Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

The 6 Myths of the Creative Writing MFA

Seth Abramson has a pretty good piece up at HuffPo about what he calls the myths of the Creative Writing MFA. I recommend the piece, mainly for the last five myths. They’re pretty pervasive myths and he handles them pretty well.

And I’m not going to take issue with the first one so much as I’m going to offer a couple of other points that might mitigate Abramson’s argument a little. Here’s the myth and his response:

1. MFA programs are “cash cows.”

Nearly a third of the world’s 148 full-residency MFA programs fully fund 75% or more of incoming students. More than half of the top 50 programs are fully-funded, with 70% fully funding half their students or more. And most applications from the nation’s three to four thousand annual full-residency MFA applicants go to these top 50 programs. Compare this funding record with that of other Master’s degrees and the generosity of the MFA system becomes apparent. With so many fully funded programs, no student need feel forced to apply to even a single non-fully-funded program. In fact, the MFA is fast becoming the largest patronage system for artists in the history of the United States.

All true, so far as it goes. But what Abramson doesn’t mention is what fully-funded often means, and why MFA programs can be considered a cash cow of sorts for English departments. Where I went to school (University of Arkansas) and where I currently work (Florida Atlantic University–though I’m not a part of the MFA faculty), fully-funded means you’ll probably have a Teaching Assistantship. All or most of your tuition will be paid for by the university (including out of state fees) and in return you’ll teach two classes each term, generally first year composition. )Arkansas offered more opportunities, but I was last there in 2003 and can’t say if that’s still the case.) Now, that’s not the case for all MFA programs–some offer, as I understand it, a smaller course load, or none at all, and for those schools, good on you. I liked teaching and I really appreciate the variety of courses I was able to teach at Arkansas–7 different courses in my 4 years–but hey, the less work the better.

Here’s where the MFA program as cash cow meme comes from. With an MFA program, an English department (and by extension, the university) is able to theoretically increase its work force covering the lower level classes for less than it would cost to cover those classes otherwise, even if you factor in the higher costs of a handful of assistant professors on the tenure track to teach those graduate students. Unlike graduate programs in the sciences, for example, an MFA program doesn’t require much in the way of capital costs–no special facilities are necessary other than a conference room, and if necessary, you can use a regular classroom and just sit in a circle. And what does the department get in return? A graduate program roughly double the size (I’m guessing) of what it would have with an MA/PhD program, which makes it easier and cheaper to cover all those first year comp classes that the department would either have to hire instructors or adjuncts to cover (or have upper level faculty cover).

Do the numbers work out in the department’s favor? I don’t know–I haven’t done the research, and I have only the two schools I’ve been attached to as evidence. Abramson would undoubtedly be in a better position to answer that question than I would, since he would know the different funding methods these universities use.

Not all MFA programs are the same, which makes these sorts of broad comparisons difficult at best. But there’s a reason that the MFA program as cash cow meme gained relevance in the first place, and to dismiss it completely without looking at what gave rise to is seems unsatisfactory to me.

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September 8, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

4 Comments »

  1. I find myself in general agreement with your assessment, but wonder how you’ve determined that the MFA program would be “roughly double the size” of a school offering the MA and PhD? I only have my own experience to go on, of course, but there were far, far more students in the graduate program where I received my PhD than there were in the MFA program at the school were I recieved my MA, or in the MFA program where I used to teach. Is there evidence out there that I’m not aware of that indicates MFA programs admit more students than MA and PhD programs?

    Comment by Bradley | September 9, 2010 | Reply

    • I pulled that notion out of my hindquarters, to be quite frank about it. You’re probably right that it wouldn’t double the size of most grad programs, but it would give it a substantial boost. My larger point is that English departments get more labor at a cheaper cost, both from a labor and a capital program standpoint, which is where the cash cow notion comes from. And it allows a department to grow in prestige, not just because it’s adding another terminal degree (of sorts), but because it frees up TT faculty to do research and creative work instead of teaching comp.

      Comment by Brian | September 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. Ah– did you mean that having the MFA in addition to the PhD and MA would double the size? That I could believe easily. I think I read “A graduate program roughly double the size (I’m guessing) of what it would have with an MA/PhD program…” and thought you meant that an MFA program by itself is larger than an MA/PhD program. But it dawns on me now that you meant that offering the MFA in addition to the traditionally “scholarly” degrees would double the number of students. Am I reading that right?

    I still think that might be a slight overstatement (as I think we generally try to keep caps lower on creative writing workshops), but in general, you’re right, I think.

    And your larger point is well-taken, and right on target, as far as I’m concerned. In fact, I think the “cash cow notion” is pretty accurate, regardless of the fact that these programs don’t generate tuition revenue from the students enrolled in them (usually), for those “cheap labor” reasons you describe.

    Comment by Bradley | September 9, 2010 | Reply

  3. I am a creative writer with an associated degree in English and often catch myself asking the same question, “is a master’s degree in creative writing worth the investment?” I suppose this question is more complex than a simple “yes” or “no” but a valid argument from first-hand experience is helpful. If I choose to pursue a master’s degree in Creative Writing, I plan to do it at Adelphi on Long Island.

    Comment by Anthony | February 7, 2011 | Reply


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