By pure virtue of my being an editor for The Harvard Crimson, you would be safe to assume that I’m someone who enjoys writing. But if you’ve read any of my previous pieces, it’s likely that you’ve noticed a spot or two where my prose could certainly have been improved. This may have something to do with the fact that I’ve never taken a creative writing class. I haven’t had the chance to formally learn the skills that could take my writing from amateur to professional. But this is certainly not from a lack of trying. As I’m writing this piece, I’m entering my third round of applying to the English department’s creative writing classes.
For the third time, I will have to go through the course descriptions and application requirements, choose which four classes I’d like a chance to be a part of, rank my preferences, and submit writing samples that differ in length and type depending on the specific class. This arduous process limits who has access to creative writing classes by demanding that one must already have attained a certain level of proficiency before they are granted the chance to learn and improve in this field.
On the one hand, I do understand why these classes are difficult to get into. The class sizes have to be kept small in order for everyone to truly benefit from the seminar or workshop format. And it’s fair for English concentrators to be given preference because they’ve indicated that studying English is their passion and that these creative writing courses are crucial for their ultimate career goals. Ultimately, resources in the form of professors, scheduling availabilities, and time are limited.
On the other hand, I do believe that the selection process is inherently flawed. If anything, those with the least impressive writing samples should be accepted into the workshops because they have the most to learn. By only allowing the most talented writers into the classes, Harvard is perpetuating the idea that a student has to be the best in the field to even qualify for consideration. There’s no room for people to explore new paths or learn new skills. Students are limited to their preexisting strengths and barred from the exploratory growth that the college experience is said to be.
This problem is not unique to the creative writing classes. There are other application or audition classes, often found in the Theater, Dance, and Media department. And while these academic limitations may only affect a subsection of the student body, the same prohibitory outlook hits most Harvard students through the comp processes of different clubs and extracurricular organizations. Competitive comps tell students that there is no point of trying something new because you won’t have the opportunity to pursue it unless you’re already remarkably talented — whether that be consulting, improv comedy, or debate.
Such structurally embedded competition forces students into realms of specification, often being forced to build on skills they possessed before arriving at Harvard. Few people are encouraged to push beyond their comfort zones. Instead, students are actively encouraged to remain in their comfort zones by the high barriers in entry to new fields, like these competitive applications.
Worse yet, no one is allowed to be bad at things. We don’t have the chance to partake in activities for pure joy instead of achievement. Before coming to Harvard, I was on my high school’s junior varsity dance team, I submitted pieces to my school’s literary magazine, and I performed in plays. In all of these activities, I was regularly one of the worst in the room, but that was okay. I was allowed to have fun and bond with my friends. At Harvard, however, I’ve been discouraged from pursuing joy at the expense of achievement. Many of us have been discouraged from branching out into new fields without having the safety net of pre-established merit.
I do acknowledge there are some spaces on campus where there exist no such structural barriers to participation — intramural sports, cultural organizations, and comp-free clubs such as Kuumba. In fact, the Crimson Editorial Board’s no cuts comp is one of the reasons I’m writing this article right now. Nevertheless, the success driven attitude at Harvard persists, and the competitive atmosphere often wins out. Most people are disincentivized from joining a group if they feel they stand no chance of being the best and rising to leadership. Instead, they are funnelled to activities where they can achieve traditional success, build their resumes, and further their career goals.
Despite my qualms with the English department's application, I do intend to keep applying to creative writing classes until I get in or graduate — whichever happens first. I love to write, I’m in an environment where I have to opportunity to learn from some of the best professors in the world, so I won’t let fear of failure or frustration with the system keep me from trying to improve myself. I hope that those of you reading this will continue to pursue new activities for the purpose of self-improvement and simple joy. Perhaps with enough demand, the culture can change. Until then, I have some applications to write.
Romy Dolgin ’21, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Linguistics concentrator in Lowell House.
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