In 2013, the Department of English at UTSC launched a minor in creative writing. The program — the first creative writing program at U of T — enrolled 67 students in the 2017–2018 academic year. However, the department was met with outstanding interest for creative writing courses, all of which require students to be admitted by creative portfolio. ENGB61 — Fiction I, a prerequisite for the majority of other UTSC creative writing courses, was receiving an approximate 70 portfolios each year — more than three times the capacity of the course.
In response to this growing momentum, Associate Professors Daniel Tydsal and Andrew Westoll spearheaded the design for a creative writing major on campus. The major, which was launched in 2020, was created with the focus of “fostering students’ creative and critical expression; their confidence and autonomy… their ability to help foster the development of a diverse group of individuals; and their leadership.”
The New Undergraduate Program Proposal for the major outlined a “workshop-based model” for all courses in the program to ensure “[the] development of student confidence and autonomy as practitioners and as reviewers.” In the outline, the major’s methods of assessment included writing assignments, critiques, and peer feedback — which have all faced controversy among students and professors alike because of the discourse on whether or not creative work should be formally evaluated.
The controversy surrounding grades
Cassäundra Sloan, a UTSC alum and the founder and director of production company Girl North Studios, firmly disagrees that any form of artistic expression should be graded within university settings.
“I’ve written essays that have been granted As and essays that have received low, low Cs,” Sloan wrote to The Varsity. “Not because my knowledge on the subject was any lesser, but because my writing style was deemed appropriate by one professor and inappropriate by another.”
Rather than evaluating feedback given to her in a creative writing course, Sloan explained that her reaction to receiving a bad grade was to “shrug and laugh.”
“I work in the industry already and I know I’m doing good work,” Sloan explained. “I just hope bad grades do not deter others from pursuing writing as a career.”
However, some creative writing students use the grades assigned to them to assess how much their work has improved during the semester.
“[I’m] ok with a percentage grade because it’s a [very] precise post-mark for where my progress is, which is helpful for me,” fourth-year creative writing major Catherina Tseng shared with The Varsity.
“In an ideal world, I’d prefer to give no grades, ever,” Assistant Professor SJ Sindu wrote to The Varsity. “But we’ve built our entire schooling system around them, so I don’t know how open administrations would be to a gradeless classroom.”
“A [pass or fail] model could work well,” Sindu explained. “But then everyone would also have to make peace with the fact that a student who writes publishable material, [reads] everything that’s assigned and participates in discussion… would get the same grade as a student who writes their story in one go… hands it in half-finished with a ton of mistakes… and only sometimes does the reading. And is that fair?”
Ryan Fitzpatrick, instructor of the course Creative Writing Poetry II, wrote to The Varsity that the key to successful creative writing instruction — graded or ungraded — is an emphasis on feedback.
“Despite that looming grade, don’t writers really want that narrative feedback and critical edits so that they can reflect on how to work better, [whatever] that means to [them]?” Fitzpatrick asked. “My hunch is that anyone who is writing purely for a grade likely won’t continue to write after they leave the university.”
A model rubric?
Though students’ opinions about whether or not creative writing classes should be graded are inconclusive, most agree that a crucial factor of student success is a course’s rubric, which is oftentimes designed by its instructor.
“Maybe the [creative writing] faculty can get together and discuss a joint grading scale so there’s more cohesion within the major?” suggested Tseng. “[That] way students won’t [have to] gauge and structure their work around a particular [professor’s] values and priorities [within] each class they take, but rather the goal of the program as a whole.”
“A fair grade should depend on a quality rubric. A student should be able to get a mark, look at the rubric, and immediately understand which area they need to improve,” wrote creative writing student Ried Eastwood. When asked what factors are necessary for an effective grading system, Eastwood replied, “I think Sindu has a great rubric.”
Sindu sent a rubric for one of her story assignments to The Varsity. Its criteria were divided into six categories; including polish, style and voice, characters, pacing, beginning and ending, and publishability. The rubric offered 16 points in total, and outlined two to three levels of quality work per category.
“My grading scheme usually results in a slew of higher grades than usual U of T classes,” Sindu wrote. “The highest grade earners are almost always the best writers and the hard-working writers. I’ve also seen grades motivate students to do better and work harder on revisions.”
A non-graded alternative
Though U of T is one of many Canadian universities that evaluate students using a grading system, there have been some institutions in the country that have run programs that didn’t offer grades to students.
“Back in my [undergraduate] days, I did a whole university degree that was [pass or fail] in the education program at the University of Calgary,” Fitzpatrick wrote to The Varsity. “A lot of my peers were demotivated by the lack of grade-based stress, [but] I found myself freed by the lack of specific expectation.”
In lieu of being assigned a grade, Fitzpatrick was given “extensive and thoughtful narrative feedback that [he] would then have to reflect on as [he] developed [his] teaching practice.”
Like Fitzpatrick, Sindu agrees that graded teaching can increase student stress. “U of T [is] dedicated to an idea of rigor that doesn’t mesh with creative classes,” she wrote to The Varsity. “I also taught at an art school with the same ideas of rigor. Art was graded on quality, often mercilessly. Students were nervous and on edge at times about having their creative work graded. They worked hard, often too hard, and sometimes broke down from the pressure.”
However, Sindu is cognizant that shifting the creative writing grading model could lead students to bring less effort into the classroom. “My friend taught creative writing at a university that had no grades at all,” Sindu explained. “In a class of 20 students, maybe 5 would show up on any one day… students often didn’t do the reading. About half the students [didn’t even turn] in their assignments, ever. There were no repercussions.”
A key factor, Sindu rationalizes, is the student’s motivation for learning.
“In many creative writing graduate classes… almost everyone gets an A unless they seriously screw up, which is almost the same as not having grades at all, ” Sindu wrote. “I’ve never been in a graduate class where any students phoned in their work or didn’t do the reading or turned in a half-finished story for [a] workshop. Students who get into graduate school tend to be extremely dedicated and so [a no-grades system] actually works.”
“I don’t know how to adapt that model for undergraduate students,” she admitted.
Though students and professors agree that it’s worth experimenting with the way grades are assigned in creative writing classes, the conversation might be more effective on a larger scale, such as at the department or university level. Perhaps, as Fitzpatrick suggests, we must look even wider to address this question of grading in creative writing classes — “[beginning] at the very idea of how we value student work itself.”