Writing your way to a college degree

By Sally Carpenter

Whatever I know about writing mysteries, I didn’t learn it in college.

Centuries ago when I was an undergraduate, colleges didn’t offer creative writing majors or even minors. English department classes consisted of solely teaching what I called “stuffy old books,” the kind with tiny print and antiquated prose that made comprehension laborious. I didn’t have the patience to struggle with that kind of literature.

Only one university in my state offered a Masters of Fine Arts in writing. I had my eye on that for a while although I felt I’d never be good enough to get in the program. Then my parents squashed my hopes with “you’ll never get a job with that degree!”

My undergraduate college offered only one or two creative writing classes. The professor “taught” by saying, “write whatever you want.” No instruction on how to craft a short story or a poem or suggested topics to ignite our imaginations. My life experience was limited at that time so I had little to write about.

In grading, the prof disagreed with my opinions and marked my grammatical and spelling errors (plenty of those) in red ink. No helpful critique and encouragement to do better. If her goal was to smash any spark of creative or desire to write in her students, she nearly succeeded.

Flash forward to the late 1990s. I’m back in college for a master’s degree in theater with a focus on playwrighting. Once again, I’m in a class with an incompetent prof (having a PhD must mean Pathetic and Hopelessly Dumb).

While I learned nothing from the teacher, the upside is that the one-act plays I wrote in that class were finalists in a regional college playwrighting competition. I received affirming feedback from the judges and one play became the inspiration for my cozy mystery series.

The English Department of that university had a master’s degree with a concentration in writing. While the department offered a creative writing workshop that students could take, most of the required coursework seemed geared toward rhetoric/composition teachers.

That was then, this is now. In perusing the internet it seems that today nearly every college has a creative writing major or at least a minor. Undergrads can take courses in scriptwriting, short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction and technical writing. My alma mater now has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing—too late for me, I’m afraid. And in my home state, several universities now grant an MFA in writing.

What happened? How did writing become a popular academic course of study?

I don’t know, but one possibility could be that as professors retired, the new teachers coming in wanted to revise the stale curriculum, expanding the literature options and adding writing classes.

Perhaps students asked for writing classes. Or maybe the writing courses were a way to get students interested in an English major after years of the teachers putting up with “you can’t do anything with that degree.” Technical writing, copy editing and publishing courses expanded the degree’s usefulness.

Some universities even have courses in genre writing, hopefully creating the next generation of mystery authors. A couple of schools have MFA programs for genre writers.

Maybe students want to write because of the internet and self-publishing. Young authors have an instant forum for their work instead of waiting years for publication in an obscure literary journal.

Whatever the reason, I’m happy to see that in spite of the emphasis in elementary and high schools on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), colleges are affirming students in their writing journeys.