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The writing portfolio

The use of student writing samples for admission to writing programs is crucial to maintaining the health of those programs.

In fact, most universities in this country use writing samples much more stringently than we do at the University of Alberta. We don't require them at all for our non-fiction courses and primarily use them as an alternative to quotas at the 200-level. Thereafter students who achieve a B+ in a previous-year course in poetry or fiction do not require a writing sample to register in the next year's course. For students who do not have the previous year's course, we use the writing sample as a way to let them in if they have the ability, rather than exclude them because they lack the previous course. In our own practice, at all levels, the writing sample serves as a means to enable students from other disciplines and often with sensibilities, language-use patterns, and worldviews not much seen among our own English students, let alone Arts students, to study writing in the English Department.

At UBC all writing workshops require a portfolio. Only their screenplay, subtitling, and business-writing courses do not. At Calgary a portfolio is required at every level of the program. This means that someone can do well with one instructor at the second year and not be admitted by another at the third. York requires a portfolio for their introductory year and another at the end of the second year, when students formally enter their Major. Concordia, Saskatchewan, Toronto all require portfolios for entry to all their writing workshops.

Many arguments for the writing sample are advanced by our colleagues at other universities. Two should suffice here. First, a universal experience is that many students simply want to discover whether or not they have "talent," and take the course in order to be told. These are students who if the answer is no are angry and if it is yes would rather put the information in the bank and do the work another time. One purpose of the writing sample is to inform every student in the class that he or she has talent. It gets the talent question out of the way on the first day. Now they can get down to the work that 99% of writing is about. Another universal experience is that a writing course that anyone can enter, since you can "write about anything," is perceived as a soft option, and for that reason the quality of those coming in degenerates even further.

In our view, the central point to be made about the writing sample as a requirement for entry to our poetry- and fiction-writing courses is that these courses are conducted as workshops. The primary texts for discussion in such classes are the students' own work—every student sees all the work submitted by every other student—and the discussion is undertaken (though not led) by the students themselves. (For the instructor to lecture on points of technique without an immediate context (i.e., a particular discussion of a particular student text before everyone) simply doesn't work: the exercise is too abstract (the proof is in the pudding), and comments on technique in a vacuum invariably come across as prescriptive, which is anathema to the creative endeavour.) The workshop emphasis on student text and student discussion means that a decline in the mean ability of the students has a much more drastically negative effect on the quality of the class experience for everyone in it than it does on an English course in which the texts are Department- or instructor-selected for their interest or quality and the instructor is more than an interventional moderator. How many of us would not object if our colleagues required that half our course contents consist of poor texts, that more than half our class-time be devoted to those poor texts, and that the instructor spend most of his or her class time attempting to undo the effects of discussion as likely to be counterproductive as productive for the encouragement of literary art?

The reason writing workshops have flourished over the past thirty years in North America and Britain is that students of poetry- and fiction-writing learn best not by being lectured to, and not from the artistic errors of others, but from the emulation of the best work of their peers. If half or more of the work submitted in a workshop is poor (as it would be without the writing sample, since at the University of Alberta we currently accept approximately one in two of the samples submitted, and the very requirement of the sample is itself something of a screen of lack of ability), the enterprise founders, for the reason alone that the good students are dismayed at the lack of talent of their "peers," find little of quality to emulate, and are bored and discouraged by the necessarily critical and overall negative nature of the discussion.

One point that must be made is that no matter how you cut it, writing poetry or fiction is an artistic activity. One implication of this is that it can be taught only if the student has an at-least nascent capacity—sometimes called "talent" or, in the case of writing, "voice"—to begin with. The writing sample is a way for the instructor to ascertain that he or she does, and moreover, as with all our prerequisites, that the members of the class will be capable of understanding each other's work at approximately the same level of sophistication. more than this, a frequent component of a creative capacity is a healthy wariness of authority—healthy unless it's of a genuinely one-to-one mentoring relationship, which we at the University of Alberta have resources to offer only in Honours tutorials and in graduate supervision, in which cases individual students choose individual instructors. This wariness of authority means that poets and fiction writers, while they may balk at the instructor's account of how to do something, just as they may balk at the example of the "classics", will be inspired by the work of their peers to surpass themselves. A writing workshop is a small, volatile community of highly anxious beginning writers. It is a hothouse, but it can also be a crucial step in a writer's career, one capable, in as short a time as thirteen weeks, of showing students what they can do when they have a respectful audience they can themselves respect and understand, an audience that is in the same boat.

Another feature of workshops is that with participants' work being the primary texts and with that work as much emotional as intellectual in its genesis, if a student has minimal or no capacity for looking at their own productions in formal terms, then discussion of the work, no matter how even-handed, becomes an extremely painful and oftentimes destructive experience for that student. It must be appreciated just how vulnerable a student makes him- or herself in a workshop situation, and with little or no sense of craft, he is or she is naked in a snowdrift. No pedagogical purpose is served by pretending a story or poem is working when it is not, and when it is not and the author has a great deal of unresolved emotional investment in it, and negligible distance of craft, there is no way to be kind enough when twenty people deliver, in different words, the same negative verdict. The problem is that poor writers, or writers with little or no experience of writing, tend to assume that fiction and poetry are made out of memories or ideas, not language, that the quality of a literary text from their own hand will owe its strength to their own intelligence, their own emotion, or to the import for their personal lives of the events depicted. It is these students, the ones who have an undeveloped appreciation of what it takes to bring formal language considerations to bear upon their own experience, who fail to understand why the others find their work lacking, whose pain, frustration, and various forms of acting-out often create an atmosphere of hostility, bitterness, and strife in a situation that, for the well-being of so many others in the group who have also made themselves extremely vulnerable, needs to be as calm and compassionate as possible.

If the writing sample seems a feature of a writing propram that belongs more in a Fine Arts context, we can only say that along with our colleagues in most universities in English language countries, we believe that a writing program finds its most natural home in an English Department. And we believe that as English professors we should not fall prey to the idea that all parts of a university need to be the same. This is a large, varied, active, and liberal department. If our colleagues who teach poetry- and fiction-writing can demonstrate that, in order to do so effectively and in a way that best serves student poets and fiction writers of talent at this university and does not compromise the quality of the writing program, they require the standard pedagogical tool of a writing sample, we believe they should not be asked to reconfigure their prerequisites to conform to those designed for other kinds of courses and other kinds of instruction.

From a report made on behalf of the WRITE Committee to the English Department of the University of Alberta in April 2003.