‘The program of no’: Creative writing program faces lecturer shortages

Published May 10, 2024, 12:24 a.m., last updated May 10, 2024, 12:49 a.m.

Two creative writing lecturers requested anonymity due to fears of professional retaliation. Pseudonyms and gender neutral pronouns were used to protect sources’ identities and improve readability.

Rose Whitmore, a former Jones lecturer, was one of Kathaleen Mallard’s ’25 favorite teachers and mentors. She received the 2023 Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize — the same year she was let go. When another student asked her to be their advisor that year, Whitmore had to decline.

“I advised her for the rest of that year and then she had to go find somebody, and I think that was a bummer for her,” Whitmore said. 

Whitmore’s dismissal was necessitated by a four-year cap on lectureships, implemented by the creative writing program last year, which meant that those hired after the cap would be terminated at the end of their four years. But despite the policy, Stanford’s creative writing program — which claims to be “one of the best-known in the country” — continues to struggle to meet student demand, with high-volume waitlists for capped workshop classes.

For some students and lecturers, this tension between the program’s hiring limits and student demand means that creative writing students are not receiving the resources they need.

“Students are having a harder time getting into the classes,” said Charlie, a lecturer who requested anonymity due to fear of professional retaliation. “That’s why we’re disappointed at the faculty’s decision to reduce the number of lectureships — we feel like it’s wrong and it’s exactly the opposite of what we should be doing, considering the demand.”

This academic year is the first that current Stegner fellows, from whom Jones lectureships are usually hired, are not being offered the opportunity to apply for the lectureship. In an email obtained by The Daily, Nicholas Jenkins, the co-director of the creative writing program, and Elizabeth Tallent, the former co-director of the program, wrote that the program lacked the funds to support new positions. Following advocacy to increase compensation to allow lecturers to afford Bay Area rent, the program recently increased salaries for Jones lectures.

Some students who face limited resources and teaching staff say they are being discouraged from the program. 

Natalie Rodriguez ’25, who said she applied to Stanford because of its creative writing program, said that despite being a declared English major, there has not been a quarter where she has not been stressed about enrollment. 

During her frosh winter, Rodriguez said she struggled to get into ENGLISH 90: “Fiction Writing” and eventually got off the waitlist after classes had already started. She considered herself lucky — if she had not gotten into the class, she said she likely would have been turned off by the program and probably would not have become an English major with a concentration in creative writing.

“That is the whole reason that I wanted to come here and it probably would have been incredibly stressful to have to figure out a whole plan and to feel like I had been lied to,” she said.

Even students who brave the enrollment process say the challenges are making them hesitant about pursuing a creative writing career.

Mallard said she can feel a sense of discouragement in the classroom from seeing lecturers get let go and experiencing the difficulty of getting into classes, which both make it seem like Stanford does not think creative writing is a “valid pathway.”  

According to Mallard, Whitmore is “one of the best short story writers [in the] nation.”

“If she was let go, what hope do the rest of us have for finding a job in creative writing?” Mallard asked. 

Sam, a lecturer who requested anonymity due to fear of professional retaliation, wrote that they found it strange that Stanford does not have the funds for additional creative writing classes when other departments and classes, like engineering, require more expensive resources. If there was a lack of instructors in the computer science department, they wrote, Stanford would immediately address the issue. 

Hiring caps mean that creative writing instructors also often have to turn down students looking for advisors.

Natalie Rodriguez ’25, who applied for an honors in the arts, said she reached out to several lecturers to advise her creative writing project. But none had the capacity to help her, because they were at capacity for the number of other students who had asked to do independent work. Eventually, Rodriguez found someone in a different department to advise her. 

Sam wrote that since the passing of the last program director, Eavan Boland, the new co-directors have implemented a policy of two independent studies students per year, per lecturer. Though many lecturers, like Charlie, say they take this maximum amount of two independent studies students per year, they are unable to fully meet student demand.

Capped workshops, which Rodriguez said are some of the program’s most popular and demanded classes, are also affected by teaching staff shortages. The most popular introductory creative writing classes, ENGLISH 9CE: “Creative Expression in Writing,” ENGLISH 90: “Fiction Writing” and ENGLISH 91: “Creative Nonfiction” are all workshops. 

“It’s important that workshops are kept to a class of 15 students, so that each student’s work gets the attention it deserves,” Sam wrote. “Most introductory courses have waitlists of 10 students or more.”

Whitmore said she used to receive many emails from students, especially from seniors who really needed to take a specific class to fulfill their minor. She would occasionally take more students than the cap, but such a decision is up to the discretion of each particular lecturer. 

“If there’s too many students in the class, people just don’t get the same experience,” Whitmore said. “Creative writing classes should be small because it’s an intimate excavator process and it’s meant to be.”

Workshops typically begin with a few weeks dedicated to studying the works of other authors, before students take turns sharing their personal work. Class sessions are then spent providing feedback to individual students — Rodriguez said these are her favorite classes to be in because she enjoys reading her classmates’ work and getting feedback from them and lecturers.

Since the introduction of enrollment groups, though, Sam wrote the composition of their introductory creative writing classes has been affected, with more seniors and juniors than before. “Of course we want seniors and juniors in our classes, but we’d especially like for freshmen and sophomores to have access to these introductory classes,” they wrote. 

“This is a failure of vision and attention at all levels of upper administration at Stanford. If I was a parent of a Stanford student who could not take a Creative Writing class, I would be astonished and angry,” Sam wrote.

Mallard said this was a huge problem for creative writing students, because it is hard to get into the classes they need. She said that it feels like there are more creative writing minors and English majors with a creative writing concentration now, “but they’re not hiring any new lecturers and a lot of really, really famous lecturers, like famous writers, are let go.” 

Sam wrote that when the creative writing program was under former director Eavan Boland, the culture and priority of the program was centered around the students. However, since her passing in 2020, the leadership and direction of the program has changed. Sam wrote that critical needs are not addressed, even when expressed by lecturers and students.

“Every email from our directors detail all the things that can’t be done. It’s become the Program of No. The culture and morale that was built by Eavan in partnership with the Jones lecturers and generations of undergraduates is falling apart in front of our eyes,” Sam wrote. 

In an email to The Daily, Gabriella Safran, senior associate dean of humanities and arts, wrote that she and the faculty in the program were aware of the high demand for creative writing classes, and that she could not speak to personnel and hiring issues. 

“We hope to provide more opportunities for students in the future once the restructuring of the program is complete,” she wrote. 

According to Charlie, under the co-directorship of Jenkins and Tallent, a process to restructure the creative writing program began with the formation of a working group comprised of creative writing faculty members. There was no Jones lecturer representation in the group. 

“I think if Stanford wants to claim that they have a great creative writing program, they need to offer the same funding and the same support that they offer to other programs,” said Rodriguez.

Mallard said she recently attended a poetry reading held by a Stegner Fellow. It was a packed event, which surprised her.

“So I think the problem isn’t with engagement or the lack of people who are passionate about creative writing … I think there are lots of students who want to make creative writing their livelihood after college,” she said. “It’s like, truthfully, Stanford is just, ignoring the students and what they want.”

Judy N. Liu '26 is the Academics desk editor for News and staff writer at The Daily.

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