Monday, July 23, 2007

Art Schools, English Departments, and such

Seems to me that it's time to write a new post addressing some of Conor's arguments regarding the seeming supremacy in his opinion of art school environments to English department environments in terms of getting an MFA in writing. Being in the unique position of having gone to both (I have a Visual Art MFA from California College of the Arts and am currently in the fiction program at Cornell), I can offer the following opinions:

* Art school is generally less constrained and forces people to think outside the box. However, it can also be less cognisant of historical precedent, so that artists find themselves doing things that are derivative without even knowing it. On the other hand, English departments can be less tolerant of students who break rules of form and style.

* Art school provides contact with other artists engaging in creative endeavors, while English departments provide contact with academics who think about literature in a larger historical and critical context. I find both perspectives valuable, which is why I hung out with all the curatorial practice kids in art school and all the MFA visual art kids here at Cornell.

* English Departments in large universities generally have better libraries in a more diverse range of fields.

* English Departments are generally better-funded. I got a tuition scholarship for my art school MFA, which is unusual in itself, but I still had to take out loans for living expenses. Most of my fellow students had to pay for their MFA's, and I understand this to be the case in most art schools. OTOH, a bunch of English Departments provide their students with tuition fellowships and a stipend.

* Art schools encourage interdisciplinary work and think of artmaking more holistically, while English Departments can be constrained in terms of what counts as worthwhile artistic endeavors.


Gabriela said...

Great points, M., and valuable, considering your POV is first-hand in both accounts.

dll said...

Good points and thanks for putting things in perspective.

A large strong reliable library is an under-rated item/tool for the MFA student, I believe.

{you may want to answer these in another post, I'm getting a we bit off topic}
Could you tell me a little more about Cornell's english department in particular-does it have a wide variety of courses focusing on a variety of authors and works?
Is the faculty respectful of differing opinions on works?

{this may seem like a stupid question, but I recently had a nightmare experience with a tenured English professor who openly mocked a student who didn't agree with him-the prof made faces at other students while this student spoke-and he told another student to stop paying attention to what the creative writing faculty told him about writing}

How's Cornell's library?


M. said...

dll: cornell has a wide variety of lit courses if you're thinking broadly, but may not be ideal if you want to focus on 20th century fiction. there are usually one or two grad lit classes, but not a whole range. i find the professors here really low key (possibly too low-key for my taste; i'm totally used to my professors being opionated), so i haven't seen the kind of disrespectful behavior you describe.

and the library is amazing, especially after art school. with the borrow direct system, you can borrow books from any of the other ivies (except for harvard... typical).

Lincoln said...

I'm sorry to keep repeating myself, but this debate still seems a bit confused to me. It seems as if everyone is debating English PhD programs to MFAs in sculpting or whatever at art-only schools. Isn't the question how MFAs in writing compare depending on where they are housed?

My program is at a traditional university, but is housed in the arts school. Certainly this hasn't affected my access to great libraries, as I have access to all of Columbia's libraries.

It still seems to me that at most universities the writing program is a fairly insular program. They have their own professors, their own classes and their own students. If you go to a program you will be taking classes for writing MFA students that are filled with your peers and taught by professors in the MFA program. Which is to say, if you take a literature class most of the time you are taking it as a craft class with a title like "The art of the prose poem" instead of "Post-colonial phallic images in the sonnets of Shakespeare."

Am I incorrect in this assumption?

If the above is accurate, than what real significance is there to where the MFA program is bureaucratically located? Does it matter if the students taking classes on the floor below you are painters instead of victorian lit phd students?

It seems to me that the only real difference would be if a different type of professor taught at art school MFAs or if a different type of student applied to regular MFAs or if there was some significant difference in how the two were organized and executed.

So far I haven't seen any claims about the above. Does anyone believe there to be a significant difference in professors, peers or methods in art-school versus english department MFAs? If so, what and how exactly? This seems to me like the heart of the matter.

Conor said...

I didn't mean to attack. I apologize and understand your points. I just got all defensive. Hope it's not too obvious I'm not a tenacious or careful blogger.

Conor said...

my question, indeed, was about where your MFA was located and the types of professors that place may attract. Sorry if I got off topic in any way. it got a little late, and I shoulda just turned in.

Conor said...

m. you made the points gracefully, couldn't have done it better, thanks.

Lincoln said...

Could you elaborate a bit on the differences you feel there are between professors at art-schools and english departments.

Do they write different kinds of books? Do they have different backgrounds? Do more regular MFA teachers have PhDs than art-school teachers?

What are the differences that you see and where have you seen them?

Conor said...

most of my professors are authors, not having received too much formal academic training, but the ones that are trained are PhD's in semiotics or something to do with sentence level language; stuff like that. The poets seem to all be hugely accredited or extremely well published. The novel writers are all on their twentieth or their career has afforded them the luxury of a lull. Most are writers who got B.A.s in the 60's and went on to successful writing careers, but need to work with other writers and teach. The playwriting instructor I worked with didn't even go to college, but is from a playwriting community that's huge. work

Lincoln said...

And do you feel that this is different than other MFAs?

At my MFA, and all the MFA's of my friends, the writiers are all authors as well with dozens of books under them (unless they are hot and hip up-and-comers) and are likewise hugely accredited, etc. Most don't have PhD's either.

dll said...


Thanks for the info! That helps...didn't know you could borrow from other god, heaven.


For my part, the MFA and PhD at the school I'm currently an undergrad at is housed within the English deaprtment. In order to get your MFA or PhD in creative writing here you are required to take lit courses within this English department. And those lit courses are not crafts classes, nor are they taught by CW faculty. There are some crafts classes taught by CW faculty, but that's in addition to the lit requirements which are taught by the lit faculty.
And the tale I told in my earlier post about the lit prof at this school is true, happened but a couple months ago in fact. And the class was a mix of undergrad and grad students, as is common at this school.
But, I think I should add at this point that two of my future recommenders are lit faculty at this school and they're brilliant and terrific teachers and people.
But, my point is that there are schools out there that offer the MFA that are imbedded in the English department, there is no seperation, and some of the faculty within the department are not the most friendly towards CW or things outside the canon.

{BTW I got an A in that class with the hard nosed lit prof, so this isn't soar grapes or a vendetta. And the people I know who were treated poorly by him also got A's, so I don't think the prof was so unprofessional as to let opinions affect grades}

dll said...


You did say, I did read correctly, that you are not paying for your MFA from the School at the Art Insitute of Chicago, right?
How is that? Not to get too personal, but is the school taking care of it? Did you raise funding on your own, but with their help?
I'm just curious. Not judging.
Just that that was one of the items listed by m that I've found to be true, by and large, that art schools tend not to fund well or at all.

M. Ramirez Talusan said...

conor, no harm done. as you can tell i get a little bit snarky when i feel misrepresented. it's a weakness.

lincoln, i think your peers may be less of a factor for you since columbia is such a big program and new york such a huge city that you have much greater freedom in controlling your influences, but environment makes a huge difference in my experience. i don't know a lot about columbia mfa writing, but i think you guys are not as common as a pure studio program as others that require/recommend lit classes, such as iowa, cornell, brown, and michigan. even a pure studio program such as hopkins is still housed in the same building as the english ph.d.'s. whereas at cca, the creative writers were in classes with artists where they get to make videos and installations and such. it really affects their work, like a lot of the poets incorporated sound and video into their projects and such. i really do think that institutions and communities have a profound effect on students.

Samara said...

This is off topic, but can anyone comment on finding letters of recommendation? I am freaking out here, even more so than about my writing sample. The one professor I had in college (8 years ago) who I really feel knew my work is not returning any of my calls or emails, even though I ran into her at a conference and she mentioned giving me a rec and told me to call her at home. There's another guy I took a week-long workshop with who seemed to really like my story, but since it was only a week-long class I don't want to count on him. Just what do recommendations usually consist of, and how important are they? Is it acceptable to include one from a friend who knows my writing? She is a freelance magazine writer who I exchange work with and her husband was my editor at a magazine, so maybe one of them would work?

Noah said...

^^^ what samara said... maybe this warrants a whole post. any of you bloggers want to tackle this?

Mike Valente said...


Do a search for "recommendation" on this blog site, and you'll pull up some very useful archives on the subject.

Regarding your specific situation, I would give the professor a couple of more weeks to respond. She could be vacationing abroad or doing research elsewhere during the summer months, or attending conferences across the US. You might also be like 1 of 10 people asking for a recommendation from her for various graduate programs, so the prof could be waiting until the start of the school year to compile email requests and to send one email to every candidate with instructions on how to proceed.


M. Ramirez Talusan said...

recommendations can be very frustrating--i had nightmares getting mine. samara, it's great you're starting early. a published writer is better than an editor, especially one you've met in a professional context. if you have the means and ability to take a short summer course and/or a class in the fall, definitely do that. i hadn't taken a single university-based creative writing class when i applied, so i got recs from people i did adult education classes with, one of whom i still haven't met in person because i took the class online.

L. said...

I got two of my recs from editors I'd done minor projects for, samara. The third I got from a colleague who was a published author and with whom I'd collaborated on some freelance assignments. For a minute, I felt handicapped going into the application thing: none of these people were household names, whereas some applicants were reporting how they got Steve Almond to write recs for them. But it worked out OK in the end.

Samara said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you all! I feel much better already. I was panicking.

Vince said...

This is all great to know. Thanks.

Pavel Yusim said...

Applying to an art school or two seems like a great idea, especially after reading this discussion. The problem is, no art school programs are ever present on any list - the rankings, the Tip Sheet, people's personal lists, none of them include any of the art schools.

I understand that the rankings are bullshit, but people's personal lists are usually meaningful, at least to them, so why no mention of the art schools?

And if some of them are worth looking into, which ones are they?

Conor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Conor said...

association of writers and writing programs is a good launching point


Lincoln said...


I personally think that those other rankings are probably a lot more meaningful than personal lists. Most people with personal lists have only been to 1 program (if that), so base their opinions on the others mostly on hearsay, outdated information, subjective preferences and other more official lists. Just 2 cents.


I definitly wasn't suggesting that one's peer's aren't a big factor. In fact, in my first post here I suggested that the peer group might be THE most important factor. My assumption (based not only on my program but the programs of friends I have) was that most programs tend to be insular and thus your peers are the people in the MFA program, not the artists getting other MFAs or english students getting PhDs.

But I think I might have underestimated just how small some programs are. If I'm reading you correctly, your program has you sharing classes and professors with PhD English candidates and thus they become a part of your peer group? I don't think I factored in how the very small programs might have to do this.

I'm not sure what you mean about Columbia being a "pure studio" program. Columbia is actually known as having one of hte more rigorous non-workshop classes requirements, but they are all craft classes, not academic classes.

M. Ramirez Talusan said...

lincoln, that was exactly what i meant by a pure studio program. like hopkins, columbia doesn't require students to take literature classes in the english department but instead conducts classes on their own. this is not the case for a lot of other schools.

and yes, with sixteen total MFA's at any given time, cornell give us a genre-dedicated workshop and a craft class every semester, which alternates between fiction and poetry. but we still have two classes that we usually take with the ph.d.'s, and a lot of people (like me) don't take the craft classes offered by the mfa program, since they're optional.

Miles Newbold Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan said...

My program is an MFA in a graduate liberal studies dept, so we're not really art school or english dept. But the result is a program that allows for a lot of exploration between genres, and the additional requirement of interdisciplinary study. It's a great mix if you know something of who you are as a writer and can pursue that in multiple ways.

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