When I first came to UE to major in creative writing, I figured this would be as good a place as any for that – the esteemed college I saw with generous professors and skilled graduates gave me a positive impression. I could fit in here, hone my skills, and progress into life after while feeling positive about my attendance. I felt welcome, and everyone I knew – student or otherwise – had only compliments for the university. But as my second semester progressed, I began to see that, in addition to other valuable aspects of the university, we, the creative writing department, are in real trouble. To gain more accurate views on the issues I had begun to consider, I interviewed our main professor, Katie Mullins. Her insight will be offered generously throughout this article.

            We are, in fact, not our own department anymore. As a direct result of the realignment, English and Creative Writing, two separate departments, were combined into the same; the plan also called for the removal of two of the five then-present creative writing professors. But how do we now only have one tenured professor?

“Right now, I’m an associate professor of creative writing, but I have sort-of defaulted into a Director of Creative Writing role as well. We are lucky to have Professor Clara Strong here as a visiting professor, but this department, at one time, had as many as five professors. And then after realignment we cut it down to – well, we were going to cut it to three, and then we had two other professors leave.”

As we well know, many departments and majors were affected poorly by the realignment; quality facets of the university were removed entirely. And although I cannot speak for or against the university’s choices regarding the plan itself, Professor Mullins and I both agree that the university’s actions towards the department, separate to the realignment plan, have been concerning at the least.

“With writing, they just never re-hired, even though there are three jobs that are now gone. […] Anytime three people leave and you go, ‘That’s cool, the one guy left can do that all. And she’s disabled? I’m sure she’ll keep up.’ It feels a little bit like a quiet close, like, there’s no way around it. For English in general, I’m sure they saw the combination of the majors as sort-of a death knell…”

One of the likeliest reasons creative writing still exists as a department is thanks to the merge demanded by Realignment, which is, funnily enough, the same reason we have a place secured for the immediate future. Professor Mullins went on to reinforce this fact with a precedent revealed by the treatment of a department that no longer exists: history. From what I understand, the former history department had four tenured professors, two of whom were fired during the realignment changes. What made that possible was removing the history department entirely. As Professor Mullins put it, “To fire a tenured professor, the whole department has to go.”

For creative writing to be removed as a major or department, the university would need to take one of two actions: 1) revoke one of their former decisions by splitting English and Creative Writing back into two separate departments, which is unlikely; or 2) completely remove the conjoined department, which is unthinkable. This should be an incredible reassurance to our students – our department will stay for the foreseeable future. In Professor Mullins’s words: “So, creative writing is pretty much here until, I guess, I don’t know, I leave or die. Which I think will be a while, I hope.”

But acting as the sole remaining professor of creative writing, shouldering the burdens of what should be multiple professors, is far from the ideal state for anyone. It’s a stressful position, and though she has received warm, open support from the English department and its faculty, she is still only one person trying her best to instruct an entire department.

“So people know I’m busy and crazy and have a lot of stuff to do, but they don’t really understand. And between that, and being pretty profoundly disabled, it’s been a real challenge to kind of—and I don’t look sick in the way people want me to, if that makes sense, so they’re going, ‘Well, you’re fine, now.’”

            One colleague in particular, Dr. Mark Cirino, the department chair, has fought hard to bring in new hires necessary for allowing the department to last more than just in name. However, when contacted, he was “not able to expand on Prof. Mullins’s comments” for this article. As Professor Mullins described it, “I don’t know for sure what the university needs that we have been unable to demonstrate.” Whatever the case, the university’s reasoning in this matter remains undisclosed. Even with the department’s prolonged existence granted by its conjoining with English, a lack of replacement faculty – replacements to those who left by choice, not those removed as a result of the realignment – spell continuing danger and fear for the department and its students.

            The reason any of this matters—the department, the professors, the students—might seem clearly one-sided; and, in a slight way, it is. I’m a creative writing student, hoping for a degree from UE, fighting for a place to belong. But those are merely details which allow me the position to understand and share the larger, encompassing worth of what we do. When I asked Professor Mullins during our conversation what it would really mean – for her, for the students, for the university – if the department and the major were made unavailable at UE, she explained with increasing passion and enthusiasm the base concepts which accompany creative writing. Although she gleaned her example of the moment off the chalkboard behind me, a lesson from a previous class that day, I could surmise that she had long since considered what she told me.

“I think anytime we lose classes in story, what you’re actually losing is people’s ability to tell each other what it means to be human and how it is to be human. […] I think creative writing is the privilege we survive for. […] And I think if we lose creative writing, we lose the ability to learn how to tell those things with empathy, with a sense of humor, and with a sense of organization. […] And so, yeah, I think losing that loses more than anyone realizes when they look at creative writing. And in fact, if you struck the word ‘creative’ from the front, people would realize what a valuable major it was. But something about hearing ‘creative’ just kind of makes people go ‘Oh, it’s probably not necessary.’”

            I have experienced this bias firsthand. In high school, people who knew I planned to major in creative writing asked me, “Why? You were always so good with numbers,” as if they thought the path I chose required less skill than the one they assumed I would follow. That itch in the brain people feel when they hear the word “creative,” the one that makes them automatically dismiss whatever it applies to as unnecessary… I posed that it was because people can’t quantify creativity or imagination; they can’t put an easy label on it like they do with so many other things. Which is true; but it’s also precisely the point.

“You can’t exactly measure it. […]  I’m okay living in an area where what we do can’t be quantified. But I think that it’s hard for—I think it is really hard, in an age where we are constantly trying to have something to assess, to deal in those uncertainties. And creative writing teaches you that uncertainty isn’t necessarily a failure, or even bad. Uncertainty is just part of life, and you learn how to deal with that, too.”

            Key to the effects of losing such a valuable department is the fact that the classes and concepts are by no means exclusive to creative writing majors. Theatre; literature; math; communications; archeology… Students from across the colleges enroll in writing courses with Professor Mullins and Professor Strong, and so, as was emphasized no less than five times throughout this portion of our conversation, a loss of the department would have negative effects “more than anyone realizes.” The reasoning should, by now, be obvious: expression, wisdom, self-discovery, and of course, skill in the craft. The problem remains that, despite the tenuous security of the creative writing major and the department, we still worry – staff included.

“But the fact of the matter is, I don’t face the future unafraid here. Because what I’ve learned is, eh, it keeps being sort-of a ‘Katie’ll do it’ situation. And so for me, I want to face the future unafraid. I am afraid I am facing that future alone, which means I cannot be unafraid.”

And, about the students:

“They’re terrified. They’re all scared, everybody I’ve talked to. I’ve had students cry to me and ask me, ‘Will you just stay at least until I graduate?’ […] I know some of the freshmen and the transfer students are considering other options.”

Some weeks ago, the bells in Olmsted began ringing again. They chimed the hours, of course, but also sounded the university’s hymn at a certain time each day. Walking by, hearing it, I could not help feeling some pride in this place, in my choice; I had heard it played and sung during convocation at the beginning of the year, a time of openings and brass fanfares. However, understanding the lyrics – We face the future unafraid – and hearing them in relation to the predicament of our department… they took on a creeping façade, becoming the selfsame “death knell” that seemed to have rung for us during the department’s merge with English.

            This is not the state our, or any, department should have to be in. Despite our remainder thanks to the university’s choices, those same choices have instilled fear into the students, driving valuable prospective members to pursue their education from a college they can actually guarantee a degree from; not the liberal arts college that has forcibly removed and/or neglects the arts, the creativity. Not hiring replacement professors for those who left voluntarily – leaving one overworked individual in place of what would have been three – continues to negatively affect the creative writing department, in spite of the kindness, accommodations, and warmth generously provided to our professor by her colleagues. It is natural to fear; however, I think Professor Mullins says it best for how to behave in this situation: “So I would be sad, and then I would adapt, and I would overcome.”

            Positivity and a pleasant face in the midst of adversity and uncertainty; that’s one of the finest messages to offer. It makes you think.

That’s it; it makes you thin

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