In 2013, UTSC’s English department launched a minor in Creative Writing. The program — the first creative writing program at the U of T — enrolled 67 students in the 2017-2018 academic year. However, the department has encountered exceptional interest in creative writing courses, all of which require students to be admitted by creative portfolio. ENGB61—Fiction I, a prerequisite for the majority of UTSC’s other creative writing courses, received about 70 portfolios each year, more than three times the course’s capacity.
In response to this growing momentum, associate professors Daniel Tydsal and Andrew Westoll spearheaded the design of a creative writing major on campus. The main, which was launched in 2020, was created with the aim of “encourage students’ creative and critical expression; their confidence and autonomy…their ability to contribute to the development of a diverse group of individuals; and their leadership.
The new undergraduate program proposal for the major outlined a “workshop-based model” for all courses in the program to ensure “[the] development of students’ confidence and autonomy as practitioners and as examiners. In the plan, methods of assessing the major included writing assignments, reviews, and peer feedback. – all of which have been the subject of controversy among students and faculty due to the discourse on whether or not to formally assess creative work.
The controversy over the grades
Cassäundra Sloan, a UTSC alumnus and founder and director of production company Girl North Studios, strongly disagrees that any form of artistic expression should be graded in the academic setting.
“I’ve written essays that got A’s and essays that got low, low Cs,” Sloan wrote at the university. “Not because my knowledge of the subject was less, but because my style of writing was deemed appropriate by one professor and inappropriate by another.”
Rather than evaluating feedback given to him in a creative writing class, Sloan explained that his reaction to receiving a low grade was to “shrug and laugh.”
“I already work in the industry and I know I’m doing a good job,” Sloan explained. “I just hope the low grades don’t deter others from pursuing a career in writing.”
However, some creative writing students use their assigned grades to assess how much their work has improved over the semester.
“[I’m] okay with a percentage rating because it’s a [very] an accurate postmark showing where my progress is, which helps me,” Catherina Tseng, a fourth-year creative writing student, told the university.
“In an ideal world, I would prefer to give no grades, ever,” Assistant Professor SJ Sindu wrote to the university. “But we built our whole school system around them, so I don’t know how open the administrations would be to a gradeless class.”
“A [pass or fail] model could work well,” Sindu explained. “But then everyone should also make peace with the fact that a student who writes publishable material, [reads] whatever is assigned and participates in the discussion…would get the same grade as a student who writes their story all at once…hands it in half finished with a ton of mistakes…and only sometimes does the reading. And is it fair?
Ryan Fitzpatrick, course instructor Creative Writing Poetry II, wrote to the university the key to successful creative writing education — graduated or not — emphasizes feedback.
“Despite this impending note, don’t the writers really want these narrative comments and critical edits so they can think about how to work better, [whatever] it means to [them]asked Fitzpatrick. “My hunch is that anyone who writes just for a grade probably won’t continue writing after they leave college.”
A model section?
Although student opinions on whether or not creative writing courses should be graded are inconclusive, most agree that a crucial factor in student success is a course’s rubric, which is often designed by his instructor.
“Maybe the [creative writing] professors can get together and discuss a common grading scale so that there is more cohesion within the major? Tseng suggested. “[That] like students won’t [have to] gauge and structure their work around a [professor’s] values and priorities [within] each course they take, but rather the goal of the program as a whole. »
“A good mark should depend on a quality rubric. A student should be able to get a grade, look at the rubric, and immediately understand what area they need to improve,” wrote creative writing student Ried Eastwood. When asked what factors were needed for an effective scoring system, Eastwood replied, “I think Sindu has a great rubric.”
Sindu sent a rubric for one of his history assignments to the university. Its criteria were divided into six categories; including polish, style and voice, characters, pacing, beginning and ending, and publishability. The rubric offered 16 points in total and described two to three levels of quality work per category.
“My grading system generally results in a slew of higher grades than the usual U of T classes,” Sindu wrote. “The highest earners are almost always the best writers and the hard-working writers. I have also seen grades motivating students to do better and work harder on revisions.
A non-graduated alternative
Although the U of T is one of several Canadian universities that assesses students using a grading system, some institutions across the country have implemented programs that do not offer grades to students.
“Back in my [undergraduate] days, I did a whole university degree which was [pass or fail] in the education program at the University of Calgary,” Fitzpatrick wrote to the university. “Many of my peers were demotivated by the lack of grade stress, [but] I found myself liberated by the lack of specific expectations.
Instead of being given a grade, Fitzpatrick received “in-depth and thoughtful narrative feedback that [he] should then think about [he] developed [his] teaching practice.”
Like Fitzpatrick, Sindu agrees that graded teaching can increase student stress. “U of T [is] dedicated to an idea of rigor that doesn’t sit well with creative classes,” she wrote to the university. “I also taught in an art school with the same notions of rigor. Art was valued on quality, often without mercy. Students were sometimes nervous and nervous about having their creative work graded. They worked hard, often too hard, and sometimes cracked under the pressure.
However, Sindu is aware that changing the creative writing grading model could cause students to put in less effort in class. “My friend taught creative writing at a university that had zero grades,” Sindu explained. “In a class of 20 students, maybe 5 would show up one day…the students often didn’t do the reading. About half of the students [didn’t even turn] in their missions, never. There were no repercussions. »
A key factor, Sindu rationalizes, is the student’s motivation for learning.
“In many upper creative writing classes…almost everyone gets an A unless they seriously mess up, which is almost like getting no grades at all,” Sindu wrote. “I’ve never been in a graduate class where students phoned into their work or didn’t read or turn in a half-finished story for [a] workshop. Students entering graduate school tend to be extremely dedicated and therefore [a no-grades system] actually works.
“I don’t know how to adapt this model to undergraduate students,” she admitted.
Although students and professors agree that it’s worth experimenting with how grades are assigned in creative writing courses, the conversation might be more effective on a larger scale, such as at the department or university level. Perhaps, as Fitzpatrick suggests, we need to look even further to address this issue of grading in creative writing courses -“[beginning] to the very idea of how we value student work itself.