Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Question of the PhD

This will be the last entry of the MFA/MFYou Newletter until August. We’re making the quite epic move from Fairbanks, Alaska to Athens, Ohio, with a lot of extended pit stops along the way, and surely won’t have the time (or the desire) to keep up with weekly entries during the month of July.

This week I want to talk about something that for some reason has been coming up a lot in conversations I’ve had with various professors in the program lately: the creative writing PhD. I haven’t completely decided how I feel about this at the moment so I’m going to give a bit of what I’ve heard other people say to start us off.

I heard a literature professor recently talking about her frustration that the creative writing PhD undermines the value of a literature PhD. She feels that since a literature PhD is a highly advanced degree involving extensive amounts of research and effort, a creative dissertation doesn’t come close to comparing with the work you do for a lit PhD and so the two degrees are uneven, though they have the same title. As a result, the mere existence of the creative writing PhD devalues the lit PhD, which so many people spend years and years slaving to earn.

The topic came up again at dinner last night when a creative writing professor mentioned that she feels the creative writing PhD devalues the MFA. An MFA in creative writing is a terminal degree; it’s meant to be as high as you need to go to be able to enter the field. If it’s possible to go “further,” that is, if you can also get a PhD, it would seem that an MFA may get to a point where it’s no longer terminal. She said that some MFA programs will not hire faculty members with PhDs in creative writing to avoid undermining the degree that they confer in their program.

Having just earned an MFA I can say that, after studying for and taking an extensive comprehensive exam, after taking three years of coursework, and after writing and defending a complete novel for my thesis, I do feel that a PhD in creative writing would be redundant. Especially now that I’m aware there’s such a controversy over it, I don’t know that it’s a good idea to pursue a further creative writing degree. It would especially be frustrating to get a PhD in creative writing and, as a result, find yourself barred from teaching at a number of MFA programs and holding a degree that offends people.

But what if you want to become a better literary scholar and researcher, and are interested in expanding your credentials as a teacher? And if a PhD in creative writing is slowly devaluing the MFA, what will you do if, in ten years, say, the MFA is no longer considered a terminal degree? Will explaining that you chose not to get a PhD in creative writing for ideological reasons help you get a job? And while there may be MFA programs who don’t want to hire people with PhDs, isn’t it possible that some PhD programs feel that hiring a professor with an MFA would be like hiring someone with a BA to teach in a Masters program?

It’s a complicated issue and right now I just don’t know where to stand on it. For me, I think I might try to get a PhD in literature down the road so that I have the more advanced degree, but not the one that can be seen as devaluing my MFA. I’m also curious to talk to the faculty at Ohio University, where my husband Damien will be starting as a creative writing MA student in the fall, because OU confers PhDs in creative writing and so they likely come at the issue from another perspective. It will also be interesting to compare Damien’s experiences as an MA student – an MA being a non-terminal degree – with mine earning a terminal MFA degree. We will definitely be revisiting this issue in the future.


Justus said...

This is an interesting topic. I recently read an article about the issue of the creative PhD undermining the MFA, but I've never heard anyone claim the Creative PhD undermines the Lit PhD. That doesn't sound very reasonable to me. From what I've seen, it seems to me that Creative PhDs require every bit as much effort with extended levels of study as a Lit PhD. The major difference seems to be writing a book-length creative piece as a dissertation versus writing a scholarly dissertation. Granted, I've never written a scholarly dissertation, but I doubt it's more difficult than writing a book-length creative work. If one spends five to seven years on a PhD and studies literature and takes exams and masters foreign languages, I don't see how one could argue that writing one type of dissertation undermines the value of the other type (if anything, I suspect writing a scholarly dissertation is considerably easier). The more legitimate argument would be that different schools have such different standards that it's essentially unfair to claim that a certain degree means the same thing across the board. But that's not the same issue as saying a degree in one specialty is significantly less valuable than another. Interesting.

Ashley Cowger said...

Yeah, that's a good point that different degrees are just going to be different and we shouldn't expect them to be the same, and it isn't fair for a people to suggest that whatever they got their degrees in is more valuable than what other people are doing. Although I can kind of see where she was coming from. I consider writing a scholarly essay WAAAAAAAY more work and much more difficult (because of all the research involved) than writing a short story of the same length, and so I imagine that writing a book length scholarly project would also be much more effort than writing a novel. That's not to say that writing a novel is easy, but you get to make the whole thing up yourself and so are not held, at least not in quite the same way, to sticking to the facts and judging the reliability of your sources and . . . But yeah, it's tricky because if you say that the creative writing PhD devalues the lit PhD, well wouldn't that also mean that the creative writing master's degree devalues the lit master's degree?

Justus said...

Man, I totally think it's easier to write a research paper than a short story. I've written so many papers over the years that, yeah, took effort and research, but basically once you know the school formula, you can repeat it for each new paper. But each story is its own beast and much more challenging I think. I've spent a few weeks on a research paper that turns out pretty well, but I've spent years working on a story. Also, with a scholarly paper, even with a dissertation I imagine, it's not like many people will ever actually read it, but the goal of creative writing is to create something that others will actually read, which is a more daunting goal.

phdcwer said...

I've never understand the argument that the PhD in Creative Writing devalues the PhD in Literature, when the primary reason for a creative writer to earn a PhD in "creative writing” is to become a more well-rounded, versatile instructor, since many of the entry level jobs in creative writing are at small colleges and regional universities that require the creative writing to be a generalist who can teach undergrad lit courses, mainly lower-level surveys.

Quite frankly, the literature professor you cite in your post doesn't know what she is talking about, nor does she understand the job market for creative writers. There is also no such thing as a PhD in "creative writing," when almost all of those degrees require the candidate to fulfill the same core lit course req's and lit comp exams as the lit students. The primary difference is the ability to take workshops as electives and write a creative dissertation. Why in the world should a creative writer be forced to write a dissertation in an area that he or she doesn’t intend to publish in? On what planet does this lit professor reside that she thinks a PhD student should write a dissertation in his or her secondary area—an area that he or she doesn’t intend to publish in? Do I really need to write a dissertation to teach Appreciating Writers 101 at Bumblebee School of Mines Tech? No—I just need the PhD

phdcwer said...

*that require the creative writer to be a generalist

Ashley Cowger said...

That's a good point. The more I think about it the more I agree that it isn't fair to compare one sort of dissertation to another and claim that one devalues the other. The PhD devaluing the MFA argument holds more water, since the MFA was originally the absolute highest you could go with a creative writing degree and it was intended to be the ultimate CW teaching qualification. But now that the CW PhD exists, there's probably not much that can be done to maintain the terminal value of the MFA at this point. One thing that I think some of the professors I've been speaking to forget is that not all creative writers are able to land jobs teaching at MFA programs. Sure, if you end up teaching at an MFA program all you need is an MFA degree, but not all of us get that lucky. If you want to expand your options, it does seem like a PhD is a good idea, and a lit PhD only makes sense for people who are interested in publishing scholarly stuff.

PancakePhilosopher said...

No one's probably going to see this now, but I've got a couple cents to add.

What about the Rhetoric/Composition PhD? That's basically a writing degree too, and I think it might be a bit more respected than a CW PhD, since it's more academic and more widely applicable (it could be used creatively or not). My favorite writing professor (and the one who I learned the most about writing from) has a Rhet/Comp PhD.

Ashley Cowger said...

Definitely! I think a Comp/Rhet PhD opens up more doors than a CW PhD, and you're right, it's still basically a degree in writing. Sometimes we look at Comp/Rhet like it's really different from creative writing but it really isn't as different as we might think. Both are focused around writing and writing well. And the nice thing about a Comp/Rhet PhD is that it also puts you on a good path to become a Writing Center director if you want, which I think would be a pretty awesome job.

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