Students, Faculty Express Doubt Over Future Of Creative Writing Program

By Sam Schuman | sschuman@oberlin.edu | February 23, 2018 @ 5:00 pm

Alison Bechdel, Oberlin alum and well known graphic novelist.

Graphic by Hannah Berk.

“He just didn’t show up one day.” That’s how Lee Khoury said his friends learned that their creative writing professor Bernard Matambo had resigned last November following accusations of sexual misconduct towards students. The popular professor’s sudden resignation came as a shock to many students and faculty, but it wasn’t the first time Khoury had been surprised by a departure in the department.

The first-year English and intended creative writing major had enrolled in Oberlin expecting to study with Shane McCrae, a well-known poet on the creative writing faculty who left Oberlin over the summer to accept a teaching position at Columbia University. “I thought I was going to have a resident poet here in Shane McCrae that I was going to be able to work with for four years and develop my voice,” said Khoury.

Since the departures of McCrae and Matambo, the core faculty of the creative writing department, which has about 80 majors, has dwindled to only three professors: Dan Chaon, Kazim Ali, and Sylvia Watanabe. Chaon is retiring at the end of the semester, and Watanabe is expected to retire at the end of next year.

The prospect of having only one core faculty member by Fall 2019 has rattled students, especially those who were attracted to the College because of its creative writing program.

Kate Fishman, a first-year intended English and creative writing major, chose to attend Oberlin in part because of its strong creative writing program. This semester, Fishman, who is taking the major gateway course CRWR 201: Poetry/Prose Workshop, is less confident in the department. “It’s hard to continue to call something a strong department if the staff is changing so much and if there’s not a consistent availability of certain classes and certain resources,” she said.

Dan Chaon, Delaney Professor of Creative Writing, echoed some of Fishman’s concerns, saying “right now, there’s very few people who can do advising, there’s very few people who know the curriculum very well.” He went on to add: “They’re [students] coming here for the faculty, and for the small classes, and if they’re not getting that, then what are you paying for?” Uncertainty in the department has already begun to impact students’ academic plans. Chaon said that several students have left the major in response to recent faculty departures, and at least one student left Oberlin College entirely.

Tim Elgren, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, acknowledged the urgent need to hire new professors in the department, saying “We need to get [creative writing] staff in place. If we start that right now, we can potentially have people in place by the Fall,” later adding “We’ll certainly have visitors in place [in the Fall].”

Currently, the College Faculty Council, which Elgren Chairs, is in the process of allocating faculty positions for the department.

“At this point everything depends upon what the deans and council decide about allocating positions.” said DeSales Harrison, Creative Writing Program Director and Associate Professor of English, in an email to The Grape. “CRWR has received assurances that two positions will be forthcoming, but those positions are still in the approval process, and we are all in the same boat of waiting to hear the results.”

Not every vacant position in the department will be filled. Said Elgren: “…having those four lines open are four lines that we can look at, but open lines across the department aren’t all going to be replaced.”

He did not rule out new faculty in the future, saying “I think we start slowly, and with a goal of getting back to [a] fully staffed program that also may include more faculty as we continue to think about areas of growth.”

Citing successful faculty searches in the past year, Elgren was confident that the College would be able to attract strong faculty, saying “The market right now is going to be extraordinary for young, talented writers because there are so few jobs out there that we’re going to be able to get some really great people.”

In addition to three core faculty members, the department is currently supplemented by three visiting professors, as well as professors from other departments with backgrounds in creative writing. Desales Harrison and Lynn Powell, director of Oberlin Writers in the Schools, are also affiliated with and teach courses in the department.

English professor David Walker is teaching the department’s upper-level playwriting workshop this semester. Next semester, there may not be a playwriting workshop. “Playwriting is done. As far as I know there will be no more playwriting,” said Chaon, who is retiring at the end of the semester to turn his novel Ill Will into a television miniseries and work on a new two-book deal with publisher Henry Holt & Co.

Chaon was unsure about the continuation of other courses as well, saying “I teach screenwriting and comics, and I don’t think there’s anybody that’s gonna be doing that anymore, once I leave…they may hire somebody that does, I don’t know.”

Elgren told The Grape he envisions creative writing instruction expanding outside of the department, saying “I see structuring beyond the department. I see… taking what is creative writing and growing around its edges.”

The administration remains adamant that despite the department’s smaller faculty, the program will not be absorbed by another department. “I can’t imagine us not having a creative writing major.” said Elgren, later adding that the department “will be rebuilt and continue to be a very strong program…”

“I don’t have any sort of panicky illusion that the department is melting away.” Said Harrison in an email to the Oberlin Review last November.

Even so, some students aren’t entirely convinced. “It’s just a feeling…because it’s so small, and because it’s getting smaller… I think that might be a primary source of that insecurity,” said Khoury.

Chaon was also unsure about the department’s future, saying “If they don’t hire enough faculty to run a program, what are the other options?” Chaon said he would like to see six tenured professors in the program, along with two or three visiting professors.

This semester, the department is offering 15 courses excluding private readings and capstone seminars, up from 13 during the Spring 2017 semester.

As the college continues to handle a $5-million deficit, Creative Writing won’t be the only department to lose faculty positions. “Ultimately we’ll be cutting faculty lines as part of this budget conversation. That’s not a creative writing question, it’s a bigger question…” Elgren said.

In November the College offered its second buyout in two years, this time open only to faculty. Elgren said he believed the strength of the College’s current faculty will prevent recent changes from affecting the amount of applications the college receives or its yield, saying “I think we’ve got great people here…there’s still programmatic richness there.”

Earlier this month, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid projected that Oberlin “will meet its targeted admission rate for the class of 2022.”

Current creative writing majors could be affected by new changes to the department’s capstone project, which according to Chaon will shift from a semester-long individual project to a traditional upper-level seminar.

Said Elgren: “I don’t know what changes they’re [the Creative writing Faculty] making but the faculty that are leaving are probably not the people that will be directing those changes.”

Another concern is that the smaller department will make already-selective courses even harder to get in to. “[The selectivity is] hard on the students, it’s hard on the professors to hear people who are super upset…it’s shitty. I’ve been long confused about why the college doesn’t do something about it.” said Chaon.

Until the CFC reaches a decision about positions allocations, students and faculty can only speculate as to what the Creative Writing program will look like in the Fall. Said Chaion: “It’s a wait-and-see, and it’s getting late…next Fall is not that far away, and I have no idea who’s teaching in the fall, nor does anybody else, as far as I know.”

Despite the uncertainty, the program’s current faculty and mission are still held in high regard.

“I’m leaving behind some colleagues that I really admire and like, and I think that the students would benefit from working with those people,” said Chaon. “I just don’t know what the future is.”

Said Khoury: “I think most of us are in this because we love it [creative writing] and not in this because we were attracted to department because of the faculty.”

Contact staff writer Sam Schuman at sschuman@oberlin.edu.

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