Thursday, October 8, 2009

How to Select an M.F.A. Program

An ambitious creative writing student recently asked me to give my opinion about a specific creative writing program. Instead of giving information that might not be useful, I passed along advice given to me (by someone whose opinions matter to me) some time ago when I was nearing the end of my undergraduate years.

First, he suggested that I ask myself one very important question: "What do I want from a graduate creative writing program other than an M.F.A.?" (I had already decided that I didn't want to pursue an M.A.; such degrees generally don't meet the minimum requirements for tenure-track positions in creative writing at most four-year colleges and universities.)

I wanted a mentor whose work and personality appealed to me. When Richard Hugo was alive, I had decided to make the University of Montana my ultimate destination; he struck me as not only a wonderfully talented poet but also as a very giving human being, someone I wanted as a mentor (I fell in love with the guy after he gave a reading at Fresno State). I had already studied with Phil Levine (and I think I hold the record for taking Levine's poetry workshops: five semesters over a number of years). Hence, I was lucky to have had one great teacher, for Levine was great (and Hugo's great teacher was Roethke and, as Hugo noted, such a claim is impossible to prove--so be it), and I had heard that Hugo was Levine's equal in the workshop: tough to please, incredibly well-read, and a blast to be around. But when Hugo died, my desire for another mentor like Levine diminished (this isn't to say that great mentors aren't out there; nevertheless, greatness in any discipline is a rarity).

In addition to a mentor, I wanted training and experience in teaching composition. Most M.F.A. degree holders often have to teach composition simply because there's more need for composition instructors than creative writing instructors. Consequently, I made sure that the program I attended had to give me at least an opportunity to teach composition: The University of California at Irvine requires all M.F.A. candidates to not only take the seminar in rhetoric and the teaching of composition but also to teach composition for several quarters. That training (which also involved weekly meetings with various composition course directors) has been an invaluable aid to me over the years.

But I also wanted experience teaching creative writing. And, lo and behold, the program I attended also expects all of the M.F.A. candidates to teach creative writing in their specific genre. Fortunately, I got to teach beginning poetry writing for two quarters (and I was not alone: the majority of my fellow M.F.A. candidates taught such workshops for at least two quarters). I couldn't imagine earning a terminal degree and not get some teaching experience within my area of specialization.

Of course, a number of schools offer mentors, composition training, and opportunities to teach creative writing. But I was also given advice about how to distinguish a college from a university: "Your seminars should be geared toward Ph.D. candidates: You want the level of rigor to be worthy of a terminal degree." And, I must admit, the graduate literature seminars I attended were valuable to me partly because I knew I was competing--yes, graduate school is a form of competition: You're trying to distinguish yourself from and among your peers--with Ph.D. candidates at a school known for its critical theory emphasis (sadly, poets and fiction writers are stereotyped as "not scholarly" or as "non-academics" by some professors of literature).

And most universities (and not simply colleges renamed as universities) require teaching loads of no more than five courses a year; some more enlightened universities require their tenure-track faculty to teach only four courses a year. In contrast, most state colleges (regardless of what they call themselves) require their faculty to teach six or more courses a year. Lighter teaching loads result in more time for faculty to do research (which benefits students) and to meet with students.

True universities offer terminal degrees in numerous disciplines. Hence, if you're contemplating getting an M.F.A. from a school that does not offer a Ph.D. in English, that school is probably a state college, not a true university. As a result, the faculties at such schools often have trouble securing positions at Ph.D. granting institutions for a variety of reasons: They haven't made names for themselves in their areas of expertise; their publication records or awards often aren't as impressive as their peers, etc.

Paul Fussell, author of the humorous yet insightful text Class, notes that very few universities actually exist; one sign of "normal" schools posing as universities involves their departments of education: If the greatest number of graduates leave with single or multiple subject teaching credentials, the school is definitely not a university.

If this all sounds somewhat snooty and downright snobbish, the harsh reality is that hiring committees often interview--and ultimately hire--applicants who attended prestigious graduate schools.

No wonder various publications that rate graduate schools (such as the guide published by U.S. News and World Report) sell in the thousands each year and for good reason: Graduate students want the best educations they can afford. And that means some will have to attend a nearby Podunk U. or Ag Tech out of sheer financial necessity--not the worst thing in the world, for such schools (like the one I attended as an undergraduate) just might have a Phil Levine or a Richard Hugo (I think of the University of Montana at Missoula as an Ag Tech--forgive me former and current residents of Missoula).

However, exceptions exist that might cause us to ignore such advice.

Considered by many to be one of the best schools in the nation, the University of California at Berkeley doesn't even have an M.F.A. program in creative writing. Hence, if I were considering M.F.A. programs, UC Berkeley wouldn't even rate a look. But I do know that Bharati Mukherjee teaches at UCB; she's one of the best contemporary fiction writers in the world (I'm waiting for her to win the Nobel, just as for years I waited for J. M. Coetzee to win--and he finally did), so if I were a potential graduate student, I might postpone my need for an M.F.A. until after I've studied with Mukherjee (I'm a greater fan of her short stories than of her novels, though this is quibbling on my part: She has the "right stuff" regardless of the length of her works).

No matter what criteria we utilize to guide us, if we consider our uppermost needs, we can make the right decisions.