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Once Again, the Great MFA Debate

By Harriet Staff

Ah, the “Great MFA Debate.” It’s back! A worthy discussion, if you’re actually considering the degree and aren’t easily overwhelmed. See Eric Weinstein writing at Ploughshares:

A lot of people have written extensively on this topic, and one need only Google “should I get an MFA?” to see what they have to say; I won’t expend effort attempting what many have already done better and more thoroughly elsewhere. (For the widest possible divergence in views, see the opinions of Lan Samantha Chang [for] and Anis Shivani [against].)

I will, however, mention a few things that I think have been missed over the course of these discussions, as well as reiterate points I think are worth revisiting.

First and foremost: never, never, never go into significant debt for an art degree. For any reason. Ever.

Weinstein is a recent MFA grad from NYU, who managed to work full-time while accruing no debt. His feelings on the matter are based on said experience; and he’s pretty positive:

To my mind, the MFA is good for a whole bunch of things: qualifying you to teach undergraduates, getting you used to writing on a deadline, giving you access to a community of writers, giving you time to focus on your writing, meeting a lot of cool and influential writers, and introducing you to the work of poets and writers you otherwise might not have read are just a few examples. Thing is, a lot of these perks are attainable outside the structure of the MFA degree. If you’re working in, say, journalism, and you’ve got a couple of poet/writer friends already, you’ve pretty much got everything you need (unless you really, really want to teach creative writing at the college level.)

And there are a few bad habits I think are instilled (or at least abetted) by the MFA: emphasizing attention to contemporary writing at the cost of attention to the classics (i.e. anything written before World War One), editing by committee (though I’m inclined to think anyone who can be cowed by a room of ten graduate students would be similarly influenced outside of the workshop), and reliance on the artificial structure offered by class deadlines and requirements as a proxy for individual discipline chief among them. But I’m convinced that the benefits of attendance far outweigh the potential disadvantages, so long as you choose a program that’s a good fit and that won’t break the proverbial bank.

Makes sense to us! Oh what’s that, how’s the job market? (Well, don’t forget your PhD.) And then there’s that conversation…

Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, February 2nd, 2012 by Harriet Staff.