every time I say top tier from now on, okay?).  Aside from the message “higher education politics and administration is often evil,” my point is that this incident sets up a great look at the disconnect between creative writing programs and the larger realm of literary studies.  For a number of reasons touched on in the discussion I linked to earlier, along with a hundred other ones, it could be very possible that an instructor – even one who was a very good writer – wouldn’t be able to make it into the top tier journals if he/she had 10 years to do so.  I’m curious if this expectation of CW faculty seeking tenure is one that is common in other writing programs; it seems extremely problematic, and could arguably be reinforcing a subversion of the “peer-review” concept in exchange for a “scratch mine and I’ll scratch yours.” 

However, before I start getting into conspiracy theories, lets just consider the assumptions made by such a requirement. 

 1.  The number of journals dedicated to a discipline is not relevant when determining a “benchmark” of quality acceptable for tenured faculty; publication in the top 10 of 100 journals is no different than publishing in the top 10 of 1000 journals dedicated to a different discipline.

2.  Personal matters of style, aesthetics and content have no bearing when determining if an instructor seeking tenure has produced work acceptable for tenure status.

3.  A publication’s preference of style, aesthetics and content should not be considered when ruling that a faculty member seeking tenure has failed to achieve acceptable proof of tenure-quality work. 

4.  The deductive conclusion: creative writing that reaches top tier quality has a ubiquitous set of standards, perhaps even content, and a tenure-quality candidate should be expected to produce work that conforms to those standards, despite any aesthetic, personal, or stylistic differences and beliefs.   

5. In turn, while social culture is dynamic and ever-changing, the literature of that culture should not be, unless prompted to by the leading publications of literature. 

In other words, the creative writer should strive for the status quo, rather than challenge it, despite the history of literature being marked by rejections of the aesthetics of their respective time.  Ironically, the expectation of scholarly work from someone seeking tenure seems to say the opposite: some of the most defining moments of literary scholarship are complete reversals of a dominant theoretical practice.  This fallacy is one of creative writing’s biggest problems when functioning in an academic environment. 

It is widely recognized that the methods used to “teach” writing effectively are often innovative, unique, and personally relative to each student.  However, the expectation of product isn’t.  While I have issues with large parts of his essay “American Poetry in the New Century,” John Barr (president of the Poetry Foundation) does give a nice statement with which I wholly agree:

“Each year, MFA programs graduate thousands of students who have been trained to think of poetry as a career, and to think that writing poetry has something to do with credentials. The effect of these programs on the art form is to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor—and I stress this quality—entertaining; a poetry that both starves and flourishes on academic subsidies.” (the whole essay is here). 

The problem is further propogated by something I have personally struggled with, which is the segregation of creative writing from the study of literary writing, literary theory, and critical discourse.  While creative writing is probably my “forte,” so to speak, I love literary studies, and often it was/is difficult to engage in one without neglecting the other.  Even now, I am uncertain which of the two I would like to choose while pursuing my PhD.  One of my favorite articles that addresses this very issue is by Sandra Gilbert, in which she nicely states:

 “Now poets were relegated to Creative Writing programs while ‘real’ critics took up the arduous tasks of theory.  And gradually the writers in CW programs began to seem more and more like idiot savants or ‘wild children,’ savages on display for the edification and education of the more sophisticated professionals who produced true ‘theory.’ …. Together with a firm belief in ‘the death of the author,’ a founding assumption of our age of theory may well be the view that poets aren’t exactly ‘literary thinkers'” (The Writer’s Chronicle, February 2002).   

While some may disagree, I wouldn’t mind if writing programs in fact had a higher workload, requiring the same amount of work in the realm of literary studies as other students (in fact, it is this quality by which I have chosen where I want to pursue my PhD).  A PhD in “Poetry” means little to me, even if from “esteemed” writing programs, because it would still leave me excluded from being a literary scholar.  The two realms should go hand in hand if we want poetry to truly be a product of the academe and taken as seriously as other fields of study; however, we should constantly be aware of the ease in which one can diminish the best qualities of the other. 


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