Saturday, July 14, 2007

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 on 07/14 at 02:17 PM
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© 2007 Michael L. Umphrey
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