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Advice to the English department

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Historical context

Disclaimer: my intention in writing this is not to dissuade any student interested in majoring in English from doing so. Many of my friends have done it. I’ve done it. Various English alumni and former Cascade staff members have done it and gone on to post-graduate studies. It’s an invaluable experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Now I address UFV’s English department. I love you guys, I really do, but while covering UFV’s visual arts department earlier this year, I came across a series of institutional practices that floored me.

The visual arts department requires that students take theory courses alongside practical ones, much like the English department’s offering of literature and creative writing courses. The difference between both departments is that the VA department recognizes that to make art (to insert oneself into the contemporary conversations within the visual arts world) students must first be aware of the history that came before them.

Upon learning this I thought, Of course. Why doesn’t the English department do this?

Why doesn’t the English department do this?

To this end I propose something radical: bar students from taking creative writing courses until they’ve taken a reasonable number of literature courses ranging from antiquity to the contemporary. The reason for this is that, as a writer, you can’t write a piece that shucks conventions, or subverts them, or satirizes them, if you’re not aware that these conventions are there in the first place. Yes, creative writing is a personal, subjective practice on the part of the writer, but it at least ought to be an informed personal, subjective practice.

I know survey courses don’t grant students in-depth knowledge, but if we start with Ovid and move our way up to BpNichol, we’ll at least be conscious enough of the historical shift in conventions within poetry to insert ourselves into them knowingly.

Practical information

Another area where I felt my education at UFV was sorely lacking was that of practical information. Taking a lead from UFV’s visual arts department, I feel that it behooves creative writing courses at UFV to give students, alongside whatever education in creative writing they are already giving, information on how to work as a creative writer. This means: grant proposal-writing primers, lit mag submission-writing, self-publishing primers. Teach students how to format and layout zines, for example.

I’m not arguing for the addition of a slew of courses to the department, but perhaps include some required practicum courses which include practical education in creative writing, as well as a literature component that’s more focused on applying that education towards publishing goals.

Not only will this help outgoing students when they attempt to become writers, editors, or break into the publishing industry, but it will give UFV something unique among post-secondary English degree programs: a creative writing concentration that prepares students to be published writers. UFV constantly tries to find new, flashy hooks with which to lure students to our campus. A great start might be to take one of its most popular faculties, and equip it with the tools to provide students practical education.

The number of plays, novels, and poetry published by alumni will draw in more than twice the students that would otherwise be tempted by the English department’s current relative obscurity.

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