the UBC is a good school “on paper”

By the end of my second semester, the damage the program does to the average student was obvious. If 10-12 underpublished writers agreed on something, it didn’t matter what the actual reality was. “On paper” the program teaches that the only thing good writing needs is nice prose.

I watched students agree, over and over and over and over and over again that the only thing that mattered in publishing was the language chosen. Tension wasn’t needed. Characters didn’t need to change. Conflict — external or internal — didn’t need to make the character change. Thematic exploration was unnecessary. Showing the reader the character moving through the events of their life and telling the reader what was important only through dialogue were both equally valid choices “on paper” but in reality, the majority of stories just used dialogue to tell the story.

Most work filled its pages with what the character was looking at. But there would be the occasional perfect story that — if it was truly a first draft written specifically for each class — was stunning. These handful of writers are the program’s “success stories” that it rests its laurels on.

I used to think they weren’t actively harmed by the program, but I’ve changed my mind. The average student pays for being a UBC School of Creative Writing MFA graduate by never needing to consider again that structural edits are necessary. If they publish, it’s because an organic first draft emerged from their body of work. The program didn’t give them a single tool to help them fix a draft that didn’t have the organic flow readers require.

The average student suffers in their learning. But the exceptional student suffers in their future teaching. They assume the way the UBC MFA program is taught is the way the average learner learns because it “worked” for them. They’re published or will be published enough that they can find a college or other teaching gig, but their MFA has taught them that the way you teach writing is by ignoring anything that the average writer needs to learn how to use to succeed.

Discussing only what was done well in a work is about as successful as praising fighter pilots after a good flight. If there’s no learning opportunity given to improve, praise as “feedback” just says “do the thing you just did again.”

This program doesn’t even suggest what the writer could improve on. It only discussed techniques the author could use the next time to smooth out sections of the prose. On Bloom’s Taxonomy’s scale, “discussing” something lands in the knowing step, the step after recognizing something as familiar but before learning how to use it, learning how to use it to create something new, and then learning how to evaluate the process of using it.

Those writers who are the “success” stories of the UBC program will never learn how to teach the average student. The Chair’s methodology only “works” if every student is a clone of the instructor who brings perfect work to class to start with.

I went to the Chair after being given the news that because she’d only broken multiple policies and not the law itself, the UBC wasn’t going to do anything. But I felt as though I’d been a researcher who didn’t have to go through any ethical considerations. I’d learned in her program that there is no way of making the conventional methodology work if the student doesn’t think they need to learn how to improve more than just the aspects of fiction they already could do very well.

There would be no way to recreate that environment in an experiment. If the “instructor” is teaching that nothing significant needs to be changed and a “student” is suggesting ways to make a work better at a structural level, any smart experimentee who has to know they’re in an experiment for ethical reasons would understand what was being tested for. Observing something changes its behaviour outside of physics, too. But after endless attempts, I realized the only students who ever heard what I said about structure had wanted to hear it in the first place. Even conventional methodology given with the authority of the facilitator still requires the learner to figure out how to do 3 of the 5 steps of skill acquisition on their own.

If it had been a true experiment and my classwork had been the control, I owed the Chair the sum of what I had learned in her program and to know the damage it was doing. All it takes for 10-12 underpublished writers to stay underpublished is for all of them to decide that none of them needs to change a single thing about the way they write because they all make the exact same mistakes. If they want to believe that if they just get slightly better at polishing what they can already do well to achieve future success, their MFA degree with the UBC logo on it says they’re right to think that way.

The program had writers that were far more talented than I was when I realized learning how to manipulate the structure of my work was the next step in my progress. But they graduated with a UBC MFA degree that says they don’t ever have to consider structural edits are necessary because structural edits were never necessary in any of the over 300 works they’d covered in their coursework.

At the end of our pleasant conversation, the Chair assured me that the reason she wasn’t going to change anything despite the damage being done was that students loved being told that everything they write is gold and it reflected in their student evaluations.

It was the second sign that the school only cares about being a good school “on paper” after picking which policies matter and which ones don’t.

They don’t need an effective pedagogy that can teach the average student what they need to learn in a way that what was learned could be demonstrated to the instructor. They just need to have pleasant discussions on a weekly basis and have those pleasant discussions be worth 70% of the grade.

They don’t need to follow their policies, they just need their policies to be firmly worded “on paper” about how seriously they should take the violations of them. The UBC put *in writing* that institutions get to choose which definitions of improper conduct as outlined in the policies “really matter” and which ones “aren’t technically illegal” to break.

As long as the Provost’s conflict of interest didn’t exist “on paper” it didn’t exist at all. As long as it wasn’t accepted “on paper” that he wrote: “our pedagogy is academic freedom violation”, he never said it. And if he never said it, the academic freedom violation can continue to be tolerated “on paper.” No officer really needed to listen to both sides of the issue and make an independent decision if their boss told them what he wanted done with their rubber stamp “on paper.” His underlings signed their name to the fact that what he says goes, even in a controlled environment.

If anyone didn’t want to be portrayed as a puppet, they shouldn’t have acted like one.

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