What Should M.F.A. Programs Be Teaching?

Lately, I have been doing some research into M.F.A. programs, other than the one I attended, and what these various programs offer. I am doing this because more and more students I had or currently have in creative writing classes are asking me about the value of an M.F.A. and what such a degree will offer. I do think a lot of the low-residency programs are cash cows that will accept almost anyone and don’t have to worry about paying faculty full-time. But I also believe there are strong M.F.A. programs with faculty that care about the students and generally want to help them enhance their writing skills and expand their knowledge of literature. I got a lot out of the M.F.A. program I attended at Wilkes University. It certainly widened my scope of literature, and it improved my writing.

That said, I think M.F.A. programs need to consider what they are promising students. A lot of students come out of the programs hoping to immediately land full-time jobs in academia, and for the final few semesters, certain M.F.A. programs only offer a teaching track. But full-time positions at the college-level are scarce, and they’re becoming even rarer due to budget cuts across several states. It also seems like most openings now require a Ph.D. So perhaps M.F.A. programs should offer alternatives, other career choices, such as publishing, or even freelance work. There are several freelance jobs out there that can earn a writer income. Another aspect of the writing process M.F.A. programs should consider teaching more is the business of publishing and signing a contract. It is true most M.F.A. students generally want to strengthen their writing skills and learn about influential movements in their genre of study, but they also want to publish. They want to see their name in print and get a book out there.

As I was doing research, I came across a blog post that argues M.F.A. programs do not do enough to teach young writers the business aspect of publishing, especially the issue of contracts, cover letters, agent letters, etc. Because of that, sometimes young writers get swindled and sign a poor contract.

Here is a link to the blog post. The post was published in November 2010, after a story about defamed author James Frey, who was visiting Columbia and other universities and basically getting M.F.A. students to sign contracts to help him with a book packaging/marketing project. The article points out that before these students interacted with Frey, who became famous after lying about incidents in his memoir, they should have had classes on understanding publishing contracts.

The blog post serves as a reminder that a lot of M.F.A. programs should broaden their course material and give students access to information about the nature of the publishing business, especially if some students are more interested in publishing than teaching.

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