Thursday, March 1, 2018


Nearly 88 percent of first-year University of Iowa students declared a primary program of study at the beginning of the 2017–18 academic year. One of the most frequently chosen programs—and the only one in the top 10 from the humanities—is only in its second year of existence at the UI: English and Creative Writing.

The undergraduate major, which was introduced in fall 2016, had long been requested by students, and its popularity has exceeded expectations. In a proposal for the English and creative writing program submitted to the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, UI officials projected the program would enroll 50 students in its first year and increase to 200 by year seven. In its first semester, 106 students declared English and creative writing as a major. That number skyrocketed to 526 in fall 2017.

“It’s exciting to see this kind of passion for creative writing,” says Robyn Schiff, professor and director of the English and creative writing program. “It’s a glow-in-the-dark sign that developing the new major is the right direction for the university, and now we can continue to put resources in that direction.”

The major replaces a creative writing track the UI had offered since 2008. Unique among undergraduate creative writing programs in the U.S., it combines a rigorous grounding in literary study with a workshop-style focus on writing.

“This isn’t a graduate studio program,” says Claire Fox, professor and chair of the Department of English. “We want to educate our students in literary analysis and history as well as let them test their wings in the art of writing. Good readers make good writers.”

Schiff agrees.

“Creative writing comes from the study of literature, so we want to signal loudly that this is a major in which there will be more reading than writing,” Schiff says. “English is front and center; the name of the major isn’t alphabetical for a reason. However, while we strongly value the traditional skills one obtains in an English degree, the new major is also focused on helping creative writers shape their own literary community.”

While some classes are traditional writing workshops, most of the required creative writing classes are seminars that focus on craft, tradition, and innovation across genres. Students in the English and creative writing program are exposed to many genres, including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, and translation.

“We want to catch them young and turn them on to new things,” Fox says. “For example, they may come in wanting to write fiction, but through a class be pulled to nonfiction, poetry, or translation.”

“‘Creative writing’ is an almost deceptive title to people on the outside. People think it’s undisciplined, but there’s a lot of hard work, control, and exercise that goes into creative writing. And that discipline has translated perfectly into my work as public relations director for Dance Marathon.”
—Ameena Chaudhry, senior from Quincy, Illinois

Two students in the program can testify to this firsthand. Ameena Chaudhry, a senior from Quincy, Illinois, and Grace Moore, a junior for St. Louis, Missouri, both discovered a love for nonfiction writing through their courses.

“I was adamant I didn’t want to do nonfiction,” says Moore, who also is pursuing a minor in art history. “Now it’s one of my favorites, and I’ve taken a nonfiction class almost every semester.”

Chaudhry, who is pursuing a second major in gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, agrees that nonfiction was one of the biggest surprises about the program. And while she says her heart will always be with fiction, she urges other students to keep an open mind.

“Don’t be so sure that what you like is what you like,” Chaudhry says. “You will do more different things and more things than you expect. The major is a really good environment for that kind of growth.”

Not only is the coursework diverse, so is the makeup of the classrooms. Twenty-three percent of the students enrolled in the major identify as a member of a minority group, compared to 17 percent of the overall student body.

The major’s success in drawing exceptionally talented minority students provides a striking road map for how the UI can draw on its natural strengths to welcome a more diverse student body, says Lena Hill, UI interim chief diversity officer, associate professor of English and African American studies, and senior advisor to the president.

“Even beyond the excellence of our programs and reputation for writing excellence, the English and creative writing major attracts diverse students who are inspired by the opportunity to study great literature with leading professors as well as the chance to develop their craft,” Hill says. “A field like creative writing boasts many great names that remind students of their potential, and the University of Iowa has been home to a number of them. From Margaret Walker to Sandra Cisneros to James Alan McPherson to Tayari Jones, we have an impressive track record of being a place where diverse talent thrives.”

Hill also points out that students in any discipline benefit from diverse learning environments because different perspectives often arise from different life experiences.

“Frankly, I am often amazed by how much I learn from my students as we analyze various texts,” Hill says.

Schiff and Fox say they are proud to be involved in a program that appeals to such a range of students, and the department works hard to ensure courses reflect this diversity.

“Every time we develop a syllabus, it’s a priority to make sure we’re representing what literature looks like today,” Schiff says. “I hope our students are inspired by the broad range of material they encounter in creative writing classes.”

“Certainly, our students want to see their work published, but they are also aware that most writers don’t make a living through literary publishing,” Schiff says. “We want them to understand that the critical-thinking skills they hone, and the attentiveness they practice studying writing, can be broadly applicable elsewhere. Moreover, I am interested in how the new major will help our students sustain a serious and fulfilling interest in literary arts over the course of their whole lives as active participants in the literary communities they value and build.”

Chaudhry and Moore say while they both hope to earn a living writing—in fact, Chaudhry just finished her first novel—they think the program is preparing them for a number of career options.

“‘Creative writing’ is an almost deceptive title to people on the outside,” Chaudhry says. “People think it’s undisciplined, but there’s a lot of hard work, control, and exercise that goes into creative writing. And that discipline has translated perfectly into my work as public relations director for Dance Marathon.”

“What’s unique about this program is there’s such an emphasis put on being able to read a text, write effectively about it, and then being able to orally state your opinion on that text in a cohesive, coherent manner,” Moore says. “Being able to effectively articulate your thoughts is, I think, the best part of this program because it’s a skill that’s so transferrable to any job.”

The Department of English has seen its overall enrollment grow since the new major was introduced. It may be too early to tell if the bump has to do with more students coming to the UI specifically for the English and creative writing major, but Schiff notes that the UI has long been a destination for writers.

“We’ve had an excellent undergraduate writing program for a long time, but now, by naming English and creative writing a major, students can easily see that the university supports their calling,” Schiff says.

English and Creative Writing by the numbers

Fall 2016 enrollment: 106

Fall 2017 enrollment: 526

Fall 2017 enrollment of minority students: 23 percent

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Read the article on IowaNow