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[WRITING] Samantha Chang - For Iowa Writers' Workshop, a New Pedagogy

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  • chiayuan25
    For Writers Program, a New Pedagogy By DINITIA SMITH The New York Times Published: April 18, 2005 Correction Appended SOMERVILLE, Mass., April 13 - The first
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 19, 2005
      For Writers' Program, a New Pedagogy
      The New York Times
      Published: April 18, 2005

      Correction Appended

      SOMERVILLE, Mass., April 13 - The first thing to know about Lan
      Samantha Chang, who has been named the new director of the Iowa
      Writers' Workshop, is that she has strong ideas about teaching.

      For one thing, workshops should not be therapy sessions. "I don't
      think they should advocate one aesthetic over another," Ms. Chang
      said firmly during an interview last week in a restaurant near her
      apartment here. "I don't believe in singling out particular people or
      destroying them in public, though I make my opinions known."

      Ms. Chang, 40, is a well-praised novelist and short-story writer
      herself. She will become director next January, with an annual salary
      of $115,500. She succeeds Frank Conroy, who died this month, and who
      during his 18 years as director made Iowa one of the nation's most
      prestigious training grounds for writers. Ms. Chang, now a Briggs-
      Copeland lecturer in creative writing at Harvard, was among four
      finalists for the job. She will be the first woman and the first
      Asian-American to hold the position, school officials say.

      Ms. Chang will teach a graduate fiction workshop, choose students for
      the fiction program (poetry students are chosen by the poetry
      faculty) and will consult on hiring, among other duties. The two-year
      program, which leads to a master's in fine arts, has no specific
      academic course requirements. The fiction workshop, which became a
      full-fledged program in 1936, receives 750 applications for 25
      places, and there are 450 poetry applications for 25 places. Tuition
      for out-of-state students is about $17,000 a year and for in-state
      students about $6,500 a year.

      One of her goals, Ms. Chang said, is to raise money from individuals
      and foundations to provide full tuition scholarship to all workshop
      students. Now some of them get aid through scholarships and teaching

      The novelist Marilynne Robinson, who was on the seven-member search
      committee said, "We felt we couldn't go wrong choosing any of the
      candidates." The others were Jim Shepard, Ben Marcus and Richard

      But she noted of Ms. Chang that "her career is on the upswing, which
      makes her a valuable presence as an active writer," and added: "She's
      very devoted to the program," where she studied in the early 1990's,
      and where she has been a visiting faculty member.

      James Alan McPherson, acting director of the workshop and another
      member of the search committee, said he expected no major changes in
      the program. "They have comparable sensibilities," he said of Mr.
      Conroy and Ms. Chang. Like Mr. Conroy, he said, Ms. Chang is
      comfortable with people from varying backgrounds. In Mr. Conroy's
      time, the workshop produced writers with as varied an aesthetic as T.
      C. Boyle, Jane Smiley and Allan Gurganus, all in the same class at
      Iowa in the 1970's, all taught by John Cheever, a writer with his own
      singular style.

      Mr. McPherson added: "She will be closer to the experience of young
      writers than I was or Frank was."

      He said the workshop expects from Ms. Chang, as it did from Mr.
      Conroy, "a sense of community, a commitment to develop students, and
      the encouragement of financial help."

      Ms. Chang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who left China in
      1949 and moved to Appleton, Wis. Her father, Nai-Lin Chang, is a
      retired professor of engineering affiliated with Lawrence University
      there; her mother, Helen Chung-Hung Hsiang, teaches piano. Ms. Chang,
      one of four sisters, graduated from Yale, where she was managing
      editor of The Yale Daily News. She was also an intern in a program at
      The New York Times aimed at minorities.

      After Yale, she went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
      to study public administration. "I thought I would get a job where I
      would have to wear pantyhose to work," she said.

      Then she began taking writing courses at the Cambridge Center for
      Adult Education and was accepted at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She
      studied with Ms. Robinson, Mr. McPherson and Mr. Conroy. Just as she
      was leaving, she learned that one of her short stories had been
      accepted by The Atlantic Monthly. It became part of her first
      collection, "Hunger," published in 1998.

      Ms. Chang said she was disappointed to learn that The Atlantic
      Monthly had recently announced it would cease publishing fiction
      regularly in its pages. "Our country is currently in sore need of
      fiction," she said. "Our country is hung up on what's quantifiable,
      on spreadsheets and cost-benefit analysis, the things I learned at
      the Kennedy School. Even the most honest economist says there are
      things that can't be explained by numbers."

      She has not turned her back, however, on what she learned about
      public administration at the Kennedy School. "I took two classes on
      leadership and authority," she said. "I found them fascinating."

      "I think I will use them," she added with a smile. In 2004 Ms. Chang
      married Robert Caputo, a landscape painter and art teacher, and
      published her first novel, "Inheritance," about two sisters, Junan
      and Yinan, in China during the turmoil of the 1930's and 40's who
      fall in love with the same man.

      The novel is narrated by Hong, Junan's daughter, who lives in New
      York in the 1990's. "My subject is time," Ms. Chang said. "The
      immigrant experience throws a powerful light on the way time affects
      us and our families," she added. "Moving to another country creates a
      gap between the generations, emphasizes the bridges and dislocations
      across and between the generations."

      Today, she said, "the publishing industry is focusing on writers as
      entertainment personalities," and for that reason, Iowa is especially
      valuable because it is "one of the few havens where a developing
      writer is given the opportunity to focus on work alone."

      Correction: April 19, 2005, Tuesday:

      An article in The Arts yesterday about the new director of the Iowa
      Writers' Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang, misidentified the workshop's
      director in the 1970's, when T. C. Boyle, Jane Smiley and Allan
      Gurganus were all in the same class. He was John Leggett; Frank
      Conroy arrived in 1987.

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