It’s not surprising that students with a passion for writing are drawn to the University of Iowa, home of the top-ranked creative writing program in the country—the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—and the globally renowned International Writing Program.
But these same students were often surprised to discover that many of the writing classes were only for graduate students. While the English department focused on creating excellent readers and writers, and offered entry-level courses in creative writing, poetry, and nonfiction writing, undergraduates wanted more.
Now, thanks to simultaneous efforts by the Department of English, the Office of the Provost, and a group of committed student writers, they’ll have it. Beginning in spring 2009, a creative writing track for English majors will provide an opportunity for deeper exploration of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry writing, along with playwriting and literary translation. Seminar classes in each genre will meet weekly and all the seminar groups will gather for readings, lectures, and discussions.
“This new track will give students a sense of community and an opportunity to see what’s available,” says senior Sam Larsen-Ferree from Ames, Iowa. “There are a lot of opportunities on campus and in the community—readings, different classes, and programs like translation—that undergraduates don’t necessarily know about.”
Larsen-Feree, who’s interested in fiction and playwriting, initially found that sense of community while living with like-minded peers in the Iowa Writers Living-Learning Community in the residence halls during his sophomore year. While the community members appreciated being able to attend readings and lectures sponsored by the Writers’ Workshop, what they really wanted was a program of their own. Larsen-Ferree and his roommate Christian Yetter of Manhattan, Kansas, used Facebook to rally like-minded students and gathered names for a petition supporting undergraduate creative writing. With the support of Maryann Rasmussen, a lecturer and director of the English Honors Program, they took their petition and program plan to the office of then-provost Michael Hogan.
Their timing proved serendipitous, as the Department of English and the Writers’ Workshop were talking about a similar program. Jonathan Wilcox, professor and chair of the Department of English, notes that determining the shape the program would take was a challenge.
“We decided it was not in students’ best interests to have a separate undergraduate degree in creative writing—to become a good writer, we believe, it’s important not to specialize too early,” says Wilcox. “In English, we teach students to be critical readers and writers and feel they need that background as undergraduates. So we created a creative writing track, rather than a degree.
“The creative writing track is an excellent educational value, and our proximity to the Writers’ Workshop and the literary scene in Iowa City provides a writing community that’s unparalleled in any setting.”
Poet Robyn Schiff, the newly hired director of the creative writing track, concurs. She graduated from the Writers’ Workshop 10 years ago and then moved to a number of major U.S. cities. Most recently, she was a visiting professor at Northwestern University. She notes that the Iowa community’s rich literary tradition provides an ideal background for the new track.
“Iowa City is a very special place for writers: writers are respected and welcomed here,” says Schiff. “That's quite rare in the United States. Iowa City is an important center in the national literary community, and it's an inspiring place to be."
Schiff acknowledges that some parents may not understand the value of the creative writing track.
“It’s not as though we can grant a poetic license,” she says. “But students will have something on their transcripts that acknowledges the hard work they’ve put in. Our goal is to create excellent students of literature, not just excellent writers. These students will know how to listen closely, read critically, and think clearly.”
The hard work of creating the creative writing track sharpened the career plans of at least one student. Though Larsen-Ferree is graduating in May and will only be able to participate in track’s first semester, he doesn’t regret his efforts.
“I went to the first program information session and I was shocked, and a little proud, at how many people showed up,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see so much interest.
“I was part of a core group of about 12 students and we were consulted throughout the process. We put together a plan of how the program would work in the English department; we outlined a coherent, tiered system of classes; and we even had lunch with the final three candidates for program director,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about how a university works. It’s made me interested in going into academics.”
by Linzee Kull McCray
Related link: The Writing University