Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Let's Take a Break from the Columbia Debate

Hi Everyone. Tom Kealey here. Thanks to everyone who has been so thoughtful -- and thorough! -- about the Columbia MFA program debate.

Let's take a break from that right now, at least until the end of Christmas. It's beginning to squeeze out a number of other important matters in this season of research, applications, and (hopefully!) acceptances.

I'll start with a new subject, especially aimed at current or past MFA students: What are the pros/cons in a two-year or three year program? I'm sure that a number of prospective students are weighing this heavily. For me, at UMass, I wrote my best stories in my third year, when I was done with workshop, when I was teaching creative writing, and when I finally had some time to breathe and take stock of all that I'd learned. I don't think I personally could've done that in a third year of working an advertising job in Boston or the like. So, reflections and questions about two and three year MFAs. Thanks again for everyone's thoughtful posts.

-- TK


Seth Abramson said...

I recommend three-year programs to my students whenever I can; I think the first semester and the second-to-last at an MFA are the hardest (the first because you're adjusting, and the latter because you're trying to find employment or secure a place in an educational institution as a student). So sometimes it feels like, in a two-year program, you only have two semesters to feel unfettered by "reality"; in a three-year program, you get double that--four semesters. Sounds good to me right about now!


malcontent said...

My preference is for a three-year program. I feel like I will be able to accomplish more in a longer program with an extra year of funding.

carrie murphy said...

i'm in my first year of a three-year program, and i love the idea that i don't really have to start worrying about my thesis until next year.

eLily said...

From the Low-Res perspective, I'll speak for two year programs.

Of course, the low-res setting needs to fit the life of the prospective student, so I don't intend for this to come off as an argument for low-res, or worse, against traditional programs...

Speaking from my own experience: I'm going full speed, over here and I LOVE it. I'm immersed in craft, always writing, and in constant contact with my faculty mentors. The one-on-one attention keeps me really inspired.

In my first year, I learned so much I felt my skull crack. Outside both residencies, I read 20 or so texts (for my genre, these were mostly novels, with some short story collections mixed in), wrote 16 expository papers on craft, and completed a first draft of my novel.

I'm sure a third year would be just as beneficial, but realistically, I have to think of myself as a writer, and work as a writer. For me, this means getting out there and doing it.

gina said...

I don't think one is necessarily better than the other. Just like the issue of location, it depends on one's circumstances.

Some of the reasons I am personally more attracted to 2-year programs:

1. Most of these MFA Programs are located in places where I wouldn't want to live after I graduate. I live in a place right now that I really love and would like to move back here afterward. If I'm away two years, I think I'd be able to fall back into my old life pretty easily; if I'm away three, I think it would suddenly become a whole lot harder.

2. A lot of my friends who attended three year programs claimed that they were basically burnt out by the end of their second year. They'd taken classes with all of the professors in the program, had read so much of their classmates work that they didn't feel they could be helpful anymore, were tired of living on a TA salary, wanted to get back to their old lives, etc. They basically felt like they'd gotten out of the program what they needed to get out of it, making the third year feel a little superfluous.

3. Money is an issue for me, and even in a well-funded program I'd have to take out some small loans each semester. So, on a practical level, one less year of school is also one less year of student loan debt.

4. There's a small chance I may want to do a Ph.D. afterward. If so, I'd want to get started on that sooner rather than later.

5. Finally, some of the programs I personally happen to like, including many of the best in the country, just happen to be two-year programs.

Luke Johnson said...

There's a certain sense of urgency being in a two year program, an urgency I really enjoy. It definitely is a heavy load between writing, teaching intro., and applying for fellowships/jobs for after the mfa, but not overwhelming to the point that it weakens one's ability to do any of those three things to the best of his or her ability (imo). I love where I am and think I've improved drastically as a writer, but that said, I'm eager to move to the next step, whatever that may be. A third or fourth (Alabama) year sounds tempting, but I don't think one misses out on much by going to a two-year program--you're simply forced to double-down a bit sooner. That said, if you do go the two-year route, stay there as much as you can during the breaks, and write, write, write.

Regardless of how long the program, ideally, you're not going to want it to end.


Gustavo said...

Well, I gather from what folks have been saying that it's a question of taste and working habits. If you're good at working under pressure, go for the two-year programs. If you need more time for things to "sink in," or, put another way, for you to assimilate what you've learned, go for three-year programs. (I'm in the latter camp, and thank God I'm at UMass :)).

A quick and friendly rejoinder to Gina's point 2 (see her comment above). For all those friends of hers that claim to be burned out by the end of the second year, I can imagine (in fact, I know) people who are grateful to have the opportunity of having a third year.

Now, if you're in a three-year program and you realize you want to wrap it up in two and move on -- well, that can be done. I know people at three-year programs who decided to wrap it up in two, and they just went ahead and did it. Whereas if you're in a two-year program and you realize a third year would benefit you... What can you do? (Unless you're at Cornell, which is a two-year program with the option of a third one).

Gina's other points make a lot of sense, but then again, they are a matter of personal taste/needs, and working habits.

Adrienne said...

I am still in undergrad, and while I was doing my research I was initally attracted to two year programs because I wanted to get a start on my career pretty quickly and I didn't want a lot of debt.

However, after learning about all of the options for funding and assurance from my parents that they will assist me (and I will do my best not to take advantage of that), I decided that I would rather go to a three year program. I want as much time as possible to learn and grow and I don't want to be stressed out about my thesis right away if I don't have to.

Really, though, I'll go anywhere that gives me a decent amount of funding and accepts me. I'll be grateful wherever I go.

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

Mein Gott! Been busy here. Spend a few weeks taking care of finals and miss out on a ton around this place. Wow.

I'm voting three-years, particularly if a body's been away from school a while. There's a lot to be said for the extra year giving one a sense of what it's like to be a student again, the chance to build up to a solid writing habit different from that possible working 9 to 5, easing the brain toward the idea of writing a thesis, and more.

Ryan said...

I think the decision is largely predicated upon where each applicant is within his/her own project. When I started at JHU (a 2 year program) I was fresh out of my undergraduate degree and really wasn’t that far along in figuring out exactly what I wanted to do aesthetically. I thought I was, but I didn’t know enough at the time to know that I didn’t know jack. Consequently, none of the poems from the first year even made it to my thesis. After I graduated from JHU, I went to BU for a second MFA (it was an MA when I applied but the title was changed surreptitiously in the shadows of night) and found the program tremendously helpful, but exhausting. Had I only had the one year at BU, I would not have felt adequately prepared to engage my own project independently with any sort of success; however, because the BU year was equivalent to a supremely awesome third year at JHU, I came out satisfied that I had at least a modicum of critical acumen relevant to my work as well as a familiarity with classical, traditional, contemporary, and exploratory approaches.

So, to reiterate, I think the decision has to do with the teachers, funding, local, etc, but also to do with the writer’s relationship to his/her own project. Three years of creative writing grad school served me well, but I came into the first program not knowing very clearly (still hazy) exactly how I wanted to approach language (apparently with numerous adverbs). If a writer is more experienced, a two-year program would make sense. If a writer is, as I was, 22, I’d recommend going for all the years you can get, unless you’re Rimbaud, Adrienne Rich, or an equally precocious wunderkind.

All this said, I highly recommend both JHU and BU to those applying for MFAs. Both were revolutionary experiences for me. At JHU, the focus is predominantly on canonical English-language poems, with a decisive lean toward traditional forms and narrative. At BU, the aesthetic is perhaps less decided, but during my tenure still had a slight lean in the direction of traditional forms (this may have changed with Walcott’s retirement). Also, I should add that BU encourages inter-disciplinary works (theatre, translation, ekphrastic work with the graduate school’s painters, etc) which is invaluable and further bolsters their rigorous and imminently rewarding curriculum.

Babelle said...

I'd vote for three. When I started the application process last year I was certain I wanted a two-year program, mostly because my husband would be moving with me and if he hadn't been able to find a job in his field I didn't want to impose three years of exile on him. I posted the question of two vs. three years on this blog last year and the comments then made me seriously consider three years. When I went to the open house for my current school, one of the faculty laid it out like this (if I remember correctly): your first year, you're discombobulated, you're adjusting to teaching, you're maybe reexamining the writing process and your own work, finding your "sea legs" as it were. Your second year, you're over that initial hump but are still deep in the learning process, writing steadily, benefiting from peer feedback. Your third year is when you can step back, take the long view, and really focus on your thesis.

I am now in a three-year program and can't imagine it otherwise--but as others have said, this is a personal decision. I am NOT someone who can put out my best work under pressure. I was also at a stage where I felt like I was at the very beginning of my development as a writer (I still am) and couldn't imagine being able to write something as mature and polished as I want my thesis to be, without the extra year in workshop.

I do think teaching is important to consider. I'm at a funded program, and while I was lucky not to have to teach this year, my friends who are have talked about how time-consuming that first term is, mostly by virtue of being a learning process. That also impacts the writing time.

Babelle said...

I would also add that I feel like my time in an MFA program is a fleeting blessing. I LOVE it here, I LOVE being in school, but I know I can't be forever, so three years is just a way of prolonging this funded time to write in a community of people who value writing as much as I do.

Alex said...

Having just finished my first semester in a two-year program, I can attest to how fast it all seems to go. One out of four semesters, gone!

My advice for the two year folks is (if possible, given money and time concerns...and this may pertain more to people coming from the corp. world like I did) to consider the year prior to starting the program as a first year, of sorts. I participated in online workshops and attended a summer conference during that block of time, and I think it helped me start off the fall semester with a good foundation.

Then, once you're at school, always keep in mind that time is running out! I think of it in terms of four semesters within a protective bubble. Well, now it's down to three. That usually becomes the deciding factor when potential distractions pop up and I consider setting aside schoolwork. And it forced me to think a lot about organization and time management right off the bat, where I might have let that slide a bit if I knew I had a third year coming.

Unknown said...

I just finished my first semester at a three year program, and already it seems like I have so much to accomplish (*ahem* publish) before I graduate, I can't imagine being in a two year program and already being a quarter of the way done!

I could take on extra classes each semester and summer and finish in two years, but I've actually been thinking about finishing in seven semesters instead of six! "Funding" for me means working as a part-time instructor and a part-time job so that's a different situation each of us.

My main goal is leaving here either to go directly into a PhD program or into teaching work -- and I need to secure one or the other before I leave and I just feel that more time = more knowledge = a better chance of success.

Rivka Galchen said...

From Columbia MFA alum Rivka Galchen
Well I spent three years in Columbia’s two year program—this is how it works out if you do one of the TA-ships—and frankly I wouldn’t mind being able to drop in on classes and workshops from now on forward to eternity, but that’s just me. Those kinds of settings for me are constitutive of my thinking, but they could easily, for another type of person, simply be more of an obstacle. So it all seems very personal, the matter of whether one prefers a two year program, or three year one, or no program at all!
And I can’t help but feel moved to add a couple cents to the tidy little confusion of information accumulated here about Columbia, and funding, etc.
First: I do think it’s cool to have a place of accumulated stories of people’s perspectives on MFA programs, and bravo for getting that together. And I also concur with the general mood expressed here, which is that money—or rather, not having enough of it—is terrifying.
That said, while I think it partially admirable to try and crunch all sorts of numbers, I also think it’s problematic in a number of ways. Whenever something is more easily objectively measured, it ends up seeming, misleadingly, like the most important thing to measure. But really it’s just the easiest thing. (See Also: No Child Left Behind Act.) Most of the ‘value’ of an MFA program is something that cn be discussed, described, argued over, thought about, but not easily measured. Those unmeasurables, in the case of an MFA—as opposed to say, the case of assessing something like kidney function—seem quite important, maybe even the most important.
Which isn’t to say that the financial daunting-ness of pursuing a writing career—MFA included or not—is incredibly important, influential, scary, unjust, uncomfortable, a crisis, etc. But I don’t know where all of anyone’s numbers are coming from here, and in the end, each particular applicant will face their own very particular numbers, depending on fellowships, other jobs, etc, and that seems like the important math to be done, the personal one. But if it makes anyone’s curiosity feel sated, I’m happy to offer my own Columbia numbers.
I went to Columbia from 2003-2006. My husband and I lived in Columbia housing, in a one-bedroom apartment, for which we paid the below market rate of $1100 a month.
I had a sizeable fellowship to help with my first year, and so I ended up being responsible for about 15.5K of tuition pus healthcare that year. (It sounds like now there are some near full fellowships.) The next two years I had a TA-ship, which covered my tuition and healthcare costs completely, and provided me with a less than glamorous but totally sufficient 18K in cash. 11.5 of that was an untaxable stipend, and the rest was taxable income, the part designated as payment for work as a teacher. There was also—and I doubt this will happen again in the near future—a $1000 bonus for all grad students that came about because some nice donor somewhere wanted all the Columbia grad students to get a bonus.
My husband was a graduate student while I was in school, and he earned about 23K. We lived nicely, if not luxuriously. And we knew very well that if we ever fell on hard times, we had all sorts of people, our parents included, who would let us live with them for awhile. It’s nice to have that safety net, and not everyone does.
So, all told, I ‘spent’ around 16K on ‘school.’ One might say that really I ‘spent’ much more, since I could have had a job during that time which earned SUBSTANTIALLY more. In that sense, maybe a year of school ‘cost’—if you include opportunity costs—more than 100K!
But I always think to myself, if I had some job that I didn’t love like I love writing, I would spend every available dime I had in order to get to live the way I live now, which is to say, I get to read, write, eat, drink tea at any old hour and see my family lots and easily and flexibly because of my flexible schedule.
But it’s true: some people, for whatever reason, extract a tremendous amount of ‘value’ from their schooling, and some would extract much more value from a totally other setting. And so everyone needs to do their own ‘math.’
And one last thing on numbers: I worked on the admissions committee two of the last three years, and though I didn’t follow just what percentage of students received acceptances, the numbers you cited don’t jibe in any way at all with my experience of the percentage of apps that even got passed up for the next round of culling?
Rivka Galchen, MFA Alum Columbia Class of 2006

Warren said...

Interesting, Rivka Galchen.

Chidelia said...

This debate ended a month ago, but I'm going to chime in late rather than not at all!:

I've been thinking hard on this question as acceptance letters loom nearer. Now that I've got a bit of distance from the stress of the application process, I'm starting to think about what I'll do when I'm accepted to multiple programs. When I was choosing the schools to which I would apply, funding and location were my only factors.

But now that I know I'll have to make an actual choice in the coming months, I've started investigating the programs themselves more.

My chosen schools were (in no particular order):
Cornell, Syracuse, U Mass-Amherst, U Michigan-Ann Arbor, Indiana, Purdue, and Texas-Austin.

I've been perusing the course lists/requirements for each of these schools, and even the programs that are considered to be "studios" (meaning focusing on the workshop rather than critical literature theory) were quite rigorous. I calculated the amount of classes I'd likely be taking each semester, and they came to 3-4.

When I start thinking about that final year/semester of my program, I realize that on top of whatever remaining classes I'm taking, I'll also be:
1. working on my thesis
2. applying for fellowships/jobs/grants/residencies
3. teaching at least 1 class
4. eating, sleeping, & breathing

It's when I think of this that I realize how important that extra year is, particularly factoring in #'s 1 & 2. Now that I've realized how important that 3rd year is to me, my personal raking of the schools has shifted pretty significantly. I am now most excited to be accepted to(in order):
1. Indiana
2. Texas
3. U Mass-Amherst
4. Purdue
5. Cornell
6. U Michigan-Ann Arbor
7. Syracuse

Many may balk at seeing Cornell & Michigan pushed down to #5 & #6. They were both originally much higher, but yeah...the 3rd year is just that serious to me.