International Writing Program encounters change as pandemic carries on

The International Writing Program’s summer and fall programs face uncertainty and change amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While the summer programs have begun navigating virtual alternatives, the Fall Residency may have to postpone programming.



Madison Lotenschtein, Arts Editor

The International Writing Program has been forced to adapt to changes surrounding their summer and fall 2020 programs with the continued spread of COVID-19 across the world. The futures of the Summer Institute, Between the Lines, Fall Residency programs have all been impacted, whether it be through the adaptation to virtual programming, or facing uncertainties about when the programming — like the Fall Residency — will take place.

The Summer Institute

The Summer Institute is a creative writing and exchange program that hosts college age students from India, Pakistan, and the U.S. Usually taking place in-person over a two-week period, July 4-18, the program has now become a  pre-program that will act as a way to connect this year’s session to the full program that has been set for the summer of 2021.

Summer Institute Coordinator Peter Gerlach said that when talk arose of a possible two-week online alternative rather than in-person classes, the Summer Institute’s source of funding, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, decided against an exact virtual replica of the program.

According to Gerlach, the reason for this response is because of the border dividing India and Pakistan.

“So many Indians and Pakistanis don’t really know each other. It’s fair to say they don’t really talk to each other much at all, given the relationship between the two countries,” Gerlach said.

The coordinator said that past participants have given sentiments that reflect that coming to the U.S. is amazing, but also sad. In order to get to know each other and see one another’s similarities, the students had to travel to a different country. An online alternative could not mimic these in-person connections, Gerlach said.

Participants’ ability to connect to the internet has also become a primary concern. To solve this problem, International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill came up with the idea of a pre-program, an online program that is not viewed as an alternative, but will take the invited participants and act as a bridge to the summer of 2021. Then, the IWP will host two in-person programs, Gerlach added.

“If we selected individuals that, let’s say, live in more remote areas of the three countries, would they be able to access internet?” Gerlach said.

The online pre-program will be monthly, with a module on ICON each month holding a menu of pre-recorded lectures that cover the theme of the specific month, readings and reading discussions, and writing prompts program participants can choose from. Additionally, participants can connect with their writing mentors and small groups within the module. They will also be utilizing Facebook and Whatsapp.

“The goal would be that they do continue to engage and participate, but that there’s no requirements,” Gerlach said. “We’re moderating our expectations….[writers] will already have been selected, and so, they will know going into this pre-program that they will be invited to come here to Iowa City next summer.”

Between the Lines

Another program that has felt the blow of the COVID-19 pandemic is Between the Lines. This summer, the program will be divided into two parts: Between the Lines: Peace and the Writing Experience that will host high school students from 27 eligible countries around the world, and Between the Lines: Identity and Belonging, where 10 Muslim and 10 non-Muslim U.S. students will come together for a two-week creative writing and intercultural exchange.

Both programs were to take place in-person this summer, but the pandemic caused yet another virtual transformation. Heading the transition is Alisa Weinstein, the youth programs coordinator for the IWP.

“Chris Merrill, our director, early on said, ‘we can adapt creatively,’ and I found that really inspiring,” Weinstein said. “It really makes you think, ‘What is your program doing?’ and how to be as you translate that into this different, virtual environment.”

While molding a physical environment into a virtual one, Weinstein said that the Between the Lines programs have permission from the University of Iowa to offer a virtual program for minors, and are making sure that the environment is safe and inclusive for participants around the world.

The events for the young writers that would have happened in Iowa City are now going to take place on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. An open mic night hosted by the program will  happen on Facebook, and some live, synchronized sessions of workshopping will also be available. Weinstein also plans on using Zoom for workshop sessions.

Through a virtual window,  the participants can receive peer review and feedback from faculty who are alumni of the program, she said.

Even though participants won’t be staying on the UI’s campus like in years past, Weinstein said that the alumni faculty are still going to assign students roommates by using questionnaires.

“So, their relationship with that person is going to have that special quality,” she said. “We don’t want to have this self-guided online course, we still want to create an exchange, but virtually, and we want to build a community.”

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The Fall Residency

Usually at this time of year, Christopher Merrill, the IWP director is traveling the world to attend creative writing conferences, give readings, and teach workshops through an IWP program called Lines and Spaces. While abroad, Merrill also keeps an eye for  potential candidates to be a part of the IWP Fall Residency, a 12 week program where career writers come from countries all over the world to Iowa City to connect at the UI.

Due to uncertainties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of the Fall Residency to occur in its traditional form in the fall of 2020 remains unclear.

“At this point, we really don’t know how it’s going to go,” Merrill said. “We are hoping that we will have a person-to-person exchange.”

Merrill added that if the university remains online or if they are unable to secure visas for the writers in time, the IWP will postpone until Spring 2021, or if worse comes to worst, to the Fall of 2021. In the fall, Merrill said, the number of writers brought to campus will be doubled.

“If we have to postpone this fall session, we plan to engage the writers that are selected for the program in a series of virtual events, exchanges, writing assignments  or what have you,” he said. “[It] will be a way to keep the cohort together — at least virtually — until we can finally get to the campus.”

The Fall Residency is funded by the UI, the United States State Department, philanthropy, private individuals, and international agreements with foreign governments and their arts councils, he said. Selections, Merrill said, will be made for international writers who have been nominated to be in the program in a couple of weeks.

Writers and poets are nominated by U.S. Embassies and Consulates. From there, Merrill, his staff, and a group of outside readers select who is accepted into the residency, he said. There have been 88 nominations this year.

While reading the candidates’ work, Merrill said that they will be reading with the idea of a more virtual experience in mind that participants will have to engage with.

If the future does entail a virtual residency, Merrill said that asking the selected writers to participate in one would be complicated. He said there are no plans to turn the three month physical residency into a virtual residency of the same length.

“Part of the beauty of the residency is having the writers in conversation,” Merrill said. “Just walking down the hall, and seeing another writer — that can happen, to a certain extent, virtually, but these are all writers with big careers … That’s why we’re trying to figure out ways to use virtual tools to keep that engagement to a certain extent, but remaining mindful that they have their own lives to attend to.”

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