Monday, October 18, 2010

Seth Abramson responds

Seth Abramson posted a reasoned & nicely-toned response to my little recent bellyache about the professionalization of poetry; my first impulse was to respond in the comments box, but I think he deserves to be heard above the fold:

I think it's important to remember--as I always say, in nearly every article I write on the MFA degree--that the MFA is a "largely-unmarketable, non-professional art school degree." Consequently, the purpose of the rankings is to encourage programs to fund students (and do other things that applicants care about, like emphasizing studio work and a three-year flexible curriculum) not to help anyone get a job because (say) they went to the #11 program instead of the #42 program. That's really beside the point -- the rankings are intended for applicants only, i.e. to help them understand which programs are best at offering applicants what applicants report they care about, not for the benefit of professors, employers, &c. I realize everything in life has contained within it the possibility for its misuse and misunderstanding, but that doesn't change the fact that the rankings are not conceived of, nor designed as, the sort of cultural artifact you seem to presume they are.

And here's how I'd respond:


all your points are well taken, & I'm totally supportive of the extent to which your lists really are designed to help applicants find a program that will give them what they need, without saddling them with lifetime debts.

And I'm not presuming anything about how the rankings are "conceived of" or "designed." Alas, in this sublunary world of Consumer Reports and the US News college rankings, your lists will inevitably taken as something other than what you've conceived or designed them for. As many times as we repeat that the MFA is, in your apt words, a "largely-unmarketable, non-professional art school degree," prospective MFAs will continue to imagine that they are the lucky few who will win the brass ring: much of it has to do with simple modeling, their wholly reasonable observation that poets & writers who teach in MFA programs, especially those who've managed to hook up with the "visiting writer" and contest judge circuits, have a pretty good life of it.

And as I implied in that previous post, while the MFA ideally would be an "art school" degree, the vocational training that comes with the program – teaching undergraduate courses, working on a magazine or a book series – is directed either towards a career teaching in the academy or a more vaguely defined "being a professional writer" within the various networks that make up the biz.

In the end I suspect it's a bit of a catch-22: despite the listing's laudable intentions, & its very real orientation towards applicants rather than institutions – as opposed to the program lists Lingua Franca used to run, ranking PhDs in various sub-disciplines – it's inevitably being taken in ways you didn't intend. And its very existence, as a kind of Rough Guide for those who are about to insert themselves into the MFA & all it entails, is a mark of this "art school" degree's sliding into professionalization.

Thanks for responding so thoughtfully,


Archambeau said...

Score one point for the reasoned and clear exchange of ideas! Nice to see it can be done.

Amy Letter said...

I sometimes marvel at Seth Abramson: by far the most patient man on the internets, a land where patience is hardly lauded.

K.Ducey said...

Admittedly the horse died under the beatings many years before Seth arrived with his list of possible causes, but...

Came across a Rubén Darío quote yesterday:

No hay escuelas, hay poetas.

That would now read, "there are no poets, only schools."

JP Craig said...

I've yet to see a creative writing MFA program that billed itself as not a professional program. There are many "how to publish" and "how to get a job" and "career in writing" discussions and meetings, if not necessarily in coursework. It's an open secret at Iowa that a large part of the reason you go there is "for the connections." Many discussions among MFA types on the publication of poetry circle back to issues of authenticity, credentials, and so on, that you'd expect from an academic building a vita. And the Writer's Chronicle is full of career talk. So, I don't think it's fair at all to try to twist these MFA degrees into "art school" degrees. And, by the way, what the hell is up with that? Does anyone really think the art schools are selling their degrees as useless? I think all the MFA programs are just like doctoral programs: they rely upon the hubris of youth to convince all comers that they will be, if not the One, one of the ones that beats the long odds.

Seth Abramson said...

J.P., so many things wrong here I'm not sure where to start. You won't find any MFA programs billing themselves as "professional programs" because they can't--they are definitionally not professional programs because that term has a definition and the MFA doesn't meet it, i.e. that the degree alone is sufficient credential for full-time employment in a field, and that the curriculum of the program is explicitly preparation for professional employment (not merely a "career"), i.e. teacher training. And you're absolutely wrong about MFA curricula -- this side of Emerson virtually no one is offering courses on publishing or other professionalizing skill-sets, and teaching practicums are almost never for credit. And your description of Iowa is likewise beyond belief -- just because Iowa graduates publish widely doesn't mean you can back-date that to a networking culture in the program, in fact the one time I mentioned publishing in passing to a faculty member at the IWW he told me that it was IWW policy that you never discuss publishing -- you're here to write, he said, period. Based on their curricula, i.e. the percentage of courses for credit that are internship, thesis-hour, independent study, or workshop, these are art schools -- that's not up for debate. It's a Fine Arts degree, for Christ's sake. And The Writer's Chronicle is not associated with any MFA program -- it's a trade organization rag, so yes, by definition it's concerned with different things than a school would be. In any case, your response is the reason we keep having this kind of discussion -- the "other side" of the debate so rarely makes an accurate observation that we spend all our time clarifying how MFAs work rather than moving on to more interesting conversations.


Seth Abramson said...

P.S. Ask any MFA faculty member what they're telling their students about the job market and what their MFA gets them -- the credential, not the experience, which is a separate issue -- and you'll see that you're wrong, too, about MFA programs billing the credential as valuable on the job market. There are 4,500 MFA grads every year and about 25 new jobs available -- everyone knows this, the MFAs could hardly misdirect applicants if they wanted to. --S.