Tuesday, June 20, 2006

No Lit Classes. Workshops Only?

Phorget the Phluff (gimme workshops!) in Philly writes in...

My question, based off this anonymous post on your

"I got burned in my undergrad lit classes, so I'd
rather choose programs with no or less lit course
requirements even though they look less attractive
funding-wise. So I have already removed from my list
programs like Cornell, the U of Texas, Indiana,

I'm not interested in lit classes. To be blunt, I want
a grad school to pay (fully fund) me to write and
improve my writing for 2-3 years. That's it. The
degree is just a nice bonus. A place with an
Oregon-like (http://www.uoregon.edu/~crwrweb/mfa.htm)
mentality: "The central emphasis of our program is the
act of writing, undertaken here in the context of a
community of committed practitioners."

What *good* programs do you (and your readers) know
that have minimal lit class requirements and focus
heavily on workshops and the craft of WRITING?

Phluff, before I answer your question, I want to give a long, drawn-out speech about the importance of literature and craft classes.

Scratch that. I'll be brief. And sincere.

I think workshop-only, or even workshop-mostly programs are problematic. Look, in these situations, you only have output. No input. In other words, you're only reading your own work and the work of your peers. You're not reading published work that can be discussed, praised, slammed, or best of all: looked at with a writer's eye and learned from.

Look, if I'd only taken workshops at UMass, my experience there would've been a disaster. I learned the most there in a single class: Stylistics, where we read Virginia Woolf, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and a lot of other great writers. I don't particularly like DeLillo. But I learned a lot from him. And more importantly: I learned a lot during the discussions we had about the work in class.

I also learned from the Shakespeare, Contemporary Fiction, Contemporary Poetry, and even the Electronic Writing class I took. And they were a nice counter-balance to my workshops.

Bottom line: When you're only looking at (and discussing) your own work and your peers' work, things can get very stale very quickly. I think you run the risk of only making adjustments, rather than significant and large strides.

Okay, that wasn't short, but it was sincere.

That all said, we're all adults here, and we can make our own decisions. So, the low-literature programs that I can think of are: Brown, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington (MO), Texas (Michener), and Syracuse.

I'm sure there are others. Can anyone add to that list? PtPiP and I would appreciate it.


And two observations that hold true in many cases, but not all:

1. The lower the degree hour requirements (say, 36 instead of 72), the fewer the required literature courses.
2. MFA programs in the Southeast are generally very literature-heavy.

Rock on.


Anonymous said...

This was a few years back, but I doubt it has changed much...While you do have to take two craft classes at Sarah Lawrence, the rest of your non-thesis and workshop credits are pretty much open to whatever you want to do. I knew people who took studio arts, psychology, independent studies, etc.

Anonymous said...

Include Johns Hopkins, and don't forget that you have to do two genres at the Michener Center. I don't assume the original poster had a problem with lit classes in general but lit or lit theory classes taught by literary scholars. Remember most of these lit critics don't look at literature from a writer's POV.

But if you have been good in this kind of lit classes, you shouldn't have any problem in grad “lit” classes—I am not talking about craft courses here--but I just want to say that many writers are not "theory-oriented" or “lit theory-friendly.” They don't want to dissect and analyze literary texts the way critics do, using those pretentious lit theories. There are many people who are turned off by these theory-heavy lit classes. But many MFA programs still require this kind of very traditional lit courses.

I was once in a lit theory class and I almost felt like choking my professor to death whenever she talks about stuff like “male vagina”, I mean, all that shitty postmodern feminist stuff.

I suggest that prospective MFA applicants read Jim Hynes’ The Lecturer’s Tale which is a hilarious satirical portrait of English departments in the US.

Neva said...

I just started the MFA low-residency program at Pacific University. It seems to be more focused on writing and craft. Link here.

Anonymous said...

I'm the original poster.

And yes, what I don't want is classes w/ literary scholars/critics. If there are to be lit classes, I'd like to be craft-style sessions from a writer's PoV.

That's what I was going for. Like the 1st anon., if I have to sit thru some flack explaining to me how Dickens' Hard Times is really about his sex life, I'll probably choke on my vomit.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, scholars and writers have diverged to the point where I really don't think the average graduate lit seminar would be of much use to a writer. Contemporary lit crit devalues the writer and is more concerned with larger social issues than the text. It can be very interesting, but you really have to keep it separate from your writing, I think. Ideally, an MFA curriculum would be split between workshops and craft courses.

Anonymous said...

clarification from a future cornell grad student: cornell doesn't require lit classes. the only required class is workshop. the courseload is three classes a semester the first year, and two the second year. there's also a reading for writers class taught every semester. so that leaves two elective courses that can be in any field that benefits one's writing.

Anonymous said...

Columbia, being part of the arts school and not the english department, has lots of lit class requirements, but they are all craft classes, not the social critique lit critic stuff.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Tom that the lit classes are incredibly helpful. Anytime you can read something by someone else you can focus on the craft of writing. You can see what works and what doesn't, what attracts you and how it's done.

I also agree that classes taught with a more critical view can be annoying, but public perception is important in how we write as well. Plus, the more pissed off I get the better writer I tend to become.

Don't underestimate the power of a bad lit class, there is always something to bring out of it even if it's ire, because that is something to analyze and tap into for effective writing.


Anonymous said...

“I also agree that classes taught with a more critical view can be annoying, but public perception is important in how we write as well. Plus, the more pissed off I get the better writer I tend to become.”

Uh? Why don’t you ask homeless people to read your story if you need “public perception”?

“Don't underestimate the power of a bad lit class, there is always something to bring out of it even if it's ire, because that is something to analyze and tap into for effective writing.”

This poster does sound downright stupid. I wonder if this person has ever taken a “bad” grad lit seminar. Good for you if you can get something out of it but not everyone is like you. So then why make it a requirement, duh?

Anonymous said...

E is probably talking about the bad lit classes she took at a community college.