Creativity and the Academic Essay

Last week, I attended an English department meeting on behalf of the Graduate English Society about incorporating "teaching creativity" into courses. You can see the live tweets from the department account here. Near the end of the meeting, a professor I had in my fourth year of undergrad warned of the danger of turning "creativity" into a buzzword, and reminded us that research papers are creative endeavours, too.

I agree entirely. I let the room know that once I realized that my research papers could and should be written creatively, my writing improved immensely (and so did my grades). The only way that I was able to recognize this was by reading scholarship by established academics -- e.g., published journal articles.

Very few courses in my undergrad career had journal articles on the syllabuses. Though papers in my second and third year required "secondary sources," it wasn't until my fourth-year seminar -- the one taught by the aforementioned prof -- that I was assigned entire journal articles to read for class.

I remember trying to read these for homework and the language and structure seeming impenetrable. My reading skills, even in the last year of an honours specialization degree in English, were not at the level required to parse an academic article easily. (Part-way through my Master's, I remembered this initial reaction as I asked myself if the articles I was reading now were just overall easier, or if my reading level had improved. I assume that it was the latter -- hopefully!)

But aside from elevating my reading comprehension, these articles showed me that academic writing could be eloquent and full of personality, while still being concise and insightful. Once I realized that I could have fun and flex my creativity while I write these papers, I understood how to make my argument more nuanced and my writing more engaging.

As a teaching assistant in the English department, I spend a lot of time going over writing skills in my tutorials. This helps me in the end, because it makes the papers I ultimately have to grade better. But it's also knowledge that I find exciting to impart, now that I've grasped it for myself. We throw a lot of words like "controversial" around when trying to motivate students to develop better thesis statements, but students don't often grasp what we really mean by this. And I think the reason for this is that they, like me, don't realize how they can get creative with their essays.

We ask students to write good essays, but seldom give them a model to follow. It'd be ridiculous for a creative writing class to not stress the importance of reading fiction in order to ameliorate the students' own writing. I think it's equally important for students in literature classes to have models to follow. One option, aside from academic journals which I've already described can be daunting for fourth-year students, let alone first-years, would be for professors to encourage students to read the papers published by the Arts and Humanities Student Council. As a former editor-in-chief of the AHSC, I know how much work goes into these fantastic publications every year. They have a pedagogical use in class, because each paper had to have received an "A" grade to be considered for publication, and then they get blind-vetted by a team of professors. As the person who hand-picked these essays, I can attest to the edge the more "creative" ones had over the other highly-graded submissions. I use these publications when I teach essay writing to my students to show them what an excellent paper can look like. This is often the first time they've read a literature essay. They're often very impressed by their peers' writing, and newly motivated because they finally understand what it is we're trying to get them to do -- structurally, yes, but creatively more so.

It's my opinion, based on my own experience and the good return on investment I've seen with my own students, that stressing creativity in essay-writing is an effective way to improve the quality of the writing, grades, and overall attitude toward English literature as a discipline. Let's remember this when we plan to make our lessons or syllabuses more creative, too.

Primary Field Qualifying Exams

In January, I have my written and oral primary field qualifying exams. You can see my custom list below.

Name: Caroline Diezyn

Date of Exam: January 2015

Exam Area: American Literature

My Area(s) of Interest (Describe in one or two sentences): My interests include temporality, gender, science fiction, and the occult in American literature.



Primary Field Qualifying Exam Personalized Reading List

Department of English

Western University



  1. General Reading List (acquired electronically from Leanne). Copy and Paste the general reading list here and STRIKETHROUGH any items that you will not be reading.


American Literature I: origins-1865


16th-17th Centuries


Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, The Relaccion (1542)

[anon.],                                    History of the Miraculous Apparition of the Virgin of  Guadalupe (1531)

Samuel de Champlain              Voyages of Samuel de Champlain (1604-1618)

Jerome Lalemant                     “The Relation of 1647,” from Jesuit Relations

Thomas Hariot                        A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588)

John Smith                            General Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624)

James Revel                            “The Poor, Unhappy Transported Felon” (~1650)

Thomas Morton                    New English Canaan (1637)

William Bradford                  Of Plymouth Plantation (1647)

John Winthrop                     “Modell of Christian Charity” (1629-30)

Journal of John Winthrop

“John Winthrop’s Christian Experience”

“A Defence of an Order of Court” (1637)

A Short Story (1642)

“Speech to the General Court”(1645)

Roger Williams                      “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution” (1644)

Key into the Languages of America (1643)

“The Hireling Ministries None of Christ’s” (1652)

John Cotton                          “Sixteene Questions of Necessary and Serious Consequence” (1635)

The Way of Congregational Churches Clear’d (1648)

Christ the Fountaine of Life (1651)

Thomas Shepard                     Autobiography (1646)

Anne Bradstreet                    The Tenth Muse (1650)

“The Author to Her Book” (1678)

“Some Lines Written on the Burning of My House”(1666)

“To My Dear and Loving Husband” (1678)

Wigglesworth, Michael           Diary (1657)

Day of Doom (1662)

Edward Taylor                      Preparatory Meditations (1670s)

                                                “Upon a Spider Catching a Fly”

Mary Rowlandson                The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682)

Mather, Cotton                     Wonders of the Invisible World (1692)

Magnalia Christi Americana (1702)

[various]                                  Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Crisis (1692)




Knight, Sarah Kemble             The Private Journey

Byrd, William              The Secret Diary

                                                History of the Dividing Line

Edwards, Jonathan              “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

“Divine and Supernatural Light”

“Faithful Narrative”

Treatise of Religious Affections

Chauncy, Charles                    Seasonable Thoughts on the Late Revivals

Grainger, James                      The Sugar Cane

Franklin, Benjamin              The Way to Wealth


Crèvecoeur, Hector               Letters from an American Farmer

Woolman, John                     “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes”


Freneau, Philip                        “The Rising Glory of America”

                                                “The Indian Burying Ground”

                                                “The Wild Honey Suckle”

Wheatley, Phillis                    Poems Occasional and Moral

Paine, Thomas                         Common Sense

Jefferson, Thomas                   Notes on the State of Virginia

“Declaration of Independence”

Madison, Jay, Hamilton          The Federalist Papers

Brown, William Hill                The Power of Sympathy

Brown, Charles Brockden   Wieland


Foster, Hannah                     The Coquette

Rowson, Susannah                 Charlotte Temple

Equiano, Olaudah                The Interesting Life


19th Century


Irving, Washington                 “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

“Rip van Winkle”

Cooper, James Fenimore      Last of the Mohicans

            The Pioneers

Sedgwick, Catherine               Hope Leslie

Bryant, William Cullen            “Thanatopsis”

            “The Prairies”

                                                “Abraham Lincoln”

Ralph Waldo Emerson         Nature

“American Scholar”

“Divinity School Address”


“The Poet”

Walker, David                         Appeal

Fuller, Margaret                    Women in the Nineteenth Century

Poe, Edgar Allan                   “Fall of the House of Usher”

“The Tell-Tale Heart”

“The Man of the Crowd”


“The Purloined Letter”

“Murders in the Rue Morgue”

“The Raven”

Douglass, Frederick              Narrative

“The Heroic Slave”

Brown, William Wells Narrative


Hawthorne, Nathaniel          (At least 2 of) Scarlet Letter

Blithedale Romance

House of Seven Gables

“My Kinsmen, Major Molineux”

                                                “Young Goodman Brown”


“Rappaccini’s Daughter” Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth  “Evangeline”

Stowe, Harriet Beecher         Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Melville, Herman                   Moby-Dick

            (At least 2 of) Pierre

Benito Cereno

“Bartleby, the Scrivener”

“The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”


                                                Billy Budd

Jacobs, Harriet                      Incidents in the Life of a Slave-Girl

Wilson, Harriet                        Our Nig

Delany, Martin                        Blake, or the Huts of America

Davis, Rebecca Harding          Life in the Iron Mills

Pierce, Ambrose                      “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Harris, Joel Chandler              “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story”

                                                “Mr. Rabbit Grossly Deceives Mr. Fox”

Howells, William Dean         Hazard of New Fortunes

Chestnutt, Charles                   The Marrow of Tradition

Harper, Frances                       Iola Leroy




Please note that I have removed any authors that appear on the post-1865 list from the pre-1865 list to make it easier to parse


American Literature II: 1865-contemporary





Mark Twain                          Huckleberry Finn and one other novel Puddinhead Wilson, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Henry James                          two of The American, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Ambassadors, Daisy Miller (from the pre-1865 list and I’d like to include it), “The Turn of the Screw”

William Dean Howells,         A Hazard of New Fortunes or the Rise of Silas Lapham

Joel Chandler Harris

Sarah Orne Jewett,                  The Country of the Pointed Firs

Kate Chopin                          The Awakening

Charlotte Perkins Gilman    “The Yellow Wallpaper” or Herland

Booker T. Washington,        Up From Slavery

W.E.B. DuBois,                     The Souls of Black Folk

Stephen Crane                      Maggie or The Red Badge of Courage

The Native Tradition               Cochise et al

Harold Frederic                       The Damnation of Theron Ware

Ambrose Bierce                      “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” The Devil’s Dictionary

  1. Harding Davis “Life in the Iron Mills”

Charles Chesnutt                     The Marrow of Tradition

Frank Norris                         McTeague



Walt Whitman                      “Spontaneous Me,” “Song of Myself,” “This Compost,” Calamus

Emily Dickinson                    “I taste a liquor never brewed,” “I’m Nobody! Who are you?,” “I like a look of Agony,” “The Soul selects her own society,” “The Brain – is wider than the Sky,” “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” “I dwell in Possibility”

Sidney Lanier

Stephen Crane



Henry Adams                          The Education of Henry Adams

Theodore Dreiser                 Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy

Edith Wharton                      House of Mirth or the Age of Innocence

Gertrude Stein                       Tender Buttons

Willa Cather                            My Antonia

Sherwood Anderson               Winesburg, Ohio

Sinclair Lewis             Main Street or Babbitt

Jack London                            The Call of the Wild

  1. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby or Tender Is the Night

Ernest Hemingway               The Sun Also Rises, “Hills like White Elephants”

William Faulkner                 two of The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom,

Absalom, Light in August, Go Down, Moses, “A Rose for Emily”

John Dos Passos

Henry Roth                             Call It Sleep

John Steinbeck                        The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men

Nathanael West                       Miss Lonelyhearts or The Day of the Locust

Zora Neale Hurston              Their Eyes Were Watching God

Katherine Anne Porter

Ellen Glasgow                         Barren Ground

Thomas Wolfe                        Look Homeward, Angel

James T. Farrell



E.A. Robinson

Hilda Doolittle

Amy Lowell

Robert Frost                          “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Wallace Stevens                     “Anecdote of the jar,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “The Snow Man”

William Carlos Williams      “To Elsie,” “Proletarian Portrait,” “The Red Wheelbarrow,” This is Just to Say”      

Ezra Pound                            “In a Station of the Metro,” “The Encounter,” “A Retrospect”

Marianne Moore

E.E. Cummings

Edna St. Vincent Millay          “I, Being a Woman and Distressed”

Hart Crane

Langston Hughes                  “I, Too,” “The Weary Blues,” “Dream Deferred”

Robert Penn Warren

John Crowe Ransom

Elinor Wylie

Carl Sandburg

Robinson Jeffers

Allen Tate

Countee Cullen

Melvin Tolson

Muriel Rukeyser                     The Book of the Dead

Louise Bogan

Louis Zukofsky

T.S. Eliot                                Four Quartets (addition from committee meeting)



Eudora Welty                          The Optimist’s Daughter

Richard Wright                     Native Son

Ralph Ellison                         Invisible Man

Saul Bellow                            Herzog

Flannery O’Connor              A Good Man is Hard to Find

Norman Mailer                        An American Dream

Vladimir Nabokov                Lolita

John Updike                            The Witches of Eastwick

John Barth

Thomas Pynchon                    The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity’s Rainbow

Philip Roth                            Goodbye Columbus

Joyce Carol Oates

Alice Walker                           The Color Purple

  1. Scott Momaday

Leslie Marmon Silko               Ceremony

Donald Barthelme

E.L. Doctorow

Robert Coover

Don DeLillo                           White Noise

Toni Morrison                       Beloved

Ishmael Reed

Maxine Hong Kingston        The Woman Warrior

Louise Erdrich

Robert Penn Warren

James Baldwin                        Another Country

William Burroughs                  Naked Lunch

Charles Johnson                      Middle Passage

Jack Kerouac                         On the Road, “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose”

Cormac McCarthy                   The Road

Malcolm X                              Autobiography



Charles Olson

Robert Duncan

Elizabeth Bishop

Theodore Roethke

John Berryman

Robert Lowell

Gwendolyn Brooks

Audre Lorde                          The Black Unicorn

Allen Ginsberg                      Howl

John Ashbery                          Planisphere, “The One Thing That Can Save America”

Frank O’Hara

James Merrill

Amiri Baraka

Adrienne Rich

Sylvia Plath                            Collected Works (or Ariel if that’s not allowed)

Richard Wilbur                        “Cottage Street, 1953”

Anthony Hecht

Kenneth Koch

A.R. Ammons

John Cage                               “Writing through Howl,” “Lecture on Nothing”

Charles Bernstein

Lyn Hejinian

Susan Howe

Robert Pinsky



Eugene O’Neill                      Long Day’s Journey into Night

Arthur Miller                         The Crucible

Tennessee Williams               Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Elmer Rice

Gertrude Stein

Thornton Wilder                      Our Town

Lillian Hellman

Edward Albee:                        Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

David Mamet                         Glengarry Glen Ross

Sam Shepard                           True West

Susan Glaspell                        Trifles

Lorraine Hansberry                 A Raisin in the Sun

Clifford Odets

William Inge

Tony Kushner                       Angels in America




  1. Your list of ADDITIONS to the General Reading List, in MLA Format, added at the end of the General Reading List.


Barnes, Djuna Nightwood

Chambers, Robert W. The King in Yellow

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Heller, Joseph. Catch 22

Herr, Michael. Dispatches

Hurston, Zora Neale Tell My Horse

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Larsen, Nella. Passing, Quicksand

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar

Salinger, J.D. Catcher in the Rye

Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five

Whitehead, Colson. Zone One

Wolfe, Tom. Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test



Angelou, Maya. Collected Works

Bukowski, Charles. “The Laughing Heart”

Parker, Dorothy. Enough Rope

Scot-Heron, Gil. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”



Crowley, Mart. The Boys in the Band

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman


Pre-1865 additions:

Lincoln, Abraham. “Emancipation Proclamation,” “Gettysburg Address”

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden


Secondary Qualifying Exam List

This week, I have my secondary qualifying exams. Here's the list I put together from the required texts list.



Collected poetry of all the following poets, plus important essays, letters and manifestoes.


W.H, Auden, W.B Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, Mina Loy, Charlotte Mew, Ted Hughes, Thomas Hardy, WWI poets.


Plus 5 poets chosen from the following list:


Robert Graves, Laura Riding, John Betjeman, Tony Harrison, Stevie Smith




Samuel Beckett: Endgame; Waiting for Godot

Harold Pinter: The Homecoming; Old Times

Bertolt Brecht: The Threepenny Opera; Mother Courage and Her Children

Caryl Churchill: Top Girls; Cloud 9

George Bernard Shaw: Mrs. Warren’s Profession; Pygmalion

Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; Arcadia

David Hare: Plenty; Pravda

Edward Bond:Saved; Lear

Eugene Ionesco: Rhinoceros; The Killer

Sarah Kane: Blasted; Cleansed


Plus 10 plays chosen from the following list of authors:


Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest

Anton Chekov: The Cherry Orchard; Uncle Vanya

Luigi Pirandello: Six Characters in Search of an Author

David Edgar: Saigon Rose

J.M. Synge: The Playboy of the Western World

Peter Nichols: Passion Play

Séan O’Casey: The Plough and the Stars

Brian Friel: Translations

John Osborne: Look Back in Anger




Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus;  The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim; The Secret Agent

E.M. Forster: A Passage to India; Howards End

Henry James: The Ambassadors; What Maisie Knew

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ulysses

D.H. Lawrence: Women in Love; Sons and Lovers

Ford Madox Ford: The Good Soldier

Ian McEwan:  Saturday; Atonement

Jeanette Winterson: Sexing the Cherry; The Passion

Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children

Iris Murdoch: The Sea, The Sea; A Word Child

Graham Swift: Waterland; Last Orders

George Orwell: Animal Farm, 1984

Wyndham Lewis: Tarr, The Revenge for Love

Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway; To the Lighthouse


Plus 10 additional novels chosen from the following list of authors:


Jean Rhys: Voyage in the Dark; Wide Sargasso Sea

Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisted; Vile Bodies

Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange

Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim

Aldous Huxley: Crome Yellow

Graham Green: The Quiet American