CREATIVE WRITING has been the ugly stepsister in the English discipline for years. On one side, the literature scholars carry the torch for pure language, and, on the other side, the composition and rhetoric theorists approach writing like a science. Somewhere off in a dark corner, the creative writing staff loiters, getting paid to do nothing more than say what they think about student writing.
The debate whether creativity can be taught smolders. Most creative writing teachers believe in the creative potential of all people, and that the right environment with prompts and encouragement can elicit creative work to a degree. Talent, motivation and desire always play an important role.
However, the accountability movement in higher education is here to stay, and creative writers, like all faculty, must address the issue. The call for change has been consistent for over 20 years since the publication of "A Nation at Risk." In 2005, Charles Miller, chairman of a federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education, has indicated that the college system is "inefficient, it's risk-averse, it won't admit its failures, and it's unresponsive, particularly to the needs of adult students" (Field). With a clear spotlight of reform focusing on colleges and universities, the scepter of change must be taken seriously or, chances are, it will be governmentally imposed. The primary message of a PBS documentary Declining by Degrees is: "No longer can our colleges and universities be allowed to drift in a sea of mediocrity" (Zemsky). Since most institutions remain recalcitrant when it comes to reforming tradition and past practices, many well-intentioned critics "are growing impatient with higher education's reluctance to examine its basic assumptions and modes of operation" (Zemsky). The message is clear: how can teachers prove that their students are learning?
Bringing the debate into creative writing classes seems doubly hard. Aesthetically, there are major differences in taste and preference in writing styles. For example, many writers praise Ezra Pound's work; just as many find little value and meaning in his writing. All writers, however, recognize Pound's impact on the American literary scene. Personal creative tastes vary widely from teacher to teacher, even within the same department, and that can be viewed as a benefit. The accountability problem, however, looms large.
Though creative writing involves innate talent, it is also a craft with tools, techniques, concepts. Any fledgling writer needs to learn the elements in order to practice, experiment, and perfect them. Though people argue that creative writing is subjective and personal in the end (and they are right), they are far less willing to argue that the elements of poetry, fiction, and drama are subjective. The elements are objective and should be a crucial part of the evaluation of creative writing coursework.
The following experiment was devised to prove that students were learning about elements of poetry, fiction, and drama in a creative writing class. Since the evaluation of creative work is admittedly subjective, a parallel focus on writing elements was incorporated into class. In addition to writing prompts and helping-circle feedback, the poetry section involved figurative language, rhyme schemes, sound elements, images and forms of poetry. The fiction section covered character types, points of view, and innovative fiction. In playwriting, the concepts of tragedy, theatre of the absurd, and play format style were explored.
On the first day of class, a "Show Me What You Know" survey was distributed, a ten-item multiple choice survey including general questions on poetry, fiction, and drama. The examples (see box) show the type and level of questioning:
On the last day of class, a thirty-item comprehensive final exam was given with the ten items from the "Show Me" survey embedded within. …