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Juliana Spahr on Lisa Jarnot’s Rejection of the MFA System

By Harriet Staff

Another greatness from The Argotist Online: Juliana Spahr discusses, with poet and professor Emily Carr, her “decision to remain part of the MFA system,” in response to Lisa Jarnot’s resignation from the Brooklyn College MFA faculty, partly done in order “to stop contributing to a system that seems to me to do more harm than good” (which Jarnot mentioned in her piece, “Reading,” in Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook). Spahr’s remarks:

JS: I have so many mixed emotions about this MFA discussion. It keeps coming up. And I’ve had several long discussions with Joan Retallack and Connie Vosine and Jill Magi about the MFA on email recently. One of my hesitations is that much of this discussion is so focused on the MFA as the problem and then tends to oddly avoid some of the larger questions around higher education and its role in maintaining and intensifying class divides. So parts of the critique of the MFA feel diversionary in that they keep missing the really large problems with the education factory in general. I’ve said this before, but I don’t think there is necessarily something bad about twelve people around a table talking about their own work (and at moments the work of other poets). It can, of course, be a mundane and boring practice but I do not think that it will destroy US literature as we know it. Nor will it destroy the brains of those who do it. Literature is much larger and more complicated than that and the MFA is not strong enough to do that sort of damage.

I love people who have the guts to quit their jobs. I have neither the guts nor the cunning. And if I had to answer mundanely, I would say that I remain a part of the MFA system because I have for years attempted to get a job as a critic, which is what I trained to be and what I feel most comfortable as institutionally, and have not been able to pull it off. I stay in my job because it pays me money and because most of the time it keeps me interested (and part of my interest in my job is in attempting to understand the economic forces that are so dramatically reshaping it in this moment). None of this though means that I get to pretend that teaching in an MFA is an innocent job. Nor do I get to absurdly assert that it is a form of political activism. I also, though, am not convinced that anyone needs to keep themselves pure from the MFA. Of all the ways I contribute to a system that does more harm than good, I’d probably put teaching in the MFA system as one of my lesser evils. Below eating meat.

At the same time, there is much that I do not like about educational institutions in the US right now. The MFA is a pay to play degree. Some pay with labor (teaching classes). Some pay with student loans. Some pay with cash. Like many aspects of contemporary life, it is never going to be innocent of these economics. And these economics are going to shape it in various ways. Although the MFA is not (yet) a significant part of the for-profit educational sector, it is a degree that tuition driven colleges and universities tend to support because it brings in tuition dollars. Which means that is a degree created on the backs of student loans. And there are many reasons to be suspicious of student loans.

And yet, at the same time, no one makes anyone get an MFA. There have been a million articles now in Poets & Writers about how the MFA does not guarantee meaningful employment, how it is basically a luxury degree. Often the critique of the MFA assumes this poor stupid consumer. And it is probably worth remembering sometimes that those that pay to get an MFA, whether through labor or with cash or with loans, are not necessarily stupid. They might just be people who are forced into making less than ideal choices to engage with an educational system that does not well represent their interests because they live in a capitalist society which provides next to no support for any sort of intellectual life.

The interview also includes Sphar’s considerations of what an “ideal” three-year MFA program might look like, based on and in dialogue with Jarnot’s plan. Some of that:


Ideally, the program will enroll a total of thirty students with six faculty. One administrator will be hired. Faculty and administrator will be paid equally. Tuition rates will be set by faculty after studying the financial situation of the admitted class. (Admissions, however, will be need blind.)

Each year, there will be a M/W/F lecture-based seminar literature class that will be taught by various faculty. And a T/Th presentation of student work class. All faculty and students will be in attendance for all the classes.

At beginning of each year, each student will develop with one faculty member an individualized course of study that includes fifty-two books. All reading lists will be published after they are finalized. Students will support each other in their reading, meeting in small groups as they desire and as their reading overlaps. At end of year, each student will have a discussion with the all faculty committee on their work and their reading.

Students will do fieldwork in their second year. There will be a class to support the fieldwork that will be attended only by second-year students. Fall semester will be fieldwork preparation. It will include things like the study of pedagogical theory, especially its liberation traditions, guest lectures about the ethics and problematics of various “service learning” models, study of literary magazines and reading series and publishing series and their role in presenting and cultivating various literary traditions. At end of class, students will present fieldwork projects that they will undertake in the spring semester. Projects could have a pedagogical focus (such as teaching a free skool somewhere) or a “relational aesthetic” focus or an editorial focus (a reading series, a journal, a press, a website, etc.). These will be critiqued and developed through classroom discussion. In the spring semester, the class will provide support for students as they work on their projects.

Students will present a manuscript to the faculty at the end of their third year.

Successful student progress will be determined by the faculty at the end of the year meeting. Students whose manuscript is found to be deficient may enroll in another year to finish their manuscript. They will not be required to attend the M/W/F classes but will be required to attend the T/Th presentations of creative work.

Read it all here.

Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.