Creative Writing and the Humanities of the Future


Just because MFA Day Job wants to highlight writers who work outside of academia doesn’t mean that the academy isn’t in our peripheral vision. A recent Harvard University report, as summarized by The Chronicle of Higher Education, weighs in on the declining numbers of humanities majors in universities, and what humanists might do to improve those numbers. Among the recommendations: don’t avoid conversations about employment with humanities students, and refocus classes on student skills rather than on getting through a falsely exhaustive canon of works. As a former undergraduate who would have been happy to major in 19th century novels and popcorn (both for their own sake), I’m still happy to see the report supporting the educational philosophy that made this website seem like a good idea:

The report rightly rejects the claim that the humanities are worth studying for their own sake, with no regard for vocational opportunities. It is indeed disconcerting when tenured faculty members, enjoying a job security found nowhere else in the work force, urge students, undergraduate or graduate, not to worry about finding employment. The point is not to turn humanities education into a vocational-training program but to recognize that the competencies acquired in the study of the humanities are transferable to a wide range of careers. Humanists should embrace that argument.

If students’ ability to transfer their humanities skills is important, the report argues, then teachers should redouble their efforts to impart those skills: critical reading, analysis, and strong writing. This might mean giving up the idea of a canon and instead backwards-engineering syllabi based on the skills students need, with the help of a constantly-changing selection of fresh texts. (Rita Dove, rejoice!)

If I’m not mistaken, focusing on skills and being flexible with texts are things the best creative writing classes do already. I often have conversations with both writers and non-writers who say that they learned the most from literature in a poetry or fiction workshop, particularly early on in their education. This could be because, while the typical creative writing teacher may have a set of insights about the text she wants to impart, a workshop’s focus is chiefly on how a piece of literature is put together. As our culture moves forward in reading technology and writing technique, that focus is far from obsolete; in fact, it has evolution built into it.

Of course, there are bad ways to teach literature in a creative writing context: many of us have experienced classes that ignore big questions like racism, sexism, or colonialism in favor of paying attention to an ill-defined notion of craft. But could a set of excellent examples from the creative writing classroom be models for the new humanities?

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