Addressing Structural Racism in Creative Writing Programs
Kazim Ali | October 2016
A diverse and inclusive creative writing classroom is vital to the success of that classroom as well as a vital part of addressing larger social and political issues surrounding race. Yet students of color are badly underrepresented in the average creative writing classroom. At the college I teach at, for example, in the 2014-2015 academic year students of color—who made up around 20% of the college’s undergraduates—made up 6% of the students majoring in creative writing. In 2015-2016 year, they were around 10% of students majoring in creative writing. I myself have taught countless workshops in which there were only one or two students of color, and sometimes there were none.
I am well aware that the issues around student of color enrollment in higher education (let alone at an exclusive four-year liberal arts college such as the one I teach at) are more than skin deep, but if anything that makes the issue of inclusivity even more pressing. The cultural and racial homogeneity of creative writing programs is self-perpetuating. Some of the issues surrounding low enrollment of students of color in both undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs is social and cultural, but some of it is structural and pedagogical.
I aim to propose several solutions to address inclusivity. These proposals are not meant to be comprehensive nor can they be applied individually. They are meant to be starting points for honest discussions that lead to comprehensive multidimensional approaches to addressing the problem of structural racism.
If we can agree that there are deep structural issues around K–12 education and the composition of the student body in higher education in the first place then we ought to be able to agree that an admissions process for undergraduate creative writing classes that relies solely on application and some concept (however vague) of literary “merit” or student “potential” or “talent” is going to be skewed in favor of students who attended better high schools and who may have already had access to creative writing education. It is my argument that undergraduate creative writing classes at the 100- and 200-levels ought to be open admission (i.e., no application process for entry). These courses should also remain open to students from all years and all majors. I also believe schools should take a good and hard look at the concept of stand-alone creative writing departments that have completely different faculties, curricula, and student majors separate and discrete from the school’s English or literature department. Unless these programs have very strong well-thought out academic, critical and/or professional requirements (taught by qualified scholars, critics or journalists) having a separate creative writing major may make it even more difficult for students of color, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds or those who are first generation college students, to commit to such a course of study. A better approach would be a creative writing minor or concentration that could be paired with any other of a range of majors. I’ve had students in my classes whose home departments were anywhere from English, rhetoric and composition, comparative literature, politics, religion, Africana studies, neuroscience, geology or mathematics.
Faculty diversity is of critical importance. New hires in creative writing should target recruitment of applicants of color and diversifying existing faculties should be given strong weight in the hiring processes. New faculty must also receive adequate professional development support both in teaching and mentorship in continuing creative production and publication. It is all too easy for faculty of color to sacrifice their own creative work in order to take on the heavy demand of mentoring and advising students of color. Writers of color in the academy have a heavier load of informal/casual work than their white counterparts and a department that is serious about diversifying its classes will take this into sustained consideration when considering recruitment, retention, and development and promotion of faculty of color.
Many Africana studies departments offer courses in creative production precisely because very often students of color either do not apply or are not admitted to creative writing classes housed in traditional English departments or creative writing departments. Such students of writing, theater, dance, or visual art may feel more comfortable taking courses in these fields originating in an Africana studies department and taught by Black faculty than in a traditional creative writing classroom governed by the standard (often frustratingly “race-blind”—whatever that means) workshop pedagogy. Creative writing faculties should either cross-list these classes in their own department (allowing students to thus accumulate creative writing and/or literature credits) or ask the instructors of these types of classes to offer courses in the creative writing department itself. For example, at Oberlin College, there is a wonderful course called the Black Arts Workshop which allows actors, writers, dancers, singers and musicians to all come together and create art inspired by the politics and poetics of the Black Arts Movement. Very few of the students who take this class are creative writing majors or minors. This kind of course could be cross-listed and thus create a meaningful curricular bridge between the two departments.
In a time of dwindling resources, creative writing faculties can think creatively about creating joint positions shared between creative writing and other departments. Some hires that have already happened at various institutions are creative writing/African American studies positions, creative writing/Spanish language and literature positions and creative writing/theater positions. Where possible these hires should be of writers of color.
Curricular Diversity: Departments should have retreats and/or departmental discussions to specifically look at their curriculum in terms of diversity. This includes the work assigned in classes, but also the pedagogy and structure of the creative writing offerings. A highly structured and vertical creative writing track will necessarily exclude a number of students who may not be adequately represented in the humanities as a whole and discourage students from other disciplines from taking creative writing offerings; this often disproportionately includes students of color.
Both fiction and poetry curricula need to be rethought in terms of modalities and approaches that are culturally broad and inclusive. In poetry this may include a greater emphasis on oral and performance modes more common and popular and legitimized in communities of color as well as thinking more deeply about improvisational practices and ideas and approaches to occasional poetry, both of which are more common and privileged culturally in the non-European global poetics. In fiction courses this could mean thinking about approaches to fiction other than the traditional Eurocentric models of narrative social realist fiction. Structures of the Arab novel and the African novel, as well as Chinese and Indigenous American storytelling traditions (to give just a few not precisely random examples) differ greatly from the dominant forms of both mainstream and experimental/innovative fiction in contemporary American literature that are influenced primarily by European modernist and postmodern thought.
Translation studies, including theory and practice, ought to be part of any program of creative writing study. Graduate creative writing programs ought to include a language requirement—at bare minimum a reading proficiency requirement. PhD programs in creative writing ought to include requirements in two languages, preferably including at least one of either French, Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic. Cultural diversity requirements (offered by scholars in those originating departments or by creative writing faculty with joint or courtesy appointments in those departments) ought to be required in both graduate and undergraduate programs.
- Diversifying admission to graduate programs in creative writing (both MFA and PhD) is a huge piece of implementing all of these proposals. Schools must make it a high priority to recruit applicants of color (hiring faculty of color and making serious structural decisions regarding the curriculum is going to help greatly with this recruitment). Fellowship money and teaching opportunities (concomitant with real substantive and compensated mentorship) must accompany admissions offers to writers of color.
These are broad suggestions and I believe they must be mutually and comprehensively applied. Faculties that are serious about creating inclusive environments can build on these initial thoughts to truly transform the education they offer. Students of color at institutions with creative writing offerings ought to demand structural and pedagogical change, and not solely the hiring or additional faculty of color or the admitting more students of color into existing exclusive classrooms and narrowly focused curricula. Without a comprehensive approach, inclusivity is merely cosmetic.
Kazim Ali is an associate professor of creative writing and comparative literature at Oberlin College and has served as director of the creative writing program. He is author of Sky Ward, The Far Mosque, and Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence. His most recent books are Resident Alien: On Border-crossing and the Undocumented Divine and Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music and Other Stories.