In the late 1970s when I was teaching at York University in Toronto the dean of Arts asked me to attempt to create an undergraduate creative writing ‘program’ from the nine writing courses offered by four departments, two in Arts and two in Fine Arts. Logically enough, he proposed that the program would be administered by a “Coordinator” who would oversee the necessary cooperation among the departments and faculties. By fall 1978 I had cobbled together an introductory course and two poetry workshops offered by the English department, two fiction courses offered by the Humanities Division, two playwriting courses offered by the Theatre Department, and two filmscript courses offered by the Film Department, together with a list of twentieth-century literature courses from which a student majoring in Creative Writing would have to take at least one, and had persuaded both faculties to accept the other faculty’s courses as in-faculty credits, and both to offer the new CW degree. Later the Humanities Division volunteered to contribute a new course in literary non-fiction.
My thoughts at this time about the university teaching of Creative Writing were that students who were going to be independently writing poems, plays and stories while at university ought to be able to get course credit for their work, be shown ways of writing they might not have become aware of, and also receive some feed-back, much like publishing writers get feed-back from editors and book-reviewers. The new Program I also saw as one for students who were going be active writers regardless of whether their university was offering CW courses or a Program. So for me, unlike for the US programs examined here by McGurl, the issue of whether or not creative writing could be “taught” never seemed relevant. The students were already writers and needed only to be shown how large the possibilities for writing were. In the years that I was Coordinator, the assortment of celebrated instructors – Irving Layton, Eli Mandel, bpNichol, Miriam Waddington, Clark Blaise, Dave Godfrey, Don Coles, Mavor Moore – rarely consulted one another and probably wouldn’t have agreed on many aesthetic or ideological questions if they had. We had one meeting a year in which we mainly addressed administrative matters.
In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl’s understanding of “program” is a lot narrower. Here a writing program is assumed to be pedagogically coherent, to have aesthetic principles and goals. It is most often the creation of a single powerful administrator, such as Iowa’s Wilbur Schramm and Paul Engle or Stanford’s Wallace Stegner. It exists separate from the university’s literary and language departments, often as part of a Fine Arts department, and often in an antagonistic relationship to them. Although most of the programs are postgraduate, the student is not already a writer but instead someone who goes day after day to the writing workshop anxiously wondering “Am I a writer yet?” (398).