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Higher Education and the Poetry of Ideas

02/19/2014 05:34 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2014

Poets and fiction writers used to pride themselves on being, as befitting romantic renegades, outside of academia. They insisted that creative writing was not a teachable subject, since it required a special gift of imagination and a uniquely individual style. Phrases such as "workshop poems" and "academic poems," designating the sort of work allegedly written for classes, were often terms of derision.

That changed in the 1970s with a profusion of new creative writing programs at colleges and universities. Many poets protested vehemently against the institutionalization of their art, but even the most intense critics of creative writing classes usually welcomed a chance to teach one. The sad and simple truth was that poets had nowhere else to go. I knew several local literary legends, and even nationally prominent poets, who published prolifically, yet barely survived on meagre pensions, in one-room apartments infested with insects. Creative writing programs were a means, and probably the only one available, to send at least a little money their way.

Writers became less like shamans, dispensing divine wisdom, than priests, in the employment of a church. They would henceforth be evaluated rather like other academic employees -- by the number of their publications and the prestige of their degrees. Almost nobody realized it at first, but this was part of a process that post structuralists would soon call "decentering the author."

Today the legitimacy of creative writing classes is pretty much unchallenged, and they are close to the center of many academic programs in English. But the study literature itself has changed, perhaps restoring a bit of the status poets and other writers once enjoyed. Until around the middle 1970s, literature was considered the "holistic" discipline, the specialty for people who did not want to specialize. Writing about literature entailed no systematic methodology and no more than a minimum of jargon. Literature was, essentially, a lens through which one might contemplate experience, in a leisurely, unstructured way.

The end of the decade saw the emergence of approaches such as neo-Marxism, postmodernism, deconstruction, Lacanian psychology and new historicism. The study of literature was increasingly professionalized. Students would specialize less by period or author than by methodology, and their scholarship was pervaded by esoteric concepts. The holistic model continued, however, under the heading of "creative writing." What had once been the study of literature became known as "creative non-fiction," and enjoyed prestige comparable to that of fiction or poetry.

Actually, poetry was not quite the last subject to fall under the jurisdiction of academia. There was still one thing that professors never taught, and that was, ironically, how to teach college. Professors had once relied on observation, intuition and, like the poets, a mystique. Just as quite a few poets of the 1960s took advantage of the lack of standards to pass anything which popped into their minds off as verse; some professors would arrive in class late, and then spend what remained of the period talking about their personal problems. But, like the better poets, some professors also developed fascinating, and highly individual, classroom styles.

What we are now seeing might be called "decentering the professor." Now college teaching is becoming a formal academic subject, just like poetry did a few decades ago. The impetus for this change comes largely from new classroom technologies. The complex dynamics of an online or blended classroom make teaching into an activity that simply cannot be accomplished, even poorly, without extensive reflection and careful preparation.

In poetry, the imposition of academic standards may have filtered out the most thoughtless work, which often consisted of hardly more than random phrases and slogans strung together. Nevertheless, even those poets most at home in academia will seldom claim that creative writing programs have improved the quality of American literature. For the most part, poets and novelists have become both less idiosyncratic and less ambitious.

And will the "professionalization" of college teaching lead to an improvement, especially in the relatively traditional classrooms? Or will professors and students, in following increasingly intricate guidelines, lose the excitement of discovery? Will academia, deprived of its mystique, find it has also lost its purpose, even its soul? Will scholarship move outside the academy? Will the new classroom dynamics in some way revive old ideals? Will they generate new ones? We must wait a while for more than tentative answers to such questions, but ours is an exciting time to be a teacher.

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The Mythical Zoo by Boria Sax.