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UCSB’s College of Creative Studies Freezes Literature Major Admissions

Former Students and Faculty Cry Foul Over Lack of Leadership


Thursday, March 27, 2014
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Literary enthusiasts who got their start at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies (CCS) are in an uproar this month after officials announced a temporary admissions freeze for CCS’s literature major. The action by the Academic Senate Undergraduate Council followed an unforgiving panel review, which stated CCS lacked faculty leadership and relationships with associated departments. But dedicated alumni and faculty have vehemently objected, some arguing that a frozen program at UCSB has never been restored.

Though the “college within a college” only has about 70 literature majors each year, quite a few alumni have spoken up about their unique undergraduate experience. Established in 1967 by the late fiction writer Marvin Mudrick, the small academic community is often considered a graduate school for undergraduates. In its nonpunitive grading system, students can fully devote themselves to one class and withdraw from another. Further, several sources explained the CCS literature program emphasizes a deep study of the classics and shies away from contemporary requirements ​— ​such as historical criticism and statistical analysis of text ​— ​typically found in English departments. “They aren’t being fed a program; they are pursuing knowledge, overcoming their own ignorance, and doing it with an avidity that will do far more than compulsion ever can,” said alum Kia Penso in an email, adding CCS students are free to take classes for credit in any department.

Reading a statement before the Academic Senate earlier this month, Professor Michael O’Connell ​— ​who has taught in CCS for five years and retired from the English Department in 2010 ​— ​asked that the “precipitous” moratorium be deferred. He called the leadership dilemma a “catch-22”: The program had “pleaded” for leadership after the previous program head retired in 2009, but CCS management has failed to take action. English Professor Shirley Lim had previously served as program head but was “alienated” and “forced out” in 2011, his statement went on.

Other CCS majors ​— ​biology, chemistry, art, computer science, and more ​— ​will not have their admissions suspended. CCS Dean Bruce Tiffney said the freeze on admissions was a response to concerns about the “mechanical sustainability” of the program and reiterated that the suspension is temporary. “No program continues unchanged,” he said. “What we need to accomplish is to ensure an uninterrupted flow of ladder faculty participation and leadership emanating from a range of departments and disciplines from across campus.”

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The change Tiffney mentions is more like an abandonment of the ideals in pursuit of which the major was set up. The Academic Senate determined that the literature major did not expose its students to enough ladder faculty doing “cutting edge research” in their respective disciplines, whereas Marvin Mudrick sought to afford self-motivated students the freedom to develop their capacities as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, while offering an approach to the study of literature not found elsewhere on campus. (Note the difference in emphasis between campus resources and student experience.) Mudrick’s approach was both creative in nature and meant to produce creative thinkers. To that end, all CCS students were given special access to all classes taught in the larger College of Letters and Sciences, regardless of prerequisites and with the privilege of penalty-free class dropping. The rationale for this was that self-motivated students with such unusual access to campus resources (including “ladder faculty from a range of departments and disciplines”) could be trusted to use it profitably. Now Tiffney and the academic senate contend that they can't, that they must instead be exposed to a slice of the College of Letters and Science within the College of Creative Studies, and it is this lack of trust and new possibility for agenda-pushing to which many of the graduates object.

MichaelP (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 8:15 a.m. (Suggest removal)

A former teacher of mine at CCS Literature, Dr. Ross Robins, has given me his permission to post this letter to the UCSB and CCS deans. This is the first half of the letter. I'll post the other half next:

As one of the first graduates of CCS and as its first Academic Coordinator –and also as someone who used what he learned there to create a widely respected English curriculum at one of the best boarding schools in the country—I'm writing to express my alarm at the CCS Literature admissions moratorium and the proposed changes to the Literature program.

As I understand them, those changes constitute a repudiation of the experiences that have brought me and so many other CCS alumni the professional success and personal satisfaction we've enjoyed as writers and teachers. Forty years after graduation, during which time I've published scholarly essays (Oxford U.P. and elsewhere) and delivered conference papers on work first conceived at CCS, I'm convinced that the program has been the most important academic influence in my life. I urge you to do everything in your power to protect the bold, potentially life-changing elements of the program that Marvin Mudrick created.

Your task is a difficult one because CCS Literature has consistently drawn criticism from the outside. The sad truth is that the program is almost always misunderstood by people who haven't experienced it themselves. The reasons for that misunderstanding are many, but the effects of it are usually the same: perplexity and suspicion. As a result, there has been one attempt after another over the decades to change its “inward” nature by bringing in “fresh perspectives.” Those efforts have been made by people with no knowledge of the essential character of the Literature program—a program so original and so exciting to students that it has thrived in the face of continuous challenge.

In this letter I'll try to define the distinctive feature of CCS Literature, to explain how I used it to transform the writing curriculum at Cate School, and to propose an alternative to the action you seem to be contemplating.

Before I explain what the Literature program is, however, I should explain what it is not. It is most definitely not a typical university English department; because of its emphasis on creativity, the CCS program is actually the antithesis of that.

RobynR (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 11:35 a.m. (Suggest removal)

As you may know, in the last twenty years English departments across the country have made a deliberate attempt to separate the reading of imaginative literature from the writing of it. There are now many new theoretical approaches to literary study, and each one of those was consciously designed to diminish the significance of the actual process of creation by focusing on historical, psychological, or linguistic analysis. In academic circles it has become unacceptable to speak of artistic success or failure because each work of literature is now a culturally produced artifact: a work of art without an artist. University programs of the last generation (including that at UCSB) have marginalized or entirely eliminated creative writing as an area of serious study because, in literary analysis, there is no longer any relationship between creativity and scholarly research.

The CCS program couldn't be more different. The feature of CCS Literature that transforms the work of its students is the continuous linking of creativity and analysis. At CCS I was trained to write fiction, and that training informed and sharpened my reading; I began to read like a writer. I began to see works of literature as individual acts of invention rather than embodiments of linguistic or historical theory. And I can report that, as I moved through the Ph.D. program in English at UCSB, the writing-based approach at CCS made me a very different kind of graduate student and a very different kind of writing instructor. My dissertation on D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love was described by an international authority on the subject as the first convincing explanation of the writer's creative process in that book. Early in my teaching career I published an anthology of college writing filled with imaginative work of such a high quality that it caused other teachers to consider adopting the CCS model. None of this would have happened if I hadn't attended the Literature program at CCS, where students are encouraged—actually required—to practice the craft they wish to study. There isn't another undergraduate program like it in the country.

RobynR (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 11:39 a.m. (Suggest removal)

(Actually, I had to split Dr. Robins's letter into thirds. --Robyn R.)

When I left my post as CCS Academic Coordinator in 1990 to lead the English Department at Cate School—which was and still is on every list of top U.S. boarding schools—I brought the fundamental features of the Literature program with me. Remembering the excitement I felt (as both student and teacher) at the constantly changing list of CCS courses, I created Cate's first full-scale offering of English electives; it is an integral part of the school to this day. Into a department with a standard four-year writing curriculum, I brought an emphasis on imaginative work, and by the fall of 1994 Cate School was routinely winning the UC Prize Competition. Having overseen the CCS Literature Symposium for several years in the 1980s, I started the Cate School Visiting Writers Series, bringing in young poets and fiction writers (and eventually a few Cate alumni) to read and discuss their work. By 1995 we had several student-led writing groups, a vibrant literary magazine, and a prize-winning student newspaper. We still have them all today, and Cate students are widely recognized by college admissions officers across the country as able and original writers.

As you can see, my experience at CCS was formative, and it has helped me shape the experiences of others. Writing is a permanent and irreplaceable part of the lives of my students because it's more than just a tool for analysis. The Literature program is entirely responsible for this, which is why I'm so concerned at the prospect of wholesale changes to it. I hope you'll consider alternatives to the course of action you seem to be contemplating, even if those alternatives aren’t the kind of “fresh perspective” with which CCS Literature has been threatened for decades. Rather than abandoning the new idea that Marvin Mudrick had nearly 50 years ago—an idea that, even at the time, drew a completely predictable skepticism—I urge you to return to it in the boldest way possible. This could be achieved most affordably by inviting one or more of the program's most dynamic alumni to return and administer it, although there are undoubtedly other options that would achieve the goal of preserving the unusual—and unusually effective—nature of CCS Literature.

RobynR (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 11:44 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I also wanted to post this petition and a list of 130 people (most are CCS alumni and former teachers) who signed it:

Petition in Support of the College of Creative Studies Literature Major at UCSB

We the undersigned support the CCS Literature major and continuing normal admissions to the program. We thank the Undergraduate Council of the UCSB Academic Senate for taking into consideration alumni emails in support of CCS Literature before the Council voted on changing the major’s admissions status.

We believe that CCS Literature is an immensely valuable program, the work of decades of excellent teaching; joyful, difficult, diligent study; and some hard-learned lessons. Please retain the program and work collaboratively with Letters and Science cognate departments and the College of Creative Studies to build a strong, successful, and mutually beneficial Literature and Creative Writing major at USCB.

Jeff Abshear
Anthony Alberts
Ryan Alpers
Lani Asher
Lisa Asanuma
Nevin Berger,
Gregory C. Berry
Lydia Bird
Bob Blaisdell
Caryn Diamond Bosson
Charlie Bosson,
William L. Bowen
Lara Bradshaw
Ann Braybrooks
Anne Fitzpatrick Call
Margo Callard, née Buchin
Pamela Capalad
Leslie Campbell
Jeanette Castillo
Jerry Chalmers
Michelle Chandra
Carolyn Chiao
David Christopher Clark
Kelly Delaney
Adrienne Elijah
Marie-Therese Ellis
Carolyn Fleg
Jessica Fleitman
The Reverend Beth Lind Foote
Carlee Franklin
Marites Villarosa Garcia
Amy Jo Goddard
Celeste Gonzalez
Brady Golden
Stanley Goldstein
William Grimason
Leslie Hall
Varci Vartanian Hansen
Jason Harris
Jennifer Hawks
Chris Hepburn
Kerri Hinkle
Cora Hirashiki
Lisa Phillips Howe
Karinna Hurley
Julia Halprin Jackson
Joel Jacobsen
Keith Jakobs
Natalie (Tasha) Jakush
Kate Johnston
Liva Jostad-Laswell
Dr. Trisha Kannan
Lance Kaplan
Kim Kash
Shawna Kelly
Ellen Girardeau Kempler
Merie Kirby
Andrew Kirsh
Alexandra Kostoulas
Carol Lashof
Miriam Grayer Liberatore
Dr. Shirley Lim
Melissa Livanos
Margot Lurie

RobynR (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 2:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Here are the other signatories:

Elaine Madsen
Emily Maggard
Megan Maguire
Marie Marandola
John Marckx
Joseph E. Marckx
Jim McGough
Deborah (Dakota) McKenzie
Danielle Miller
Tory Miller
Hadas Moalem
Jamie Morrow
Carrie Beth Murphy
Dr. Monza Naff
Suzanne Atkins Noll
Peter Nye
Steven Passmore
Michael Pecchio
Katherine Anne Peik
Kia Penso
Ian Perry
Jo Anne Lee Perry
Thomas Perry
Tony Pierce
Daniel Pine
Richard Placencia
Anneliese Pollock
Mary Proenza
Lindsay Pullin
Hugh Ranson
Robyn Raymer
Franciscus Alex Rebro
Jesse Rhodes
Aaron Rice
Alisa Roberts
James R. Robertson
Heather Teeter Rocker
Ekaterina Rogalskaya-Zeyen
Melinda Rosenberg
Max Schott
Alex Scordelis
Cristian A. Sierra
Oren Smilansky
Stanley Somers
Mike Solomon
Daniela Sow (formerly Schonberger)
Alyse Speyer
Danna Staaf (formerly Shulman)
Chelsea Sutton
Laura-Marie Taylor
Rob Thoms
Rebecca Weiner Tompkins
Kyle Ukes
Thaïs Wagner (formerly Thaïs Albert)
Kaitlin Walker
Ellen Weiss
Karl Weiss
Max Weiss
Alisha Westerman
Stephen Westfall
Robert Wickham
John Wilson
Nick Wilson
Lucy Wong
Rachael Zur

RobynR (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 2:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"Mechanical sustainability"?
The question in plain, human English is why UCSB administrators and the current CCS Dean are so eager to kill a program that has been successful for almost 50 years.
The answer might be that the imposition of this admissions freeze empowers an already bloated administrative bureaucracy (on an increasingly corporatized campus) to destabilize “secure” faculty positions and programs.
Now that the freeze has been imposed, no UC program is safe from the administrative seizure of resources, the wholesale deconstruction of its curriculum, and the reorganization of its faculty structure.
Admissions freezes have proved fatal to every other UCSB program upon which they have been imposed. If doesn’t kill it, an admissions freeze will permanently damage the CCS literature program, its students and its faculty. A freeze on admissions will diminish the value of a degree earned from CCS literature in the past and in the future. A freeze means--despite assurances to the contrary–– that current students will receive the education they are paying for.
It is important to assert that this admissions freeze was imposed “precipitously.” The Academic Senate formulated requirements but failed to provide CCS literature faculty the time necessary to meet those requirements—although CCS literature faculty worked in good faith to conform to the demands—often conflicting—of the Academic Senate and the former Executive Vice Chancellor.
The Academic Senate allowed only 5 minutes during which two emeritus professors of English were allowed to present an appeal to the proposed admissions freeze. FIVE MINUTES! What could it have been that the Academic Senate was so eager NOT to hear?
According to the previous CCS provost who left in 2005, the CCS literature program was robust, and had ample “ladder faculty involvement.” Perhaps the problem that brought on this likely-to-be fatal-freeze resides with current CCS and UCSB leadership.

DoctorofEnglishLit (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 2:46 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This is a description of CCS Literature that a group of alumni wrote:

College of Creative Studies Literature Program
(founded by literary critic Marvin Mudrick in 1967)

Students are admitted based on work in evidence of talent: poems, short stories, memoirs, and/or essays. Students’ applications are often highly original.

The curriculum concentrates on major literary figures in English and other literatures. There are no lecture, introductory or survey courses in writing or in literature. In English these major figures have always included Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

Depth rather than breadth distinguishes the seminars: Readings are close, intense, and ambitious, i.e., it is not unusual that many texts of a single author might be covered in a quarter.

Students approach literature as writers.

Through deep immersion in the works of a single author or a few authors, and instructor-guided close readings, the CCS lit student refines his ability to respond to literature, builds the skills necessary for literary analysis, and gains the knowledge necessary to become an excellent writer.

The notion that the qualities that distinguish good writing are the same across genres--clarity, precision, suppleness of language, vitality of voice, freshness and passion--inform the curriculum and evaluation of student work. The flexible curriculum often includes contemporary or under-represented authors, and works in new genres.

CCS faculty include working poets or writers of fiction, able to serve as mentors to developing writers.

Creative writing courses—the writing of verse, the writing of narrative prose–build the skills of emerging writers in the program but also help students become better readers—more critical and more sensitive to language.

The CCS Literary Symposium offers students continued exposure to a wide range of working writers and is part of the curriculum: speakers have included U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, Pulitzer prize-winning food writer, Jonathan Gold, novelist Maxine Hong-Kingston, playwright Eve Ensler, writer of fiction and documentary film maker Lisa Teasley, writer of fiction Reyna Grande.

The writerly focus of CCS Lit serves the university as a whole and the English department in particular by nourishing young writers, by serving their literary point of view, and publishing them in Spectrum and Into the Teeth of the Wind.

CCS Lit has served its students well for almost 50 years: Graduates have become novelists, poets, lawyers, journalists, playwrights, film and television writers, scholars, editors, and professional nonfiction writers in a variety of fields, and have been accepted into distinguished and highly selective graduate schools.

RobynR (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 4:27 p.m. (Suggest removal)

In posting the petition in support of CCS Literature I left out the signatories' degrees and other information. Here are some statistics that I garnered from the petition:

129 signatures
23 PhDs; 22 MAs; 24 MFAs; 5 MS degrees; 6 JDs
5 Fulbright scholarships
121 BAs, most of which are CCS Literature ones; plus, a few people did not list their B.A. degrees
6 BS degrees; one dentist; one Master of Biomedical Ethics
one Master of Critical Studies in Cinematic Arts
one Master of Translation and Interpretation
two Master of Divinity degrees
12 graduate degrees from UCSB

The words copywriter/ghostwriter/screenwriter/write/writer/writing/written appear 82 times.
The words copyeditor/editor appear 35 times.
The word author appears 11 times; the words novel/novelist appear 4 times.
The word playwright appears 5 times.
The words produce/producer/producing appear 9 times.
The words publish/published/publisher/publishing appear 21 times.
The words teach/teacher/teaching/instructor appear 27 times.
The words education/educational appear 13 times.
The words professor/lecturer appears 19 times.
The word mathematics appears 9 times. The word biology appears 7 times. The word science appears 9 times.
The words art/arts/artist appear 47 times.
The words poem/poet/poetics/poetry appear 22 times.
The word literature appears 136 times.
The word English appears 41 times.
The words journal/journalism appear 7 times.
The words book and magazine appear 11 times.

Nations/languages mentioned: Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Scotland, Tunisia, and Spain

People who signed the petition have graduate degrees from the following colleges and universities, among many others:

Brandeis University, College of William & Mary Law School
Columbia University, Cornell University, Emerson College, Harvard University Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Loyola University, Mills College
Monterey Institute of International Studies, New School University
Northwestern University, Stanford University
UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Hastings Law School
UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Santa Cruz
University of Chicago, University of Edinburgh, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, University of Washington

RobynR (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 8:45 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The College of Creative Studies counts at least one Nobel Laureate among its alumni.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
March 27, 2014 at 9:49 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Yes, Ken, that is Dr. Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University.

RobynR (anonymous profile)
March 28, 2014 at 10:21 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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