This letter was written in response to the article “Starving Artists: How Seattle U Could Be Failing Its Creative Community.”
Dear Editors at The Spectator,
I’m glad to take this opportunity to respond to a recent article you published regarding the creative writing community at Seattle University. The article unfolds around a conversation between Caroline Ferguson, Managing Editor, and a handful of English students currently studying creative writing. These students question the integrity of the creative writing focus offered by the English department; one student even compares participating in the program to investing “in shit stock.” Ferguson questions whether or not SU is letting its students and the community down by seeming to dismiss student art and/or neglecting to provide meaningful student-instructor relationships in a creative setting. As a Seattle University alum, I’d like to address, briefly, my concerns with this article as far as my own experience at this school and the success I’ve encountered since graduating because of the foundation this English department (and university as a whole) provided.
Because I’m not a current student, I can’t speak for what is being offered in SU’s classrooms today, nor can I make claims about faculty I have not worked with, since there have no doubt been new hires since I graduated in 2005. I also do not have time to address in full, with compassion, the problem of inexperience and a lack of awareness I see in many undergraduate students now that I am an instructor at a university myself.
Suffice it to say: if you believe your education has become a shitty stock investment, you are responsible for either leaving it behind in order to pursue a new experience (it sounds, Ben Porter, as if you might prefer a BFA program rather than the BA in English – that’s right, your degree is in English, not Creative Writing) or you must work to change the experience you are part of. I’ve found I’m in agreement with music major Cyrus Fiene, also quoted in Ferguson’s
article, who points out that it is not up to faculty to force students to participate in their own interests and careers. Also, I’d be remiss not to offer a tip from one published writer to an
emerging one: be very careful about the bridges you choose to burn in this highly competitive field. Strong letters of recommendation have meant the difference between publication and silence, graduate school and a dead-end job, or community connections and isolation for many new writers who want to have their voices heard. How much do you value that “60,000 word novel” of yours?
But let me address my true concern with this article, which is not Ben Porter’s or any other student’s very personal complaints about the program they’re paying to participate in. My concern is with the claim that Seattle University’s artistic community is failing, or at least “hard to rouse.” As someone who has gone on to teach creative writing at state universities, community colleges, and in community centers in Alaska, Oregon, Georgia, Colorado, and now New York, I can say with confidence that Seattle University is on a list of schools I consider solidly supportive of the arts and its students. Ironically, the university my husband works for right now, also a Jesuit institution, has an explanation on their English department website for their lack of a creative writing focus for undergrads. It reads, “Why don’t we have a Creative Writing major? We recognize that…the odds are very steeply against any individual who hopes to make a living as a creative writer.” Oh yes. They don’t even offer a program, because, what for? This approach is not uncommon today. Literary arts are being cut, underfunded, and underestimated in schools from pre-K through university levels across the country. Seattle University not only offers a Creative Writing focus, it gives students the opportunity to participate in series like the PEP Talks. If it’s anything like what it was a few years ago when I was a student, it also requires students to find out about on- and off-campus readings so they can become engaged with the local literary arts scene. In my poetry classes at SU, we were required to attend local readings before submitting critical reviews detailing what we saw and heard, memorize and recite poems, participate in workshops, then write, print, and design a chapbook for our final project.
I understand the claim in Ferguson’s article that there is a lack of student art displayed on campus, and I agree that most universities are guilty of this. Schools with resources – and yes, students are valuable resources – should collectively make a stronger effort to highlight student talent. This is a problem at more schools than one. But I have a hard time believing, having taught in schools that struggle to provide decent chairs for students to sit on and literary journals remain out of the question due to a complete lack of funding, that a school like Seattle University, which possesses an original Chuck Close (hung in the cafeteria of all places!) and a gorgeous, fiery Chihuly glass sculpture, shows no commitment to the arts. Come on. Perhaps more students, writers, instructors, and editors should travel to schools that really fail their communities (for whatever reason) in terms of promoting the benefits, accomplishments, and power of the arts.
My experience as an English major with a Creative Writing focus at Seattle University was very different from the ones reported by students in Ferguson’s article. The introductory fiction course I took from Sean McDowell was, aside from Lisa Vest’s ethics course, the most difficult class I ever enrolled in as an undergraduate; it required a level of engagement with my peers that shocked and inspired me. I was an editor for Fragments, the literary magazine, a tutor for the Children’s Literacy Project, and, by the way, violin soloist in the chapel, second violinist in the orchestra, an actor in three productions in the theatre department, and I earned a German minor shortly before graduating. I found no shortage of artistic programs to invest myself in. After graduating, I went on to earn my MFA in Writing and publish two chapbooks, both of which were picked up by publishers who asked me for the manuscripts. I’m currently earning my Ph.D. in English (with a Creative Writing concentration) in upstate New York, where I direct a nonprofit organization that facilitates free poetry workshops for seniors, adults, kids, and at-risk teens. Oh, and I had a baby three weeks ago. You tell me: did I earn a “bullshit” degree, or one that trained me to see my creative endeavors, personal desires, and professional goals as concepts only I have control over? Any student who waits for faculty to participate for them in an artistic, academic, or professional community is going to be perpetually disappointed by their own lack of understanding and compassion.
My intent here isn’t to boast about my accomplishments but to show that students who participate in Seattle University’s creative writing community go on to find artistic fulfillment and success – if they choose to, and if they work for it. The English department at Seattle U is not perfect. I did not love all my classes and I brought my concerns to the department when I felt I needed to. But this article in The Spectator is more of an attack than a reasonable approach to discussion and development. When I read that professors don’t seem to care about student involvement, I couldn’t help remembering how the professors at SU seemed not only invested in my professional growth, but my emotional wellbeing too. When my anxiety worsened as a sophomore, June Johnson Bube, then teaching the children’s literature course I took, intuitively offered a much-needed “Is everything okay?” after class. She sat with me for an hour and just listened to me talk.
My hope here is to share my experience of the English department at Seattle University and provide another perspective of its dedication to the arts and its students. I feel as if Caroline Ferguson’s article has opened up for discussion an important issue in the Seattle University literary community.
Abby E. Murray, SU Alumna and Ph.D. Student at Binghamton University