Once upon a time

One glass of scotch and a comment about breasts nearly crippled Syracuse University’s 44-year-old creative writing program in 1995.

Jennifer Cotter, an English graduate student in SU’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program, accused Stephen Dobyns, a respected author and tenured professor in the program, of sexual harassment after he allegedly made a comment about her breasts at an off-campus party on the night of March 31, 1995. After the alleged comment, a short, heated exchange of words between the two occurred. It ended when Dobyns threw his drink in Cotter’s face.

In summer 1995, SU disregarded Dobyns’ denial of ever making the inappropriate comment and suspended the professor for two years starting in April 1995. Dobyns would eventually resign. He declared the creative writing program ‘dead’ in an April 9, 1997, story in The Post-Standard.

By suspending Dobyns and supporting the claims of Cotter – a Marxist that Dobyns accused of trying to destroy the creative writing program – SU divided the tight-knit creative writing academic community, which consisted of fewer than a dozen professors and 36 students.

The rift rubbed several professors the wrong way. Fiction professor Michael Martone, the director of the program at the time, and fiction professor Melanie Rae Thon resigned in April 1996 because of the lasting tension in the program. Tobias Wolff, the program’s most celebrated professor at the time, resigned in March 1997 and went to teach at Stanford University.

The resignations took a serious toll on the MFA program’s national reputation. In 1995, 174 people applied to the program. Four years later, the total had dropped to 96.

‘The writing community is very small,’ said Eileen Pollack, director of the creative writing program at the University of Michigan, in an e-mail, ‘at least the community of writers who teach at major colleges and universities, and for a while, writers at other institutions stopped recommending the program at SU to their promising undergraduates.’

MFA Director Chris Kennedy and Program Coordinator Sarah C. Harwell agreed the program could have possibly collapsed in the wake of the resignations.

But it didn’t. The job openings allowed new talent to come in and slowly save the reputation of the program.

‘In retrospect, (the controversy) was probably a good thing,’ said Kennedy, who was assistant director during the Dobyns scandal. ‘It was like a purging in some way.’

With the arrival of a talented, new roster of fiction and poetry professors in the decade following the incident, the MFA program returned to the top 10 of most creative writing education expert’s rankings.

An improved reputation led to an influx of creative writing applicants. For the 12 annual openings – six in fiction and six in poetry – in the three-year MFA program, 360 people applied in 2007. More than 290 of those applications were for the fiction program.

Two of the first post-controversy faculty members brought in to turn the MFA program around were professors Arthur Flowers and George Saunders.

Nearly a year before Wolff’s resignation, he asked Saunders to apply for a one-year position in the MFA program. Saunders, who was working as an engineer at the time, seized the opportunity to focus more on his writing.

Saunders’ arrival, along with Flowers, came as a breath of fresh air for the creative writing program.

‘I think between Arthur and me – both basically novice teachers – well, we sort of put out the fires with our general happy cluelessness,’ Saunders said in an e-mail. ‘We hadn’t even been here, and the students knew this.’

The teaching styles of the new professors differed from that of their predecessors.

In summer 1995, SU learned through student and faculty testimony that Dobyns was the creator of a ‘hostile environment’ for the MFA program. Dobyns said what students identified as a ‘hostile environment’ was just necessary criticism that they couldn’t handle, according to a Dec. 3, 1997, story in The Daily Orange.

The post-Dobyns professors provide tough criticism, but they lack the imposing delivery of the controversial figure.

Third-year fiction graduate student Lisa Levy described Flowers as ‘pathologically encouraging,’ and she said Saunders can pick her work apart word by word without making her feel belittled.

Levy first became interested in SU’s MFA program more than six years ago when she interviewed Saunders for an alternative newspaper in Houston, Texas. She said Saunders spoke ‘lovingly’ of his students. The professors’ compassion for his students remained in the back of Levy’s mind through three years of a grant writing job. When she decided to apply to an MFA program in 2005, SU was one of the first to come to mind.

Saunders’ care for his students remains as strong today as it did six years ago.

‘I do love my students,’ Saunders said in an e-mail. ‘What’s not to love? They are smart and motivated and have had the courage to step away from life and try to do this very beautiful, odd thing, of trying to learn to write, in a culture that doesn’t always appreciate good writing.’

The Dobyns incident exposed the dangers of extracurricular relationships between students and professors in the creative writing program. Dobyns wrote in an April 4, 1997, ‘Letter to the Editor’ in The Chronicle of Higher Education that many professors he knew no longer attended informal student functions because of the potential complications.

Dobyns’ letter no longer holds true for the MFA program.

Bruce Smith, a poetry professor, meets with his students every Friday at King David’s on Marshall Street. He said employees know him on a first-name basis because of the frequency of his informal student-professor sessions.

Last winter, Smith drove an hour to Geneva, N.Y., in the middle of the night to pick up Matt Hotham, a 2007 graduate of the creative writing program at SU. Hotham’s car had broken down, and with limited options, he called his professor for a ride.

‘There’s no real heroism here,’ Smith said in an e-mail. ‘He called me probably because I had a functioning automobile, and he knew my life was so impoverished I would probably be home.’

Likewise, Kennedy started hosting coffee hours for faculty and students seven or eight years ago. The informal gatherings were initially held at a coffee shop on Harvard Place. Kennedy later moved coffee hour to his house on Westcott Avenue. He said as many as 25-30 people would attend the weekly social function. Conversation topics at the functions include everything from post-MFA plans to publishing strategies to Halloween party plans.

Despite the influx of informal interaction among students and faculty, the MFA program has yet to encounter a return to the times of Dobyns.

James Gendron, a third-year poetry student, considers the peace surprising and laudable.

‘Writing requires you to go off and spend a huge amount of time in your own head,’ Gendron said. ‘For that reason, I think it’s almost remarkable how little infighting and backbiting and garbage there is.’

Poetry professor Michael Burkard said sustaining peace among the MFA faculty and students requires everyone to focus on the creative writing program’s primary purpose: writing.

‘We take our own writing so seriously,’ Burkard said. ‘With the demands of teaching and being in the university, you spend enough energy. You don’t want to lose it to quarrels and backroom arguments that aren’t gonna really be worth it in the long run.’

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