"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Wednesday Dispatch

If the MFA program is a necessary evil, a necessary--broken--evil. If the MFA isn't even necessary but, rather, an ever-present evil that is not going away. If "poetry" and MFA continue to go hand-in-hand. If a poet without a degree in poetry. If a poet who is not professionally certified. If one can only get a teaching job with a book and a fancy degree. If I dropped out of an MFA program because it was not intellectually rigorous (but plenty racist and classist). If my foot hurts because I don't have insurance and can't see a doctor because I can't get a job with my MFA degree.

If so. If so. Is there a better "model" for an education in poetry? What to make of the workshop? I know Kasey M. has written/thought about these issues in a much more thorough and erudite fashion than I have, but I'd like to reopen the dialogue.

Recently a poet whom I respect, currently in a fairly conservative MFA program, said something like: a lot of MFA programs are diploma mills, but MY program has a long list of heavy hitter alums!

My question: does it matter who your poetry student graduates are? Does it matter how many books they have, how many endowed chairs they occupy, how "famous" they are? Does it matter....to poetry? Well, of course not. Is it a good idea to go to an MFA program to "get a job?" (Well, no. I mean, it's not like there is a slew of poetry teaching jobs out there. There are, however, far too many MFA grads working in bookstores and coffee shops.)

So why go? What's the alternative?


Jonathan said...

If it's a teaching credential, then it should lead to a job teaching writing. But there are not jobs in proportion to the number of programs.

It can't really be a credential in writing itself, because that assumes the academy is qualified to credentialize writing.

So writing itself might lead to a job teaching writing, for a lucky some, not the credential per se. The credential may be required too, but logically it is not necessary OR sufficient.

Or do we assume that teaching poetry writing is the only acceptable day job for a poet? Not only is this not desirable for poetry, but it's also unrealistic, since there can't be that many jobs without having many more programs, which would then produce many more graduates needing jobs, etc...

Ross White said...

Not a lot gets made of the thousands of students each year who pursue MFAs because they find the process of study rewarding.

Tony R said...

If one finds the process of study rewarding, one can study independently. By reading.

If one enjoys scholarship and study, one can pursue an MA or PhD in literature.

I'm not saying there aren't rigorous programs out there, but I don't know of many. And any program which requires the bulk of credit hours be spent in workshop undermines its credibility as far as intellectual rigor or "study" is concerned.

I'm not calling for a dismantling of the MFA but a reconsideration of what it can, should, or may be.

Reginald Shepherd said...


I came across this blog through a link on C. Dale Young's blog.

First, I'd like to thank you for linking to my blog. I appreciate that you find it worthy of directing others toward.

Second, I'd like to put in my two or three cents about MFA programs. I have two MFA degrees, and frankly, I got them because I was tired of doing data entry and other menial labor for not much money. I wanted to have more time to devote to reading and writing, and to be in a context in which those things weren't ignored at best and disdained at worst.

While an MFA or a PhD is for the most part necessary to get a teaching position, the vast majority of MFA graduates don’t get such jobs (and the teaching jobs they get are in general poorly paid adjunct jobs with no security and no benefits--I've done that too). It's not a practical degree, and no one should pay or put themselves in a lot of debt to get an MFA. But in general MFA programs have fairly good financial aid, usually in the form of teaching assistantships.

Despite the reasonable doubts you express, I still think that MFA programs are in general a good thing. Mine gave me several years to focus on reading and writing, during which I didn't have to worry about looking for or working at a job. Particularly at Iowa (I had a pretty bad time in Brown’s MFA program), I also met several fellow students with whom I clicked as people and as poets, many of whom are still among my closest friends. Having felt very isolated as a writer for much of my life, especially during the several years I was out of school before finishing my BA, that was very important to me. It’s also very valuable to get outside perspectives on one’s work, even if one doesn’t agree with all of them, as one never will.

If one goes to an MFA program without any illusions about what it will do for one professionally or practically, and if one doesn't pay through the nose or put oneself in debt to do it, it can be a very rewarding experience. Whatever one does afterward, one will still have had time to focus on what one wants to do, which is a rare opportunity in our society. Sure, one can read and write on one's own. But I know from my own experience how draining and demoralizing most nine-to-five jobs are, and how hard it is to gather up one's resources when one gets home at night to do anything mentally substantial. (There's a reason that Adam and Eve's punishment was to labor by the sweat of their brows.) It's hard to find the time and energy to study while making a living doing something else.

Most MFA programs aren't intellectually rigorous (that's why I went to a PhD program before doing my first MFA), though some are surprisingly so. But if you want to read and think about literature for its own sake, not as a social symptom or an illustration of a theory (and I write this as someone who has found "theory" very useful to my development as a writer), a PhD program is not the way to go (that's why I dropped out of that program, and of two subsequent ones). A PhD is a professional degree, and love of literature is an impediment to professionalization--a fellow student at Harvard told me that it's something one outgrows. And though they make one jump through many hoops (some of them on fire), PhD programs are not necessarily _intellectually_ rigorous.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic. I just wanted to share mine.

Take good care.

all best,

Reginald Shepherd

Jonathan said...

I've always wondered about that. Does Iowa make a practice of giving out MFA's to people who already have the MFA? So to get into Iowa you are competing with people who've trained already at the grad level? Iowa is like the icing on the cake degree? You wouldn't get a PhD at Iowa, and then get another PhD at Princeton in the same field. It seems a bit odd.

(No criticism of Reginald is implied in this question, of course.)

csperez said...

hey tony,

i agree with most of what you say. i think i was just lucky with my MFA. i attended the univ. of san francisco and they have a wonderful program that fosters both creative experimentation and critical rigor. i went to the MFA program yes to learn but also because i want to teach at the college level, and fortunately, i was offered a teaching gig right after i finished...in the bay area of all impossible places and without a book. so it may be a necessary evil, but it may also be a possible good.

on another note, i found that my best teachers were those with grad degrees. those who had books and no degree were great writers but lousy teachers.


Steven D. Schroeder said...

It's funny: I come at this from almost the opposite professional/education direction as Reginald, but what I would say is nearly the same.

I have no MFA or other graduate degree, just a BA in English (Creative Writing), and I've managed to work myself into a relatively well paying and flexible-schedule day job. I won't ever go for an MFA degree unless it's fully funded, especially since I've carved out a pretty good niche for myself as an editor and poet. The first thing I would want from an MFA program would be a community of writers a little more closely connected than the writing communities I associate with, both for writing and social reasons.

I know too many Iowa MFAs (some of them astounding poets) who can't sniff a tenure-track job (or even a teaching job). Insert whatever high-quality/prestigious/heavy-hitter program you want for Iowa.

Laurel said...

why go?

well, for some people it seems to be a ton of fun!

Jessie Carty said...

Laurel, I love your comment, btw :)

I decided on an MFA because I was interested in teaching but mostly because I finally wanted to dedicate myself to my writing and the MFA just felt like the right fit.

It isn't for everyone. I have friends who guage their success as writers in many different ways (online publication, personal satisfaction etc) and would never think of going to graduate school or getting a "job" that had anything to do w/ their writing.

To each their own, which is so cliche but here I think very true.
What I get more frustrated by is why some schools do not think you are qualified to teach Lit if you have an MFA instead of an MA, what is w/ that?

Tony R said...

Hi Jessie,

Because many MFA programs are run on a "studio model," I think that it's quite possible to produce graduates in these programs who *aren't* qualified to teach literature.

The program I briefly attended had very little to do with reading or analyzing literature. I remember taking one supposed lit class that was mostly theory (I know, I know..but still) and a few seminars about things like linebreaks. The rest was workshop.

So had I graduated that program, I'm not sure I'd be qualified to teach lit. So I went the other route, and got degrees in lit.

Jessie Carty said...

Hey Tony R,

I can see your point on that, but it does frustrate me. My undergrad was in English Lit and I feel like I would be qualified to teach Lit as well, but I can see--from what you are saying--the schools think.

As if anyone would "choose" to go into academics, especially in English where the market is so flooded. I think it has to choose you. Or at least it did me!

Anonymous said...

I left a PhD for the reason Reginald Shepherd states: I loved literature, and theory, much as I too find it useful--and hell I read Heidegger for fun, I'm a masochist--killed my love of literature. I rediscovered it this summer. It was in hiding for a long time. Then I left the MFA I was in because I am not a kiss ass, I hate kiss asses, I was born of hippy parents, I really believed in post punk and a little in grunge, and I do not like "networking," and the professionalisation and regulation of everything in this world--this world--not WritingWorld only--has been the death of it. Standards, yes, everyone believes in standards. But Neitzsche didn't get that corpse on his back but having lunch with the right professors and editors.