All writers reJoyce: a composition class for the non-major

Professor of English Michael Joyce is currently teaching the Senior Creative Writing seminar. The course is similar to senior comp., but is open to non-majors and doesn’t require a thesis-sized final product. Photo By: YouTube
Professor of English Michael Joyce is currently teaching the Senior Creative Writing seminar. The course is similar to senior comp., but is open to non-majors and doesn’t require a thesis-sized final product. Photo By: YouTube
Professor of English Michael Joyce is currently teaching the Senior Creative Writing seminar. The course is similar to senior comp., but is open to non-majors and doesn’t require a thesis-sized final product. Photo By: YouTube

It takes all kinds of people to make English 307. The Senior Creative Writing seminar is a 300-level, 12-person class open to all seniors. In its six-year history, the class has attracted students who, despite not being English majors, are still passionate about producing innovative works of literature.

According to the course’s current instructor Professor of English Michael Joyce, nine out of the 12 students this term are non-majors, from fields as diverse as geography, German, biology, sociology and more. This is a departure from the other senior creative writing course Senior Creative Writing, which is a yearlong and open to only majors.

Joyce explained how all the different perspectives vitalize the classroom’s dynamics. A student studying psychology will react differently to a piece of literature than a student studying geology, for example. “They come from a range of other disciplines and bring a kind of remarkable ferment to the seminar,” he said, adding, “People come to the course with a broader worldview: a view of the environment, a view of the makeup of the human being that is a little different”

If it hadn’t been for a hurt shoulder, Brooke Robinson ’15 may never have taken Senior Creative Writing. The past summer, while Robinson was getting treatment for issues with her left shoulder, she got some unusual advice.

“My massage therapists said that my left side of my body was weaker than my right and she thought that meant that my right side of my brain basically like weaker than my left and I needed to do more creative things in my life,” said Robinson.

Although she wasn’t completely sold on her therapist’s medical diagnosis, it did get her curious. “I don’t know if taking creative writing classes helped my shoulder very much,” said Robinson. “But it was an interesting idea and made me think about why I don’t do more creative things.”

Robinson is a geography major, currently working on her thesis about agro-tourism and its effects on famers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. In her four years at Vassar, she had never taken a single creative writing, class or even a single English class. Nonetheless, the fall of her senior year Robinson decided to apply to Senior Creative Writing.

The piece Robinson submitted in her application was a story set in the California-Nevada desert. She shared how her background in geography holds a subtle influence over her work as a creative writer. Her stories, for instance, tend to dwell on the power of place. “I think a lot of my writing connects characters to setting in a really emotional way,” said Robinson.

Simon Patané ’15, a physics and astronomy double major, convinced Robinson to send in an application. He is also enrolled in the class this term, though he focuses mainly on poetry. He said, “I think the reason I’m not an English major or a creative writing correlate is that I like to keep my writing separate from everything else. I felt like if I had majored in English I wouldn’t have held onto writing as my hobby or passion.”

Joyce was one of the original forces behind the Senior Creative Writing seminar inception about six years ago. It began when he co-chaired the department with Associate Professor of English Peter Antelyes. Both were concerned by the lack of creative writing classes that were open to students, regardless of academic major. At that time, the English Department was only offering five creative writing classes, one short of the six required for a Creative Writing correlate.

The 2009/2010 College Course Catalog announced the new class: “Experimental first offering of an advanced writing course in parallel with the long-established senior composition sequence…that represents the diversity of a contemporary writing.” The description acknowledges new course’s similarities to senior composition: students had to submit an application and writing sample the prior semester; the class would be capped at 12 students. Yet its structure would be very different. Senior composition is a yearlong course; at its end students present, say, a novel or a collection of short stories, and this finished submission counts as an English thesis. Senior Creative Writing, however, is only one semester and the final is not a thesis-length work. There are also subtler differences, ones concerned with the atmosphere and weekly writing prompts. Joyce prefers the term “salon” over a writing workshop. In designing the course he tries to use a model that can be easily replicated outside the classroom—even outside of Vassar.

“The joke I try to make, is ‘What is going to happen to you once you leave here? How do you keep up with your writing life when you move to Brooklyn or Portland or whichever place Vassar grads go?’” said Joyce.

Six years later, it is precisely the type of casual, multidisciplinary character to the classroom that the students found so enriching. A discussion about a piece of writing can lead to wildly disparate directions from the desert black pudding to human colonization of the dessert planet Mars.

Looking towards post-graduation, both Patané and Robinson said they planned on continuing with their writing as a personal passion, even if not career. Despite more than half the term remaining, Patané considers the Senior Creative seminar as one of the most fulfilling parts of his time at Vassar.

“I think its probably one of the best classes that I’ve taken so far. I really like science but you don’t get to talk about and explore the same things as you would in a creative writing class,” he said. “I chose this because I knew I had one last chance to talk about something that I probably wouldn’t be able to do in awhile and with a great group of people.”

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