Thursday, October 16, 2008

Show Me the Money in... an MFA Program?

Ah, as always, Seth Abramson does it again. And I mean in a good way. He's tireless. He's vigilant. He loves writing about MFA programs. And I hope people appreciate what he does, especially those applicants that know exactly what I'm talking about.

The new piece in Poets & Writers is a great read, especially for those thinking of applying to places.

I don't really know where I'm going with this post, but I think at least that I do have a decent amount to say about it. Or beyond it? Or aside from it? Especially since I graduated from VCU with my MFA a little over a year ago. An MFA program of the many, I know. But may I comment from the pride I have about the program that it was great to finally see VCU's name in any article, with an added bonus in the positive light:

"Some of these programs (Arkansas, Florida State, Houston, Iowa, UNLV, and Wichita State) are known for their full or near-full funding for all students and also for offering a large number of pre- and/or postgraduation fellowships. Of these, two (Florida State and Iowa) offer assistantships with competitive stipends but only partial tuition remission included. Several of the programs in this grouping are known for offering a moderate number of assistantships with high annual stipends (Washington University: $16,500; Miami: $15,500; Virginia Commonwealth: $15,000; and Illinois: $14,000), while others offer a large number of assistantships with lower annual stipends (Georgia College & State: $7,600; Southern Illinois: $8,800; McNeese State: $9,000; and Montana: $9,000). University of Notre Dame offers full tuition waivers for all admitted students, but does not guarantee them stipend-eligible assistantships, and therefore cannot yet officially be added to the ranks of the fully funded programs."

One thing VCU was very good about, yes: the nice stipend.

That said, what came with it was a lot of teaching experience, at least for me. And now that I look back -- though of course it was a bit different in real time -- it becomes more valuable each day.

In my three years at VCU I was: in the Writing Center, an assistant (or as one professor, who shall remain nameless, called me: "a grader." I talked about it briefly in the past, and though the situation was awful for the entire semester, I learned a lot from it in the end) in two different large lecture classes (two different semesters), taught more than a few English 101 courses (a 2:2 load one semester, and yes folks, I survived and had plenty of time to write: teaching two courses a semester for a year ain't gonna kill you), a few English 200 courses, a 291 Creative Writing course (poetry and short fiction), and had two different internships co-teaching Creative Writing courses with two different professors (I was lucky to have these, and they were not part of the stipend: one was luck, and one I was asked to do and gratefully and gracefully accepted).

I couldn't have asked for much more experience during my three years.

And I wonder why so much emphasis is on, "Give me the money, but I don't want to any work or teach anything of any kind."

I know it's not that cut and dry, and I understand health insurance is a big deal. But just like not sending any poems out -- or even learning about how to do it -- by the end of your MFA is not going to help you get a job teaching creative writing (and you'd be surprised how many people think they're going to go on to amazing future teaching and publishing, within a few years, without having a single poem published, or knowing anything about the point of such a thing, etc.), why wouldn't you want to have all of that teaching experience?

I suppose that's my main gripe with what seems like a lot of folks are concerned about when entering a program.

But really, over three years, is $12,000 versus $15,000 really going to make a difference, when you're entering a field that's sometimes competitive to the point of lunacy, one that doesn't guarantee anything, especially some kind of job with a competitive salary?

And what about the creative environment? So much informs the creative environment.

Who's teaching there? Have you talked to past graduates? What's the area like? Is there stuff to do on the weekends? How big are the workshops? Are there areas where many MFAs live that are close to campus? Would you be living in a big city? Do you want that?

And what about you? Why do you really want to get an MFA? Do you want to end up teaching? High school? College level? Creative writing?

Paths change. Agendas change. But with all the questions revolving around health insurance, guaranteed and competitive stipends, and accurate dollar amounts regarding those stipends, what about the bigger picture? Aren't we there to try and further our artistic endeavors? Get better as writers? Meet new people?

What about competition? Is it cutthroat? Are people sending out poems like crazy? Do students already have books out? Is there pressure to publish? Are you not looking for that kind of pressure? Do you (masochistically?) want that kind of pressure?

So many questions to answer. And once you're there, signed up, registered, with an apartment, or a house, there's really no going back, unless you opt out and go to another one or cancel the whole experience altogether.

I feel like Seth could probably write an article that has dealt with all these questions, but I think more applicants need to -- and I hope they're doing so -- consider all of this: not to the point of nausea or over-thinking, but consider it at the least, amidst all the other financial questions abound.