Sunday, August 24, 2008


It is strange that so many people have bothered to link to my Iowa story from a while back, which really I felt was basically a brief response to Mark's question about what I learned in Iowa.

Here is a response by Suburban Ecstacies.

Seth is in Iowa currently so his experience will be different from mine (I was there 1998-2000). I'm sure it has changed in some ways. Cole Swensen is a very different person than Jorie Graham, and this may have changed what Seth calls "the culture" of the place. However, Jim Galvin and Mark Levine (who was Jorie's student and who Jorie picked fr a contest, hired etc) are still there, so I can't imagine it's entirely different.

More importantly, every school, every program has a "culture", which is more or less consciously determined by the faculty and administrators. There can never be an "absence of culture."That's ridiculous.

This "culture" is formed through the teaching style (in Iowa very Prof-centric), what classes are offered, who is accepted to the program, how texts are taught, the prominence of "contests", and perhaps as importantly the whole framework for classes and financial aid etc, which in Iowa is set up to fuel competition and ass-kissing (some people get the reward of getting to teach Creative Writing and get more money etc).

Some of the very "defenses" Seth trots out - there are few requirements, people can pick from a "variety" of teachers (see our discussion about the Jorie Graham canon for the problems with "variety") - are in fact part of the ethos. For example, the lack of class requirements is part of a Romantic "cult of the genius" approach to art. "You don't need to study a bunch, just write."


Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Hi J.,

I still think you're conflating pedagogy and culture into a single term.

More importantly, I don't think you understood my point: I am not saying one can exist in Iowa City without/outside of a "culture," I am saying that that culture, whatever it is, is not of or from the Workshop itself--it is what students create in the absence of a "sponsored" culture, a fact you seem to be echoing when you persistently note the hands-off pedagogy (which, in your analysis, equates to the word "culture," anyway).

To say that the culture students choose to create among themselves is a product of the Workshop, not the students' own youth and past experiences in high school and college, is a misapplication of sociology. Honestly, I don't think I'm breaking any new ground here. Be well,


11:00 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, of course you can choose not to participate in the culture. I think I was very conscious of the culture because I didn't really participate and remained baffled at the experience.

But I don't see how it's possible for you not to see how these things create the culture. How could it be that the pedagogy doesn't influence the way students view writing and their idea of what the writer is/does?

The most obvious example is of course the competition-based model - it's absolutely incredibly to me that you don't see how this helps shape the way students interact with each other.

I've been on both sides of the coin in writing programs and teachers are very much aware of how they shape the culture of their programs - based on who they let in, what they require them to do, what kind of behavior they encourage etc. If you view it with a little bit of a critical eye, I think you'll find that Creative Writing and Law School are not *that* different. It may be less obvious in the CW Program, but it's there nonetheless.

At U of Alabama the teachers were very concerned not to go the Iowa route, so they had very egalitarian systems for teaching assignments and they used a lottery to give out the big travel grants, so that they would avoid creating a competitive atmosphere.

A lot of what you study at Education grad school is exactly how pedagogy etc create these cultures of learning.

7:10 AM  
Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Hi J.,

Don't have much time--classes start shortly--but I'll mention that I think you're overstating the competitive aspect significantly. Re: contests, there are only two or three a year publicized (not necessarily even sponsored) by the Workshop, and the judges are never faculty--always an outside reader--so there's no reason to think that internalizes competition. Re: selection for classes, yes, when I came here everyone thought workshops were filled based on talent (i.e., if you didn't get X professor for workshop, it's because s/he didn't want you), and then--a month into school--it was revealed that it's actually determined by the Academy's equivalent of a barroom darts game. It's not a reflection of talent, so no one takes it that way now. [E.g., my biggest supporter on the faculty--the reason I got in here, almost certainly--didn't select me for his/her workshop in fall of last year, and later said s/he regretted "not having been able to work with me yet"]. With respect to the attention of faculty, it is here as it is elsewhere--if you want it and put lots of your time and energy into getting it, you'll get it. And of course there are probably those who do some brown-nosing, which, again, is true everywhere, no moreso at Iowa than anywhere else.

Respectfully, from a pedagogical standpoint Iowa does not run on the "competitive" model--at least not now. The most common claim for this is the way TWFs are handled, which has been overstated to a degree which would make Cicero proud. The reality is that at Iowa your funding never decreases between the first year and the second, it can only go up--the question is how much. And the funny thing? I have a TWF, and my funding is actually unchanged from last year. Some others without TWFs receive more funding than me. Which incidentally doesn't bother me at all, because the bottom line is that we all have enough to live on here, so why would anyone quibble over a few dollars? And even more importantly, other than the TWF process funding is mostly handled secretively--i.e. administratively--which is the exact opposite of what the "competition model" of education would encourage.

As to publication, there is a hard and fast rule here that you don't discuss it except with close friends; almost every poet I know here has been advised at some point or another not to try to publish, which again is a head-scratcher if this is a competitive model of pedagogy (i.e., wouldn't they want to separate the wheat from the chaff, in your rubric, were this a competitive model?). And as to how classes are taught: depends on the teacher. Tony Hoagland's seminar was totally different from Mark Levine's, for instance, and I enjoyed both. Matthea Harvey's workshop and Tony Hoagland's were likewise like night and day, and again I enjoyed both. I don't know what to tell you--these aren't "defenses," it's just that what you're describing is simply not accurate re: what's happening now. And while I'm sure there are a couple folks here right now so competitive in their own minds that they see the hobgoblin of competition everywhere, I write--as a non-trad--from a somewhat less harried position, and can say that if so that's one person's personality talking, not an accurate sociological abstract.

Be well,

7:49 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Every thing you say about your Iowa makes it sound exactly like the Iowa I attended. Perhaps you will need some critical distance before you start to analyze the program, or perhaps you don't ever want to.


8:59 AM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Hi J.,

I've got a pretty good track record when it comes to fighting authority and criticizing institutions, and a long history of professional objectivity--was even trained in it, and did it 9-to-5 for years--so I don't know that my desire (or lack of it) to be critical is the issue. I'm sorry you weren't able to make Iowa a singular experience in your life. I know some folks here with the same dilemma, and many more who have had their "waking up" moment while still in the program. Be well,


2:36 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Like I wrote in my original post, I gained a lot from the experience. This doesn't not preclude viewing the institution critically. Every institution can be critically analyzed and that's what I tried to do.

5:53 AM  

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