August 4, 2007KR BlogWriting

On the MFA

The KR Editors have asked the blog to consider a question that has badgered MFA programs since their inception (and their recent exponential proliferation):

What is the purpose of a creative writing degree? (Let’s construe “purpose” broadly.)

A lot of dust has been kicked up in the blogosphere (see here and here and here) after Edward Delaney’s piece in the July 2007 Fiction Issue of the The Atlantic, “Where Great Writers are Made.” (Though his article requires a subscription to read online, you can see his rankings and an interview with him about writing the article by clicking the links on the right, after the jump.)

And for all that proverbial dust, it seems that most of the blog banter could agree that while there are some quantifiable statistical bits of data that differentiate one program from the next–selectivity, faculty/student ratios, student funding, etc.–there were myriad others, and arguably more important factors, that remain difficult to quantify. While in the accompanying interview Delaney admits he didn’t find anyone in his research who thought their MFA experience had hurt their writing, I found myself wanting to venture in the opposite direction–which programs help their writers the most? Would I be a better poet had I spent my two MFA years at Texas or at UMass? (UMass, for that matter is actually a three year program–would that help?)

Of course, discovering some formulaic method for figuring this out would be something akin to figuring out how to write something canonic each time you sit down with a pad an pen. If there were a discernible recipe, what would be the point? It is clear that the mix of active ingredients in writing, and in teaching writing, is more volatile–more unstable–starting with which I is the one doing the writing or the learning. (See Heather Christle’s recent thoughts on the matter.)

So per purpose: I think there are two poles on the spectrum of MFA programs. The first are those programs that function something like a finishing school for writers, that have something of a pre-professional tone about them, and that emphasize jobs and publications. The second is the MFA as extension of a liberal arts degree–programs that push you to take a chance on your talent and do something new–and permit some falling on your face along the way.

In reality, (and this is a hunch, not a journalistic observation) most programs seem a blend of these. Perhaps the median of these poles best prepares for a writing life. My personal bias is toward the MFA as liberal arts extension–a program that asks you to write variedly and in many styles–so that your own writing while in a program may not shake the earth off its axis, but you’ve learned something about different styles of writing along the way. Knowledge has a shelf-life. A lot of the writing I did in my MFA program, unfortunately, does not. Not even for my mother.

There are other questions along the line of purpose that are worth considering: Is the Ph.D the new MFA (oh, is this ever a Pandora’s box…)? What of the glut of MFA graduates (350 programs, say 10 graduates a year from each…)? Delaney talks in the interview of the utility of a workshop among well-read participants–the referential field was critical to that utility. To that end: should MFA programs require a reading list, like a MA/Ph.D program? To test knowledge over a body of work? (Maybe some do–I’d love to hear if you know of a program that does.)

Look for the blog to kick some of these ideas around in the coming weeks; we’d like to hear some of your thoughts on these matters, too.

About the Program

The Kenyon Review Associates Program provides Kenyon students with valuable experience in literary editing, publishing, and programming. KR Associates work closely with Kenyon Review staff, gaining valuable experience in a number of editing, publishing, and programming areas including manuscript evaluation, publicity and marketing, copy editing, developing web site and social media content, outreach programming, event planning and promotion, and other creative and editorial projects

KR Associates attend regular seminars conducted by Kenyon Review editorial staff, visiting readers, and publishing industry professionals. These seminars cover a wide range of topics including editorial philosophy, evaluation of submissions, print and electronic production, marketing, and design.

KR Associates enjoy also enjoy exclusive access to visiting writers and speakers, free issues of The Kenyon Review, and valuable work experience and employment references.

This program is made possible through an initiative of the Kenyon Review, part of the mission of which is to contribute to the enrichment of the academic, cultural, and artistic life of the Kenyon College community.

Requirements and Expectations

  • Submission Evaluation: All Associates are required to read and evaluate eight Kenyon Review submissions per week. Associates who are not able to complete their weekly submission assignments for more than two weeks in a row may not be allowed to continue in the program.
  • Trainings and Seminars: In-person attendance is mandatory at all trainings and seminars. We plan on scheduling six to eight seminars per semester, and most will take place on Thursdays during common hour.
  • Literary Engagement: Associates are expected to participate in literary events on campus and throughout the local community.

Application Details

The application deadline for the 2023-24 program has passed. Applications for the 2024-25 program will open in the fall of 2024. Please check back then for more details.

Questions? Please contact Tory Weber for more information.