Writing program increases in popularity
Faculty still seek to expand
The writing program at Washington University thrives off student interest, acclaimed faculty and the desire to keep expanding the program into the future.
That desire has led to growth, with the number of students taking creative writing classes nearly doubling in two years.
Three years ago, approximately 330 students were enrolled in writing classes. Last year, that number grew to 530 students.
Vincent Sherry, chair of the Department of English at the University, said that outside of the classroom, students also demonstrate their desire to expand their literary experiences, dabbling in everything from poetry to fiction.
“I [have] been so pleasantly surprised,” Sherry said. “It’s been wonderful teaching here. [The students] will go as far as you take them. They are intellectually curious and ambitious. They do the secondary reading as well as the primary reading. They have huge appetites. They understand the full conventionality of the complexity of literary issues.”
According to Sherry, the creative writing program fosters students’ talents in genres including modernist poetry, the art of poetry and trans-historical and modernist fiction.
“There’s a smaller culture here for poetry than for fiction. I think it is a specialty,” Sherry said. “They are small in numbers but devoted in spirit.”
Sherry also spoke of the challenges faced in developing a writing program to sustain an undergraduate writing minor.
“What I have sensed is a limitless appetite in our undergraduates for writing courses. Many of our English majors identify as promising writers, and writing literature and writing about literature are very related,” Sherry said.
However, Sherry said that a potential major in creative writing would face challenges.
“We can think about a double major in which literature and creative writing can meld, and students can take the literature with the creative writing,” Sherry said. “There are challenges for a problem such as that, but I do think they are surmountable.”
The University has hosted authors such as Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips, notable for their work in poetry, as well as Kathryn Davis, Hurst senior writer in residence and acclaimed fiction author.
This semester, the University is also hosting noted author Kathleen Finneran, who is teaching Creative Non-Fiction Writing 1.
Marshall Klimasewiski, director of the writing program and a writer in residence, praised Finneran’s role at the University.
“We were thrilled to have Katheen Finneran. I think she is great and she’s always gotten stellar student evaluations, so we were really pleased to get her, even for four classes per year,” Klimasewiski said. “I think it is one of the ways we can grow, and I think that Kathleen might be a good person to have around.”
The screenwriting workshops and playwriting workshops have also grown in size in recent years, but more work must be done to improve the program, Sherry said.
“We would need to build out the prose fiction faculty a little further to bring the writing program up to the level that it’s been in the past,” he said.
Sherry says that the problem lies in the need for a consistent, competent, undergraduate teaching faculty.
“When you recognize poets, there is going to be a lot of graduate teaching. The graduate program is very highly competitive,” Sherry said.
More than 430 applications were received for the graduate writing program in the past four years and only 215 were selected.
“[It’s a] small program, and the best faculty are occupied at teaching at that level. The more time they need, the less available they are, so we must develop a faculty to teach at the undergraduate level,” Sherry said.
Sherry agrees with Klimasewiski that the newly added “creative non-fiction” track arrived late to the University compared to its peer institutions. But Sherry says that this new track will grow gradually.
“I think gradually we can grow a faculty in response to the very real demand in our undergraduates for courses,” Sherry said. “Having our undergraduate courses be done by MFAs, we could begin to hire long-term people to teach a population of students that would be growing in an effort to serve that growth, and in this way think about moving toward a creative writing faculty that would have permanence.”