The time of the poet-scholar

I have an autobiographical relation to the poet-scholar category. I wanted to be a poet. I went and got a PhD in English with the idea that even the TA line would be a sort of day job, and at the time they felt not quite related. My first job was as a scholar. My second, and current, job is as a creative writer. There is nothing unique about this story, so I will present it as an anecdotal example. I will in these notes just quickly attempt to enumerate the terrain which I think might explain how we have found ourselves at a panel on the poet-scholar at the MLA in 2012. I will draw no conclusions from it. 

When I was applying for that first job, I thought I was entering the job market in its decline. Casual or adjunct appointments were at around thirty percent. This felt catastrophic. The general thinking was that that there was no way it could get worse. “Who would do the service?” it was often said; it would be unsustainable to go lower. But then adjunct labor was teaching fifty percent of the classes when I got this second job in 2003 as a poet, in what Mark Nowak calls the American neoliberal MFA industry. What I realize now that I couldn’t see then was that despite the massive casualization of academic labor, I was at the same time getting a job in what is looking like it might very well be an MFA bubble. When I got my first job in 1995, there were somewhere maybe around sixty-five MFA programs. In 2014, Poets and Writers had 214 programs in their database. Many of these MFA programs are clustered at tuition-dependent universities (although some state universities have begun to see these programs as good ideas because they can provide that casual labor pool). But there are next to no employment prospects for these graduates, which wouldn’t necessarily have to be a problem if not for how so many have funded their degrees through large amounts of student loans. This is why the MFA numbers look unsustainable.

Parallel to what is looking like an unsustainable MFA bubble is what I might call the “possible creative writing-ization” of the English major. The Department of Education did not introduce Classification of Instructional Program codes for degree completions data until 1987. But data collected since 1987 clearly shows a dramatic increase in creative writing degrees. In 1987, 468 undergraduate and 413 masters degrees were awarded in creative writing. In 2011, those numbers are over 2,500 undergraduate and 2,782 graduate degrees. This is a fairly significant rise. And these numbers probably underreport, as many undergraduate programs only offer a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing, so the undergraduate data in particular is probably only reliable as a growth trend.

When I was an undergraduate way back in the ’80s, colleges and universities tended to treat creative writing classes like candy; too many would make you sick and weak. The small liberal arts college that I attended taught two poetry workshops a year: a beginning and an advanced one. You had to apply to take them. Twelve students were admitted. The rest, it was felt, did not deserve such a pleasure. Other schools, if they even had a creative writing major, tended to limit the creative writing majors. They had a gateway admissions process and only a certain number were allowed to be majors. Some schools, especially big state universities, still use this model. But in general, as the university system has begun to see students less as children whose candy intake should be regulated and more as consumers whose candy tuition money they want, they tend not to regulate but to provide. Anecdote again: the small liberal arts college where I now teach used the limited class offerings model to regulate creative writing majors when I began teaching there. Each semester there was a beginning and an advanced, waiting lists and demand be damned. At a certain point, the department began to receive more and more pressure from the administration to enroll whatever would enroll however it would enroll. So the department began to offer more and more undergraduate workshops. Now the department’s unregulated undergraduate creative writing majors tend to double undergraduate English majors.

There are numerous reasons for this: the grades in creative writing classes are obviously higher; the reading is less; the writing has a lower word count; etc. But not all of them are necessarily negative or lazily assumptive. I’d like to think that students might also be looking at the five-page seminar paper, the continued tendency to teach mainly the literatures of only two nations, and the strict century-coverage model that begins in the early modern period, and think to themselves, well at least the novel, say, has the possibility of being read by someone outside of the classroom.

Beyond anecdote, there is a fairly obvious piece of evidence to support this “possible creative writing-ization” of English departments. Although the AWP started in 1967, it did not feel compelled to hold a conference until 2005. It started small, with 3,000 attendees. In 2014, 13,000 people registered (probably more went and did not register). The MLA at its peak in the mid-1990s maxed out with around 12,000 people attending its conference. Last year it had around 7,000.

I doubt this “possible creative writing-ization” is in any way a permanent change to English departments. And that is how it should be. However, it definitely has had a major impact on the hiring patterns of English departments, and English departments will be changed by this for years to come. And while whatever happens next remains to be seen, I doubt it will look like a retreat to what English departments looked like in what we might now want to begin to call the glory days of the 1990s. The profession is obviously in the middle of a profound metamorphosis of some sort, from the fairly dramatic funding cuts that are privatizing the state university systems to the increasing evidence that the private system might have reached peak tuition a few years ago and might now be massively overpriced in relation to student ability and/or willingness to pay or borrow in a fairly stagnant employment market. And then English departments have their own narratives within these large-scale changes. I’m not sure, in short, that the profession could pay its composition and intro class instructors so little if it were not for the current large numbers of MFA graduates. It is also worth remembering that when Bennington fired all its tenured-line faculty, under the advice of John Barr — the recently retired president of the Poetry Foundation — they justified this by saying that they wanted to hire working artists and writers rather than scholars. But that is another talk for another panel, the one on the role of creative writing programs in the privatization of education or the one on the role of MFA programs in the casualization of the labor of English departments.

That said, I don’t really have a profound conclusion here. Except as much as it might be the time of the “possible creative writing-ization” of English departments, it might also be the time of the poet-scholar. And what it means to be a poet-scholar is full of these issues. I’ve been a bit grumpy about it all. But one of the potentially productive things that could happen out of this “possible creative-writing-ization” of English departments is that this old standoff between creative writing and scholarship might dissolve. One thing that I’ve noticed where I now teach is that as the number of creative writing majors has grown, more and more students are writing a creative thesis that is basically a form of scholarship. In recent years, in addition to the usual retellings of Jane Austen novels, I’ve read an elucidation of a queer subtext of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, a feminist reworking of a series of classic male performance art pieces, a detournment of a Hemingway short story with the genders reversed, etc. I am, in short, watching undergraduate students attempt to write what I might call “more interesting to me literary scholarship”; they are reading and thinking and arguing with the informed critiques and discussions of the field. Although I should admit that graduate students are still doing what they tend to do. They are still writing, with a few lovely and notable exceptions, and god bless these, the mainly confessional, even when experimental, observations about their lives and their loves and sometimes the weather and the land and the suburban animals.