Stephanie Vanderslice

Stephanie Vanderslice is associate professor of writing at the University of Central Arkansas. With Kelly Ritter, she edited Can it really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in the Teaching of Creative Writing (Heinemann, 2007) and wrote Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates: A resource and Guide, forthcoming from Fountainhead Press in 2010. Currently, she is completing Rethinking Creative Writing in Education: Programs and Practices at Work, due out from Professional and Higher Press in 2011. She also publishes fiction and nonfiction in many venues.

The Final Portfolio: Driving Curriculum From the Outside In

The University of Central Arkansas boasts a relatively young BFA and, with the establishment of two nationally known literary magazines, the Oxford American and, more recently, the Exquisite Corpse, is currently building an MFA program that will debut in a few years. As a creative writing studies scholar whose career has long hinged on the importance of “building a better writing program,” the opportunity to consider how to assess such a program in the process of designing it has been virtually mouthwatering. At the same time, I have been revising the chapters on undergraduate and graduate programs in my forthcoming book. The convergence of these with the theme of this panel could hardly have been more timely.

In his luminous and ground breaking book on creative writing programs and literary history, The Program Era, Mark McGurl summarizes a common view of creative writing programs as, “costly extensions of [the] liberal education…a prolongation of the ‘college,’ experience [and] an all too brief period when the student is validated as a creative person and giving temporary cover, by virtue of his student status, from the classic complain of middle-class parents that their would-be artist children are being frivolous” (2009 p. 17).

Damning criticism indeed, though I must reiterate again that McGurl is not leveling these charges so much as aptly summarizing a common complaint of the culture at large. Is it true? I would say sometimes yes, sometimes now. Does it have to be? Absolutely not. And one of the solutions rests in assessment. An assessment that drives curriculum by beginning with what students want and need from their programs.

The ideal assessment of a creative writing program, as I currently see it, has three prongs. The first is anchored in the assessment of the student’s writing itself, as evidenced by the rubrics designed by programs such as those at Kendall Dunkelberg’s Mississippi University for Women and at programs at home and abroad. Such rubrics help to reveal what it is students are learning about good imaginative writing, demonstrating that indeed, with careful consideration and attention to pedagogy, creative writing can be taught.

The second, however, is anchored in meeting student expectations. How many programs, for instance, have considered what students might want their creative writing degree to do for them? Have they determined that the courses they offer cover these topics and that students leave them with a better understanding of them? How do we know what creative writing students want?
One way is to ask them. In spring 2009 I conducted a down and dirty survey of graduate creative writing students across the country, yielding 34 responses—large enough to be interesting, not large enough to be statistically significant (yet—I am hoping to expand the survey to reach more respondents). One of the questions asked them, “What do you expect your MFA in Creative Writing to Prepare You For?”

The answers were interesting. Of course, “a career as a practicing writer,” was their first response. But look what came in at number two. “A career teaching creative writing in higher education.” Almost 75%. Which begs the question: does our assessment examine the ways in which we prepare students in this way, through courses, professional development, mentoring? Would a portfolio of student work demonstrate this understanding? If not, it’s something to consider.

The third prong is the extent to which the program prepares the student, to the best of its ability, for a literary culture that is changing with spectacular speed. Has the program’s curriculum, special programs and speakers prepared the student for this reality. Does student work demonstrate flexibility and an understanding of the need to stay abreast of new media and technology in building a literary career? As the answer to the first question (as well as to some of the other questions) demonstrates, students seem to be in a surprising kind of denial about the literary world they are preparing to enter. This is where creative writing programs need to educate their students about what they will need, first and foremost to be adaptable to changing their idea of a literary career in the midst of what Richard Miller terms, “the most significant change in human expression in human history” (2008) by providing them the content and the curriculum in these areas whether they know they want it or not.

To achieve this, I have come to the realization that the assessment of student work, the exit portfolio, needs to examine the quality of student writing at its core. But it also needs to do a lot more , a necessity that requires changes in the content of the portfolio itself. It needs to examine, by requiring work that transcends the traditional genres and includes reflection on other course and program content, the extent to which the program helped the student what he or she expected to about writing, and, as this survey would suggest, about teaching writing and the many ways of breaking in to the academic community. Finally, it needs to examine the extent to which students are prepared to step out into and take charge of their futures in a stunningly variable literary culture.

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