Creative Righting: English department prioritizes inclusion it all its programs
Forty-five-year-old Eva Wissting came to Canada from Sweden two-and-a-half years ago to get an English Specialist degree at U of T Scarborough, with a minor in creative writing. She chose the program because it opened opportunities for her to explore different ways to express herself.
Wissting’s first course in the creative writing stream was non-fiction writing — the only one she could fit into her schedule.
“When I signed up for it, I wasn’t particularly interested in non-fiction, but I wanted to do at least one creative writing course,” she recalls. “And I loved it. That really opened a lot of doors for me, mentally, in terms of what I could do with my writing.”
In some courses since, she has taken advantage of the option to forego the traditional final essay and do extra creative work instead.
Some profs have offered purely practical instruction on how to develop a career in writing — instruction Wissting values. “That’s been special for me,” she says. “I would have had no idea how to do that.” She plans to pursue advanced degrees in literary studies. “I think, for me, the minor in creative writing — it’s not just about the writing, it’s also about how to have a career.”
I think, for me, the minor in creative writing — it’s not just about the writing, it’s also about how to have a career.
Wissting’s experience is just one illustration of how the Department of English is advancing the goal of “inclusive excellence,” introduced by the campus’s Principal, Wisdom Tettey.
Department Chair Katie Larson — a professor of English and a Rhodes Scholar with post-graduate degrees in 16th- and 17th- century English literature and women’s and gender studies — says inclusive excellence has been a key part of Tettey’s vision for U of T Scarborough since he began his term as Principal in July 2018.
She quotes Tettey’s articulation of the term: “academic excellence in research and teaching while showcasing and prioritizing U of T Scarborough’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusivity.” She says it dovetails nicely with her priorities and practices as Chair of English.
In terms of the kind of departmental environment we’re trying to create for students, staff and faculty, it’s always with an eye towards ensuring equity and inclusion at the level of gender, sexual identity, racial identity, ability or disability, socio-economic background, life stage, privilege and all forms of diversity.
From an academic perspective, this means ensuring that students and faculty experience the department as a supportive and inclusive space, accommodating different learning styles while ensuring that the curriculum reflects the diversity of U of T Scarborough.
“We live in a very diverse world. We have a very diverse campus community, and it’s very important that students see their experiences and their stories reflected in the materials that are being taught,” says Larson, who is now in her 13th year at U of T Scarborough. “And that is transforming institutions in very powerful ways.”
Larson adds that the English department plans to launch a major in creative writing this fall. She cites the growth of creative writing courses in the program as an example of how creative approaches to assignment design and different kinds of writing support inclusivity.
She says one unique aspect of the program is how creative writing and the study and analyses of visual, written and oral texts all have a rich relationship with one another. Whether a student is in a literature course, a creative writing course or a film course, these curriculum elements are woven through the English program and inform the department about how it thinks about inclusivity.
“These are courses that require students to think very empathetically about different points of view and about experiences very different from their own,” she says. “Fundamentally, the kind of work we do in the department fosters a lens of inclusivity as a part of what the faculty are bringing and the academic training we’re providing to students.”
The creative writing program in the department is led by Daniel Tysdal, Associate Professor of English, Teaching Stream, who joined U of T Scarborough 11 years ago.
An award-winning poet and filmmaker, Tysdal hails from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He discovered his “obsession” with writing poetry at age 15, when he woke up with a phrase in his head and wrote it down in the first of many notebooks he would fill with his poems over the years.
For Tysdal, poetry started as “a safe space, a space of imagination, a space of exploration.”
The department’s first full-time faculty member with a creative writing career, he taught the sole creative writing course when he was first hired. The popularity of his classes, and students’ desire for more, led to an expansion of creative writing in the curriculum. The current minor program has three full-time faculty. The department hopes to soon announce the outcome of a faculty search in Creative Writing, Indigenous Literatures and Oral Traditions, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
With the department’s intention to establish a major in creative writing in the fall of 2020, Tysdal says he has three goals:
The first is to help students become better writers by teaching them how to write poetry, fiction, film scripts, non-fiction and journalism.
The second is to explore the more professional side of writing by learning how to get published, or how to find other jobs that can help sustain your writing career.
The third goal is to teach students about the value of becoming part of a writing community. As an example of community, he points to three recent graduates: poet Adrian De Leon and fiction writers Natasha Ramoutar and Téa Mutonji. All three have experienced their own publishing success — and they embody inclusive excellence through their ongoing connections to the U of T Scarborough program and students.
“Instead of thinking how can I get more success for myself, they approached a publisher to do an anthology of Scarborough writing,” says Tysdal. “So, their first action in getting some success was, ‘How do I get other Scarborough writers with me?’”
In his classes, Tysdal encourages students to move out of their comfort zones when studying a piece of creative work, such as a collection of poems, and to think beyond the typical analytic essay. He wants them to ask themselves, “Where do these poems take you as a writer? What do you now bring to this as a writer?”
Just as important is the writing community created within Tysdal’s classes, where 20 writers can come together in a workshop and feel safe, sharing the most intimate, personal and meaningful parts of themselves.
The workshop format is a standard learning framework for creative writing. But Katie Larson notes that it may be a new experience for students coming out of high school, and it can be helpful in their adjustment to university.
“Many students come into university feeling quite isolated and quite overwhelmed, feeling like there is not necessarily a clear place for them in that environment,” she says. “Being in a workshop-style classroom where students are from the get-go learning from each other, in dialogue with each other, and sharing their work, is transformative. Certainly, it fosters growth as a writer but other skills as well.”
Sarah Hilton, a fourth-year English Specialist student from Scarborough, says she and other students have found the emphasis on inclusive excellence in the department’s curriculum very helpful and welcoming.
For Hilton, who plans to graduate in June, the impact hit home in second year when she took a course on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. She had the choice of writing an essay or a piece of fan fiction as her final assignment. And she chose the fan fiction.
“I thought that was really strange, but then I actually did the assignment and it really does ask the student to engage with the text in a way that you wouldn’t really think of if you were doing an essay,” she says. “Some students aren’t necessarily good at putting things down in an essay and organizing them in that way; sometimes their strength comes through creatively.
If professors provide a creative alternative, that just gives more option and opportunities for students to excel.
Hilton, 21, first explored her creative side through fiction writing, but has since become passionate about poetry. Her work will soon be featured in FEEL WAYS, the anthology of Scarborough writers started by graduates De Leon, Ramoutar and Mutonji.
Hilton says the opportunity to explore different ways of academic expression in her courses has sparked her desire to pursue creative writing as a career, even knowing it won’t necessarily pay the bills. So she is looking at applying to the Masters of Information program at U of T’s iSchool, while also making time for her writing.
“If writing is a passion of mine, I want to do it along with what I’m doing in my day job,” she says. “I want to keep that mindset that even I don’t get my work published, even if I get countless rejection letters, I’m still writing for myself because poetry is so important to me.”