by EMILY HEMPHILL
The retirement of English and creative writing Professor Warren Rochelle at the end of spring 2020 has left a void in the English department, particularly in the creative writing program, professors say. The university administration has indicated that his position will not be filled in the near future, according to department chair and professor of English Gary Richards.
“It’s been somewhat challenging for us as a team of three faculty members to even coordinate how we’re going to teach our courses each semester,” said Assistant Professor of English Ray Levy, a member of the creative writing faculty. “We need to offer a certain schedule of courses so that the majors can graduate, but it’s hard to be able to offer them.”
Out of the 187 English majors at UMW, 80 students are involved in the creative writing program, according to Levy. This means that the three creative writing faculty members are responsible for offering all of the classes these 80 students need to graduate. Each of these instructors specializes in one of the three main subjects of creative writing: fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
“With Dr. Rochelle’s retirement, we lost some of the flexibility that we had in being able to offer a variety of creative writing courses,” said Associate Professor of English Colin Rafferty, whose area of expertise is in creative nonfiction writing.
To ensure that students have all the necessary classes to graduate on time, several sections of Intro. to Creative Writing, various mid-level genre courses and senior seminars must be on the schedule for every semester.
In the past, professors had the ability to develop new classes such as a creative writing topics course. Under this category, Rochelle created a popular Fantasy and Science Fiction class, Rafferty taught a Travel Writing section and Levy attracted many students with Fan Fiction lessons. Now, due to the program’s reduced staff, students are no longer able to take these special, upper-level electives.
“It makes me feel like there isn’t a lot of investment in the future of the creative writing program,” said Levy. “But I’m mostly confused because if the creative writing program is pulling in 43% of the majors, why wouldn’t you make sure that that arm of the program is staffed well? You wouldn’t want such a popular program comparatively to wither so to speak.”
“It’s demoralizing,” Levy continued. “It’s always depressing when the horizon shrinks. I think people’s morale at work and mental health improves when it looks like things are growing instead of dwindling.”
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Keith Mellinger explained that the university’s decision to not hire a replacement for Rochelle was based on a “careful analysis about the best use of those resources that are freed up.” In this case, the administration has determined that three creative writing faculty members are sufficient to continue running the program.
“If the time comes when our creative writing classes are filling and we are unable to accommodate student demand, we would certainly reevaluate the situation and consider a new hire,” Mellinger said. “Right now, that is not necessary.”
While the three professors have successfully managed to support the program and its students in the past two years, Rafferty said an additional person would be greatly appreciated for the different perspectives and writing styles they would bring to expand the knowledge of the students.
“The more opportunities we have to give students another viewpoint on what writing can be, the more diverse our offerings can be,” he said.
Another concern with only having just enough instructors is not having someone to cover another’s workload if they need to take time off.
“We don’t have the staff to make up for any absences,” Levy said. “If one of us had to be out of work for a medical thing, it becomes harder to run the curriculum if you’re running on the minimum amount of professors.”
While Rochelle’s retirement was a loss to the English department and creative writing program in terms of class offerings and professor workloads, he contributed more than just academics to the students. During his two decades spent teaching at the university, Rochelle frequently led study abroad trips to England and Wales, volunteered to lead various committees and hosted speaking events, all while working on short stories, articles, books and reviews. He has published a book that studies the works of famous science fiction author Ursula Le Guin, as well as four novels, one of which was nominated for a 2010 Lambda Literary Award.
Rochelle’s writing contained elements of science fiction while also reshaping mythical tales from a plethora of cultures, such as Cherokee and Celtic, to include queer characters and evolving sexualities.
“His fiction tends to focus on minority representation, particularly for gay men, or more broadly LGBTQ+ characters in general,” said Richards. “To have a gay faculty member doing that kind of representation to leave, I think that was a real loss for our students to see somebody doing creative work and minority representation.”
Rafferty, whose office was adjacent to Rochelle’s for many years, fondly recalled his generosity and kindness toward students who often came to him for more than just academic advice.
“I heard him conference with students in an incredibly patient manner and steadily working through story ideas and novel structures,” Rafferty said. “He was also great at working with students who were figuring out who they were. I heard him talking with so many students who had just come out to their family about their sexual orientation or gender identity. He was always a person who was generally optimistic about what could be done.”
Though Rochelle’s retirement was a loss to some in the program, the creative writing department is still managing to operate.
“We seem to be moving forward and succeeding, even if it’s just slightly more exhausting,” said Levy.