In 1966 I walked into my first class as a freshman at Colorado State University– Honors English. My instructor was Mary Crow, who had a Master’s Degree and was an aspiring poet.
Another of my instructors was Martha Scott Trimble– a wonderful, forthcoming soul who’d taught at CSU for ages. She also had an M.A. in English.
There were few Ph.D.’s in that department. CSU was an “Ag School”– that we even had an Arts & (social) Sciences division was something of a joke. What little national reputation the university had lay in its Forestry, Engineering and Veterinary programs.
I had a paltry– $250.00– in-state tuition award in Creative Writing with which to begin my B.A. in English. It was also something of a joke to be an English major at that school, at that time, much less someone majoring in “creative writing.”
Mary Crow and I became friends. I lost my virginity to my Western American Lit Prof. A paper I wrote on Steppenwolf and Catcher in the Rye was lauded for a brave attempt at literary criticism and passed around the department.
In 1969 the University brought in a newly minted M.F.A. from U-Cal/Irvine– one of then three MFA awarding programs in the country. His name was Tom Wayman. Tom stirred things up when he posted a sign on his office door reading “Faculty Sponsor: Students for a Democratic Society.”
Whoops. Then-chair Paul Bryant choked. So did a few other people, like Robert Zoellner, our Melville and Hemingway resident heavy, with his big brass whale belt buckle and his need to dole out C’s without teaching people how to earn A’s.
Tom Wayman and I fell in rut. He’s a great guy; check him out and read his great romp of a write about those years, Woodstock Rising.
The early seventies would thus have been very empty for me had it not been for the burgeoning political activism and anti-Viet Nam war sentiment launched at that point. I divided my time between higher learning and finding out about Marxism and Mao and Che.
Fast forward to the 80’s, and the CSU English Department’s third application for the M.F.A. from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Two of us who had completed the M.A. and wanted the more advantageous degree, or so we thought, drove down to Denver with the heads of English and Creative Writing departments. We made our pitches to the Commission. The degree was instituted at CSU that summer and I got to work.
Twenty-seven years later, after all kinds of hell, I’m about to extricate– formally– my MFA from a program that has become a legend in its own mind but hardly anyone else’s. Now CSU has upgraded the faculty with PhD.’s and MFA’s, brought the Colorado Review into a semblance of street cred, and instituted a “Center for Book Arts”, Bonfire Press– a letterpress operation– and last but not least, the Colorado Prize of some bucks and book publication. Where there were industrious professors and staff with a measure of humility and devotion to their students, prima donnas and peacocks strut the halls of the old Eddy building. People who’ve arrived.
Over the past twenty years and for a variety of reasons, which can be tapped by hitting on relevant tags to the right on this blog, I’ve lost my respect for the Department of English at Colorado State University.
It began with my former peers and mentors pretending to “forget” my M.F.A. orals. But it doesn’t end there, and I’m sure it’s mutual.
Unfortunately, CSU’s multitude of sins exceeds mere hurt and involves the breach of professional ethics. But more, there is no way that the CSU MFA will ever have the prestige and credibility of other such programs– now far-flung, profligate. As in a host of MFA degrees turning out hosts of talented and ambitious young people. Anis Shivani has it right in his new, bold Against the Workshop from Texas Tech Press; we now churn out writers who have been guild apprentices.
I should have matriculated to Sarah Lawrence when I was invited; it would have made my career, as opposed to acting upon my stubborn loyalty to CSU. Oh, how fate loveth well she who chooses poorly….and learneth hard lessons.
When you read about CSU, you read about cancer research, advances in veterinary oncology, breakthroughs in water resource management. Once an ag school, always an ag school, I say.
.*belated apology to Departments of Music and Theatre– you’ve come a long way. xj