Suggestions from a tired creative writing student
It happens twice a semester. Overeager young writers line up to choose their section within the creative writing department at the Lewis Center of the Arts. Sign ups start at 10 a.m., the lobby of New South Building opens at 8 a.m., people begin arriving at 5 a.m. The line rings the lobby, snakes into the dance studio and then into the theater. At a certain point, newcomers can’t even find the end of the line, until someone toward the front points them in the right direction. There are sleeping bags. You’d think we were Black Friday shoppers outside a Macy’s.
The system works on a first come, first served basis. Students who were accepted into their creative writing class — poetry, fiction, screenwriting or translation — were told that they would have to come to New South on Friday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to choose their class section. Once sign-ups began, the first people in line would be able to choose the time or professor they most wanted.
My typical Friday begins at 12 p.m. in a good week. However, even I managed to pull myself out of bed and head to New South come 7:45 a.m., though still wearing my pajamas. My thought was that there could only be a few students who were really willing to rise and shine for the sake of writing. It turns out there were far more than a few.
I wasn’t even close to the beginning of the line. I had underestimated the allure of Chang-Rae Lee and Paul Muldoon. What was five hours of waiting if one got to bask in the glory of the Joyce Carol Oates every week? It didn’t matter if your bottom went numb against the floor after hour two, as long as Jeffrey Eugenides would be the one to call your metaphors cliched and your style mundane. I settled in against the lobby wall with the week’s politics reading and crossed my fingers that everyone in front of me was a poet.
In my two and half hours of waiting, and in an effort to avoid that reading, I had ample time to people watch. While silently applauding those that pointed cutters to the back of the line or doing so myself, I came to see a competitiveness that is quite different from that which drives grade deflation woes or application hysteria. It is a competition to work with the very best that Princeton has to offer.
However, I believe that there is an illusion that the most well known scholars will be the very best professors. Yet, in classes both in and outside the creative writing department, I have worked with professors whose names I had never heard, who proved to be incredible teachers. When there are so many famous scholars on one campus, of course even great professors are going to fall through the cracks. I cannot imagine that every student lined up against the walls of New South had extensively read the work of the professors for whose sections they pined. Certainly, some had, but I know I hadn’t. Nonetheless, I was going to fight for my desired section until the last available slot was taken.
Much of what drives students to flock to the creative writing department at ungodly hours is the allure of being able to say that you were taught by a writer as famous as Oates. How impressive to throw the name around like she is a close friend. Part of Princeton’s allure is the access to famous scholars, and the intense competition surrounding the creative writing registration process epitomizes that seduction. The name becomes more important than the work or the class. The name becomes the most important thing.
The notion also extends beyond the creative writing department. I was crushed to be shut out of Professor Oppenheimer’s PSY 101: Introduction to Psychology last fall and even more disheartened when he did not return to teach this semester. Yet, my current PSY 101 lecture, taught by Professor Dunham, has been fantastic, so I should reserve my disappointment. On the other hand, I admit that I would camp out for multiple days for the chance to be in Jeff Nunokawa’s precept. These are names surrounded by much prestige and, thus, what an honor it would be to work with them. And, moreover, what an honor it would be to tell people I’ve worked with them.
This is not to say that these famed professors are all hype and no substance. I can tell you from personal experience that Nunokawa is indeed a brilliant professor deserving of all his praise. I can tell you that everyone I have spoken to would take Oates’ section 10 times over if given the chance. Undoubtedly, there is a level of experience that does make some of these professors incomparable. I only wish to say that the big names, known by those even outside the department, are not the only names.
So as these bleary-eyed writing students beg the clock to move more quickly toward 10 a.m., I can’t help but wonder how many will end up disappointed with their section. And how many of those will end up loving their class all the same? There may be quite a bit in a name. But there may be just as much in a professor not so well known, but just as impressive.
With that in mind, working with Eugenides would still be pretty amazing. What can I say? Call me nerd-ily star struck.
Chelsea Jones is a sophomore from Ridgefield, Conn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.