AWP Guidelines for Creative Writing Programs & Teachers of Creative Writing
The institutional membership of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, a national nonprofit corporation founded in 1967, includes a majority of the graduate programs in creative writing in North America. AWP is the primary source, internationally, of information on creative writing programs in English. AWP's Official Guide to Writing Programs is the only comprehensive listing available.
Enrollment in writing workshops continues to grow, and new writing programs are established regularly, but the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing—the degree supported by AWP as the appropriate “terminal degree” for the practicing writer/teacher—is still misunderstood by many administrators whose responsibilities include the evaluation of writing programs and the recruitment, employment, and retention of teachers of writing.
Therefore, the Board of Trustees of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs has developed this information on writing program curricula and policies regarding the hiring, promotion, and tenure of writers teaching in higher education. This statement was shaped by a two-year study conducted by the AWP Curriculum and Academic Policy Committee, chaired by Ellen Bryant Voigt (Warren Wilson College) and Marvin Bell (University of Iowa) in 1979. Since then, the document has been revised and reaffirmed by the AWP Board of Trustees for each successive edition of The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs. Aside from this document, we know of no other comprehensive set of guidelines regarding the hiring and tenure of writers who teach, their appropriate credentials, or academic policies affecting them. This document reinforces AWP’s commitment to the quality of teaching in this field, and it reflects AWP’s continued support of writers in the academy.
Guidelines for Teachers of Writers
Hiring, Rank, and Tenure
It is the position of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs that decisions regarding the hiring, rank, and tenure of teachers of creative writing should be based on the quality of the individual’s writing and teaching. Academic degrees should not be considered a requirement or a major criterion which would overrule the importance of the writer’s achievement in the art. In the hiring and promotion of a professor of the art of writing, significant published work should be viewed as the equivalent of a terminal degree by administrators and personnel committees.
If, however, a terminal degree is required, it is recommended that the Master of Fine Arts be considered the appropriate credential for the teacher of creative writing. Holders of this degree may also be prepared to teach literature courses as well as composition and rhetoric. AWP reminds institutions that the degree itself, and programs that award the degree, vary considerably; it is recommended that a prospective teacher’s individual competencies be examined closely.
AWP assumes that the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing or its equivalent includes at least two years of serious study; a creative thesis (book-length collection of creative work); completion of course work in form, theory, and literature, including contemporary writers; and a substantial amount of individualized writing study, with criticism and direction of the student’s writing by experienced writers through workshop, tutorial, independent project, or thesis preparation.
AWP believes that writing program faculty, who as creative writers are best qualified to make assessments of a candidate’s work, should be given the responsibility of making professional decisions about their peers, and that their evaluations of the candidate, and their recommendations, should be given the utmost weight in the review process.
It is the position of AWP that creative writers be given parity with scholars in terms of salary, including senior positions at the top of the salary range, and that the MFA degree be considered the equivalent of the PhD in literature, linguistics, or composition. While the system of part-time or visiting writing faculty is often used to increase the breadth of a program’s offerings, such a system should not exclude writers from access to full-time, tenure-track positions and the possibility of renewal.
According to AWP surveys, the majority of writing faculty members carry a course load of either two or three courses per semester or quarter in graduate creative writing programs. It should be noted that many institutions define “writing workshop” as equivalent to teaching two courses because of the additional work required in conferences, tutorials, and thesis preparation that writing students need for the development of their work. Other institutions consider a writing workshop equivalent to one literature course. AWP recommends that the course load for both undergraduate and graduate writing teachers be defined in a way that recognizes the importance of individualized attention to the student’s creative work and increased amounts of conference and preparation time required. AWP also reminds institutions that a teaching writer needs large amounts of time to do his or her own creative work.
AWP surveys conducted periodically since 1978 indicate that most teachers of writing find they are most effective in the workshop format, and that the majority of workshops have a class size of 11–20 students. AWP recommends that workshop size not exceed 15, and that 12 be viewed as desirable and most effective.
It is the position of AWP that teaching writers must have access to a liberal policy of leave and sabbatical. As with other arts, the writing teacher will be effective as a teacher only insofar as he or she is active and engaged as a writer; large, recurring periods of time devoted to the writer’s own work are crucial to continued effective teaching.
AWP believes that writers should have the major voice in decisions concerning the hiring and retention of creative writing faculty, admission of students to the writing program, the awarding of degrees in writing, the writing program’s budget, and the allocation of physical resources. AWP believes that writers in the academy are best qualified to make such judgments in regard to creative writing programs.
A Description of Writing Program Curricula
Although they share common goals, criteria, and characteristics, writing programs in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia are now many and diverse. AWP does not advocate one approach to the study of writing over another, but does seek, through The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, to help the student writer locate those programs which are most compatible with his or her goals and expectations. Prospective students using the Guide are urged to read each program description carefully, and to pay special attention to the faculty listing, the coursework distribution and other degree requirements, and the statement of the program’s aims.
AWP's Official Guide to Writing Programs makes a distinction between, on the one hand, courses in writing offered by an undergraduate or graduate literature program or department, and, on the other, a coherent curriculum in literature and creative writing designed for writing students. The primary aim of writing programs, through work in writing, form, and theory, and through the study of contemporary writers and past authors, is to help students become better writers. An education in the liberal arts and/or vocational training may be secondary aims. Writing programs are also characterized by the presence of active and experienced writers on their faculties, and the student’s own creative work is seen as the primary evidence for decisions about admission and graduation. It should be noted that “creative writing” has traditionally encompassed poetry, playwriting and screenwriting, translation, fiction, creative nonfiction, and other imaginative prose.
Graduate writing programs are listed in The AWP Official Guide in the following descriptive categories: Studio, Studio/Research, and Research/Theory/ Studio. Although the aims and specific curricula of programs within each category differ, the following general distinctions may be fairly made:
Studio writing programs place primary emphasis on the student’s writing experience within the program. In this way, they most closely parallel studio programs in music, dance, and the visual arts. Most of the degree work is done in workshops, independent writing projects or tutorials, and thesis preparation. The study of contemporary literature and the forms, craft, themes, and aesthetics of writing may be incorporated into workshops or offered through separate seminars. Faculty members of such programs are selected for their achievement in the creative or artistic genres of literature and not for scholarly work. Students are admitted to such programs almost wholly on the basis of a writing sample, and in turn, the significant degree criterion is the quality of the thesis manuscript.
Studio/Research writing programs usually place equal emphasis, in their curricula, on the student’s writing and literary scholarship, with the belief that the study of literature is crucial to one’s development as a writer. Seeking a balance between literary scholarship and literary artistic practice, these programs vary in the structure and amount of literature requirements, but they frequently rely on the regular English department faculty, noted for scholarly achievement, for many of the literature course offerings, while writers on the program faculty offer form, craft, and theory courses, workshops, and thesis direction. Studio/Research programs often require comprehensive examinations, and candidates are expected to be equally well-prepared in literature and in writing. Admission is determined primarily by the quality of the original manuscript.
Research/Theory/Studio writing programs emphasize literary scholarship and the study and practice of literary theory. These programs also offer writing workshops, independent studies, seminars on contemporary literature and the craft of writing, and the opportunity to complete a creative thesis, but these programs require that a majority of the degree-candidate’s course work will be completed in literary scholarship and theory, usually in seminars taught by English department faculty. The course of study typically spans three or more centuries of literature from three or more continents, and proficiency in another language besides English is usually required in earning the degree. Such programs align themselves both with academic traditions of literary research and with anti-traditional modes of cultural criticism that have become prevalent since the 1970s. These programs actively use the same criteria for admission and degree award that are applied to candidates in literary scholarship, including the comprehensive examinations, grade point averages, and previous undergraduate course work in literature.
It is generally felt among creative writing program faculties that a series of readings and/or brief residencies by established writers is an important dimension of a writing program, offering students an immediate connection to contemporary literature and exposure to a variety of voices and aesthetic approaches. Because such a series is seen as integral to the curriculum, writing faculty should have the largest voice in determining the participants in such a series.
The AWP Board of Trustees