Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Listen Up, Student Applicants: Let’s Talk MFA in Creative Writing

It’s that time of year when students applying to graduate programs are putting together lists of schools and portfolios and asking for recommendations. U.S. professional culture now has full-blown Recommendation Mania but I’ll save the details of my critique of that for another time.

Over the last few weeks, there have been some extended and quite useful blog discussions of the problems and possibilities of the MFA in Creative Writing. I’m gathering a few relevant links here for people wanting to read more.

I hope especially that students in the process of applying for MFA’s will check out these discussions. And that includes all of you who have been stopping by my office to talk about graduate school applications.

A significant discussion of the political, social, and economic problems that MFA programs both suffer from and promote can be found at Rachel Zolf’s Tolerance Project blog. Both Rachel’s initial post and the many responses are all well worth considering in detail:

A discussion of an entirely different tone and topic, regarding MFA Program Rankings and their value and why the very idea of such rankings makes many writers purple-faced with rage, took place over at Elisa Gabbert’s blog:

And, partly in response to the conversation on Rachel Zolf’s blog, K. Lorraine Graham posts the following thoughts about her own MFA experiences and desires, and some of the contradictions and complexities she has found:

What follows in the rest of this post are some of my own thoughts on getting graduate degrees in creative writing. Take them or leave them, as you will.

There’s no doubt that MFA programs participate in, and benefit from, a situation in which there’s a lack of satisfying career options in the U.S. for people who are in the process of becoming writers or deciding whether to become writers. Too many people enter MFA programs because there isn’t anything else they can find worth doing while still trying to develop their writing. In some instances, I suppose, that’s caused by lack of imagination on the part of the person applying, but in many (and I would say probably most) others, it’s closer just to being a social fact of life in the U.S.A. One, by the way, that needs to change.

MFA programs also therefore participate in university exploitation of labor. An MFA may help someone become prepared to teach, but most of those teaching options are not great. Adjunct teaching at low wages and with no job security is not automatically or even usually a stepping stone to a successful career as a professor. It can be such a stepping stone (and beware professors who too smugly say “There are no jobs for professors” and appear to be taking pride in their own success at the impossible) but isn’t always or even often one.

It is worth noting that many people who get an MFA or even an academic Ph.D. and who don’t end up working in universities are not automatically doomed. In fact, many who take such a degree and then leave academic institutions for other careers (or work in those institutions at jobs other than teaching) do better, at least financially, than some people who continue working as teachers. Despite cliches about English majors, most people getting literary degrees are quite capable of surviving once they leave their academic programs. Imagine that.

In terms of actual academic jobs teaching creative writing, the less prestigious a university is, the more likely it is to require that professors of creative writing have an MFA or Ph.D. More prestigious universities (Ivy League universities, for instance, and some similar others) will more often hire writers simply for their achievement as writers, although that approach may be increasingly disappearing at all but the most elite U.S. institutions.

What that means is that at most U.S. universities, just being a publishing writer isn’t considered a good enough background for teaching creative writing. You have to have both the degree and publish. Many writers have been critical of this fact, and rightly so in most instances, since having an MFA doesn’t mean that someone is automatically going to move forward as a writer or that their writing is any good. Still, right now that’s how most U.S. universities and colleges operate.

This problem is also tied to the issue of how universities consider the importance of teaching and writing when it comes to being a professor. The less prestigious the school, the less likely its administrations are to really want to see its professors publish that much. That’s a sad fact. For instance, as several of my very helpful academic colleagues pointed out in letters they wrote supporting my application for tenure, the fact that I’ve published a lot didn’t actively hurt my ability to be a good creative writing professor. I’m not criticizing my colleagues in saying this; it was a good practical tactic. The point though is that too many administrators at too many institutions see publication as getting in the way of good teaching.

Students who enter an MFA program are probably best off when they know what MFA programs offer and what they can’t. Such programs give people a few years to read and write and learn and to have further chances to create a community of others who share their interests. They give people a professional credential that has some potential career and earning value, but by no means necessarily much. Therefore by no means do MFA programs necessarily solve the problem of anyone’s future work life, and of course most last only two years. They end fast.

The students who are especially best off in MFA programs are the ones who enter an MFA while either developing or already having developed other possible options for their future work lives. Remember the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” I myself worked as a professional journalist for many years, on and off, while getting my own academic degrees.

And remember, crucially, that getting an MFA degree doesn’t make anyone a writer. Only continuing to write will actually do that, and many people do that just as well without an MFA. And entering graduate school is not the only way to develop a connection to other writers or to become part of a community of them. Another approach is to move to a city where many writers already live and become part of the literary activities in that place.

One final irony here: having a developed social critique of MFA programs is helpful regarding knowing what you’re getting into, but is much less helpful than having other actual options.

I hope anyone with further thoughts or questions about MFAs will respond in the comments section.


rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

Great post! Someone recently opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of undergrads apply to grad school--any grad school--to delay having to pay back their giant student loans.

In many cases, you have to start paying down your undergrad debt 6 months after graduation unless you're back in school somewhere. As those debt loads climb, the attraction of taking on more debt against the future to avoid payments in the present gets harder to resist. Plus you get to write poems (or M.A. theses, or papers on books that interest you), and enjoy the social advantages of telling people you're in "grad school."

Not that this is the only reason for the increase in programs and applicants, but it's one I hadn't fully appreciated before.

Kate Durbin said...

Great post, Mark. As someone who was quite disenchanted with the whole MFA process (even though I got a book deal out of it, which is a rare benefit), I appreciate a nuanced approach to the whole MFA phenomenon. The pros and cons are certainly multifarious.

Also, as someone who now teaches as an adjunct 12 months a year, I also have been wondering about other job and career possibilities. What you say about the lack of these possibilities generally, and how that needs to change culturally, is so true. I feel that this is the next step for writers as a community, to really begin to actively consider and promote these sorts of job possibilities, even given the tough economic climate we exist in. It seems we too often allow ourselves to passively get caught up in the machinery of the institution, and allow ourselves to be exploited. I say this as someone who is guilty as charged. I think what you say about lacking imagination to consider new possibilities is also right--and as writers we should have that in abundance. It seems high time time we started using our imaginations to create other potential career and life paths and possibilities, and to do so communally, so that writers might thrive, instead of resigning themselves to an often semi-miserable half-life.

Matt Walker said...

What I wonder is why people are so intent on becoming professors. What's wrong with teaching K-12? It's a lot more valuable.

dbuuck said...

Essential reading on this topic: Mark Nowak's "Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry", in his _Workers of the Word, Unite & Fight_ :


K. Lorraine Graham said...

There's no perfect employment solution, with or without an MFA, clearly--I'm sure all of us can think of writers who work in a variety of fields. The trick is to find something that doesn't make you completely crazy, or where the craziness is tolerable most of the time. Having an MFA will, I think, have minimal impact on my job opportunities, though I guess I might get more adjunct work. I've spent most of my life developing a broad range of job skills, and that's served me pretty well--constant worry about employment means I'm usually employed.

Anonymous said...

Well, of course, we'd all love to work for 8 months, and then not at all for 4 months, and even those 8 months -- well, in some instances, if you're a crafty s.o.b., you don't work very hard at all.

Let me speak in the abstract about a former colleague of mine. Whose name shall go unmentioned. Taught a 3-3 or a 2-3 or a 3-2 or a 2-2 but never *more* than a 3-3. This workload, to this person, was "overwhelming." When, in fact, said colleague frequently canceled classes; gave everyone an "A"; and ran off after an office hour a week.

I mean, it's one thing to get an M.F.A., and bust your hump as an adjunct whilst doing other work, too, and break a sweat and make it -- or not -- as the case may be. But if you make it, you made it by busting ass. In fact, this former colleague should've gotten out there in the world and busted some ass. I don't think this person ever held a job *outside* academia; outside the MFA factory; outside the "overwhelming" institution of the Three-Three. Speaking of which, there should be a 0.33 gauge weapon out there and the rest of us should discharge it into the air, madly. Because, I mean, this person actively participates in moving asses -- i.e., other rich f*cks -- into the very type of position that this person occupies. To the exclusion of others who may have toiled at a second-tier MFA and hailed from a background that did not involve silver spoons and lace curtains.

As for me -- I've worked "professional" "responsible" positions (Int'l Econ for Arthur Andersen -- kar-rash; theatre arts for Arena Stage; editor in chief of science museum mag that I created; et cetera) and I've done farm work, tekkie stuff on Capitol Hill, toiled for F*ck Nouns, etc., and I don't hold any records, not even close. I've taught at three schools and two community orgs, including two years as VAP, Visiting Asst Prof. I haven't been a soldier and me piles itch me so.

MFAs? There ain't no harm in them. My own observation was that the rich kids didn't write much while they were there -- even if they scored deals through connections, but the scrappy kids did write, and some of them succeeded. More power to them. One rich kid in particular was discovered, I say "discovered", weeping in the [censored] Room, because she hadn't been able to write anything during the two years she'd been at the U. It's a rough world out there. And it's a world that doesn't owe you jack sh*t. Not a job. Not a magazine pub. Not a book deal. Not a hot piece of ass on a cold Siberian night. But this rich kid was flown by a relative to go sailing in a major sea. I mean, there's the MFA experience that involves a country club kind of thing and there's drinking 13 Molsons and being out of money.

Matt, Matt, Matt. Matt, Matt, Matt.


alana said...

Well, I think something that needs to be addressed in this argument is funding. I agree, it doesn't make sense to spend to into significant debt for the degree. As with a Ph.D in English, there's no guarantee of a job or book deal afterward. However, if you can get close to full or full funding at an MFA program, I don't see any reason not to do it. It gives a student interested in being a professional writer or professor of writing to take time to work on their craft and gain teaching experience.

Of course, this also depends on the program itself. Some writers dislike MFA programs for other reasons, such as thinking that the programs try to make writers conform to a particular style or standard. That may have some truth in it, but I don't think that's true everywhere.

Anyway, as someone applying to a few MFA programs for next year, I'm well aware of both sides of the coin. Of course you can always read and write no matter what you're doing, but if you have the opportunity to focus on those things for a few years and get a degree out of it, I don't see a problem.

Lemon Hound said...

"Well, of course, we'd all love to work for 8 months, and then not at all for 4 months, and even those 8 months -- well, in some instances, if you're a crafty s.o.b., you don't work very hard at all."

Clearly you have no idea what it's like to work in the academy.

What I have never figured out about MFAs is the assumption that someone coming out of an MFA would have anything to teach...

It's not like becoming a dental hygienist after all. How many people wanted to attend an MFA program to be taught by someone 8 months out of an MFA program?

MFAs are fine. The expectations around them are wacky.

Ridiculous Human Things said...

Thanks, Mark for collecting these links, creating this discussion and offering your own experience and understanding of a sticky issue. I have often felt so daunted by the to MFA or not to MFA question amidst the greater what the heck do I do for money and still write question, that I rarely get beyond daydreaming about it.

Also, Alana makes a good point about the possibility of fully funded MFA programs. Can anyone recommend programs that provide support for their students? I hear Long Island University in Brooklyn is one.

Maybe a giant list of OTHER jobs would be helpful too, to get everyone thinking outside the Academy box.