14 December 2011

Should Creative Writing Degrees Exist?

As an ex-music student, I am often confronted with the argument that as no one questions whether music and other skill-based arts can be taught, why should they question creative writing degrees?

I believe this argument misses the point. The question, for me at least, is not whether creative writing is a teachable skill, but whether it's appropriate to give degrees in it.

I was reminded of the writing course industry last month by Oxford Today magazine, which is an alumni magazine from my alma mater whose main purpose seems to be to make people feel all glowy about having been to Oxford and illicit donations from them. Despite this rather cynical editorial stance, the magazine does often have good articles in it and this month features a creative writing competition with "simply fabulous prizes" including a fountain pen and "a 250g bag of Bolivian organic fairtrade coffee".*

Anyway, in Oxford Today, there is an article about Oxford's MSt** creative writing and why it is so brilliant. Just over the page is an advertisement for a "University painted chest" whose "sterling silver replica key" is "a symbol of the University's rich heritage."

I do actually like getting the magazine. I'm not sure why I'm being so critical of it.

WARNING: The rest of this post contains no more jokes.

The Teachable Skills Argument

In this Oxford Today article, the creative-writing-as-a-teachable-skill argument is attributed to Clare Morgan, the academic who led the set up of the Creative Writing MSt at Oxford:
Increasingly, applicants for English courses have been querying why Oxford had no such [creative writing] programme. Some might respond that creative writing is not a proper academic subject, or that it cannot be taught because it is a matter of personal inspiration. Yet, as Morgan points out, no one asks whether painting, sculpture or music can be taught.
Two possible objections to the course are presented here, but only one of them is engaged with. The objections are:
  1. Creative writing isn't academic, and therefore should not be an academic degree at a university, especially one as prestigious as Oxford.
  2. Creative writing cannot be taught.
This is quite a clever technique, because without close reading it looks as though Morgan has dealt with both objections. In fact, she only asserts than creative writing can be taught (which is dealt with in more detail in the rest of the article) but does not argue why is should be taught, at Oxford or otherwise.

How Music is Taught at Universities

Often, people who make the can-teach-will-teach argument to me are hazy on the specifics of academic arts subjects. It is unlikely that a humanities academic like Morgan is ignorant of how academic arts work, but then she has a point to prove.

In the world of music and musicians, there is a clear distinction between academic music and music as a practical art.

The fact is, I didn't spend three years of my life doing scales in thirds on the piano. Most of my time at Oxford was spent studying music history, anthropological and critical theory, aesthetics, philosophy and paleography. I wrote essays about racism in opera, a dissertation about English medieval musicologists around the world wars, and a photo essay about the practise of musical theatre.

Music at Oxford is a humanities subject, and is largely examined academically. It is true that there are practical elements to the music course at Oxford, and even more at other universities, but if you wanted to be a famous pianist or composer you would go to a specialist conservatoire. I chose to go to Oxford to exercise my mind, not my fingers.

Specialist music schools typically offer more practical courses, and the degrees awarded are clearly distinguished from academic ones. The Royal Academy of Music in London, for example, offers a four-year Bmus course, which is clearly geared towards life as a professional musician.

At Oxford, I was awarded a BA (hons), which is the same degree that my peers in the English, Classics, History and Languages faculties will be awarded. (Note also that the practical-language-learning part of undergraduate languages courses at Oxford is a very small part of the assessed curriculum.)

A day in the life of a humanities student.
A day in the life of an arts student.

This distinction between practical and theoretical music has existed since at least the early sixth century, as Oxford music students learn in their first year when they read Boethius' De institutione musica, a treatise on music which divides musicians into cantors who have practical musical skills, and musicus who actually understand the music that cantors sing.

Today, music theorists are one thing, composers are another, and performers are a different breed altogether. These separations are by no means intended to diminish those who choose to develop their practical musicianship. Although I do think Boethius probably did mean to belittle cantors, there is none of much less of that snobbery around today. The distinction between music as humanity and music as craft has by-and-large been found to be useful because it clearly indicates whether someone will be better off writing programme notes or being in the programme.

Why, though, has this practical/theoretical distinction been left out of the way creative writing is taught?

How Creative Writing is Taught at Universities

As a craft, or perhaps even as an art, creative writing can clearly be taught. I wouldn't wish to argue with that. I'm sure many of the courses at taught universities are wonderful. I've looked through the programme for Morgan's creative writing MSt and it looks very well thought through indeed - I may even apply one day.

What I have a problem with is the idea that an MSt in creative writing is equivalent to an academic MSt in, say, English 1900-present. The English MSt prepares its candidates for academic research and careers in academia. The creative writing course teaches its candidates to write fiction. It seems clear to me that these are quite different things, and call for quite different assessment methods and criteria - as indeed are provided by Morgan's course.

In my ideal world, there would be specialist schools of creative writing, who would award degrees like Masters of Poetry Writing (MPoW, perhaps) and Doctor of Drama. That way, everyone knows where they stand. Creative writing teachers wouldn't have to shroud their courses in critical theory to make them look sufficiently academic for the academy.

In the real world, it seems setting up whole new institutions for creative writing has been too much effort. Especially when humanities departments across the land are welcoming creative crafts tutors with open arms.

Wishing the letters after peoples' name to reflect a clear distinction between practical and theoretical writing is pedantic of me, I know. But shouldn't writers, of all people, be calling a spade a spade?



PS: Readers will also be interested in Kei Millar's take on the subject.



* I can only assume that the coffee is not certified by the Fairtrade Foundation or the subeditors of Oxford Today would clearly have capitalised it correctly. The creative efforts of readers naturally aren't worth a properly certified coffee.

** The Master of Studies is one of Oxford's 'real' MA degrees. Anyone with an undergraduate degree from Oxford gets their degree upgraded to a MA (Oxon) after a certain period of time after graduation.

4 comments:

  1. That's why we have MFAs (and BFAs, incidentally, although I don't think you can get a BFA in fiction writing - it'd be for something like film/fine art/photography/etc). On the other hand, nobody is going to be fooled into thinking a MSt in creative writing is in any way the same beast as a MSt in English lit (or whichever other subject), and the content of the course wouldn't change, so it's a bit moot, all things considered.

    I personally get peeved when you can major in creative writing as an undergrad here (which is possible at Columbia but not at Barnard, which makes you major in English). It's a bit preposterous to suggest that just taking a load of writing classes and not studying literature (or another subject that would be otherwise enriching; obviously you needn't have studied English at school to be a writer) is going to wind up making you a great writer. This is essentially why I decided not to go to film school. It's kind of a racket, since ultimately you're going to be succeeding or failing basked on your talent and work ethic, not on whether you have a BFA or not.

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  2. I studied the specialist Writing for Young People MA at Bath Spa and my course did not only teach us to write fiction. We were also shown contracts and advised as to which clauses needed negotiating or challenging, we put together an anthology so certainly the course members involved in editing and publishing as well as writing. We also studied other people's writing. This of course is not the same as literary criticism, but then, there's very little that lit. crit. can teach you about the writing process.
    For my own part I'm glad it was a MA course as it meant that I could apply for an receive the all important funding of a career development loan :)
    Morgan is right about talent being the most important thing. But I don't think that many courses out there are rackets at all. I think they're places where you can hone your skills in a supportive and challenging environment, learn about the industry from people who know (and believe me, understanding the industry is crucial these days) and also make contacts who can change your life.

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  3. @Morgan This MFA lark sounds like the answer to my prayers - I've not seen anywhere in the UK offer one yet, but they may well do. As for your own education, you could say the same - that talent and hard work are more important - about any course, but that wouldn't stop decision makers discarding your CV for not having a qualification in whatever it is you want to do. Another important aspect of post-grad learning is networking, though that can certainly be done in other ways.

    @Katerina Thanks for commenting. You might also be interested in this: http://keimiller.com/2011/12/09/and-isnt-it-ironic/ and this http://keimiller.com/2011/12/16/when-poets-have-academic-posts-and-begin-to-speak-academicese/

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  4. Katerina, your course sounds great. I have heard less complimentary things about some other courses though. I think the Oxford course has a high theoretical component as well as a practical one, which is probably there to justify its existence as an academic MSt. I remember you saying that to get a PhD in Creative Writing one has to write twice as many words / do twice as much as work as in any other PhD, because a 100,000 word thesis is required as well as a 100,000 word novel. Do you think it is helpful to reflect on the creative process in this way, or is it actually unnecessary and counter-productive? I have no strong views myself.
    - S

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