September 27, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

Is the MFA a Terminal Degree for Composition?

I thought this a timely issue to discuss as MFA-holders peruse the advertisements for tenure-track positions in the academy, and would-be MFA-candidates consider shelling out hundreds of bucks to apply to and attend MFA programs around the country. The MFA/PhD debate continues (at least in my brain, anyway). With more universities offering the Phd in Creative Writing, the Phd in Literature with a Creative Writing Emphasis, and the PhD in Composition/Rhetoric, it makes me wonder where my MFA and I belong–if we belong–in universities and colleges around the globe.

Current job advertisements offer a bleak outlook for the MFA holder despite AWP’s sort-of positive outlook after last year’s job market options; here are a few samples of positions from the current issue of Chronicle of Higher Education:

Each of these positions are at institutions which boast large programs in literature and writing; but smaller institutions that may only have a Creative Writing minor or an emphasis, or that may have smaller English programs, are at a crossroads. Needing generalists who can wear many hats successfully, excluding the MFA in Writing as a terminal degree for composition seriously limits not just the MFA-holder’s prospects, but also limits the instructional opportunities for students, and additionally limits a department’s growth potential. I’ve often found that vigorous and engaged discussions about writing and the teaching of writing are most productive when I have them with colleagues from varied, allied disciplines, such as Literature, Languages, Cultural Studies, Creative Writing, etc. So surely having a program at which all faculty approach writing and the teaching of writing similarly, can contribute to lackluster energy after some time.

I suppose the question really isn’t “Are MFA-holders qualified to teach composition,” but is this: “Why isn’t the MFA Degree a respected terminal degree that other disciplines reward for the scholarship, teaching practices, and artistic visions that MFA Degree holders bring to courses in literature, creative writing, and composition?” I’ve heard colleagues at my institution and other institutions tell me they don’t understand why a course in Creative Writing, such as The American Short Story, in which students might read, analyze, write about, then write their own short stories, could count as both an experiential art course as well as a literature course. They understand the experiential part–Oh, you’ll be writing stories–but they balk at the creative writer instructing students in literary traditions and concepts.

I’ve also heard colleagues in non-writing disciplines share with me that they don’t understand how a multi-genre approach to the teaching of writing–in which students might write traditional academic essays alongside personal essays, letters, reports, poems, dialogues, summaries, reviews and blogs, could help a student become a better writer. In fact, more and more freshman composition programs focus only on writing the academic essay, or writing for the academy. It is my belief that students are learning to hate writing, or to devalue it, because the impulse for writing–to communicate an idea, feeling or emotion–is being taken away from them in favor of instruction in form, the proper use of library resources in an academic paper, and the appropriate placement of the thesis statement. Don’t get me wrong–form is important–but before we talk about form, don’t we need to understand what writing is at its core–don’t we need to understand why humans write and have written for thousands of years?

But I digress.

All of this begs another question; do MFA holders really want to teach composition? Does the MFA holder expect to get a job teaching composition and/or creative writing and literature? Or do most MFA holders assume the only job they’d get (or want) in academia is to teach what they know: poetry, or fiction writing, or non-fiction writing, or playwriting (which, by the way, you won’t get a job in unless you’ve got that terminal degree in theatre!) Why do people go get the MFA anyway, and what do they expect to do with it once they have it? (This, by the way, was the same question my father asked when I told him about the degree–right after What is it?)

Jordan Mott, 2007 Peter Taylor Fellow in Fiction for the Kenyon Review (and current composition adjunct at the University of La Verne in Southern California) told me the reason he went to go get his MFA, and what he expected to do with it once he had it, was “to write better.” That sums it all up, then; but beyond that aspect, secretly, I’m sure some of us are hoping to pay rent too, until we can “live by the pen” that is.

Recently, an administrative colleague shared doubt over whether MFA graduates expect to teach composition when they arrive at an academic position, and expressed the same doubt over Phd’s in English and their expectations of teaching composition as well; however, as almost every MFA will tell you, rarely is there required coursework that instructs MFA-candidates in how to teach creative writing and literature; most MFA Degree-granting programs have their teaching assistants enrolling in the “Teaching College Composition” course in their first semester, and then have them teaching college composition for almost the entire two or three years of their MFA program.

Good programs (kudos to mine!) use the Teaching College Composition course as a theory course in which students discuss theories and pedagogies behind the teaching of college composition, and of teaching in general. (Note–Dear Dr. Roy Bird: I remember bell hooks, Paolo Freire, Helene Cixous, and Peter Elbow fondly, and I thank you.) Phd candidates in English/Literature fare the same, by the way, enrolling into a similar “teaching” course with their MFA buddies and then teaching the gamut of freshman composition classes throughout their PhD programs. Only the rare Phd or MFA candidate is asked to teach an Introduction to Creative Writing or Introduction to Literature course. Thus, it seems like the academic institutions granting the MFA fully expect its holders to be working in academia and teaching a bulk of composition courses, with the occasional creative writing course, and the rare literature course.

So what do we tell administrators when they ask if the MFA should receive that same sweet “terminal degree” pay hike as the PhD’s, and if the MFA should be considered a Terminal Degree for the teaching of types of writing allied with the MFA?My academic colleagues are not alone in re-approaching the “MFA as terminal degree for Composition” issue; it’s still widely accepted as the terminal degree for Creative Writing by the Associated Writing Programs–but does this terminal-degree status allow the MFA in Writing to translate into a terminal degree option for teaching college composition or English literature in academia? Does this mean that Phd-holders in allied disciplines such as Literature, Cultural Studies, Philosophy, or Creative Writing may be qualified to teach composition, but will not be considered as tenure-track because their degree is not specifically in “Composition-Rhetoric?”
These are all good questions, I think, as our world moves into a more cross-disciplinary century while academia gets more and more segmented; and these are good questions for job-seekers too. My call to action: every MFA holder should apply for every position in which they’re qualified–regardless of the degree requested in the ad. (That’ll make for a lot of paper and a lot of no-interview letters, but maybe we can begin to make a dent in that kind of thinking?)

Additionally, those in our field should begin to discuss, in a more focused manner, the academic expectations of an MFA-holder since more and more MFA-holders are seeking jobs in higher education when editing and publishing don’t pan out. Offering guidelines to administrators who aren’t familiar with our discipline, similar to AWP’s guidelines, would help open up some of the language in those job advertisements, and would also help administrators begin to see the value of the MFA Writing degree as a terminal, interdisciplinary, tenure-track academic degree useful in bringing differing points of view to the teaching of all types of writing.