How the MFA Glut Is a Disservice to Students, Teachers, and Writers
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[Editor’s note: the following post is by a former MFA instructor who did not wish to be identified.]
Recently, there was a bit of an internet dust-up over an essay at The Stranger by a former MFA instructor. In “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” Ryan Boudinot unleashed a scathing indictment of the creative writing MFA industry. Despite the furor over the piece, its illumination of the problems with the overproliferation of MFA programs — that there are too many programs with no standards, and that this is adding to the student debt crisis and fattening school’s coffers at the expense of students and teachers — is important, and worth examining further.
Without a doubt, Boudinot’s essay has its problems. It’s smug and occasionally tone-deaf, and a line about a student’s childhood abuse memoir, while clearly meant to be hyperbolic, was in poor taste. But the blunt quality of the piece unfortunately overshadowed some salient, hard-hitting real talk about the MFA industry, and the blowback attacked his more inflammatory remarks while neatly avoiding the substance of his essay.
The result was slew of similarly smug, moralizing blog posts, comments, Facebook threads, and tweets, where people wagged their fingers at Boudinot and lectured a whole lot of nonsense, including that all graduate-level teachers should encourage a love of reading in their students and be willing to teach them self-reflection and self-discipline, as if they were young children instead of people in a master’s program receiving the highest degree in their field. (Author Nick Mamatas rightly took one of these posts to task for its mealy-mouthed equivocating.)
You don’t need an MFA to write. Unlike practicing medicine or law, there is no degree whose successful completion stands between you and your craft. You can write to your heart’s content in private, sell short stories to magazines, publish a book, publish fifty books, all without an MFA.
So why are MFAs useful? Strictly speaking, there are two potential benefits that are unique to MFAs: having a (university) teaching credential, and having funded time to focus on your craft. The latter only applies to funded programs, of course, so when it comes to unfunded programs, the only real potential benefit is the ability to teach at the college level — which, given the glut of MFA graduates and the trend away from hiring tenure-track faculty, becomes a dicey proposition at best.
You’ll notice I didn’t include “getting feedback on your work” or “a writing community” in that list. That’s because these things are available many places outside of the MFA framework. You can join a writing group in your community or online, you can hire someone for a private consultation, you can have a writing buddy, you can attend local readings and literary events, you can take any number of workshops or seminars, go to writing festivals, and so on. I similarly did not include “having a credential” as a benefit, because having spoken to editors and agents about this issue, it’s clear that the surfeit of MFA programs has resulted in MFAs being completely worthless as a credential (with the exception of a few select top programs like Iowa, UT-Austin, and Michigan). The reasoning seems to be that if anyone can get one, what does it say if you have one? Not much.
People have been criticizing Boudinot for suggesting that talent is “born,” not made. His point, however blunted by his rhetoric, is fundamentally true: there are some for whom written expression and the gifts of narrative come naturally, and others for whom it does not. For some reason it has become taboo to suggest that people might not be able to do whatever it is they set their mind to. A diet of inspirational narratives in which all it takes is a dream and a montage to reach your loftiest ambitions has clouded common sense. We’ve managed to confuse the fact that a good writer could be anyone with the idea that anyone could be a good writer. (Hat-tip to Pixar’s Ratatouille for that profound lesson.) Case in point: I myself enjoy singing, and frequently fantasize about singing for large audiences (and in musicals, and in nightclubs — you get the idea). But even if I practiced for eight hours every day, there would be limitations to what I could ultimately do, because I simply don’t have the gift of song. Years of singing for pleasure has yielded some minor improvement in the quality of my voice, but that’s all. And there’s nothing wrong with this, no moral judgment attached to it. But if I wanted to be a professional singer more than anything in the world, I’d eventually have to come to terms with the fact that that would never happen. That would be painful, but that wouldn’t make it any less true. To say otherwise would be intellectually dishonest.
So who benefits from MFAs? People sneer about their function — “You can’t teach good writing!” is a refrain uttered often enough — but that’s not what they’re for, is it? They’re meant to take people with nuggets of potential — gifts that already exist, but need nurturing — and bring them into contact with talented writers and teachers, and other students who are roughly around their level, so that they might all potentially advance together, and learn from and alongside each other. (And if the program is funded, give them a bit of a break from the demands of full-time work so that they might refocus their energies.)
It is, of course, impossible to know who will be “the real deal” from an application, and even harder to guess who will be successful in the long run. (And what does success mean? Critical acclaim? Aesthetic longevity? Money?) There are writers who attend the most prestigious MFA programs who never write again. There are people without MFAs whose fiction will be taught for hundreds of years. There are people who have very comfortable, mid-level writing careers, some with MFAs, some without. There are people who shun the idea of writing as an art form, write commercial books, and become millionaires. There are people who do the same, self-publish their e-book, sell four copies, and never try again.
And admitting someone to an MFA program is never an exact science. In a way, you’re trying to gauge someone’s potential energy. Do they already have something going for their work, that they would they benefit from a focused, intensive program in which aesthetic questions are being asked, artistic goals are being set, and pointed critique is being offered? When reading applications, programs are looking for students who already have something going for their work. Maybe they write unnervingly unsettling worlds, or lucid prose, or masterful characterizations, or can weave a tight, juggernaut of a plot. (Or, ideally, can do many of these at once.) Whatever it is, it catches the reader’s attention. Anyone who has read magazine slush piles knows what it’s like to slog through writing with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever for hours until stumbling upon exciting and wonderful and real.
In an MFA program with standards — and by that I simply an MFA program that selects what it believes to be the best candidates from a pool of applicants — you end up with a group of writers who, for better or worse, rose to the top of that pool. When a program offers funding — that is, when the school believes enough in its program to provide tuition remission, and fellowships/TAships — the applicant pool increases and the quality of the resulting class will be, generally, higher. Even given aesthetic biases, variations in taste, etc., you end up with a class of writers of a certain potential caliber. In these programs, the gap between students with the lowest and highest potential energy is fairly narrow. Again, what they will do with their careers is unknown — everything from discipline to market forces to sheer dumb luck could affect the overall outcome of their writing lives — but they’re all on a similar playing field. This isn’t everything, of course, because program directors aren’t psychic and writers all levels of talent can be terrible workshop participants, but it is something.
But there’s another breed of MFA program out there, proliferating constantly. These programs have nearly 100% admittance rates, fund zero percent of their students, collect outrageously high tuition, and often pay their instructors very little. And because there are so many people (rightly or wrongly) clamoring for MFAs, they have no incentive for standards, either — no incentive to reject any person, no matter how badly they write. One person’s money is as green as the next, after all. If you’ve received an undergraduate degree and can type on a computer, you’re in.
That sentence requires careful observation, so I’ll write again, and expand on it a little: If you’ve received an undergraduate degree and can type on a computer, you can be admitted to a master’s degree program in creative writing with no other qualifications. Unlike, say, a terminal degree in physics, where a student would have to display not just adequacy in basic math but singular skills when it came to their particular subdiscipline of physics, an MFA applicant applying to one of these programs does not have to demonstrate any proficiency in their “field” beyond being able to put words onto a page. That this is a statement that can be written truthfully is astonishing, damning, and depressing.
In this scenario, a talented applicant who has been diligently improving her craft for a decade can be admitted alongside a person who doesn’t believe in negative feedback, has only read four books in his entire life, and doesn’t have a clear sense of how a comma works, how to write a character, or how a plot is constructed. (There is no shame in not knowing these things, of course, but there’s also a place where they shouldn’t be, and that’s the terminal degree in the field.) And so in these programs, the gap between the students with the lowest and highest potential energy is massive.
There are several problems with this setup. First, it makes teaching wildly difficult. How can an instructor, no matter how compassionate or gifted, have a unified conversation with the class about aesthetics or craft when there are students who can barely process or discuss the assigned texts or workshop stories?
As for the students who shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place: MFA programs are two years long, three at the most. If they enter below the standard of where a master’s student should be, the entire two years will be spent catching up to, at best, where they should have been when they entered — and then the program is over and they’re several years out of the job market, possibly in a hole of student debt, and sporting a functionally useless degree. And then what?
Last, if you’re a writer attending classes with a random mishmash of people who fall into the above category, some of whom refuse to read, others who are using the classes as a very expensive form of therapy, and so on, how useful will they be to you? When talented students get caught up in these programs — by accident, or because of its proximity to where they live, or any other reason — their time is cheapened and made infinitely harder by classmates who don’t have the wherewithal to provide valuable critique, or who is being taught by an underpaid teacher stretched thin by too many classes and too many energy-sucking students. And so that program has benefitted no one, except the university, which is making a tremendous amount of money. (There are almost three hundred MFA programs currently open in the US alone, with more cropping up all the time. Here’s your reason why.)
It seems unfair to excoriate people like Boudinot for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, when the problem should be traced back to its source: the schools who treat MFA programs like cash cows, admitting as many students as they can cram into their classrooms or foist onto their online instructors, with no consideration for the damage being done to the students who should be, and want to be, in an MFA program. These schools do a disservice to their students — both the prepared and unprepared — their instructors, and the academic standards they supposedly value. They should be ashamed of themselves and shuttered for fraud. The problem isn’t the MFA itself — it’s the overabundance of programs that act like for-profit online universities — taking advantage of desperate people who don’t know any better.
(This is not to say that there aren’t problems with privilege, institutional prejudices, and aesthetic biases in MFA programs. There are, absolutely. But you combat those biases with diversifying your faculty and application readers, and providing funding so students can afford to attend, not simply opening up more and more MFA programs until everyone who has the passing notion to be a professional writer can sign up.)
It’s true that in his essay, Boudinot seems to conflate “serious” reading with a specific kind of serious reading (people have pointed out that his worship-worthy suggestions are a very particular brand of white dude literature), but his point is still valid: part of being a writer is aggressively shaping your own canon. That canon can contain whatever you want it to, but you have to be willing to expand it, to receive suggestions, to read new work and offer more specific observations than “I didn’t like this” or “It confused me.” You have to open to reading whatever is handed to or suggested to you, and articulate how you think it succeeds or fails. That’s how you grow as a reader and writer.
And to suggest that instructors at the graduate school level should be required to coddle their students, beg them to read and do their assignments, and prod them into meeting deadlines is ludicrous. As someone who has previously taught at one of the latter types of MFA programs, I can say that they’re littered with students who can’t do the work and students who won’t do the work. And therein lies the source of Boudinot’s frustration, and the frustration of grad-level creative writing instructors everywhere, who need the employment but can’t speak up about these frustrations until the school is in their rearview mirror.
If you don’t like expanding your reading tastes (or reading, period), if you can’t meet deadlines, if you have no desire to receive feedback from other people, if you have no interest in improving your work, if you just want an echo chamber instead of a critique, if you aren’t interested in questions of craft, if you think writing is a get-rich-quick scheme and are looking to write the next [insert blockbuster here], if you can’t handle rejection or criticism, if you have no desire to revise, and if you’re not comfortable with the idea that some stuff you write will never see the light of day, then don’t get an MFA. You don’t belong there. (Also, all of these qualities will make being a writer very difficult.) It is a waste of your time and money, and the time of your instructor, and your classmates who have potential and who care about their classes.
Just because you can get an MFA, doesn’t mean you should.