On Monday, June 11, 2012, I gathered with a group of undergraduates for the first meeting of my summer session creative writing workshop here at the University of Virginia, where I have taught in the Department of English since 1993. I teach in the summers as well as during the regular academic term not only because I can’t otherwise make ends meet on my 9-month faculty salary but also because I enjoy meeting students at time when classes are both more intense (summer sessions are three and half to four weeks in length and are typically scheduled to meet every day for several hours) and more relaxed (lots of iced coffee and bare feet among the books, backpacks, and loose papers).
We spent about an hour in that initial class period talking about Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters.” The poem begins in a highly lyric mode with a sensuous evocation of eating bivalves that borders on the ecstatic:
Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
Quickly, though, Heaney complicates this poetic picture and darkens his register. As much as his speaker would like to linger over and trust in his epiphany among “flowers and limestone / . . . toasting friendship, / Laying down a perfect memory / In the cool of thatch and crockery,” history rears its head,
Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south of Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege,
reminding the speaker, and the reader, that behind all privilege, all artistic and creative franchise, is a subtext, often brutal and unjust. And although the speaker is angry that his “trust could not repose / In the clear light, like poetry or freedom / Leaning in from the sea,” he chooses to make his full engagement with the experience itself—the whole menu of it, the ecstatic moment and the difficult awareness of its context—a kind of political act: “I ate the day / Deliberately, that its tang / Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.”
Making and studying poetry and fiction, my students and I agreed that morning, is a privilege. It is also an inimitable and essential way of understanding and articulating the ambiguities of human experience. I think each of us left the class feeling grateful for the shared endeavor of doing so.
Unbeknownst at that point to the majority of the students, an announcement had been made the day before our first class meeting that our popular President of just two years, Teresa Sullivan, had resigned abruptly under opaque and unsettling “emergency” circumstances pressed upon her by the Board of Visitors. As the week progressed, however, and as this news reached more deeply into the student community, my class had fresh reason to re-visit the themes of Heaney’s poem and to consider the place of creative writing in the larger contexts of the academy, politics, and the machinery of the world. Stunned and unbalanced by developing news and lingering confusion, we nonetheless “ate the day,” continuing to hold classes and individual conferences as planned, conversing about our assigned and original shared texts, looking closely at what they revealed, as language, about the felicities and ironies of being alive. As we did so, our discussion was necessarily haunted and informed by the Board of Visitors’ own murky statements of explanation for its presumptive and seemingly abrupt actions. What had really happened with President Sullivan? Why had we been blindsided in this way? Why did we feel we were we being kept in the dark?
On the afternoon of Monday, June 18th, one week after our start-of-summer session meeting, some 2000 faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and students from across all silos and precincts of the University—medicine, law, the College, business—crowded onto Jefferson’s historic Lawn in support of President Sullivan during what turned out to be an 11-plus-hour marathon meeting of the Board of Visitors inside the Rotunda. While we kept vigil in the light drizzle outside, a colleague remarked that he felt that we faculty and students were like children forced to wait in the hallway while the grown-ups sequestered themselves in the bedroom to squabble about whether or not to get divorced. Finally powerless to change anything, he suggested, we could whinge and weep and sing and chant and protest all we liked, but we probably, finally, would be dismissed and told what to do with a condescending “Because I said so.” And in fact the BOV, which dispersed from the Rotunda in the dark of early Tuesday morning by various exits after most of the vigil-keepers had been forced to depart because of the exigencies of work and family, did refuse at its protracted meeting to honor any of the concerns expressed and actions called for earlier in the preceding days by the faculty, honor committee, students, and their representatives. President Sullivan would not be reinstated. The offending BOV members would not resign (although one did, a few days later). An “interim president” was named by the BOV, the dean of the University’s McIntire School of Commerce.
As most readers of the Chronicle by now know, the days since Teresa Sullivan’s ouster have been full of wild speculation, conspiracy theories, courageous and decisive faculty and staff action and galvanization, swift, deft, and intelligent information gathering by student, local, and national media, moving testimony, resignations, rescinding of donations, tremendous disappointments, spikes of optimism, and practically minute-by-minute exposures and denials of inspiring dedication to uncovering the truth and of troubling acts of deception, obduracy, and double-speak. Even as I type this piece, my e-mail box fills with news about due process, transparency, legalities, newly formed task forces and freshly disclosed BOV cyber-correspondences, and debates over whether or not to acknowledge our interim president as legitimate, all of which may be passé and moot by the time this column sees print. But as the days pass, it has become more and more clear that Sullivan resigned in reaction to pressures from the University’s Board of Visitors, who in turn may have been responding to some of the University’s wealthy donors, many of whom are allegedly concerned, among other things, about Sullivan’s inability or unwillingness to keep adequate pace with financial pressures and with what members of the BOV perceive to be essential, rapid-fire technological advances in education, particularly in the area of on-line learning.
My intention here is not to offer, even if I could, a full accounting or timeline of what has gone down in this matter—what is knowable and debatable and feared and longed for is being articulated and proliferated with a quicksilver mix of confusion and clarity throughout cyberspace—though what is happening at the University of Virginia has raised and echoes sharp questions not only about what it means to be our university but what these top-down trends in the government and corporatizing of large state academic institutions bode for higher education everywhere. As I continue to teach my summer students, however, and as our daily face-to-face discussions continue to surprise and illuminate not only relative to texts but also ourselves as responsible wielders of language in unexpected ways, I’d like to say something, briefly, about creative writing workshops in relation to the notion of an “on-line education.”
Recently procured and published communications between BOV members prior to Sullivan’s forced removal reveal that worry about UVA’s slowness to follow other top-tier universities into the realm of business model financing and particularly into the frontiers of on-line learning were chief engines in driving what one now resigned Darden School of Business Foundation board member, who was privy to early discussions, called the “project” of forcing Sullivan’s resignation. In an article in the Huffington Post, David Karpf looks in detail at the e-mails among the key BOV players prior to Sullivan’s resignation and concludes that “This is governance through second-hand op-ed clippings. It is governance through rah-rah PowerPoint presentations. It is governance through Cliff’s Notes and Wikipedia pages. It bears no resemblance to an effectively-run company, much less an effectively-run university.”
Hmmm. Is this is what is meant by an “on-line education”? That is, can response by the BOV to an array of electronically disseminated editorial pieces and financial news reports and alarmist e-mails and self-reflexive, claustral virtual conversations trump a deeply engaged, hands-on awareness of how students are actually educated in universities, and why, and how we should respond to changes in how students gather and, more importantly, understand information? Certainly the issue is in the air, as this recent BBC article attests, and warrants serious attention.
Unlike some kinds of learning scenarios involving hierarchical, faculty-driven lectures and multiple-choice, no-gray-area bubble-sheet exams, humanities seminars and writing workshops, I would argue, do not lend themselves to an on-line model. They are not lectures but rather reciprocal and often spontaneous dialogues, and their health, vitality, and benefit to faculty and students alike depend upon face-to-face, real-time discussion and lots and lots of reading of student-generated writing. True, some writing programs have experimented with hypertext workshops and on-line critique of manuscripts, with interesting results, but it is undisputable that students respond with more accountability and a more replete sense of what is at stake when they speak to one another directly, face-to-face in a room, rather than through the protective interface of cyber-ether. At a time when so many of us carefully construct a sense of who we are through information and social intermediary surfaces, art and music studios, writing workshops, and advanced seminars in an array of disciplines offer young people a chance to discover who they are and what they think, and feel, in relation to the opinions and creations of a cohort of very real and very present and personally available peers and mentors.
And while I utterly applaud low-residency creative writing programs, it is important to stress that even if much of the correspondence in low-residency creative writing courses is conducted primarily “on-line,” these laudable enterprises are very labor intensive, requiring tremendous devotion and time on the part of faculty and students, who engage not only in periodic in-residence workshops and conferences, but in time-intensive and extensive one-on-one long-distance, individually tailored written and reading relationships.
Creative writing classes may be small—they need to be in order for emerging writers to attend to their own work and that of their peers—and their “outcomes” may not be quantifiable. But ask almost any student, at UVA or anywhere, who has participated in a good one, and you’ll find that the experience of examining one’s experience and of translating that world into word is life-changing, with a value that extends into all aspects of the fully lived life. We are also a pen and pencil and paper culture (as one of my students once said, he loved the impromptu, unpredictable “pen-clicking” moment in each workshop, when something someone said set off mental fireworks worthy of being written down). We don’t need on-line teaching portals or expensive buildings so much as we need support (tuition breaks, fellowships, raises, funds) for our in students in residence, our programs, and our faculty. Our learning is incremental, perhaps analogous to slow rather than fast food. I try to imagine, when my mind takes a paranoid or apocalyptic turn, what will happen in in all of the lovely new buildings going up all over Grounds, despite low faculty and staff compensation, if we move to on-line learning? Gorgeous auditoriums and seminar rooms populated by . . . . Webcams?
While waiting outside on the Lawn during that marathon BOV meeting, in fact, I entertained a fantasy of going into the Oval Room and passing out paper and pens and engaging the esteemed assembled visitors in a Surrealist writing exercise, perhaps an Exquisite Corpse or a bout of automatic writing, etudes designed to help the maker in all of us break through practiced and often rehearsed veils of power and control and sham into unexpected levels of perception, language, and discernment.
When my eldest daughter, an aspiring artist and writer and an alumna of the University of Virginia, and I were watching a slide show in an auditorium during her summer freshman orientation some six years back, an image flashed by of a student wrapped in a parka, painting the Rotunda in a raging snowstorm. I turned to my daughter and said, “that is what it is like to be an artist in this world. Luckily, you are going to go to a university where this is possible.”
Will this remain possible? We live in a moment when everything from presidential elections to who wins “best nail salon” in town to who earns a graduate degree can be determined by electronic media. Whatever changes transpire, as changes must, and whatever the outcomes are of this recent upheaval at my flagship state university (an experience which feels a lot, to many of us, like painting the Rotunda in a snowstorm), I want this freedom—to create, to experiment, to doubt, to talk, to be in community, to be quickened by imagination “into verb, pure verb”—to remain at the core of our educational mission, and not as just a virtual commodity or nostalgic notion, but as a viable, present tense, intensely involving and rewarding experience: human, accountable, flawed, and personhood-renderingly real.
Lisa Russ Spaar, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, is The Chronicle’s poetry blogger.
(Photo by Flickr/CC user terren in Virginia)