Was my MFA worth it?
On Facebook, Seth Abramson pointed to this HuffPo piece by Lev Raphael defending his MFA, and then wrote “as time goes on hopefully we’ll hear more and more MFA graduates speak out.” Raphael doesn’t say how long ago he did his MFA, but I suspect, given his output, it’s more than the seven years since I finished mine. At any rate, my addition to the conversation can’t hurt, right?
I did my MFA at the University of Arkansas from 1999-2003, and yeah, it was worth it. That’s not to suggest that everything was unicorns and daffodils or that I joined a community of writers I still lean on to this day. I made friends I’m still in varying degrees of contact with but we rarely talk about our work now. But that’s not a statement about Arkansas so much as it’s a statement about me. I had a much more congenial workshop atmosphere and closer relationships with the people I was a Stegner Fellow with and we don’t talk much about our work either. That’s just not me.
But the program as a whole was worth it for a few important reasons. The first is that the Arkansas program is a long program–60 hours if you come in with a Bachelor’s degree. That’s four years, fully-supported if you want to teach. That’s a lot of time to develop as a writer, and man did I need it. I don’t think I started doing anything approaching marginal work until my third year; I exploded in my fourth.
But it’s more than just time (though you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that); the program there was flexible. Did you want to take classes in art history? They’d fit them in. Translation? No problem. (Arkansas boasts one of the two translation MFAs in the US–Iowa has the other.) The program was willing to let you explore possibilities outside the English department if you wanted. Not everyone I went to school with wanted to do this–some people took the same class two or three times, getting credit for it as a “readings course”–but others (myself included) used that flexibility to widen our educations. Most of my dabbling was in the translation program–perhaps the best lesson I learned was one of humility–and it gave me an appreciation of Dante and French Romantic poetry that lasts to this day.
The last thing that Arkansas gave me was teaching experience. Like I said, they funded me for four years, teaching two classes a term, but we weren’t stuck teaching comp the whole time (at least, not if you were an able teacher). In four years, I taught seven different classes, from freshman comp to tech writing to creative writing to World Lit to essay writing. That came in handy when I applied for the job I currently hold. That’s more teaching experience than a lot of PhD candidates have. Now, not every MFA program provides that opportunity, but this is about whether my MFA was worth it, after all.
Not all MFA programs are created equally, and I’ll admit that some of my non-Arkansas friends have expressed shock at the length of the program there. It worked for me. It didn’t work for everyone I was there with. And I’ll admit that sometimes I bristle when I think of my MFA being lumped in with some other programs that I consider (at a remove) to be less strenuous, as though my degree has been cheapened somehow. But even if it has been cheapened, the fact is that I wouldn’t be the writer I am now without it.
One last thing: I met Amy there, and we’ve been together nearly ten years. Damn right it was worth it.