Fiction Writers at Lunch delayed

By HermineBloom

For the first time in 11 years, posters advertising Columbia’s Fiction Writers at Lunch program weren’t plastered on the walls of the 12th floor of the South Campus Building, 624 S. Michigan Ave.

This summer, the newly appointed committee behind the First Year Experience Initiative denied the program mini-grant funding, claiming the luncheon did not exclusively cater to

new students.

But despite the funding loss, Fiction Writing Department Chair Randy Albers and the program’s faculty coordinator and adjunct faculty member Tom Popp will host approximately six Fiction Writers at Lunch events this semester. They view the program as one of high priority to the department, which has the highest freshman retention rate in the college—75 percent as of the 2007–2008 academic year, according to Albers.

“They’re defining this grant a little narrowly,” Albers said. “I think they wanted programs for first-year students. Our program is designed to integrate first- year students into the whole community, so we also have upper-level students coming.”

One of the longest standing mini-grant programs, Fiction Writers at Lunch has received an increase in grant money every year for the past 10 years until 2010, according to Popp.

Traditionally, the program has invited students to read their work in front of an audience of their peers, faculty members and, on occasion, esteemed authors or publishers while eating lunch. Aleksandar Hemon, author of “The Lazarus Project,” which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, was the visiting teacher for the department last semester. He participated in the program as well, as reported by The Chronicle on Feb. 15.

The First Year Experience Initiative’s committee recruited academic and student affair professionals throughout the college to review grant proposals

“[It’s] an excellent idea, and it’s very much needed to support students in their first year experience,” Popp said. “So, to foster a sense of community is very important. It has a mission that mirrors Fiction Writers at Lunch’s mission very much.”

However, because its grant proposal lacked enough qualitative and quantitative data to support its retention goals, Fiction Writers at Lunch was not awarded a mini-grant.

In order to keep the program afloat, Albers will use money from the budget he wasn’t planning on using, as well as a $1,500 anonymous donation from an upperclassman in the Fiction Writing Department. Fiction Writers at Lunch will not suffer this year, he said. It’s been merely delayed.

Still, Popp thinks the committee’s decision was made too hastily, as none of the committee members had been to an event.

“I think if they had been, the decision probably would have been different,” Popp said.

The majority of students who attend Fiction Writers at Lunch fill out surveys, which served as the committee’s qualitative data.

“They said it heightened their sense of audience, and it was very inspiring to hear other students read and sit down with faculty members as faculty and fellow writers,” Popp said.

Quantitative data, however, was harder to come by because Fiction Writers at Lunch is a mentoring program at heart.

“We welcome students and faculty from across the campus,” Popp said. “There are going to be students who are sophomores, juniors and seniors. If sophomores had such a great time and felt so welcome during their freshman year, we can’t really cut them off at their sophomore year.”

Fiction writing major Behnam Riahi, 24, said his experience at Fiction Writers at Lunch was the sole reason he decided to participate in local literary readings as well as travel out of state for readings, in places such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

“Because of Fiction Writers at Lunch, I got to gauge how my audience would respond to my writing,” Riahi said, who first attended the program as a freshman. “Over time, I started learning how to write pieces that would move audiences instead of [writing] pieces that seemed like they’d be moving to me.”

For faculty and students involved, Fiction Writers at Lunch is considered a timeless tradition, Popp said.