Sunday, March 05, 2006

Mailbag for March 6th, 2006



All right, back again. Hope everyone had a good two weeks. I know a number of acceptances have gone out, and many more are to come. Thanks for all the questions this week. I’ve chosen four or five to address below. Future questions can be sent here, and the MFA Handbook can be purchased here.

And check it out, we finally have a review on Amazon.

Lots of questions this week about UMass Amherst, who apparently sent their acceptances out. Most questions are in regard to funding. On this particular question, I’m going to avoid the man-facting: please reference the contact person at UMass for the most specific information. My experience from six years ago will not be as accurate, obviously, than what the front office can tell you.

One question, from Batty in Brooklyn caught my eye: “If indeed even the TA positions are ‘tiered’, does this lend itself to a competitive atmosphere within the program?” This is relevant to UMass, as well as most other schools. The TA positions will likely be tiered in some way. Some students will teach composition. Others creative writing. I got to teach American Diversity and Metaphor and Creativity while I was there. The best classes normally go to the “upperclassmen” (those who have been the longest in the program). And yes, it does create something of a competitive atmosphere, as everyone wants to teach the creative writing classes. But there aren’t enough to go around. Choices at most schools are based on the quality of the proposed syllabi, previous teaching evaluations, and often a written or face-to-face interview.

Overall Batty, I wouldn’t worry about the competition for individual classes at this stage. You want to go where the best funding is overall, then worry about what classes you’ll teach down the line.

Still Jaded in Japan writes: “As far as teaching in a university goes, what does a creative writing PhD allow you to do that an MFA doesn't? Does it add the option of teaching literature courses or something like that?” Yes, a Ph.D. allows for greater flexibility in teaching literature classes, which are the bulk of classes in an English Department. Recently I went through the job listings on the Modern Language Association page. I knew that many writing positions would require the Ph.D., but I was surprised at how many. Almost a third of them. That’s right. Almost a third. And the majority of others required proficiency in more than one genre (i.e. fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting etc.). So, the Ph.D. allows more time to learn new teaching (and writing) skills, and that will help you greatly on the market.

Publishing one or more books is still the most important element to a job application, but the Ph.D. is becoming more and more important for institutions seeking candidates. I expect that will continue.

And as for your second question: USC’s Ph.D. program is outstanding, but only 2-3 people are accepted each year.

Zombie Without Coffee asks “Would you advise for or against programs that are only one or two (or three) years old?” Oh, this would definitely be man-facting, and I’m going to try to steer away from that. The pros of a new program: They’ll make student recruiting and retention a priority. You should get a lot of attention. The main con: No track record. You don’t have many former students who can tell you much about their experience. I’m not going to advise you for or against, Zombie, but I personally would want some sort of track record (not necessarily a long one, simply something that I could measure) before I invested 2-3 years of my life. Best of luck.

Anxious Latecomer asks about a teaching assistantship application. It apparently says that he has to apply every year for the TA, even if it’s a renewal. What gives? AL, I can’t answer definitively, but for the most part: once you’ve got one, you keep it. If you turn out to do a lousy job teaching, then they want an “out” to get rid of you. If you do a good job, you won’t have to worry about it. They’ll want you back.

Finally, Feeling All Over the Place lives in Irvine and doesn’t think much of it. Should she still apply to UCI? That’s easy: If you don’t like Irvine (or any particular city for that matter), don’t apply there. Atmosphere is an important element to a writer’s experience. What will work for others will not necessarily work for everyone. I’ve heard nothing but good things from former UC-Irvine students, and I think it’s one of the best programs in the country, but it’s important that you – on your own terms – understand where you’d like to live, where you could stand to live, and where you absolutely will not live. Stick to that.

Batty in Brooklyn is our codename of the week then. Congratulations. Thanks to everyone who wrote in. See you in two weeks.

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