The MFA is Not a Calling Card: The Low-Residency View
July 11, 2016 § 10 Comments
A guest post from Kevin Haworth:
Like other Brevity blog readers, I have been following the thread of conversation this week started by Emily Smith and continued by Dinty W. Moore. As the director of a low-residency MFA program, I have my own investment in this conversation, and a desire to see my students’ experiences represented. And while each of these writers makes salient points about the challenges of an MFA education, both essays fail to speak to the hundreds of low-residency students currently working toward their MFAs with high hopes and great dedication.
Emily Smith contends that “the MFA is a literary calling card, a title not unlike Vanderbilt or Kennedy that can often buy entry into the otherwise classist structure of the literary world.” For low-residency students, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Low-residency students have long had to grapple with the lower cachet that comes with their MFA—something many successful low-residency programs are working against—compared to the star programs of the MFA world. Certainly few low-residency students have ever brandished their MFA and, by virtue of the degree itself, received immediate admittance to wealthy publishing deals or endowed chairs from the gatekeepers that Smith imagines.
And yet each year students pursue low-residency MFA degrees, with the full knowledge that their MFA is not, by itself, a calling card. One reason is that, in some ways, low-residency programs are more responsive to the kinds of populations that need greater representation in the MFA world. Smith talks about the financial burden of application fees; some low-res programs (my program is one example) require no application fees whatsoever. And the fundamental model of a low-residency program is much friendlier to non-traditional students or others who are facing challenges that might make traditional schooling impossible. For older students with lives they can’t uproot, people with full-time jobs they can’t afford to leave, people with medical issues that need regular attention, just to cite a few examples, low-residency programs are the way into an otherwise closed MFA world. Smith suggests, rightly, that many MFA programs represent a level of privilege that not everyone can access. But this is why low-residency programs were created—to provide access for those who, for many different reasons, are not in a position to join a full-time program. By not acknowledging the existence of low-residency programs—for her, MFA seems to mean only full-residency programs—she is erasing many of the same students she is trying to champion.
Rather than a calling card, low-residency students are looking for opportunity. Moore is right in that the days—if they ever existed—in which an MFA was the golden ticket to tenure-track employment and a nice book deal are over. But low-residency students have always known that. Low-residency students who seek those things have always known that their writing and other professional experiences, not their degree alone, will get them there. In recent years, alumni of my program have published, just as examples, a book of poems with an independent, esteemed poetry press; a memoir with a university press; and a series of historical novels with the genre imprint of a large publisher. In this, they are like the overwhelming majority of writers, MFA or not, who publish their books outside the extremely limited world of New York book deals.
I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture of the MFA world, low-residency or otherwise. Money is an issue regardless of program. Fundamentally, I agree with Moore that going into deep debt for an MFA program is a problematic equation, simply because it is unlikely that the degree alone—or even the book that might result from it—will earn back that debt. And Moore is right, as he notes at the bottom of his essay, that the low-residency program can represent a very different set of financial concerns. Still, even working full-time jobs, some of my students have to go into debt in pursuit of their degrees. They do so with full knowledge and with an understanding (unlike some full-residency students, I would argue) that writing or teaching is unlikely to fully support them post-degree. But the situation is still problematic. MFA programs should not be contributors to the national crisis around student debt.
There is, however, one area where Dinty and I may disagree. (Full disclosure: he and I edited a book together, but that won’t stop me from arguing with him here.) I don’t think full funding, regardless of program, is the holy grail of making an MFA worth it. That’s because full funding often comes with heavy strings attached. There are a few MFA programs that offer full funding in the form of fellowships, with no work obligations. Those are marvelous and rare. But for the vast majority of MFA programs, “full funding” means “full teaching”—a teaching load equivalent to most tenure-track faculty, at basement wages. And while tuition may be waived, there are typically still student fees, health insurance costs and other semi-hidden expenses. Thus, at many programs, fully funded students still need to go into debt, because the stipends are just too low to make ends meet. (More disclosure: I was fully funded at an excellent MFA program, for which I am grateful. But I had to work as a freelance writer for the entire three years, in addition to my teaching load, to avoid debt.) And if you take ill, or have to drop out of full-time schooling because of any life emergency, you will likely lose your tuition waiver, your job, and your health insurance all at once. Again, I’m not trying to bash fully-funded teaching assistantships—I benefited from one, as have many writers—but Emily Smith seems to suggest that if she had been fully funded to attend Emerson’s program, all her financial questions would have been answered. I don’t think that’s so.
The MFA is not, and never has been, a calling card. And no one funding model is the answer to the deep and persistent questions around money that dog MFA programs. Access, affordability, and post-MFA opportunity are all areas on which programs need to focus more. I believe that most MFA programs, full-res and low-res both, do a great job teaching creative writing to the students who make it into our classrooms. The cliché of MFA programs is that “it’s all about the writing.” But as directors, we need to attend to more than student writing. We need to understand our students’ worries about money and career, and recognize that each individual student’s financial situation, and their professional goals, are as unique as their writing voice.
Kevin Haworth is a 2016 NEA Fellow in Nonfiction and the director of the Carlow international low-residency MFA program. His most recent book is Famous Drownings in Literary History: Essays on 21st Century Jewishness.