When Gabrielle Bedeian went to schedule her courses for next fall, she noticed fewer 400-level English and creative writing courses were being offered for her to choose from than ever before.
Frustrated, Bedeian spoke with her adviser and learned unsettling news: Recent budget cuts will cause major changes and reconstruction within Penn State’s English department in the 2011-2012 school year.
“My issue is that students aren’t being informed that this is what has happened,” Bedeian (junior-English) said. “I wondered what was really going on. Like who’s making these decisions?”
Robin Schulze, head of the English department, wrote in an email that fewer course offerings are a direct result of the department hiring fewer fixed-term faculty — those who are hired to teach on either one- or three-year contracts — to teach literature, rhetoric and creative writing classes next year.
Now, the department will also need to move all non-tenure-line faculty into composition courses such as ENGL 15, ENGL 30 and Liberal Arts 101H. Nearly all literature, rhetoric and creative writing classes next year will be taught by tenure-line faculty members, Schulze said.
Ultimately, these changes will have some positive effects for undergraduate students because the courses will be taught by a faculty of solely “acknowledged experts in their scholarly and creative fields,” Schulze said.
But having fewer faculty members and graduate students teaching upper-level classes also means larger class sizes and less course offerings for students.
These changes have been taking place to comply with a target figure of cuts presented by the College of the Liberal Arts to save money, Schulze said. The proposed changes came in anticipation of recommendations from the Academic Program and Administrative Services Review Core Council.
Another significant source of budget savings officially recommended in a letter by the Core Council was to potentially eliminate fellowships to support the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Penn State, Schulze said. The English department decided to move forward with the recommendation.
After this year, the department will no longer have the funds to admit new candidates into the program, Schulze said.
The program admits a small group of students per year to whom the department offers money in payment for the student’s teaching. MFA candidates who have already been admitted to the program will not be affected by the cuts.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm where you’ve got it coming from two directions,” said Julia Kasdorf, a tenure-line English professor. “We lose our graduate student instructors, then we lose our lecture instructors, and we only have a handful of creative writing faculty to cover all classes.”
Kasdorf said classes such as Advanced Poetry Writing — which may be taken twice for credit as and English major — will not be offered in the fall, but she will teach the course in the spring.
“Our faculty has gotten smaller in recent years. If we have to comply with this rule, then we can only offer so many sections,” Kasdorf said. “I’ve been talking with students, and they’re very frustrated with scheduling issues.”
Aside from scheduling issues, students like Jess Harwick are saddened to learn that non tenure-line faculty members will not be able to teach upper-level English courses.
“It’s a shame that we as students will be missing out on what potentially great professors have to offer,” Harwick (sophomore-English and comparative literature) said. “I know from experience that just because a professor doesn’t have tenure doesn’t mean a professor isn’t good.”
English Honors Program Director Janet Lyon said the outlook for the English Department is not completely grim — the department is conceiving new ways to preserve the MFA Creative Writing program in future years.
The department is thinking of creating a five-year program for undergraduate Penn State English majors, who receive their Bachelor of Arts, to pay extra tuition and receive their MFA in creative writing, Lyon said.
Though it’s only an idea for now, Kayla Candrilli (sophomore-English) said it sounds appealing.
“I would absolutely be interested,” Candrilli said. “It’s a struggle to pay tuition as it is, but if I could stay here for an extra year that would be ideal. I love to learn.”
Though other programs have been cut throughout the university, the cuts have taken a greater toll on the humanities than on the social sciences, Lyon said.
College of the Liberal Arts Dean Susan Welch wrote in an email that the English department did suffer greater cuts in comparison to larger departments in the college, partially due to its smaller enrollment of undergraduate students.
“Some departments, like psychology, have very large course enrollments throughout the major, and they were not asked to make many cuts,” Welch said. “The opportunities for them to merge sections or drop sections, given their very large major and their already large classes, was pretty slim.”
To help combat the problem, Lyon said the English Department needs to promote the department’s accomplishments, such as its doctoral program recently being ranked fifth out of 122 English departments in the United States, by the National Research Council.
“People should be like, ‘Penn State? They have the fifth best English graduate program in the country,’ ” Lyon said. “We have been incredibly successful in placing undergraduates in graduate schools, law schools and business schools. We really need to get the word out among Penn State students to come and be English majors.”
Kasdorf said the cuts are devastating, but undergraduate English majors can be proactive in their education by being inventive.
“Students could [hold workshops] or even form some kind of club. I know there are students for whom poetry will always be a main priority. So somehow we will get through this,” she said.
Candrilli and her friends took the initiative when they wrote poetry on cardboard and lined it up on College Avenue. She said the positive response the project received is a testament to the importance of the creative writing at Penn State.
“It shows that when people are making these budget cuts, it’s out of place to say it’s not enjoyable and it’s not relevant,” Candrilli said. “It’s art, and it’s important.”