TEXT review

Professing Creative Writing with a slice of passion

review by Kevin Brophy


Stephanie M Vanderslice
Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education: Programs and Practices that Work
Creative Writing Studies imprint of Professional and Higher Partnerships Ltd, Cambridgeshire, UK 2011
ISBN 9781907076312
Pb 143pp AUD18.56 (Amazon price)


This book is the first in a proposed international series. The next will be Researching Creative Writing by Jen Webb, with two more planned after that. The titles are aimed at scholars, students and teachers in higher education settings. If this first book is an indication of the purpose of the series, then they will be books that insert themselves in the contemporary debates, the contemporary developments and the ‘practical’ problems faced by the burgeoning presence of creative writing programs and creative writers in higher education.

Vanderslice’s book is sharply intelligent, and for its purposes deeply researched, but it is not a book that draws upon philosophy, aesthetic theory, critical theory, cultural theory, post-modern thinking or deconstructive argument. It is a polemical pamphlet produced by a practitioner of long experience who senses crisis in a discipline that, at least in the USA, seems to her to be shambling along too amiably and too smugly.

This is a practical book, one that urges all creative writing programs to be more transparent about their philosophy of teaching, to focus responsibly on learning outcomes that give students a chance to find creative lives somewhere in the arts, in word-based professions or in publishing industry, and finally to be more critical of the workshop as a central teaching technique.

Stephanie Vanderslice is an associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas, an MFA graduate from George Mason University, with a PhD on the male-female Bildungsroman from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. A passionate teacher, much of her writing has been on the teaching of creative writing, so this book is for her the outcome of fifteen years as an academic in the field of creative writing. She is well aware of the social, gender and class problems associated with higher education and with creative writing in particular, where the stars are often men and the students are often women, where creative writing workshops can engender conservative and outmoded ideas too often.

Such an analysis, however, is not at the core of her book. She notes at the beginning that creative writing programs have burgeoned in the UK, in Australia and particularly in the USA as cash cows but with hastily constructed programs. In the American context, the ubiquitous workshop can mean that many creative writing subjects and programs develop without curriculum, without set reading, with no development of research skills, with no craft instruction and with unpredictable styles of teaching. None of this is designed to help students ‘sustain writing lives after they graduate’ (6). These programs do not seem to be interested in the fact that they are sending students into a world of online content, new media writing, e-books, a transforming publishing industry, games writing and screen writing of many kinds. Why are creative writing programs not explicitly preparing students for these challenges of the present and the future?

Vanderslice urges the importance of outcomes-based education that focuses upon transferable skill development for students. Of course not all undergraduates, or even postgraduate students, studying creative writing will pursue a writing career, but most of them do want, she claims, to pursue ‘meaningful careers in the creative industries’ (13). Their courses should, she argues, provide them with a plan that not only teaches them ‘to write but also how to make creative lives’ (28). Linking creative writing programs with practising writers, literary agents and publishers in real-life ways can introduce a professional and accountable element to programs. It is important, she concludes, that creative writing in higher education serves two masters (professional and creative) for the sake of a healthy literary culture.

The ‘community’ that workshopping provides is no longer enough, Vanderslice writes. What then are the fundamental problems with workshops? Several times, she makes the point that workshops were introduced at Iowa for the benefit of already polished and experienced, mature students in the 1940s. They are ideal for testing and further developing such writers, but young undergraduate students flounder in such environments. Undergraduate students need to be instructed in the use of the tools of the writer, the basics of their craft, before being thrown into the rough and tumble of the workshop. A further problem she identifies is the insular and solipsistic nature of the workshop. Do students aim to write to please their teacher, to satisfy other students, or do they aim to invoke a wider, more public audience? Vanderslice advocates a more ‘taught’ form of the workshop in undergraduate courses. She adopts Priscila Uppal and Wendy Bishop’s suggestion that guided writing exercises across all genres (including poetry) might be more instructive and more important to the development of early creativity than workshops. In her own courses, she only marks students on the quality of their written responses to the work of other students, and the quality of their critical introductions to their own creative work. She does not mark the creative writing but does respond to it in detail (34-35). This is a brave, and I think creative, way of teaching creative writing, a method I have tried recently and wish to explore further with undergraduate students.

This book is replete with references to those who have written on creative writing pedagogy, especially Americans, and it contains a useful bibliographic chapter tracing the major works of history, analysis and commentary on creative writing in the academy. Finally, it contains an honour roll of those programs in the UK and USA that show some of the qualities Vanderslice admires. There are descriptions of the best of these programs. Vanderslice’s style of writing here is direct, lively, personal and energetic. Hers is without doubt the voice of a passionate teacher. Her recommendations for the rejuvenation and transformation of creative writing programs might seem to Australian readers slightly odd, for my impression from more than ten years of attending AAWP (Australasian Association of Writing Programs) conferences, marking dozens of PhD manuscripts, and being immersed in the development of creative writing at the University of Melbourne is that in Australia the importance of curriculum, of outcome-based education, of professional opportunities and the acquisition of transferable skills for students have become central imperatives in many of our programs. One reason for this perhaps is that we do not have an equivalent of the MFA, and our programs generally are staffed by academics who are writers and researchers but are equally focused upon careers as teachers. Nevertheless, this is an excellent resource for ideas, for inspiration, and for sources on aspects of pedagogy for creative writing programs.



Professor Kevin Brophy teaches in the creative writing program in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He has had four books of poetry and four works of fiction published, and three books on creativity and the teaching of creative writing. In 2009 he won the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay, and recently his poetry has been included in Australian Verse since 1788 and the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature and Best Australian Poems 2011.


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Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo