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My Concordia: The Terrible Quiet of Creative Writing Programs

My time at Concordia, like that of so many others, was shaped by closed-door conversations about who to avoid. There are workshops in which your words disappear, leaving you with nothing to write. There are professors who make you forget what your voice sounds like. There are a few spectacular ones who hear you and teach you how to speak audibly and articulately—and far too many who don’t. Each year, a new cohort arrives to write and we whisper to them, hoping to keep one another from losing those words. We speak quietly so as not to be silenced. The creative writing program’s reputation depends upon this quietness.

With its emphasis on teaching small-circulation forms like short fiction and poetry, the creative writing program at Concordia routinely fails to cultivate marketable writing skills. Rarely is there mention of the realities of manuscript submission and rejection, queries to publishers and agents, or the less-literary forms of writing that might sustain students after graduation. Instead, creative writing programs insist on instilling a much more valuable lesson: one’s success has little to do with one’s writing and everything to do with the personal predilections of those with influence. Authorial prestige occupied the seat at the head of the workshop table, often unaccompanied by pedagogical accomplishment. Those with even minuscule power in the Canadian publishing industry wield so much at a table of emerging writers. They possess the power to speak loudly and the power to silence. All other voices become white noise in this terrible quiet.

In February 2015, a handful of students penned a letter to the chair of the English Department concerning recurring instances of sexual misconduct by faculty members and a widespread feeling of unsafety in the department. We had read Emma Healey’s essay “Stories Like Passwords” in The Hairpin in October 2014. At the time, Healey’s name still decorated the halls on push-pinned announcements of the winners of departmental writing awards. We immediately recognized the professor whose name she withheld.

We speak quietly so as not to be silenced.

That year, workshops stopped having anything to do with writing. Instead, they were filled with long, loud silences. The department seemed to crack along fault lines etched over decades. The comfortable dispersal of chairs along the length of the workshop table suddenly constricted, bodies polarized in a tangible display of social division.

After months of insufferable quiet, an unabashedly-confrontational professor called a few of us into her office, leaned back in her chair, and waited expectantly for us to articulate the dysfunction of our workshop. Our elbows knocked against shelves of dusty books as we grasped for the words that we needed to hear—words we knew she could say. She had tweeted about Healey’s essay, tweeted her own polemics on female mentorship, and yet refused to share the verbal labour of mutual acknowledgement. Perhaps my perspective was impaired by a reactionary distrust for authority, but in my memory of this meeting she revelled in her ability to intensify the anxiety of confrontation.

I focused intently on not retreating so far into a bookshelf that I might knock something over. Somebody else broke the silence with the words we had considered since observing the potential allyship on this professor’s Twitter page. Our workshop was so quiet because the department was so quiet because we were all straining to hear the university acknowledge Healey’s essay, recognize her as an alum and the faculty as their own, and react.

In response, our professor explained that there would be no statement from the university. Unions protect professors from institutional reprimand, ensuring the complicity of colleagues. She defended her silence on the matter and told us that the university would only respond if we as students insisted upon it. As I write this essay, I am well-acquainted with the terrifying professional precarity that justified the silence of so many faculty members. But this professor had the power that comes with authorial acclaim and was still so quiet.

The burden of responsibility fell to us, and I wonder how many have since suffered because the department’s silence was so much louder than any of our voices.

If we heard footsteps in the hall, we paused. If we heard keys in the lock, we held our breaths.

Behind the closed door of the English student association office, we dictated lines of a letter in hushed voices, very much aware of the wall we shared with the Matrix office in which faculty members Jon Paul Fiorentino and Mike Spry spent much of their time. Periodically, one of us would step out into the hallway to check if their light was on. If we heard footsteps in the hall, we paused. If we heard keys in the lock, we held our breaths. Still, the quiet keystrokes of our communal authorship felt like a thunderous riot between classes with Fiorentino, Josip Novakovich, David McGimpsey, and others.

To the attention of the Chair of the English Department:

Last October, a graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program published an article online in The Hairpin, describing an abusive relationship she had with her professor and a prominent figure in Montreal’s literary community. The article discusses repeated incidents between this student and her professor and the accompanying sexism and power dynamics that are reproduced on North American university campuses. Similar events that have occurred in the Alt Lit community in New York and within Canadian arts circles are only recent examples of that fact that this is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is part of a pattern within literary and artistic spheres—a pattern that this university has yet to acknowledge.

Over the course of the past few months, we as students in the department have struggled to navigate tensions and discomforts as a result of these circumstances. The article and the ensuing silence have acted as a polarizing force within this department due to their highly political nature. Student interaction with faculty as well as among peers has become strained. Many of us now feel uncomfortable and unsafe attending readings, events and seminars within the wider Montreal literary community because of Concordia professors’ involvement and place at the center of that community. This toxic atmosphere infiltrates the department’s teaching and learning space. In a workshop-based program that relies on peer support, trust and insight in the classroom, this dynamic quickly corrodes the quality of our education.

The silence surrounding the issue within our department has not only aggravated existing power relations between men and women and between professors and students, but has also perpetuated a harmful reality for young women by legitimizing these abuses of power. The lack of the response from the department has deprived students of the support and resources we deserve. This silence also invalidates the history of gendered oppressions within universities and literary communities, and the experiences of past and present students immediately affected by these abuses of power.

As students, we deserve a formal statement in response to our recent experiences that clarifies appropriate boundaries in professor-student relations in addition to clarifying the University’s position on sexual abuse within our department. Policies connected to these issues need to reflect students’ rights at an institutional level and must be made transparent and accessible, not only for students who have been directly affected by these events but for the safety of incoming students as well. It is crucial to the recovery of a safe and productive learning environment that the department acknowledges and stands behind young women who are exploited and abused by men in positions of authority. The repression of this ongoing issue denies our right to feel safe within the department and disregards the experiences of victims and the crimes of the abusers.

We anticipate your response and hope to work in collaboration with the department to rebuild a positive space for creative interaction.

In response, Department Chair Jill Didur, organized a meeting in a fancy boardroom in another building. She invited an Employee Relations Advisor, Caroline Durand, as some sort of moderator or stenographer. Five students attended the meeting, and we sat across a boardroom table, facing Didur and Durand; the heads of the table remained empty. By all appearances, the university was taking our concerns very seriously.

But the department couldn’t do anything. The university couldn’t investigate unless someone pressed charges. We argued that such an outcome was nearly impossible. So many closed office doors left students without any sense of how they might report the sort of misconduct that would be considered admissible. In a final plea, we requested that the department send out an email sharing information on the campus’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre and outlining the sexual assault policy and procedures for reporting—which the chair immediately shut down. Apparently, even informing students could be construed as an admission that there is indeed a problem.

I organized a small-scale departmental consent workshop in the fall of 2015, following the publication of Healey’s essay and the widely-covered news of sexism and racism in the university’s Arts and Sciences Federation of Associations. The new department chair, Andre Furlani, was eager to contribute. He insisted that the work I was doing was valuable and important and he would do whatever he could to support it. I believed this performance of shared values with desperate optimism. Years later, Furlani referred to criticisms of the department as “malicious misrepresentation,” dismissing the fact that being silenced is not the same as being silent.

I was shaking in my seat from anger and anxiety and the infuriating impulse to placate him with a smile or a nod.

Another student and I arrived in his office later that semester, incensed after a professor had enabled and encouraged a handful of students to debate the fabrication of rape culture—a topic that had no apparent connection to the Contemporary Critical Theory syllabus. In an infuriating feat of irony, we were supposed to discuss feminist literary theory that class—what would have been the first appearance of women or writers of colour, in week 12 of the semester—but had instead lingered on Hegel’s dialectics. As my classmates and I recounted the hostility and reckless obscenity of the lecture, Furlani offhandedly defended the actions of his colleague, interrupting our testimony throughout.

I had not even heard the worst of what went on in that class, having promptly left to heave in the hallway, a painful quiet coming out as words were held in. As I shuffled past rows of chairs and made my way to the door of the lecture hall, I remember hearing several students plead with the professor to shut down arguments about false rape accusations or the complicity of the victim. Regardless of this professor’s knowledge or ignorance of the creative writing program’s history—the former feels far more likely, in light of a semester of sexist comments made under that sickening guise of feminist allyship—he should not have allowed this discussion to continue at the expense of students’ education and safety.

Furlani offered a short list of insufficient and ineffectual resolutions, insisting that it was too late in the semester to find an alternate professor and so our efforts would be futile. He could, however, have a serious chat with this professor—a confrontation for which I would be an obvious culprit following my swift departure from the lecture hall. Or the department chair could sit in on next week’s class under the guise of an audit—an hour of good behaviour at the expense of the perceived credibility of the complaint. In the end, Furlani invited us to submit a letter for inclusion in the professor’s file, which would be reviewed if he were to apply for tenure in years ahead—too little, too late.

Without a viable intervention from the department, we were still required to meet with this professor in his office to discuss our final essays. Brushing past my work, he sat across the desk in eager anticipation of my absolution, bemoaning his uncertainty about how to handle the previous week’s lecture. It was a tough situation for him, and he didn’t want to silence what was going on, he insisted, wielding admirable rhetoric as some sort of defense. I was shaking in my seat from anger and anxiety and the infuriating impulse to placate him with a smile or a nod. The exchange felt transactional. If I would neither challenge him nor appease him, he would neither fail me nor give me the grade that my work merited.

When I graduated in the following spring, Furlani enthusiastically hugged me on stage and I let him, because he wasn’t the worst of them.

… I hear his words echo in the terribly quiet halls of a department in which every door is closed.

And then, as Julie McIssac so aptly writes, a man said it. In January 2018, Mike Spry made national news with an essay in which he condemned Concordia’s legacy of sexual misconduct in the creative writing program, renouncing his past (hyperlink intentionally withheld; read McIssac instead). Spry could have titled his essay “Sexism and Silence in the Literary Community,” if Jon Paul Fiorentino hadn’t taken the headline several years earlier (hyperlink intentionally withheld; read Heather Cromarty instead). There is a terrible quietness that surrounds these publications by perpetrators of misogyny, harassment, and abuse—undermining crucial criticisms of those with the authority to speak over—when the words of so many other writers have been stolen.

Three years after Healey’s essay and our letter, Concordia made a statement in response to the redemption-narrative clickbait of a man who, in his own words, “treated [women] poorly.” Concordia knew what was going on then—what has been going on for decades, as Heather O’Neill, Celyn Harding-Jones, Zoe Whittall, and numerous others have attested—and yet feigns surprise as their negligence comes under scrutiny. When the university’s president—a former English professor—asserts, “it’s not an open secret to me,” I hear his words echo in the terribly quiet halls of a department in which every door is closed.

Creative writing programs, if they are to have any merit at all, must give students the tools with which to write through the quiet. They must denounce the fraught power dynamics that allow those words to be erased. They must learn to hear what is said when those with power are not speaking, and listen carefully to those who have been forced to whisper. And, above all, they must recognize that those words are enough.

Our programs

A degree in creative writing can be the first step in a career path that leads to a profession other than that of novelist, poet, or playwright. Written communication and storytelling are central to all cultural industries, including internet publishing, gaming, advertising, editing, teaching, and entertainment. The creative writing workshop is a training ground that prepares our students with critical intelligence and skills that are in demand in all areas. Many of our graduates use this training in careers that combine professional success with creative satisfaction.

Undergraduate

The focus of our creative writing program is on the interchange between reading and writing. At the undergraduate level, introductory creative writing courses emphasize reading published writing in the genre in question, with a view to technical development.

The program has evolved over the years, adding new areas of specialization and expanding others. We now offer courses in creative non-fiction, literary editing, and curating and archiving the literary event, as well as occasional courses in specialized subjects and forms, such as cross-genre writing, experimental writing, flash fiction, the long poem, and writing the fantastic.