Moses and the MFA

I noted the other day that I am not sure that there are more academic jobs in my field; I rather have the impression that there are fewer now than 10 years ago. I haven’t been keeping track, but it sure seems like the pickings are slim. And one point that rather dogs me is whether planning programs, particularly those outside of the top five, should have PhD programs at all.

These themes get echoed, to some degree, here in Marian Palaii’s piece on writing workshops and the MFA, and how, very similar to the PhD, it’s a education process that people both within it and outside love to bash. I think very little of formal education as job training, as regular readers will know. Instead, I think of just about all of life as training for something, jobs and roles and otherwise; Moses gets adopted into the royal family so that, much later, when needed, he has access to them; he has to hide in the desert because he kills a man, and thus, winds up learning how to live in the desert, a skill which comes in handy later.

I can think of no better retort to the bashing, which comes down to “people with real talent don’t need training”, than Palaii’s snappy bit here:

In the meantime, without getting too deeply into the topic of, “Who died and made any one person arbiter of ‘real deals?’” and the one or two missing boxcars that might make the “improvement by subtraction” statement at least resemble a train of logical thought (no, I can’t compel my students to do something they can’t do, but I can compel the vast majority of them to do something they hadn’t thought of, or thought they were not capable of; it happens all the time, and isn’t this what studying or teaching anything implies?), I’d just like to say that making blanket statements about MFA programs, or students, or teaching practices, is reductive and unnecessarily provocative, though maybe that is the point. And while both of these writers, among other critics, may well have legitimate gripes, one might ask for a little concreteness, a bit of specificity—as opposed to gross generalizing—as that would better support their views. Or did we (by which, yes, I do mean they) miss that particular aspect of craft, or was it not taught, in our (their) own workshops?

Wham! I want use that “who died” line on people who make snap judgments about who is an important scholar, who might become one, etc. And if being in a MFA program taught her to write sentences with that much bounce and energy in them–well, then.

Boring personal anecdote: I had plenty of letter writers for my PhD programs who said “She’s bright, but she’s not as good as This Other Guy.” And this Other Guy is now doing something not related to the academy at all, contributing in a different way. And I don’t resent the lukewarm letters because who is going to hit on something important is harder to tell than all of us think it is.

Maybe other scholars with more social perception than I have can see it, but I think this thumbs up, thumbs down business about who is going to be a “real” writer or scholar and who isn’t…it’s all speculation, a lot like the baseball scouts and the rookies in Moneyball. A young person with talent can be anything your mind can make them into–a success or failure–because they haven’t actually become what they are going to yet. Raw intelligence is great, and you can often see that. Hard work is important, and you can see that. Ambition is good, and it’s usually obvious. Sometimes, in order to square with your conscience, you have to tell a young person when you think they really, absolutely can not finish the training because they are so ill-suited to it that it is a waste of their time and your department’s resources. But I do that, at least, by also telling the student that I might be wrong and that they might succeed in another program. Because they might.

Contributions aren’t function of individuals alone. We treat them that way, but I think if we were really honest, we’d acknowledge that contributions come from a combination of individual, training timing, and context. There are plenty of brilliant people who say things long before their time and go, as a result, entirely unnoticed. It is also a function of power: don’t get me started on the way economists have decided that space matters (I’m sure the geographers are thrilled to hear it). If you can predict all those things, you are clairvoyant. I am not the scholar I would be if hadn’t spent the last 20 years of my life hanging out, for better and worse, with economists, and I am grateful for the mutual poking I have both done to them and have had done to me by them.

Mostly, this idea about any formal education speaks to my heart:

Writing while you are trying to support yourself is hard. Teaching yourself to write is hard. Doing both, and doing them long enough to produce something that will in fact be published takes an enormous amount of dedication, discipline, perseverance, and time; way more than most people have. Which is why a place in a fully-funded MFA program is an extraordinary gift, whether or not you have the good sense to recognize is as one. There is no getting around this: If you are getting paid, for two or three years, to do little more than write, you are ridiculously lucky. If you can afford—with grants, loans, your parents’ help, partial funding, scholarships—to attend an MFA program without working (or while teaching that one Intro to Creative Writing workshop), you are luckier than 99.9% of the people in this country, and 99.99999999999% of the people on the planet, if not quite so ridiculously.

Ronald Reagen spoke of the humanities as a “luxury”, and I take issue with that, largely because he treated luxuries as unnecessary (Note that I didn’t actually see him or his family foregoing any). Yet there is something decidedly luxurious about being able to have the time to step out of the hurly burly of the earning life to pause and reflect on big ideas and to discuss them with other people who have paused to reflect on those same things. It’s not a luxury; the soul needs this time, I think, as much as the intellect does.

Does taking that time make you a better person? The hell if I know. I think so, but I couldn’t prove it. Does it make you more employable? Depends on what you are employed doing, I suppose. Do you have to do this in a university, paying tuition? I doubt it, but I think it probably helps.

But there is no small part of me that suspects the lesson from Moses stands with just about anything, and that lesson drives me to do things like make real estate development students, who would be just as happy with trade school degree in finance, read and write about Thucydides. Thucydides perhaps won’t make you a cleverer real estate developer. But reading something you’d rather not makes you learn to stay inside and work on nice days, and to discipline your mind to focus on something that doesn’t, at first glance, speak to you. Those are job skills, as much as any other.