Between Education and Legitimisation.
Traditionally A BA (Hons,) in English Lit qualified you for nothing. It meant you had undergone a course of study, had presumably learnt something about English Literature, and could write a coherent essay to a generally agreed standard. You could argue the course trained you as an academic literary critic, but that was hardly a career path open to the hordes that graduated. It proved you had attained a standard in your chosen field. You were unlikely to have said or written anything original in the three years it took you to get your degree but that didn’t matter.
There was an assumption that to teach in the University environment you had to at least do a Master’s degree, with the implication that you had mastered the subject by producing work that “made an original contribution to the Field”. Then you could compete for the jobs available. But the percentage of students who began their BA who ended up teaching in a university must have been tiny.
When Literature was mooted as a university course in England at the turn of the last century, there was serious dissent in the academy from Academics who could not see how you could define the body of knowledge (step one in running any course) and how you could then assess that it had been mastered (step two). Moreover how could someone studying “gossip about Shelley” be on an intellectual par with the students in the science department mastering the emerging discipline of Quantum Physics?
The fact that literary studies managed to overcome these objections, riding the back of inflated claims for the importance of “Literature” in general and poetry in particular, is one of the great con tricks in academic history, but by mid-century the process was creaking: did anybody really need yet another PhD on The Waste Land, or on Yeats? The creaky process was temporarily redeemed by the advent of theory, which not only made equally inflated claims for its own self importance, but gave PhD candidtates new ways of either saying the same old things about the same old texts or, in Terry Eagleton’s phrase, writing about pubic hair.
Exactly what the point of studying literature at University was, whether critical or theoretical, despite various attempts to justify it, remains vague. It was useful for teachers and anyone who needed a high level of literacy in their future profession: Journalism, the civil service, the diplomatic corps, various types of admin’, advertising, sales, publicity, publishing, copywriting …anywhere eloquence and linguistic sophistication were useful, but where there was no clear body of required knowledge or skills necessary before you started.
But the point of this is that literary studies were never a professional training course: they weren’t even a good way to learn about writing literature.
So when creative writing came along, belatedly to the university, it had to justify itself by fitting in with the existing academic models: there had to be undergraduate courses, and Masters degree, and PhDs. And they had to fit into the existing paradigms just as literary studies had. Whether or not that paradigm was relevant or appropriate for learning how to write poetry, was, ironically, irrelevant.
There were, theoretically, three options: “Education” on the lines of the English Major, “Professional qualification” or “Apprenticeship”. The apprenticeship model was never going to happen: the idea of studying the craft of poetry, as craft, just didn’t sound dignified enough.
But It could never be a “professional” training course as far as poetry and prose fiction were concerned because there was no profession to be trained for.
Courses can be developed and run to prepare students to be Lawyers and Doctors and Engineers and Teachers. Students exit the university with a piece of paper that said they have the required knowledge and basic skills to be eligible for consideration for employment in the relevant field. They compete on the Job market, and then they go work and if they are good there are career structures they can rise through.
But there was no “employment’ for the tyro poet and the University could issue whatever paper it liked, it didn’t change the fact that legitimacy as poet was reliant on one of Bourdieu’s three groups and was unpredictable and erratic. Having a PhD or an MFA in creative writing did not guarantee the quality of your poem, and whether or not anyone can tell the difference between a poem written by someone with academic qualifications and a similar one written by someone with none, is a moot point.
That was until creative writing courses became popular, needed to be staffed, and hey presto, in the sealed acoustic of the academy a career path opened that not only sidestepped Bourdieu’s three types, but is well on the way to replacing 1 and 2 and not only does confer legitimacy within the terms of the institution, but has increasing implications outside it. Not the least is the essentially conservative nature of any education process.
It is, as I wrote in a previous post, the difference between legitimisation and education. The latter is what should be happening, the former is what should not.