The Writing Class

I wanted to share this article written by Jaswinder Bolina and published by The Poetry Foundation. It’s a bit long, but it’s well worth the read, especially in the context of the M.F.A. debate, academia, the culture of privilege, and labor issues.  Here are some passages that I think are especially striking and raise some of the various class issues regarding pursuing an M.F.A. and being a poet.

Jaswinder on his parents feelings towards poetry: “Poetry wasn’t a bad idea in the abstract to either of them. It might even be a noble pursuit, but it also seemed a thing better left to the children of the wealthy than to the son of working-class immigrants. ”

On class issues, education, and career decisions: “Where the working classes are regularly forced to take pragmatic action out of necessity, the privileged are allowed to act on desire. My parents’ money, modest as it was and still is, did more than pay for the things I needed. It allowed me to want things they couldn’t afford to want themselves. ”

I think the second point I posted is one to ponder, specifically the idea that graduate school is mostly limited to only a select group of people with at some privilege, namely decent economic circumstances.  Furthermore, even those that have access to graduate school don’t necessarily land a full-time, tenure track teaching job at a university after completing the degree, so why do so many people keep signing up for M.F.A. programs? Is it simply about career ambition, and how detrimental is that to the poetry at the national level if much of what is written and published is done so by M.F.A. and Ph.D. students and graduates? Beyond open mic nights, slams, and other community events, how does poetry break out of its insular culture of privilege?

Ploughshares Takes Up the M.F.A. Debate

Lately, I’ve had a lot of students tell me that they want to go on and get an M.F.A. after they finish their undergraduate degree. In fact, nationally, creative writing programs are booming right now, and I think it’s too soon to tell if that’s for the best or not. The long-running fiction/poetry journal Ploughshares just published an interesting article regarding the M.F.A. degree.  I think this article gives one of the better overviews of an M.F.A. degree that I’ve read in a while because it raises both positive and negative points about the degree. First, it points out that you should never go into deep debt for any sort of art degree. I whole-heartedly agree with that point. With an M.F.A. degree, you’re not going to get rich. In fact, the only real job you can get with it is teaching undergraduates, and full-time jobs in academia are becoming scarce thanks to all of the national and state-level cuts to education (assume these cuts will only worsen if the GOP maintains control of the House after the 2012 election and somehow wins the Senate and White House, too, a real possibility). That said, if you do want an M.F.A. degree, or really any graduate degree, there are ways to lessen the debt. A lot of graduate programs offer fellowships, scholarships, and graduate assistantships. I was able to obtain my M.F.A. from Wilkes University because of a graduate assistantship, so I wasn’t loaded with a terrible debt when I finished. Some other graduate programs also offer teaching assistantships. Check into these as a way to pay the tuition bill.

The article also points out that there are ways to complete the degree without having to move across the country. A lot of M.F.A. programs are now low-residency, meaning most of the work is done online. This can be especially convenient if one has a family and career already.

Certainly, there are ways to complete an M.F.A. degree that make it affordable and convenient to one’s geography and lifestyle. But as the article also points out, if one is already part of a writing community and reading consistently, an M.F.A. is probably not be needed, especially if one has no interest in teaching. Personally, I don’t regret for a second getting an M.F.A. It certainly expanded my knowledge of contemporary poetry, made me a better writer, and introducted me to a wonderful community. I also teach, so I needed the degree.