Uncategorized | September 09, 2011
We were warned: one more view on graduate programs
From the moment I declared myself an English major, representatives of the academy have been warning me that there would be no jobs in academia for me or my peers. The grad school advisor in my college’s English department presented us with the list of qualifications that we would need to possess in order to get into a viable graduate program—the most daunting to me as a college sophomore was mastery of both a modern and an ancient language. I concluded that he was right: I would not be a competitive candidate for doctoral study in literature, and if I couldn’t get into one of the programs he was describing, there was no way I’d be qualified for one of the very few jobs like his. After college I moped around for a few years as a secretary before realizing that, for a would-be writer like me, there was another kind of graduate school: the MFA. And I wept when I got the acceptance call, at work, months before I was expecting it. The woodland creatures who helped me with my office chores danced for joy. Like Cinderella, I was in!
For me, the MFA was an important period of development, during which I met people whose writing and reading tastes were very different from mine. I’d gone through a pretty traditional English program, encountering contemporary fiction only in the two fiction workshops offered at my school. I’d never heard of Cormac McCarthy, Ben Marcus, Lydia Davis—I’d never heard of lots of the people we studied and more-or-less imitated in those years. And I left my MFA program knowing very well that I wasn’t ready or qualified—or even interested—in teaching creative writing to someone else. That interest emerged gradually, after I returned to school, drawn back as much by the prospect of studying literature as by the prospect of taking more workshops. I learned how to teach in my PhD program and teaching felt like a far better fit with my temperament than had working as a secretary (see post-college years) or as a test-tutor (see post-MFA years). Put another way, my PhD program professionalized me in a way my previous degree programs had not.
Two of the most disconcerting experiences of my PhD years, however, were the campus visits I went on as a participant in my school’s preparing future faculty program. I was paired with creative writing professors at other institutions and I had the opportunity to meet with these individuals and learn about their jobs. Both had what I would consider good positions, with manageable teaching loads (I believe a 2/2, in both cases). Those assignments sounded less peachy when you factored in their advising loads. Both worked at programs with master’s-level degrees in creative writing and were working one-on-one with double-digit numbers of master’s thesis students—doing their best, I am sure, to meet those students’ needs, but almost certainly not providing the level of attention that a smaller or better-staffed program could afford. Neither of the programs I visited was able to fund all of its students, and those students with funding didn’t receive much of it. The students’ choices to attend these programs defied all advice I’ve ever heard about CW degrees. If you read that recent Poets & Writers feature about the MFA, perhaps you read the advice from program directors. Nearly every one of them cautions against going into debt for an MFA. There’s the practical side of the equation—you aren’t increasing your earning potential with this degree—and the symbolic side: with a couple of big-name exceptions, if a creative writing program can’t fund you, it’s either not well-funded itself or it doesn’t want you badly enough to offer you a good package.
That master’s programs are cash cows for their universities was no break-through for me on those campus visits: my own doctoral institution has responded to financial crises by cutting funding to some MA programs. But I was troubled by the ethical implications of becoming a faculty member in an under-funded graduate program. What expectations were students bringing to such programs? What were they doing with their degrees, afterward?
Of course no one can predict where a writer will go. But I know now, as an instructor in a graduate workshop at my own institution (which grants an MA in English), that many of the students in our program want to be college-level writing teachers and/or professional writers. And here is where I become personally conflicted. It was one thing to take this risk for myself. I did, after all, find a job. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be able to keep it; we’ll see what I manage to publish in the next five years. We’ll see whether this relationship of writing and professing makes sense, for me. But as someone who has found an academic job, however temporarily, I don’t really believe in the advice I was given, that this career can’t happen. And yet…facing my graduate students, I sometimes feel a tinge of the same panic I experience at the AWP conference: there’s no way everyone in the room will make it. Am I leading them to believe otherwise? How can there possibly be enough literary acclaim or teaching positions to go around? (But scarcity of resources is hardly news, in this epoch of overpopulation). It’s difficult to encourage students in their work while keeping them realistically informed about the state of the field.
So my issue with graduate degrees in creative writing is with the way they encourage students to limit our prospects, to want what we’ve seen other people get before us, however diminished a version we might wind up with. If we believe that taking workshops and/or studying literature are valuable experiences for a writer, then we ought not to believe that the only valid application of graduate study is in becoming a professor. And yet…I have a very difficult time imagining another day job than teaching for myself. When I do arrive at one that sounds appealing—librarian, docent, environmental scientist—it’s always the kind of thing that would require another degree, if not another personality. I would like to believe that this is a failure of my imagination, rather than a failure of possibility. There’s a poster in the hallway outside my department that offers some encouragement: What can you do with an English major? (Hopefully read, some wise guy has scrawled). But quite a few options are listed here, however far off some of them may be for the recent college graduate (e.g., “become a critic”). We need to work up a poster like this for the MFA (and PhD) crowd. As writers, we identify primarily as creative people—so why is it that we can’t create other career options for ourselves and our students?
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