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A Note on MFA Programs

By Reginald Shepherd

I am back home from the hospital and hopefully on the mend for good this time.
Since I note that August Kleinzahler is once again foaming at the mouth about some utterly imaginary and wholly evil version of MFA programs, about which he clearly knows nothing, I thought that I’d throw in my two cents, since I have two MFA degrees and thus some experience in the matter. I got those degrees because I was tired of doing data entry and other menial labor for not much money. I wanted to be able devote my time and energy to reading and writing, and to be in a context in which those things weren’t ignored at best and disdained at worst. After being nearly crushed by the so-called real world, the idea of hanging out with a group of people who liked books was novel and appealing.


While an MFA or a PhD is for the most part necessary to get a teaching position, the vast majority of MFA graduates don’t get such jobs (and the teaching jobs they get are in general poorly paid adjunct jobs with no security and no benefits—I’ve done that too). It’s not a practical degree, and no one should pay or put themselves in a lot of debt to get an MFA. But in general MFA programs have fairly good financial aid, usually in the form of teaching assistantships.
Despite many people’s reasonable doubts (and many other people’s unreasonable attacks or dismissals), MFA programs are in general a good thing. Mine gave me several years to focus on reading and writing, during which I didn’t have to worry about looking for or working at a job.
What was most important about my time at the two MFA programs I attended was that I met several fellow students with whom I clicked as people and as poets, many of whom are still among my closest friends. Having felt very isolated as a writer for much of my life, especially during the several years I was out of school before finishing my BA, that was very important to me. It’s very valuable in general to get outside perspectives on one’s work, even if one doesn’t agree with all of them, as one never will. To imagine one’s work through other eyes is absolutely crucial for a writer.
If one goes to an MFA program without any illusions about what it will do for one professionally or practically, and if one doesn’t pay through the nose or put oneself in debt to do it, it can be a very rewarding experience. Whatever one does afterward, one will still have had that time to focus on what one wants to do, which is a rare opportunity in our society.
One can read and write on one’s own while working full-time. But I know from my own experience how draining and demoralizing most nine-to-five jobs are, and how hard it is to gather up one’s resources when one gets home at night to do anything mentally substantial. (There’s a reason that Adam and Eve’s punishment was to labor by the sweat of their brows.) It’s hard to find the time and energy to study while making a living doing something else. I was very disciplined about such things when I was working nine-to-five, but that’s because I had to be in order to do it at all, and thus to maintain some sense of myself as a human being, let alone as a potential artist.
Most MFA programs aren’t intellectually rigorous, though some are surprisingly so. In my experience (I’ve attended three of them), most PhD programs aren’t intellectually rigorous either, though they do put one through many hoops, some of them on fire. If you want to read and think and write about literature for its own sake, not as a social symptom or an illustration of a theory (and I write this as someone who has found “theory” very useful to my development as a writer), a PhD program is not the route to take.
A PhD is a professional degree, and love of literature is an impediment to academic professionalization—I was once told that it’s something one outgrows. That attitude is antithetical to mine, or to any attitude compatible with being a writer. It’s also, I would add, incompatible with conveying to students that literature has any value other than as a social, ideological, or theoretical document. If that’s one’s only interest in literature, it’s hard to see how any interest in literature can be sustained, which is why so many such types drift off into pseudo-social science (that is, social science without the rigor, the research, the thought-out, consistent arguments, or the standards of evidence) while still claiming to “do” literature.

Comments (17)

  • On August 3, 2008 at 4:43 pm michael robbins wrote:

    I hope you’re doing better, Reginald!
    As for yr post, I can’t agree with either of the points you make here, though I don’t care enough about the question of MFA programs (of which I too am a veteran) to address it here.
    Yr snide comments about PhD programs, however, are completely off the mark. I happen to know a thing or two about both the love of literature & academic professionalization, & I happen to be surrounded by academic professionals. Strange how deeply & inspiringly most of them love literature; how broadly & generously they share that love with their students. To inquire about that love, to want to study & understand it, is hardly the same thing as abandoning it.
    As for “intellectual rigor,” I wonder if there’s a more intellectually rigorous environment anywhere on the planet than the University of Chicago’s English PhD program. And one of the things training in the history of literature & poetics teaches you is the emptiness of phrases like “literature for its own sake,” as if literature could exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the inconvenient fact that it is produced & consumed by actual people living at certain times under certain conditions.
    You seem to be one of Harriet’s resident knee-jerk anti-academics, although interestingly one who repeatedly endorses a version of l’art pour l’art. That doctrine was incoherent two hundred years ago & it remains so today. Recognizing this has exactly zero ramifications for one’s love of literature.

  • On August 3, 2008 at 6:09 pm Tyrone wrote:

    Reginald,
    First, welcome back. Having never been in a MFA program I cannot comment on any view of it–positive or negative–but I am interested in what you write about Ph. D. programs (I do have a Ph.D). You write that one would “want to read and think and write about literature for its own sake”–that’s the part of the quote I want to focus on. Since there are many types of “literature” even within, say, 20th c. American literature, the whole point of questioning (theorizing) why some modes of literature are privileged in certain social and cultural sites s precisely to try to understand the relative values of these literatures. This includes,of course, the heavily contested and argued about category of “aesthetics,” to say nothing of various modes of prosody…I do agree that one sometimes encounters those in literature departments who have no desire to “appreciate” (I;m using this term in its in pre-20th c. sense, though I took classes in “art appreciation” and “opera appreciation”…), much less “love” literature, but in my experience that is the exception, not the rule…
    Tyrone

  • On August 4, 2008 at 8:51 am Daniel wrote:

    Reginald,
    It certainly seems that you chose to enter your MFA programs for the right reasons (time to write, to concentrate on writing as your whole purpose for a period) and – I think, at least – your work is good enough certainly to gain entry. However, there are also many students who pursue an MFA without as much self-reflection, or purpose, and whose work doesn’t merit entry into such an upper-level degree program. This is the point by which so many, as August, are frustrated – the degree’s worth is diminished, and, to a certain extent, the societal value of literature is diluted.
    Also, Doctorates are meant to be research, not professional, degrees. That there may be a low standard for obtaining them only shows how little value they seem to have, and how little the degree itself is really understood by (profit & prestige -minded) University administrations.
    Daniel

  • On August 4, 2008 at 12:38 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    I have many writer friends who have done the Ph.D. thing, and while it’s true that academia has plenty of those annoying careerist types who probably define what this post refers to as “academic professionalization,” I couldn’t ever question their love of literature. Then again, my friends are young, relatively ungrizzled, and untenured. Perhaps I’ll ask again in 20 years.
    Mr. Shepherd, I wonder if you’d be good enough to clarify what you mean by academic professionalization. If I’m reading you correctly, you are saying that a love of literature is not necessarily the way to advance within the academic circles, even if that love drives one to pursue a Ph.D. in the first place. Or are they all hopeless robots?

  • On August 4, 2008 at 8:08 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    I probably should have left the paragraphs about PhD programs out, as they have distracted readers from my main points. Nonetheless, I still stick by the things I wrote, which are true not only to my own experience in three such programs but to the experiences of many friends and acquaintances. I’m happy to hear that there are PhD programs that don’t match that description.
    I’m well aware that many people go into PhD programs because they love literature. But such a love won’t get you through such a program, and is often antithetical to the professionalization a PhD program inculcates. For the most part, one gets a PhD because it’s a necessary academic credential, especially if one wants to teach, not because of the joy of the process.
    To recognize the flaws and limitations of PhD programs in English doesn’t make one an anti-academic. I have always believed, with Stevens, that poetry is the scholar’s art. Anyone who thinks me anti-intellectual is himself suffering from a knee-jerk reaction, and has obviously never actually read anything I’ve written.

  • On August 5, 2008 at 12:40 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Reginald, you seem to ignore the possibility that it might indeed be possible to find “joy” in “the process” — & to assume that teaching constitutes a burden & couldn’t possibly be connected to a love of literature. I find your thoughts on PhD programs hasty at best.
    No one accused you of being “anti-intellectual.” “Anti-academic” is a different matter.

  • On August 5, 2008 at 12:45 pm Tyrone Williams wrote:

    Actually, a love of literature can, often does, serve as blinders to the more unsavory aspects of the Ph. D. process. This is why, I believe, many permanent ABDs implode toward the end, right around the dissertation; by then, if not before, the blinders are off…Most of my friends in gard school didn’t get through or “finsih” right around this time, so I agree the process can certainly undermine the reason one went into it. Of course I cannot think of any credential-acquiring process I’d describe as joyful…
    Tyrone

  • On August 5, 2008 at 1:51 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    No, Mr. Shepherd, I think it’s good you left the stuff about the Ph.D.’s in the post.
    For those of us clamoring within the MFA system, the next logical point is, has the MFA gone from terminal degree to steppingstone to Ph.D.? We are learning quickly, as you’ve pointed out, that an MFA and even multiple book credits do not guarantee you a place within academia. So some of us will go even further into debt to acquire the “big” credential. And for what? If the goal is to find the time to write and publish books without starving to death, then given the lack of jobs, it might be a better idea to take the money one might spend and sink it all into lottery tickets.
    I admire your skill in finding a program that paid your way somewhat and allowed you time to write. I’d be interested to see the numbers of how many writers in MFA programs DON’T get those benefits.

  • On August 6, 2008 at 12:05 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    I’d like to make it clear that I love teaching and hold it in the highest regard. There’s nothing in what I wrote that would even remotely imply a disparagement of teaching. I simply noted that a PhD is a necessary but not a sufficient credential for getting a tenure-track academic position–increasingly so even in creative writing, as Rich Villar notes–and that acquiring that professional credential is the reason that most people pursue and complete PhDs. For the most part, people get PhDs because they want jobs in academia. Hardly an incendiary observation.
    I might also point out that good teaching is in practice not necessarily the primary criterion in academic hiring and retention. I don’t endorse this situation, I simply note it.

  • On August 7, 2008 at 4:35 am unreliable narrator wrote:

    I seem to have a knack for posting to doornail-dead threads, but here’s this anyway: from an AWP Jobs List article by Diana Hume George, “How to Survive on the Tenure Track” (March/April 2000).

    If you wanted writing time, you should have gone into any field except English, and within English, any specialty except teaching writing. Academe can be a good gig with plenty of flexibility and security, but our job in English, and especially in writing, takes longer than anyone else’s. When the annual load is six to eight courses, more than half will usually be composition in the pre-tenure years; and if your specialty is writing instead of literature, then your plums, those two courses you get to teach in your specialty, are more writing courses, with more papers to grade. What were we thinking? It may be too late for you, but if some of your best students are writers with a strong interest in another field, tell them to think about it. Academics in math and psychology and art history and business don’t have a backlog of student papers to edit every moment of their waking lives. If I had to do it all over again, I might have become an anthropologist. Everything is fuel for the writing life.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 1:20 pm Benjamin wrote:

    I’ve nothing well-written to add (what a preface to my comment). I’ve got one year left of my six as a Ph.D. student, and the ONLY REASON I’m doing it is because I love writing, am decent at it, wanted the time to study and explore literature, all while NOT being given an early death with a soul-numbing 9-5 job. I know I’m rare in this pursuit of 9 years (MFA and PhD) of grad study. And grading papers all the time really cheeses me, detracts from my writing time and intensity, though I see no feasible alterntive if I want to practice my craft as a young writer. And if I stay away from the comp and rhetoric folks, and the heavy theory folks in other sub fields, I’m ok, I can keep my creative / writerly bliss around me fairly well, teaching or not. Theory is helpful as long as one doesn’t get lost in it, or, let it replace the raw energy of creativity (access to the subconscious, the divine, the muse, the deeper self, a zen state, whatever). I see too many peers lose their creativity for a love of all things theory, and I hate talking to them because they are no longer real, no longer in the real world, and I feel their writing will never connect to anyone but themselves and the academy. An old argument / story I suppose, though. Always enjoy your entries, Reginald.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 5:09 pm Lydia Olidea wrote:

    Sheesh, Benjamin, I certainly agree that no one should waste their time in a PhD program if they’re going to be taught to say “subconscious” when they mean “unconscious.”
    As for the rest, isn’t a good measure of the value of PhD programs not some absurd idea of what their spiritual relation to the idea of literature or art is (I mean really), but whether they, you know, seem to lead to good ideas? Just as one might measure MFA programs by whether they are able to aid in the production of poems we like?
    Here are some thinkers who I have found extraordinarily useful in my own writing (sometiems via disagreement): Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Susan Stewart, David Harvey, Franco Moretti, Yunte Huang. Do these people have PhDs (or equivalent)? Yup. There are also writers without PhDs who have helped my thinking. But the idea that “love of literature” is even vaguely a meaningful measure is mere travesty.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 5:57 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Seconded! Lydia! In all respects!

  • On August 8, 2008 at 11:01 pm Benjamin wrote:

    Lydia: I meant subconscious. I also incorrectly spelled “alternative,” would you like to take that one, too? But in all seriousness (I am being stupidly snarky), and to address something I didn’t, to not have “love of literature,” to not even have that factor into graduate study, seems to be the greatest tragedy. If it doesn’t exist as a motivation and a continuation of the study–if it gets squeezed out of us, that raw joy and je ne sais quoi of reading just for reading’s sake–I shutter to think what we’re doing to our culture, and to book sales. And to what we’re teaching our students, the future readers of America and lover’s of raw life. If I ever read and think about hegemony or postmodern discourse or Jungian that instead of (or not even in conjunction with) the visceral pleasure of language, may I die right there and then. What I’m saying is that theory isn’t bad, heck no, I’m saying that specialized theoretical language is polluting creative writing as writing (not the ideas, the WRITING)–especially as creative writing becomes more and more absorbed into the academy. I don’t believe there’s anything absurd about that.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 12:19 am Matt wrote:

    How do you know he meant unconscious? I don’t get what the difference is anyway.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 7:53 am Doodle wrote:

    I cannot understand the fuss over PhDs, MFAs, and Garrison Keillor. What do these things have to do at all with poetry?
    (You don’t need an advanced degree to notice that Lydia’s name owes a little something to Marx – Groucho Marx, that is; here’s a link to her website: http://www.lydiaolydia.com/)

  • On August 9, 2008 at 12:27 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Cf. the entries on “Subconscious” & “Unconscious” in Laplanche & Pontalis’s great Language of Psychoanalysis, which explains why to speak of the former, especially in a psychoanalytic connection, is imprecise.


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, August 3rd, 2008 by Reginald Shepherd.