The MFA as Rampant Careerism
August 10, 2016 § 13 Comments
Matthew Schmeer adds his voice to the “Of What Use is the MFA?” discussion:
Let me tell you my story.
I wanted an MFA and I wanted to teach.
I had been stuck in a technical writing/project management office job
I hated after dropping out of college. My wife (wise woman that she is) encouraged me to go back to school, finish my BA, and apply to graduate schools. She agreed to keep her secretarial job until I graduated and landed a teaching position.
So I quit and went back to school. But not without doing my homework first.
Before applying to graduate schools in 1998, I did my homework. I
looked at positions advertised in The MLA Joblist, The Chronicle of
Higher Education, and The Writer’s Chronicle and realized that getting
a tenure track teaching position to teach poetry with was nigh
impossible unless you were 1) brilliant and 2) able to produce
prodigious amounts of publishable work. I was neither. But dammit, I
wanted to write and I wanted to teach.
So I diversified.
When I was accepted to my program, I didn’t restrict myself to
creative writing courses. Half my load was Rhetoric & Composition,
with a sprinkling of theory courses. My plan was to pitch myself as
the Swiss Army Knife of teachers, able to teach any kind of writing.
The semester I started my MFA, my program founded its literary
journal, Natural Bridge. I pitched myself as the perfect person to
manage the journal, drawing on my project supervision background and
five years of publishing a small online journal (Poetry Ink, which
later morphed into Poetry Midwest). I was hired as the first Managing
Editor when I demoed a submission tracking database I clobbered
together in Microsoft Access. This turned into an hourly paid position
during my time in the program.
Yes, I TA’ed for a semester (funding was cut for further TA support)
and found I loved teaching Composition. But I also started networking.
One of my fellow students managed the campus Writing Center and
brought me in as a tutor. I found I liked helping beginning writers
with their writing problems.
Another student in the program ran the Writing Center at a local urban
community college and she hired me as an adjunct instructor. I
discovered that community college students are sometimes brighter and
more driven than their university counterparts.
Another student owned an ACT/SAT prep consultancy and she hired me as
a tutor. I found out I loved working one-on-one with students and that
standardized tests are no true measure of a person’s intelligence and
I took courses with Mary Troy and Howard Schwartz and Donald Finkel
and Steven Schreiner and learned how to be a compassionate but
Also: I pissed off Richard Howard (he YELLED at me!) at a translation
symposium that our program sponsored, and found I liked being a
In workshops, I learned to tear work apart and point out what was
wrong. In my classes and in tutoring sessions and in my mentoring
sessions with my professors, I learned to foster the risky impulse to
create and share.
And I wrote, of course. Oh god did I write. And submitted to journals.
And applied for jobs. I decided that if I was ever going to get a
teaching position with any security, it would be at a small school or
a community college. The semester before I graduated, I sent out over
300 job application packets. My mailing budget was sometimes equal to
our food budget.
And I had a stack of “thank you for applying but ick, no” rejection
letters, from both journals and human resources departments.
So I adjuncted at two community colleges, worked in writing centers,
and kept doing ACT/SAT prep. And kept applying to jobs.
And eventually I was a hired on a full-time temporary basis at a small
southern state school and two years later landed my current position,
where I have been for almost 15 years. Rumor has it my application
packet was pulled from the reject pile after the hiring committee was
dissatisfied with their initial round of interviews. I am told they
regret the decision, but it is too late now; I recently made full
Of course, this is not to say I didn’t have obvious advantages. I am a
cisgendered white male and benefit from all the trappings of privilege
that comes with this social identity. I was able to get through my
program without taking out student loans because my life partner
supported us working full-time during the day while I stayed home with
the kids and attended classes and worked at night. I was technically
an employee of the university and qualified for a slight tuition
remission. We also had a modicum of support from my father-in-law, who
didn’t want to see his grandchildren starve. So no, I didn’t go it
alone. I had a strong social network of support.
And I truly love teaching at a community college. Yes, I teach
primarily composition and read a lot of truly terrible writing and I
am overloaded with committee work. But I get to be the first college
writing teacher for most of my students, and that is an awesome
responsibility. I have 16-year-old homeschooled kids sitting next to
laid-off welders seeking job training sitting next to sixty-year-old
grandmothers going back to school sitting next to recent immigrants
from Sudan sitting next to single mothers from the inner city sitting
next to rich white kids from one of the wealthiest counties in the
nation and I get to show them the basic, basic ropes of academic
writing. It is hard. But it is so worthwhile.
And yes, I teach creative writing. And technical writing. And my
favorite class, writing for video games (who would have thought that
all those hours playing Legend of Zelda and DMing D&D would have laid
the foundation for teaching non-linear interactive narratives?).
And yes, I still find time to write and to publish (albeit not in
areas generally considered “literary” in any regard).
And this would not have been possible if all I did during graduate
school was singularly focus on my craft.
I tell you all this because it IS possible to get an MFA and secure a
teaching job. You have to make the most of your time in your program
not to just write, but to make connections. Not publishing
connections, but job connections. You have to work your ass off to
learn not just to write, but to teach and nurture and respond. If you
choose to pursue an MFA, begin laying the groundwork for what comes
after the MFA even before you take your first workshop. Become a Swiss
Army Knife, and your blades will never be dull.
Matthew Schmeer is a Professor of English at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. He received his MFA in Poetry from the University of Missouri at St. Louis in 2001. He rarely posts at http://poetrymidwest.tumblr.com and posts roleplaying game material at http://rendedpress.blogspot.com. He still hasn’t published a book.