Monday, February 14, 2011

MFAs are Terminal Degrees (Even at Two-Year Colleges)

Years ago I passed up two opportunities to accept tenure-track professor positions in English/Creative Writing at two universities, in part because I thought I could have an equally positive impact at the community college level (and especially in Tulare County, for the most recent census has noted that nearly 60% of the county's population is "Hispanic"--I much prefer the term Latino); after all, unlike many four-year institutions, two-year colleges literally accept any adult, and that all-inclusive atmosphere has certainly made my classrooms both lively and memorable.  Still, both university job offers came partly because I had at least satisfied one common requirement for tenure-track positions at most publicly funded universities:  I had earned the appropriate terminal degree, an MFA, in my area of specialization.

But, when I accepted my current position in 1991 (I had never taught at a community college before 1991:  my previous teaching posts were at two University of California campuses--and, yes, I did have to "adjust" my expectations and standards), I was the only MFA degree holder regardless of discipline (i.e., creative writing, 2-D or 3-D art, drama/theater arts, etc.) at College of the Sequoias (COS).  In contrast, the majority of faculty who teach at two-year colleges have either an MA or an MS degree.  In 1991, I was the lone MFA fish in my pond, so to speak, but graduate programs that confer MFAs have since increased dramatically in number; hence, I'm no longer in that position at COS.

However, the same lack of knowledge I first encountered in 1991 about MFA degrees still seems to be the norm at most community colleges--and that sad fact can have serious implications (that involve life-long earnings and even retirement annuities) for those who've earned these terminal degrees that are the equivalent of PhD degrees.

I first became acquainted with the MFA degree when I took my first creative writing workshop at a community college back in the mid 1970s:  My creative writing professor had an MFA from the University of California at Irvine.  And he made it a point to explain to us why his degree was quite different than those held by the majority of his colleagues:  A PhD holder in English literature or composition is primarily a historian or critic or student of a body of work or an area of study, whereas an MFA holder in English is primarily a creator of literature (often poetry or fiction, though drama and creative non-fiction are also gaining currency in graduate writing programs):  the PhD recipient explains works of literature or literary theories by others, but the MFA recipient creates works of literature.  Essentially, if one takes literature or theory courses, one examines literature by well-known authors; if one takes creative writing workshops, one produces literature that's critiqued by workshop participants and professors.

Consequently, the goals of those earning such terminal degrees are totally different:  a PhD candidate studies literature, an MFA candidate produces literature.  And every literature course uniformly adheres to one vital aspect:  the students' writings never take center stage in their seminars.  In contrast, every creative writing workshop emphasizes the students' writings.

The formal coursework for either an MFA or a PhD candidate usually comprises two years of full-time study (most MFA/PhD degree programs require approximately 54-60 semester units beyond the BA level; in contrast, most MA/MS degree programs require approximately 24-30 semester units beyond the BA level); however, some MFA/PhD candidates may opt to lessen their coursework loads in the face of required teaching duties and writing schedules and, thus, take three or even four years to complete their coursework--this depends on a program's protocols and residency requirements.  Still, someone who's quite gifted as a student and as a writer could complete an MFA or PhD in as little as two years (but three to five years is a more commonplace time period for some to earn either an MFA or a PhD).

The dissertations/theses for PhD and MFA candidates have one important commonality:  they must be book-length works of publishable quality.  As for MA/MS theses, they're often 25-40 page articles--and articles are not book-length works.  No wonder many MFA and PhD programs give candidates from five to seven years to complete their degrees.  In fact, if one examines the unit requirements for many MFA/PhD programs, one will realize that the majority of PhDs take more than three years to complete their degrees because of the time needed to complete their dissertations:  again, formal coursework can usually be completed in two years.  Given the fact that PhD candidates rarely take courses that focus on evaluating and improving their writing skills, the plethora of ABDs (all but dissertations) should not be surprising:  Most PhD candidates are not formally trained as writers of academic non-fiction prose.

And therein lies the advantage of the MFA candidates:  Since most completed multiple semesters of creative writing workshop attendance during their undergraduate years, they can easily transition to and indeed flourish under the writing demands placed upon them at the graduate level.  As a result, most MFA candidates have no problem completing their book-length works within two to three years.  Rare are the MFA candidates who must take five to seven years--unlike some PhD candidates--to complete their books.

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has long promoted the MFA as the appropriate terminal degree to teach creative writing at the college and university level; more importantly, the AWP has steadfastly supported the position that the MFA is the equivalent of the PhD in literature or composition.  Not surprisingly, many of us have benefited from studying with tenured professors who earned MFAs; additionally, many MFA holders currently direct or have directed graduate creative writing programs, including Christopher Buckley, Garrett Hongo, Alberto Rios, David St. John, the late Herb Scott--the list of notable poets and writers goes on and on--and a number of MFA recipients have won a myriad of prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize:  Rita Dove, Richard Ford, Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, and Charles Wright are among such recipients.  In short, the overwhelming majority of four-year colleges and universities have long accepted the MFA as the appropriate terminal degree that's equivalent to a PhD for tenure-track positions within the fine arts disciplines, but community colleges for whatever reason have been slow to accept or even understand this over half century-long academic standard (the MFA degree in English has existed since the 1940s)--and that lack of knowledge causes some to rhetorically say, "Well, what do you expect at the junior college level?"

That term, junior, carries pejorative connotations, and when I joined the community college arena, I already knew that many who teach at four-year institutions viewed "juco" schools through rather unflattering lenses.  I remember one professor in graduate school who was adamant that I should never teach, even part-time, at a community college:  "I guarantee you, you'll regret it," he said, his head angled downward as if he were contemplating one of the circles of hell reserved just for those who teach at community colleges.  His main concern--for me and others with MFAs--was the complete lack of institutional reward for faculty at the two-year college level when it comes to publishing; moreover, he made what has come to be a somewhat prophetic comment about terminal degrees at community colleges:  "At junior colleges, they don't understand that MFAs are similar to PhDs," and that alone should "scare you away from them."  He noted that most who teach at "junior" colleges have MA or MS degrees, and he posited that they're "not eager to admit that MFAs are terminal degrees.  You'll only threaten them with your MFA, and that won't be good for you or for the students, especially the students."  He later explained that students at "junior" colleges aren't assured of having qualified faculty in their creative writing classes since seniority alone oftentimes determines teaching assignments at the two-year college level, not area of specialization which is the academic norm at the four-year college/university level.

He was certainly right about the lack of knowledge about MFA degrees (I recently asked someone who has an MFA if he had heard that MFAs were the equivalent of PhDs, and he answered emphatically, "No!"  Ironically, he earned his MFA at a college that notes in their MFA handbook that the MFA is "the equivalent of a PhD"--and the notation is in bold letters.  I don't blame this person or anyone else who thinks that MFAs are not equal to PhDs; rather, this just illustrates that even some with MFAs aren't necessarily aware of the terminal degrees they possess).

However, hope bounds eternal, for a nearby community college district, the State Center Community College District (SCCCD), which comprises Fresno City College and Reedley College as well as other centers, has for years recognized the fact that the MFA is the equivalent of a PhD:  the SCCCD gives both MFA and PhD holders the same yearly stipend.

If we can figure out that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, we can surely figure out why some degrees are considered "terminal degrees" and accepted as equivalents to PhD degrees at the vast majority of publicly funded universities; once enlightened, we can use that knowledge accordingly at the community college level and equally recognize and reward those who've earned terminal degrees.

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