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Competition is Good
or What's Right With MFA Programs?

by Clifford Garstang

In some circles, MFA programs are blamed for everything from the homogenization of contemporary American literature to global climate change. No doubt creative writing courses (along with the rest of academia) are guilty of the latter—at least in some contributory, hot-air sense—but as to the former the jury is decidedly still out. In fact, it is my contention that MFA programs actually improve American writing by strengthening an important segment of the most diverse pool of writers this country has ever seen. Far from stifling creativity, they foster it. Furthermore, from the perspective of the writers, not only do such programs create a ready community—often a very supportive community—but they also provide student writers with an entrée into the teaching world.

That being said (to borrow a pet phrase from one of my own writing teachers, employed when he had exhausted the merits of a student's work and was preparing to launch into a catalog of its faults), MFA programs do produce an ever-increasing number of graduates each year, and each year many of those graduates attack the job market in search of teaching billets in other graduate writing programs that will, in turn, add to the surplus of writing teachers (not to mention writers). It's a classic pyramid scheme. Without constant expansion at the base—a growing number of students—it's doomed to topple.

Too Many Writers? How Many is Too Many?
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) today counts 310 graduate writing programs among its members, including 143 offering the Master of Fine Arts and 147 offering a Master of Arts in creative writing. Since not all writing programs are members of AWP, the actual number of such programs is presumably higher.

There are two basic types of MFA programs: traditional and low-residency.

A traditional MFA program is much like any graduate school enterprise. Students enroll in a set number of credit hours per semester. They may or may not have teaching assistantships for one or two years out of the two or three years they're in the program. They spend some of their class time—the amount varies from school to school—in workshops in which they critique the creative work of their peers and have their own work critiqued in return, by both peers and a faculty members who usually (but not always) have earned MFAs themselves. The curriculum may also include classes on pedagogy. At the end of this course of study the newly minted Master of Fine Arts is deemed qualified to teach writing, which is what is meant when it is said that the MFA is a "terminal degree" —it's the highest degree needed in the discipline in order to teach the discipline. End of the line.

Except that the tracks are in the process of being extended. This is in part because the number of teaching jobs available is insufficient to meet the demands of all the available qualified candidates, and so additional barriers must be erected in order to further winnow prospective teachers. In the not-too-distant future, I expect, the MFA will be terminal no more. That's all part of the pyramid, of course: in order to accommodate the base that must continue expanding, the edifice must rise higher. It won't be long before a writer will need a PhD in creative writing in order to teach at the better institutions, and, in order to sustain the pyramid, that rarified standard will filter down into the lesser programs as well. This, in turn, will generate a need for more graduate programs offering the PhD, since that will become the new minimum qualification. (In fact, AWP already has in its membership 35 PhD programs in creative writing, so academia is well on its way to raising the bar.) Eventually, at this rate, creative writing teachers will need post-docs or internships or residencies, and possibly pass a state-administered qualifying examination, in order to become certified. But that's speculation for another day.

It should be noted that significant publications will trump degrees any day. An emerging writer may need the MFA or PhD in order to secure a teaching job, but producing a book or two with a major publisher is another way to open the doors to colleges and universities.

The low-residency MFA programs are quite different from the traditional programs, and seem to be geared more toward writing than preparation for teaching. (My own MFA is from one of the early low-residency programs, back when there were just a handful. There are now more than 30, and new ones pop up every year.) While students in these programs do study literary theory and undertake close reading of texts, the real emphasis is on the critique workshop, both during the intensive residency period and in variations of a long-distance phase between residencies. In some cases, the long-distance phase is simply a virtual continuation of the face-to-face experience, with little loss of interaction with peers and faculty: manuscripts are exchanged, comments are given and suggestions made, and online discussion ensues. In others, only a faculty mentor reads and comments on work submitted during the semester. At the end of the program, which generally takes two years, students receive the same MFA that graduates of the traditional programs receive and are also deemed qualified to teach. The low-residency graduates, though, have received little teaching experience or preparation, and may only be so qualified on paper. On the other hand, they may have completed substantially more critically reviewed writing than students in a traditional program, and are likely to be equally or better prepared to write for publication.

It is difficult to fault the continuing expansion of the MFA programs, which is a rational market response to demand. With more people wanting to study writing, universities create more programs, and as long as more programs are being created, more MFA graduates will be recruited to teach in new programs. So, despite the dangers inherent in the pyramid, the MFA industry does at least provide a steady supply of writing teachers to colleges and universities, and, from what I've seen of undergraduate writing, I'd say the more teachers the better. (I believe some teachers who experience downward salary pressure might quarrel with this conclusion. I currently teach as an adjunct in a community college for very low pay. I do this in large part because I don't want to take much time away from my writing, but I do enjoy the interaction with students and other faculty. The adjuncting system, however, in which highly qualified professionals are paid the equivalent of less than the minimum wage, while at the same time depressing the salaries of full-time faculty, is deplorable. The ready supply of MFA graduates keeps the system afloat, to the impoverishment of all.)

The question is, though, will the collapse of the pyramid, which is inevitable when academia becomes saturated by creative writers, lead to a market meltdown? Will supply so overwhelm the demand for creative writing teachers that many of the demand-driven MFA programs will find themselves without students? Will MFA graduates in need of teaching jobs have nowhere to turn? It all seems likely. Just as the realization that we do not need a coffee shop on every corner has convinced Starbucks to close 600 of its stores, so colleges and universities will realize that not every school needs to have a graduate creative writing program. Surely that will also be a rational market decision.

Too Many Writers Stifled? Or Not Enough?
Teaching is one thing and, as we've seen, MFA programs do provide graduates with access to that world. But what about writing? Can writing be taught? Do MFA programs create better writers? Or have MFA programs sucked the life out of contemporary writing?

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