Undergraduates offered more graduate-level courses


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James Alan McPherson drew stares of admiration from the 11 students in his undergraduate fiction-writing workshop on Wednesday when he shuffled into a Dey House classroom pushing a cart stocked with snacks and soda pop.

McPherson, the author of six books and the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, said the tasty diversion is part of relaxing his tiny classroom as they embark on the graduate-level task of writing and critiquing each other’s stories.

“I don’t want them to be so bookish or technical,” he said. “I want them to explore their imagination and be comfortable in their writing.”

A member of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty, McPherson, 66, had never taught undergraduates until university officials asked him to take on the course this semester. Graduate assistants have taught the class in previous years.

Similar workshops geared toward undergraduates are a part of future plans to increase interest in the relatively new undergraduate creative-writing track, which began last spring.

Students may apply for the track as part of an English major, though creative writing is not a major in itself.

Many incoming UI students are disappointed to learn they cannot enter the majority of the university’s writing courses until they are enrolled in graduate school, McPherson said.

“The workshop is usually removed from the younger students, so I think it’s very fair that we are offering more of these resources,” he said. “Plus, it keeps me young.”

McPherson’s course is just one example of how university officials are working to emphasize more interaction between undergraduate students and faculty from the UI’s 108 graduate programs, said John Keller, dean of the Graduate School.

Allowing undergraduates to enter courses that were previously off-limits is one way in which UI officials are attempting to raise the current 83 percent freshman retention rate, Keller said.

Outside of classes such as McPherson’s — intended to expose students to a certain field of study — Keller said UI undergrads can also enroll in five-year degree programs in certain departments of the College of Engineering and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

These programs allow students to embark on graduate-level work before entering the graduate school.

“There is a growing interest nationally in getting students interested in advanced work earlier than ever before,” Keller said. “And it keeps the faculty fresh, so it’s just as beneficial to them.”

UI senior Meredith Glasson-Darling, who has taken the undergraduate fiction workshop, said she sees firsthand the difference it makes having a member of the Writers’ Workshop faculty in charge.

“This class isn’t for those who want a pat on the back,” she said. “It’s difficult, but my writing has grown so much.”

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