Thursday, December 18, 2008
Unhappy with the Program
A reader writes in below. I just thought it might be some basis for discussion. -- Tom
Hi Tom, I would post this somewhere, but was hoping to stay as anonymous as possible. I'm currently a first-year at an MFA program that I won't disclose, but I'm pretty unhappy with it for various reasons. I thought it might be good to raise somewhere that one should read between the lines when deciding on a program. My current program seems to focus heavily on its poets as opposed to its fiction students, has done little to help us in understanding the industry. Furthermore, I think it should be made clear that prospectives need to take a look at whether their programs are studio programs or closer to MAs with workshops tacked on. Some might be looking for the latter, I don't know. But I know that I was not expecting that at all, and wanted a studio program with literature classes focused from a craft and writer perspective, and instead, find myself sharing literature classes with students from their MA program. Perhaps this is all obvious and I should have looked closer when applying and deciding, but I had made some sort of strange assumption that all MFAs would be studio and craft oriented. If I was just naive or stupid, you can disregard everything I've just said, but this was all stuff I definitely wish someone had pointed out to me when I was making my decision last year.
I am planning on transferring this year to some place I had been accepted to but previously declined.
p.s. I'd appreciate you keeping me anonymous if you decide to bring this up on the blog somewhere. Thanks!
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I appreciate hearing this. Thanks for posting it.
I'm curious how the first poster was able to transfer. Did he or she contact the program directly and ask to be readmitted? Did he or she resubmit materials? Is this common in the MFA world? Do other programs look down on MFA transferring students? Any input from the original poster (or anyone for that matter) would be wonderful.
I'd like to second Luther's questions.
I actually like the issue raised in the original post: how does an applicant determine if a program is a studio program (craft-heavy) vs. MFA tacked on to an MA program (literature theory-heavy)? I'm reluctant to waste my time contacting the individual schools because I'm not sure they'll give me a straight answer. And I wouldn't know how to interpret their answers properly. I wish someone -- either Seth or someone Seth-like -- would compile a list of schools and their respective leanings: studio vs. lit theory.
Raysen: As a prospective student, I've got no real experience to back this up with, but I've been looking at two main things: a) What's needed to graduate from the program? and b) Who's allowed to take the workshop classes? If they have a lot of lit requirements and the workshop classes are not restricted to MFA students, my guess is it's more of the MFA-tacked-to-an-MA program.
I went to Texas State University. It was very theory-heavy, but we also had workshops. We were to take three Problems in Language and Literature classes and one Poetic Theory class (I, obviously, focused on poetry; I also asked to take two Poetic Theory classes). In addition to this, we took theory classes that MA students were taking. We also had 4 workshop classes. I enjoyed taking the theory classes a lot. I don't know how comparable the structure in my classes are to other MFA programs. I graduated in May. Still trying to find a job.....
Jonathan-- did you like Texas State? I'm interested in theory-heavy programs, and I'm a poet, so all of those things sound pretty good-- but I'm in the midwest right now, and haven't been able to get down there and actually visit.
Perhaps it would help to ask recently graduated or current students whether the mfa program is more theory centered or more of a studio setting. That is, if it's not clear from their website, etc. This helps especially if you've already created a relationship with one of the students from the mfa program where you are applying.
I'll second what Illeana said. . .current or former students to the program are your best source of info for this kind of thing. If you've been accepted into a program, ask around--usually the program director or administrator will be happy to pass on contact info for people in the program. Many of them will be quite frank with you as to whether they feel it's more a studio program, or a lit program with a few workshops included.
It's hard to say what's best, though. Some people really appreciate the theoretical background and the integration of lit seminars. Others simply want to write and be with other writers who look at literature from a craft perspective. There's nothing wrong with either approach, but you need to figure out what you want before you apply, and certainly before you make your final decision.
I think that it's absolutely worth your time to contact individual schools about their specific degree programs. Any program worth its salt will provide you with the straight answer you're looking for, and you definitely have the right to know what sort of program you're entering, so that hopefully you can avoid the fate of the original poster on this thread.
As far as how to determine whether your program is going to be craft heavy or theory heavy, I agree that your best bet is to contact current students. If that's not possible, you might take a look through the most recent graduate course catalog. Course titles alone might give you a strong indication of what to expect.
Hope this helps. Happy holidays!
I'd love to know how transferring works out for this person. I have to assume that just because you got in one year, it's not guaranteed you get in again because the applicant pool will be different. If it is a two year program, I don't see why this person just doesn't tough it out for three more semesters. This is probably why we don't see a lot of transfer stories. I'm just guessing here, but I think the only schools that can afford to offer craft oriented classes are the bigger programs that have enough bodies to fill these classes. Because who, other than the writing students, would be interested in these classes? When I was applying to programs last year, I assumed that the lit courses were normal lit courses and I like the fact that we get to take these courses with MA and PhD students. I see the other writers enough. Grad students shouldn't need a craft oriented lit course. Feel free to disagree with me.
It sounds to me like you don't really want a "real" MFA at all -- among other things, an MFA is a terminal degree that qualifies you to teach at a university... it might not make sense to hand out MFAs without requiring some theory etc.
But in reality the modern "MFA" is variable, and means different things depending on where you go. There are lo-res programs where your experience is practically "MFA tourism," and there are programs that take 4 years to complete and which look an awful lot like PhDs.
There really ought to be some national standardization, but that's unlikely, and if/when you use your degree to get a job, you might have to be very specific on your CV or resume about what, exactly, your MFA was: how long it took to complete, what kind of coursework it required, etc. There are some people out there who think "MFA" means 15 hours of workshop. And those people aren't 100% wrong.
Going in you should have a good idea of what you intend to do with that degree, if anything. There's nothing wrong with being 100% focused on the studio side and regarding the degree as meaningless paper you acquired while you were doing your REAL writing work, but keep in mind that MFAs vary from that to degrees that look like PhDs, and that they get used for very different things.
All you have to do to tell the difference going in look at what they require. Requirements for degrees are legally binding, and they're not allowed to hide them or lie about them. If the requirements say something like "X hours LIT classes at the graduate level," that's what it means.
I got my MFA 5 years ago, and looking back, some of my favorite classes were lit classes I took with MA/PHD students. I read things and learned things that I applied to my writing. And my degree has turned out to be hyper-valuable to me these last few years, jobwise. Everyone's different, but it's worth keeping in mind.
I was wildly unhappy at my program 2 yrs ago. In fact, I suffered from a diagnosed ptsd. The Dean allowed me to complete a MA and I reappliedfrom scratch to all the programs. Now I'm finishing my second year and am wildly happy w this program! My advice is to reapply.
I am so glad I ran across this. Ive applied to many MFA programs. University of Virginia, Michigan, Miami, and San Fransisco. I am very familiar with the Miami program, which is mostly workshops and focuses on craft heavily. Yet we still our able to explore other writers fully without the problem of reading/writing papers in such a formal/traditional way, which I love. Their program is amazing, I did my ungrad there and enrolled in many graduate classes just for the experience. However, my professors thought it would be beneficial for me to experience new surroundings for my writing. I want a program that is very close to UMiami's program. Is anyone familiar with San Fran, Michigan, and Virginia? I would be very dissapointed in a Lit focused program. Unfortunately I missed the UPenn deadline, I heard that one was pretty good.
At least some programs seem honest about their particular focus. UC Davis, for example, is very up front about their lit emphasis.
To the PR- thanks for bringing up the issue. Very informative and thanks to Amy- great answer.
Wow...that's unfortunate. I'm pretty sure Hunter College's program is that way (MA with workshops tacked on).
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