Sunday, March 21, 2010

Some More Benefits of the MFA Life

I have to be honest, I’ve really been missing the grad student life lately. Part of it, I know, is that I’m surrounded by grad students from my husband’s program, and I get to see – but only from the fringes – these grad students doing the things that grad students do. I only get to take part in the non-school related parts of their lives, which is still enjoyable, of course, but it’s not the same.

One of the things I miss the most is the conversations. Talk about writing. Analyzing craft. Reading the same books and discussing them with each other. These sorts of conversations are the heart of any English graduate program and they tend to take place both in and outside of classroom. The problem – for me – is that they don’t tend to take place with outsiders. This isn’t an intentional slight; it’s not like grad students have a clique sort of mentality. But I’m not taking the same classes; I’m not reading the same books and having one-on-one workshop sessions with the same writers-in-residence.

This sort of unified writing experience is very difficult, I feel, to create outside of an academic setting. While it’s possible to perhaps find a small group of writers willing to read the same books and meet regularly to discuss them from a craft perspective, and it’s certainly possible to create the workshop environment – only far more productive, in my opinion – outside of academia, there are still many other things that don’t seem possible (for example, somehow managing to get a string of established writers to travel to your area, read the work of everybody in your writers’ group, and meet with each of you one-on-one to give feedback, after which the members of the group can discuss the experience and compare what you’ve gained).

And there’s the question of money, too. Grad students not only have ample time to write because they are being paid extremely well, compared to what college adjuncts make, to teach only one or two classes at a time, but they also, as a result, have ample time to exchange work with each other and do extended feedback sessions. (This statement, I can already tell, is going to have some readers shaking their heads in disagreement. I’m not saying you make as much as a TA as you would, say, in a full time office job. But you make way more per credit hour – WAY more – than the average adjunct instructor makes. Trust me. I’m an adjunct. I can barely make ends meet off of my salary.)

Grad students also get funding to travel to conferences. Many of the students here, for example, are taking a trip to Denver next month to go to AWP, on their graduate program’s dime. I desperately wanted to go to AWP this year. I almost had an excuse because I was invited to read with a journal that I was published in, but the reading ended up falling through, and I couldn’t justify the $1000 it would have cost between airfare and hotel stay and food.

Which is all, really, to say that I think there are some things that you can gain from a creative writing graduate program that you simply cannot reproduce in the real world. Of course it’s possible to get on the path to success on your own, but creative writing graduate programs give you a pretty forceful shove in the right direction, and they’re pretty enjoyable, too.


PancakePhilosopher said...

This reminds me of an exchange I had with a fellow writing-major friend the other day. He claimed that MFAs are stupid and pointless. I can't remember what I said, but the things you point out would have probably been better than whatever emotionally charged drivel I said to him, haha.

Justus said...

I would have to agree with your assessment of TA pay. It's not very much as far as trying to make a living goes, but, per credit, it's much better than adjunct pay. I evidently am at about the top of the adjunct pay scale, and, per class, I made about twice as much when I was a TA. Plus, as a TA, you get your tuition covered. When you count the value of out-of-state tuition as well as the stipend, I probably made more as a TA teaching one class a semester than I make now as an adjunct teaching almost full time. Yes, indeed, being a TA is a pretty sweet deal. There are certainly times when I wish to return to that life.

Ashley Cowger said...

Ug, I hate that old MFAs are worthless attitude. I'm sure whatever you said to him was right on target! And Justus - yeah, I'm surrounded by people who make about the same as me for teaching only one class, while I bust my ass every quarter teaching three or four.