Notes for a talk on the MFA from last semester that I keep meaning to rewrite and not doing so I am now just posting here without rewriting them...
The MFA in creative writing is a degree that is often hated on. By writers—who often talk about how no one can teach writing and complain about how the degree supports bad writing. And by scholars—who often see it as a flimsy degree. Some of this emotion around the MFA is just that it is a degree that has had a huge amount of growth in the last 10 years and so it is a bit of a wild west scene and the academy is a very conservative institution that is very hesitant about anything new. And some of this emotion I think comes because the MFA in creative writing has had to define itself in dialogue, even if this dialogue is often one of resistance, with PhD programs, the favored child of English Departments. And some of this emotion is legitimate complaint. There has yet to be much thinking about what MFA programs can do and what they should not do (despite there being endless talk about what they cannot do, like make a bad writer into a good writer).
These are notes. But I have sorted them into two categories: some things that are often said about the MFA that I do not think are necessarily true and some things that are often said about the MFA that risk being true.
Some things that are often said about the MFA that I do not think are necessarily true.
Getting 12 people sitting around a table talking about a piece of writing one of the people at the table has written is not going to destroy literature as we have known it. (And I don’t think it could even if it wanted to.)
It does not have to produce writing that sounds identical. (Although it can.)
It does not have to produce apolitical writing that perpetuates the values of 20th and 21st century expansionary capitalism. (Although, again, it can.)
Further, I do not think it is completely suspect to have a degree where humans enter into a university and in their classes get their own work discussed instead of discussing the work of others.
I say this even as I believe that a better way to talk about writing would be to do it for outside of the universities, perhaps during the dinner hour under the bad fluorescent lighting of public libraries or later under the soft and muted lighting of bars (and I also think the quality of the talk might be better if the people one is talking with are gathered together for reasons other than agreeing to enroll in the university during some specific year).
And I say this even as I believe that there has been not much thought about what can go on in that discussion of the work by the people in the room.
And also, I do not think that students who enter MFA programs are dupes. I think they made a series of complicated—and by complicated I do not necessarily mean wise—choices about how to spend their money. As I myself did when I decided to get a PhD, a degree that is often seen as less of a scam but has its own equally complicated entanglements with the for pay university system. I was, stealing a term from Spivak, clearly “credit baited” by the US government with its student loan program when I took out loans to finance both my undergraduate and my graduate degrees (loans I still pay and that relentlessly prevent me from having any meaningful slacker lifestyle fantasies). I’m not sure it was the smartest decision I’ve made but I did make it realizing the consequences of it. And I also realized that it was not required. I would not die, in other words, if I did not get a college degree of any sort, much less a graduate degree (and in the case of the PhD, I even realized at the time all the studies that showed that PhDs tend to have a negative impact on earning).
And similarly, I do not think the primary purpose of the MFA is to train teachers so I do not think that the fact that most MFAs will not get academic jobs is a failing of the degree. While I know of a few programs that do things like offer a teaching certificate or some such thing, most programs are not so delusional as to claim that job training and its accompanying placement in tenure line jobs is anything they can claim as a mission.
I also think that there are some reasons that going to get an MFA makes sense. Mainly that it takes one out of the 40-60 hour work week for a few years and during these years one gets to read some really good books. It might be the only way to get the US government to loan one money to take some years off to read (or if one is lucky enough to have family with some financial fluency, to get them to give money).
Some things that are often said about the MFA that I think risk being true.
One is that the MFA plays an unfortunately major role in the casualization of academic labor that is on the brink of collapsing the entire system.
There are two different ways that the MFA does this. One is that the growth in the MFA industry has paralleled the growth in the hiring of casual labor to teach classes in the academy. As such MFAs tend to have an unusually large amount of casual labor. This semester, the MFA at the small liberal arts college where I teach offered 12 classes specific to the MFA only. Of these, 8 were taught by people who were casual. (Or 66 %.)
The other is that the bottom tier of academic labor, the intro to writing and composition classes at community colleges, are dependent on MFAs to maintain their casual hiring practices. And if the MFA did not exist, or was not considered a qualifying degree for this sort of teaching, my guess is that it would be much more difficult for universities to continue to hire the large numbers of people that they need for these courses. The system requires a constant replenishing stock of people willing to work for a few years for next to nothing.
It is worth noting though that there is one area where the MFA tends not to contribute to the casualization of academic labor: colleges and universities tend not to give MFA students TA lines in the same way that they give PhD students TA lines.
And in way of an avoidant conclusion…
So, here is how I manage to sleep at night, I see the MFA as a degree that at its best is modest: people read some books and write some things and talk about then. And at its worst: people read some books and write some things and talk about them and they take out some loans to do this and then they do some short term and individualist thinking where they take a low paying job that wreck their chances for getting a higher paying job and are too overworked to organize themselves into a union and demand a living wage. If I thought that if the MFA didn’t exist, the university wouldn’t create some other way to underpay its workers, I would be advocating for its demise. If I thought there was a degree in the university system that encouraged casual workers to organize and demand a living wage, I would be advocating for the MFAs demise. But I don’t have much hope on those two things. So I make my peace with it.
But I also think that the things that might be most interesting about what it means to get 12 people around a room to talk about things tend not to happen in how we currently envision the MFA. I was reading an article by Breyten Breytenbach in a recent issue of Harpers about South Africa this week. In it he was talking about returning to an arts center in South Africa and he wrote about how he believed that “a venue where readings and discussions take place regularly will become imbued with the patina, the sacred spirit, of creativeness. People come together over the years to propose and to explore writing, and to debate the underlying assumptions. What brings them together is a shared passion for exploring the ways these concepts may affect the social environment in which we live.” And as I read this I thought about how hard I would find this to say about any MFA and yet how much I wish I could say it. And this is where I want to not conclude this talk and encourage conversation. The MFA in creative writing has so much possibility for being something. It is a degree that could be a place for all that utopian thinking about arts and activism and community. It could be a place that encourages people to do the difficult and atypical thinking that can sometimes happen in literature and nowhere else. And yet it more or less refuses to be that degree. Why is that? Why do we let it be so mundane?