Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Is the MFA a professional degree?
     Speaking of credentials

Seth Abramson at MFA Blog is pondering the mystery of credentials, specifically whether the MFA degree is a “professional” degree, akin to those earned by lawyers and such. His pondering has little to do with writing and focuses mostly on positions:

. . .I know this much: for those who want to teach creative writing at the college level, the MFA is undoubtedly a “professional” degree because you can’t teach without it, even if (as with a J.D.) an MFA is not in itself sufficient to get a job, and additional displays of talent and skill and motivation are necessary.

I got an MFA so I could teach at a university, just in case someone started a university in the town of 900 people where I live. I wouldn’t want to move just for a job. This is called “thinking like a poet.”

The MFA is an expensive credential, like other graduate degrees, and it has its value in the academy—though working in a university without a Ph.D. may be a little like working in Iraq without body armor. In getting the degree, I enjoyed the time to read and write, and the association with good writers, and for someone who wants to have a position at a university, it can make sense.

However, when students who have wanted to be writers have asked me about education, I’ve usually steered them away from the MFA—actually away from English departments in general. The emphasis upon personal expression in “creative” writing programs feeds the worst delusions of young writers. To speak in simple terms, I think being encouraged to do research helps young writers far more than being urged to think about “voice.” What distinguishes the best writers is knowledge of the world and getting things right, while many a would-be artist has gotten lost in the abyss of self. Voice does come to matter, of course, but only when it is no longer the voice of one wanting mostly to be heard.

Technical writing classes can do some good, such as the course offered at the University of Montana’s Forestry Department—and often the methods for finding things out are better taught by history programs that include guidance in doing original research and by some journalism programs, though both the disciplines of history and of journalism are often dissipated by their own tribal passions.

I sometimes thought the MFA program was a little like all those programs offering to help people lose weight or stop smoking—they were feeding on people’s fantasies. There are always some young people who want to be famous poets and are willing to pay for a program that promises to help.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Outgrowing school
     The modern superstition of schooling

Concerning Bias has a post adding two more things to the three things Ben Casnocha cited Bill Bullard saying about what we need to unlearn from school: (1) pretending you understand something when you don’t and (2) trusting authority.

Whatever, as one of my students was fond of saying. 


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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

The “honor student” syndrome
     Bill Bullhard's "three things to unlearn from school"

I’ve sometimes worried that school had a bad influence on honor students. It seems worrisome to be as ready as some honor students are to take as your own the agenda of whoever is at the front of the room. Along similar lines, Bill Bullard (via Ben Casnocha) suggests three things to unlearn from school:

The importance of opinion. “Schools, especially good ones...that so emphasize student voice, teach us to value opinion. This is a great deception. Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge; it requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge, according to George Eliot, is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in anothers world. It requires profound, purpose‐larger‐than‐the‐self kind of understanding.”

The importance of solving given problems.
“Schools teach us to be clever, great problem solvers, but not to include ourselves in the problem thatҒs being solved. This is a great delusion. It makes us arrogant and complacent and teaches us to look at the world as a problem outside of us. As in Oedipus, public problems the plague on Thebes or our own pestilences, war or global warming ֖ are private problems. The plague is only lifted when each person sees his responsibility not in analyzing the problem, not in solving the riddle, but in changing our actions to address a public need. Oedipus destroyed the two things that had deceived him his eyes and his power ֖ and in so doing saved his city.”

The importance of earning the approval of others. “Schools teach students to seek the approval of their teachers. Indeed, for all of our differences, this is one area that parents and teachers share; we are wired or we are hired to believe in you, to approve you, to prevent or mitigate the experiences of disappointment...Try to correct this in two ways. First seek people, work for people who dont have to like you, people who can easily disapprove of you, people that you canҒt easily please.  Their skepticism or indifference will define you. Second, if you dont how to do so already, begin working for yourself, and let the teachers be damned. But they wonҒt be they֒ll just be all the more approving because that kind of integrity can only command respect. After all, most of the work we devise is devised for students who are not working for themselves, so those that do surpass our expectations and teach us things that weve never thought of.”

Having the knowledge is more fundamental than having an opinion, being on the right side is more important than solving an assigned problem, and having integrity is far more important than winning the approval of authorities.

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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

     Building schools in mountain villages of Asia

Bozeman resident Greg Mortenson is helping build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. All incoming freshmen at Carroll College have been asked to read his book, Three Cups of Tea, and he will give a talk on campus on September 12.  These are some of the proposed discussion questions:

Other people constantly impact Mortenson’s ability to carry out his plans. What role does “community” (other people, relationships, etc.) play in his experience? What specific events or scenes in the book demonstrate how others help (or hinder) his work?

How is Mortenson challenged and changed (in bigger or smaller ways) through his encounter with this “other” culture?

Mortenson claims that building schools in this region is a more practical response to terrorism than war. Do you think the book makes a solid case for that claim, and why or why not?

Do you think Mortenson is simply an exceptional person, or can anyone make a difference like this with enough commitment?

What critical questions should we ask about philanthropic projects such as those described in this book?

He will also speak at the University of Montana in Missoula on September 21 at 7:00 pm as part of the Campus Reads Program.

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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Gardening the creek
     Planning paradise

A friend bought nearly 80 acres along a section of Mission Creek where I had spent a lot of time as a boy. I took several trips with him to look at the property and to listen to his plans for it. He had researched riparian zones and was intent on preserving the wildness of the place. He was going to fence the creek, so cattle from the bench pasture couldn’t get down in the trees. He showed me places where he was going to use a bulldozer to put the bank back to a more natural shape, and where he was going to plant willows to prevent the creek from eroding the bank further. He was planning a large-scale garden that had to look wild and unplanned.

I had loved that section of creek when I was a boy. I could get there from town on my bike, and once there I could lose myself in a ribbon of wilderness meandering through the valley. I went fishing there often, and like grownup fishermen sometimes I actually fished, but as often as not I just wandered the freedom of secret places. 

Farmers had allowed cows along the creek: the banks were pummeled to mud by their hooves, the new growth pine and fir was destroyed by browsing so the bottoms grew to thickets of buck weed, cockle burr and beggars lice. Because the land wasn’t useful for farming, except as a cheap source of stock water, it was ignored. No one cared who was there or what they did. It was a paradise. I could built shelters and dams, made forts, lashed together tree houses and built camp fires. There were no signs, no rules. It was a good place to be a poor kid. Or a poor man.

My friend was going to build his house at the edge of the woods, something tasteful that wouldn’t be too conspicuous. A couple from New Jersey had moved into the valley the year before and built a large house high on a hill overlooking us all. You could see it from everywhere. He wasn’t going to do anything so crass. The side of his house that faced the creek would have many windows that opened into the aspen and birch, the birds and deer. 

No more forts of fir boughs.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

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