The New Face of the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts

There are now too many literary artists, publishers, readings, salons, conferences, creative writing programs, literary magazines, and bohemian coteries for any one person to keep tabs on.
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The first creative writing MFA program, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, was founded in 1936, at a time when the national community of literary artists numbered in the low thousands. In the mid-1930s it was not unreasonable for a small cadre of education activists in Iowa City to think that a hierarchical pedagogical setpiece like the "workshop" was just what the nation's literary community required, as the literary scene in America was then defined, both in poetry and in prose, by its titans. That the earliest workshops might likewise be tightly governed by veteran artists seemed consistent with what American culture outside academia was modeling.

Today there are an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 individuals whose education, publication, or community-participation records mark them as poets of one stripe or another, and as many or more who self-identify, for equally compelling reasons, as novelists. There are now too many literary artists, publishers, readings, salons, conferences, creative writing programs, literary magazines, and bohemian coteries for any one person to keep tabs on. In the context of this sea change it is not happenstance that a terminal degree first granted on the eve of WWII has fundamentally transformed itself to coincide with present realities.

A recent poll (using a Google-sponsored polling application) of more than 625 readers of the nation's largest aggregator of MFA-related information, The Suburban Ecstasies, provides the clearest picture yet of the new face of the MFA. The hierarchical, institutionally-anxious MFA degree of the mid-to-late twentieth century--a time when creative writing programs were fighting rear-guard actions against the skepticism and even disgust of English Department scholar-colleagues--has given way to a far-flung network of degree-granting communities in which students consider their peers as important to their education as their professors, and their own short-term well-being (financial as well as artistic) more important than the allegedly "professionalizing" credential they're shortly to receive. Indeed, 2009 applicant polling shows that fewer than 20% of MFA applicants consider the credential itself to be their top reason for pursuing a graduate creative writing degree.

According to the ongoing, unscientific-but-probative 2010 TSE Poll, asked to select their top five reasons for applying to a creative writing program from a list of fifteen possibilities, only five reasons appeared on even a quarter of respondents' lists (the number in parentheses is the percentage of respondents who ranked that program feature among their top five considerations):

1. Funding (66%). Approximately fifty full-residency MFA programs fully fund 70% or more of incoming students, with full funding defined as a full tuition waiver and a cost-of-living-adjusted $8,000/academic year stipend. Applicants are no longer willing to pay for what they now understand is a largely-unmarketable art-school degree; moreover, they insist upon having the requisite time and space to pursue their writing free of the pressures of a full-time job--or the anxiety of having taken on crushing student loan debt for what is (all arguments to the contrary notwithstanding) a non-professional credential.

2. Reputation (63%). The current national ranking system judges "reputation" on the basis of a program's popularity among the best-researched applicants, not self-interested and lightly-researched parties like professors or current MFA students. Since Poets & Writers began publishing such rankings annually in 2009, tens of thousands of applicants have viewed the rankings online and in print. Both supporters and detractors of the rankings consider them (rightly) to be highly inflected by funding and other hard-data assessments rather than abstract, often unreliable determinations regarding prestige or pedigree.

3. Location (57%). Applicants now view their programs as communities rather than merely degree-granting institutions whose sole contribution to their writing lives is a diploma they can't do much with. Location consistently places in the top three in polls of the sort described here. The most popular programs in 2010 are not in coastal metropolises; more than half of the nation's top fifty MFAs are situated (usually in college towns or small cities) in the Midwest or the South.

4. Faculty (48%). The most surprising aspect of this program feature's appearance on this list is that it's ranked as low as it is. Traditionally (and still today, according to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) the purpose of attending an MFA was said to be the opportunity to work with famed poets and writers; that over half of applicants find this program feature insufficiently compelling to even list it as a top five consideration is telling. Increasingly, applicants are aware that teaching aptitude cannot be judged in advance--the best poets and writers are not always the best teachers. Indeed, they are more likely than their peers to have been hired for their name rather than their skill in the classroom. Nor can aesthetic "fit" be forecast by applicants; it's not merely that the most esteemed poets and writers are also those most likely to be granted sabbaticals or temporary visiting lectureships far from their employing institutions, it's that these individuals may or may not wish to work with those whose writing is similar to theirs. Moreover, they may (even if "fit" is no obstacle) find themselves so distracted by their own celebrity as to make attentive, generative relationships with students all but impossible.

5. Teaching Opportunities (44%). In today's horrid academic job market, MFA graduates can't hope for full-time employment until they've published one or more books; even hiring for adjunct positions is hopelessly competitive. Job applicants without teaching experience are at a grave disadvantage, and MFA applicants know it. As teaching assistantships almost always include a full-funding package, and as MFA funding is almost always doled out via assistantships, the best-funded programs are those that offer the most teaching opportunities--and vice versa. This figure tells us, too, that the old canard that all MFA graduates want to be university professors is false. If more than half of future MFA students don't see teaching experience as even a top five reason to attend an MFA, it's hard to imagine many think themselves academia-bound in the long-term.

The other program features poll respondents had the option of selecting were: Alumni (24%), Curriculum (24%), Cost of Living (23%), Duration (19%), Size (13%), Selectivity (12%), Postgraduate Placement (11%), Student-to-Faculty Ratio (10%), Internship Opportunities (5%), and Other (4%).

These results reflect the values of today's applicants--tomorrow's MFA graduates and active literary community participants--in a way that contradicts not only hysterical, fact-free screeds about the national MFA system but also claims made, presumably with the best interests of member-applicants at heart, by as respected an organization as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).

Anis Shivani tells us that "in 2010, literary writers not attached to the academy are so rare as to be almost nonexistent." The fact that approximately 4,500 poets and writers graduate from MFA programs each year--and that AWP only lists a few dozen full- or part-time teaching positions in creative writing every twelve months--would alone would be sufficient to assure us that Shivani's analysis is the worst kind of fuzzy math. But the poll results above offer even more evidence for the argument, were any needed: If 56% of today's MFA applicants don't even rank "teaching opportunities" among the top five reasons to apply to an MFA program (with the other 44% only indicating "top five" placement for this consideration, not necessarily suggesting that this is a top priority even for these applicants), how in the world can we credit the claim that virtually all of these applicants plan to enter the academy upon graduation? It's not just that the jobs aren't there (the math tells us) for more than 98% of each year's crop of MFA graduates, it's that the interest in teaching--on the part of tomorrow's MFA students--simply isn't there either.

Shivani's claim that MFA applicants are "apprentices" whose only hope is to work with "masters" is likewise undercut by the fact that over half of poll respondents reported that working with masters was not even a top-five priority for them. Likewise, if, as Shivani claims, MFA students are consumed by thoughts of possible postgraduate successes, why did nearly 90% of poll respondents report that "postgraduate placement" was not one of their top five considerations in seeking a MFA?

AWP urges its applicant-members to consider almost exclusively those program features that applicants have been indicating, for years now, are among their least pressing concerns: for instance, Alumni (a top-five consideration for less than a quarter of applicants), Curriculum (24%), and Internship Opportunities (5%). Even Faculty, long a byword for AWP's advice to MFA applicants, is a significant consideration for only a minority of graduate creative writing degree-seekers.

AWP posits the MFA application and matriculation decision as shrouded in mystery and impossible to quantify--yet 96% of the respondents to the 2010 TSE Poll indicated that the fourteen program features listed were sufficient for them to fill out a top-five priority-list. Even the 4% who felt an important consideration was missing were only indicating that one spot of their "top five" could not be filled; we can conclude, surely, that the program features today's MFA applicants actually consider critical--whatever their elders insist upon--are in no way unknown or unknowable. This, in turn, paints for us a picture of the MFA system that today's applicants are in the process of creating: not just with the choices they make with their application dollars, but with the values they bring to their programs once they matriculate.

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