How to teach writing

Higher education is probably unique for how elitist it is in reality and how utopian it is in rhetoric. The US has a particularly vexed version of this: there are eight private universities, grouped under the term Ivy League, with long histories, prestigious reputations and the robust networks that come with such stuff, and yet these institutions graduate fewer than 10,000 students a year. There is no way for any school – no matter the size of its endowment – to compete with them. Tradition can’t be bought.

There then follows a version of everything else, including state universities, state colleges, state community colleges, private research universities and private liberal arts colleges. Then there is the sub-version of everything else: the for-profit schools that wax and wane in direct response to how permissive the federal government is with its loan programs.

All of these schools are pay to play. All are expensive. All maintain a cryptic and impossible to figure out (and unregulated) scholarship system. Despite the absurdity of this pay-to-play system, no-one can really afford to opt out: not attending university is financially detrimental to about a million dollars over one’s lifetime. Thus students without the financial means to pay up-front for a degree end up borrowing money from the federal government.

And so the US government makes over a billion each year on student loans, a great deal of which comes from the astronomical fees charged to those who default.

This is, of course, just a cartoon sketch of this system, in which endless contradictions and absurdities abound. Floating above it is a series of utopian claims made by all who are employed by the system – about the potential of education, about its shared ideas, about its positive impacts. And these claims are correct, for the sharing of ideas is utopian. But the higher education sector monetises this sharing in decidedly un-utopian ways.


I have spent most of my life in this system, eventually leaving it with a PhD in literature. Despite having various graduate scholarships, I ended up borrowing around $30,000 at 9 per cent interest, eventually paying back $70,000. I have worked in the university for over twenty years in various ways. Most recently I have been working in a Master of Fine Arts (creative writing) program, despite not having an MFA myself.

The MFA is a weird degree – but it is a cliché to complain about it at this point. Those who teach in it say over and over that good writing can’t be taught. More or less developed in the US, the MFA is a terminal master’s degree, meaning it is the highest awarded in the field, and is usually completed in two years. It is basically a degree in how to write literature, and comes with a fairly rigid and set pedagogy.

Almost all programs have some form of ‘workshop’, where twelve or so students sit around a table with a faculty member and talk about each other’s work. The workshop has some pedagogical conventions that are unevenly followed, but are still true at most programs – for example, that the person whose work is under discussion should keep silent for most of the discussion. Similarly, the aesthetics of the work should be analysed more than its content, political concerns, or relation to society.

Most programs have a literature requirement, though this varies from institution to institution. Traditional English classes are often perceived to be irrelevant and so creative writing programs have formulated their own variations on literature classes (often focused more on ‘craft’ than thematic analysis).

The MFA limped along as a degree until the 1990s, when it really took off. At the end of the 1980s, US universities awarded fewer than 1,000 degrees in creative writing; by 2013, close to 6,500 were bestowed. There are many theories as to why the discipline has expanded so rapidly. Some believe students no longer want to be challenged (the degree is known for having a ‘progressive’ grading scale – in other words, most people get A’s because there is little convention about what makes literature ‘good’). Others think that people get an MFA because of limited job prospects (the fact that enrolments are counter-cyclical to the economy provides some support for this). I am partial to the theory that in the age of MOOCs (massive online open courses) and large lecture classes, the creative writing workshop is one of the few learning environments where students can still get personal attention.

These reasons might explain why people enrol in writing programs, but they don’t explain why so many universities began to offer such degrees. It is probably not a coincidence that the MFA expanded so dramatically during the same years that US state governments reduced funding for higher education; at the same time, the US federal government significantly increased the amount of money students could borrow. This forced universities to think about how they might get students to attend and pay tuition.

As the MFA isn’t known for being scholarly, many programs emphasise community over rigour. Yet, at the same time, many of the complaints about the MFA are about the communities it creates. In a 2014 New Yorker essay entitled ‘MFA vs. POC’, Junot Díaz complains about the degree’s lack of racial diversity: in 2013, 76 per cent of graduates identified as white. The degree skews inequity in all sorts of ways, not just in terms of race. As Chris Findeisen notes, for students coming from the poorest quartile, ‘the chances of graduating from college have scarcely risen above 6 per cent’, leading him to suggest that the actual number of these students who enrol in MFA programs is ‘very small’.

Recently, Ocean Vuong spoke of wanting to turn his workshops into something he called a ‘healshop’, one that honours and respects the difficulty of the space for writers who are not white. The word ‘heal’ makes me nervous. In general, I am not convinced that faculty members, who tend to be more odd than not, should in anyway presumed to be capable of offering mental health support. They aren’t trained for it. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore that many who enrol do so with the desire to tell their story – a story they often have a bunch of emotions about. Or that many see writing as having some sort of therapeutic potential. (One more theory about why the MFA is increasingly popular equates its rise to the decline in talk therapy.) The MFA – and writing degrees more generally – encourage the telling of personal, often traumatic stories, where one should ‘write what you know’.

While I agree with Vuong and Díaz that something about the MFA isn’t working, I would locate the problem in the impossibility of having any sort of utopian community within the neoliberal university system. I am also unconvinced that diversifying the sorts of people who pay for a questionable degree is the answer.

If I had my way, I would kick higher education out of cultural production. In my heart I believe that writing is egalitarian: all it requires is pen, paper and inclination. Unlike other art forms, writing doesn’t require cumbersome instruments, or specialist materials, or expensive technology, or years of physical training. There are also increasing opportunities for publishing. Poetry, in particular, has robust and decentralised publishing models, many of which are becoming cheaper and easier to access.

My preferred models come from prior moments when communities supported literary production for and by their own means. And there are many to choose from.

Many leftist movements have valued the arts as a mode of representing, preserving and disseminating cultural ideals and as a site of political education and debate. The John Reed Clubs, organised by the Communist Party USA in the 1930s, is one such model. The Harlem Writers Guild of the 1950s is another.

An interest in ‘cultural freedom’ and ‘revolutionary culture’ shows up again and again in political communiqués of the 1960s. Umbra, for example, was a collective of mainly Black poets founded in 1962 out of On Guard for Freedom (an organisation that in 1961 led a fairly intense protest against the murder of Patrice Lumumba at the UN). The short-lived Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School was established by Amiri Baraka in 1965 after Malcolm X was assassinated. That same year, El Teatro Campesino was founded on the Delano Grape Strike picket lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union. All these organisations were formed by specific communities to support artistic production relevant to them.

But if one gives in and accepts that the university is in the business of creating writers and it can’t be otherwise, then how should MFAs and similar degrees operate? If not a ‘healshop’, then what? How can and should such courses be configured? Another way to put it: if one believes it is a meaningful cultural practice to both read and write literature, and to gather around a table and discuss each other’s attempts (something I do agree with) – even if one has to enter into a pay-to-play system to do so (the part I do not like) – then how do we best do this?

Part of my answer is fairly conventional. One thing higher education does well is teach the traditions; strangely enough, this is one thing the MFA doesn’t do that well. It tends to teach a canon that is contemporary, written in English and skewed towards literature produced by its own graduates. In my ideal version, an MFA curriculum would focus less on contemporary literature and more on the social, economic and political forces that shape literature. If it were up to me, I would supplement the current focus on national literatures and/or artistic movements with a series of courses on literature’s role (or non-role) in various resistance movements. One might look at things like the Paris Commune, the Situationist International, Nicaraguan resistance writing, South African liberation poetry and various cultural/identity resistance movements in the US.

I would also add more practical or involved classes. These could include topics like pedagogical theory, especially its liberation traditions; the ethics and problematics of ‘service-learning’ models, particularly unpaid or under-paid internships; and the study of literary magazines – both as cultural products and publishing platforms – and their role in cultivating literary traditions.

In addition to a thesis, students could do fieldwork projects. These could have a pedagogical focus (such as teaching a free skool somewhere), a relational aesthetic focus, or an editorial focus (a reading series, a journal, a press, a website or something similar).

There would be other (less conventional) ways I would redefine any academic program attempting to train creative writers. For example, I would have each student develop an individualised course of study that includes twenty-five books designed to help them figure out what it is they want to do, aesthetically and politically.

And other insistences: that administration work be shared equally by faculty; that everyone would be paid the same amount; that admissions would be open; that cost would be set after assessing the financial situation of admitted students, not prior. (Here I just want to break down some of the traditional academic hierarchies.)

But I am not really convinced this sort of program will make a better world. To be honest, when I look at nations without degrees in creative writing, I think of them as in a sort of ‘before the fall’ moment. The MFA was, oddly, a degree that writers brought to the academy. Almost all of the programs were started by writers, and these folk had to do a lot of work to start them. It wasn’t easy. Nothing ever is in higher education. Undeniably, they saw the degree as a chance to get themselves and their friends employed. They were reacting to the economics of the time as much as those enrolling in the programs were. I am not going to fault them for this; I, too, have used this system to keep myself eating.

I also recognise that this type of degree provides an entry into the notoriously closed and elitist New York publishing system. While I would argue this belonging is an illusion, I get that it feels more egalitarian to some. But once something like this starts, there really is no refusing one’s way out of it. As Stefano Harney and Fred Moten remind in The University and the Undercommons, ‘the Universitas is always a state/State strategy.’

It can be a fun party trick to imagine what literature might be after the revolutionary destruction of capitalist social relations, even though chances are our imaginations are as hobbled by the present as anything else. There are three utopian moments that suggest to me a way out.

In April 1870, the Paris Commune’s Federation of Artists wrote a manifesto, calling for the ‘free expansion of art, free from all governmental supervision and from all privileges’. They also called for equal rights for artists and for independence and dignity.

In 1932, a group of writers and thinkers from Martinique started the journal Légitime Défense. They promised that, when ‘faced with all the administrative, governmental, parliamentary, industrial, commercial corpses and so on, we intend – as traitors to this class – to take the path of treason so far as possible.’ They end with a footnote promising to develop their ideology in the next issue. But there was no next issue. The journal was censored and its authors, studying in France at the time, were repatriated.

In May 1960, almost a hundred years after the Paris Commune, the Situationists wrote a manifesto in which they list the seizure of UNESCO as their ‘most urgent objective’. It reads as quaint now; UNESCO is barely holding on. UNESCO might no longer be the enemy, but the threat it represented – the ‘bureaucratisation of art and all culture’ – remains. This bureaucratisation, the Situationists assert, ‘is a new phenomenon which expresses the deep inter-relationship of the social systems coexisting in the world on the basis of eclectic conservation and the reproduction of the past. The riposte of the revolutionary artists to these new conditions must be a new type of action.’

Although shaped by disparate historical circumstances, these three manifestos share a common vision. All imagine art that is non-nationalist. All presume that art can be autonomous from government and used to support resistance and radical social change. All might be failures. The history that comes after these moments suggests this.




Juliana Spahr

Juliana Spahr’s most recent book, Du Bois’s Telegram, will be published in October 2018 by Harvard University Press.

More by Juliana Spahr ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays