Many departments at the University of Minnesota take advantage of the resources of the Twin Cities to make them special. For example, the BFA Acting program has a partnership with the Guthrie Theater, and our medical school is involved with Mayo Clinic and Fairview. The University boasts collaborations like these as paragons of what our University can be. If I weren’t an English major, I may believe all the positive hype about our University’s commitment to its own evolution. Instead, as I get ready to enroll in next semester’s courses, I find myself hoping the renovation of Lind Hall, which houses the English program, will symbolize a greater rethinking of the program’s by-the-book offerings.
According to USA Today, Minneapolis has been the 1st, 2nd or 3rd most literate city in America every year since 2005. Our creative writing MFA program ranks anywhere from top five to top 10 based on genre, and the city of Minneapolis is home to a slew of noteworthy independent bookstores and publishing houses.
Where, oh where then, are the daring course offerings for undergraduates? The program as it is currently arranged offers literature surveys, often with writing components, which aim to fulfill basic English requirements for a broad range of majors. However, the program fails to go beyond the safety of survey courses to offer specific, engaging curriculum options to English majors or engage with our vibrant literary community. The College of Liberal Arts seems to be missing an opportunity to create a unique, signature program at the University.
In literature, and perhaps especially in creative writing, the school should offer more specialized courses, replacing beginning, intermediate and advanced fiction, for example, with more specific types of fiction writing. In literature, the school fares slightly better but still lacks originality in its course offerings. Why not have classes on the Beats, ex-pats or banned books? Contemporary literature is woefully underrepresented as well. In creative writing, the program also needs to equip itself with a core faculty rather than pushing all teaching responsibilities onto graduate students.
Although graduate students can make excellent professors, relying solely on them causes the program to be constantly in transition and therefore inhibits the school from securing the kind of reputation that comes from constancy. Raising the bar in writing is another way to raise the caliber of the entire institution.
Given the incredible population of writers in the Twin Cities, and given the Cities’ history of literary giants, creating a vibrant literary community and English program at the University should be a no-brainer.
For those who don’t know, Minnesota was home to the first American to ever win a Nobel Prize for Literature, Sinclair Lewis. F. Scott Fitzgerald, writer of what some call “the great American novel” is from here. Great playwrights such as August Wilson have called the Twin Cities home. Amazing lyricists like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits stomped these streets. Important film writers such as the Coen Brothers and Gordon Parks cultivated their talents here. The legacy is equally strong in poetry, nonfiction and mixed forms.
Lest one should think it’s all in the past, the city is still home to award winning writers and permanent professional writing workshops such as the Loft literary center. Our cities’ legacy and current vibrancy can rival any in America, but our undergraduate program certainly cannot. If the University hopes to match the great literary reputation of the Twin Cities, then it is time to make more than just structural changes at Lind Hall. Hopefully, the renovations underway are only a prologue in the improvements yet to come to our too-safe English department.
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