For SRJC and creative writing, the times are changing
May 14, 2011
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SRJC English instructor Richard Speakes crouches cross-legged in the center of room 1626. The students’ chairs are temporarily rearranged from their assembled rows into a loosely made ring, a kind of round table, encircling him. He shifts positions, kneeling to alleviate his back pain, explaining to his students that he’s a little broken that night. Despite the screws, bolts and steel plate fastened around his injured spine, Speakes returns every semester to do something he loves: teach creative writing.
But this fall semester, for the first time in 23 years, Speakes will not teach creative writing. He’s not retiring or leaving on sabbatical or even relaxing his bad back; like countless students, faculty and staff, he is changing with the times as the budgetary crisis redesigns SRJC.
For the first time in Speakes’ career, creative writing is in potential danger of complete removal from the college. While the English department offers more than 100 general education courses, the available number of literature and creative writing courses is at an all-time low. At its peak, SRJC offered 10 sections per semester of English 4 (creative writing), and is now down to three. Next semester there will only be two.
The budget cuts this fall will amount to the removal of around 250 classes in targeted areas. Courses are selected for removal based upon a four-tiered value system. At the bottom and most susceptible tier are non-vocational and recreational courses and at the top are math and English GE courses and critical health-sciences prerequisites. English 4 ranks as a tier 2 class representing electives within majors and certificates, which are expendable if other choices are available. Survey courses like American and British Literature advantageously rank in tier 3 because they’re considered more rigorous, academic and transferable.
The English department, chaired by instructor Craig Foster, serves three major functions: a transfer and major program, a reading and writing development area and creative writing. Foster says that while creative writing is a significant hallmark of SRJC’s English program, it nonetheless remains the most vulnerable English course in the face of budget cuts because of its strong presence as a community education class, and its lack of strong transferability presence with a number of other colleges. Foster plans to continue fighting for a creative writing presence at SRJC and is hopeful that by Fall 2012, more courses will become available, but is ultimately unsure about the future.
Speakes, like many instructors at SRJC, fears the budget reform will mark a permanent change for SRJC as a community college. At stake is the college’s own sense of community, threatened by an ever-increasing number of online courses and classes singularly focused on transfer and certificate programs.
Speakes says “because it’s a community college I’m able to meet so many interesting, wonderful people.” On campus, creative writing is popular among students, and has developed a reputation for drawing in a diversity of people from throughout the community. A broad range of ages fill Speakes’ current English 4 classroom, from a gifted high school student to a 64-year-old stroke survivor.
“Ultimately, my disappointment is that when we redesign the school I think we will design a school that’s going to make the business community happy, but not the artistic community,” Speakes says. “We’ll be training workers to fill certain kinds of jobs, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be training thinkers and artists too.”
In 2009, after thousands of college and school surveys, The College Board’s National Commission on Writing stated “about one student in five produces completely unsatisfactory prose, about 50 percent meet ‘basic’ requirements, and only one in five can be called ‘proficient.'”
Unlike English GE courses, creative writing provides a rare opportunity for students to be playful and artistic, while simultaneously enhancing their reading and writing skills. Speakes says, “I tell students in all my classes, ‘I will shower you with love and tell you what’s wrong with your sentences.’ That’s it. It turns out, that’s a lot.”
Unlike an American or British literature course, where everything a student reads is already considered great, in creative writing students evaluate work that has never been judged before. Students learn to think and make aesthetic decisions on their own, and acquire a unique and valuable form of intellectual training.
“I just got an email from a guy who’s a prosecutor, and he took the class years ago and he was thanking me,” Speakes says. “You just don’t know how people are going to use this stuff; it truly is useful to people in unpredictable ways.”
SRJC student Mathew Hall came to college intending to major in engineering, but after taking his first semester of English 4 switched his focus to creative writing. “Through creative writing I’ve discovered avenues which I thought were extinct or nonexistent within myself,” Halll says.
Former SRJC student Carly Hedstrum says both having Speakes as an instructor and taking SRJC’s creative writing program, changed her life. After studying at SRJC, Hedstrum received a degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing at San Francisco State, and now tutors and continues to write. “It made my passion and heart’s work real in the world,” Hedstrum says. “Without that class there are people who will not find out what they are meant to do.”
Speakes plans to continue teaching at SRJC and is scheduled this fall as an instructor for English 305, English 1A and English 5. He is currently one of about eight instructors interested in inspiring students through creative writing, and saddened by the economy’s impact on the English department as a whole.