February 3rd, 2012 / 10:30 am
Vicarious MFA


Discussed: Academic Harakiri, Writers as Plumbers

Well, it’s finally started happening. Penn State’s MFA program decided to commit harakiri rather than go on forcing its students to go into debt over a degree to no where. I don’t think it will be the last we’ll see to go. I don’t even know if it’s the first (and it seems likely that it isn’t.)

What I do know is that we have too many MFA programs in this country. And the ones we have are often too big to succeed in giving their students what they need/want.**

Consider this: Let’s just say that this country needed 250,000 new plumbers every year. That’s the number of plumbers we would need for all plumbers to get enough work and for all pipes to be fixed and for all the water to flow into the correct places water should go. Let’s say we had 5,000 plumber schools in the country turning out 500,000 plumbers a year because plumbing started sounding so glamourous and enjoyable and some people discovered they deeply enjoyed turning on a really good faucet or flushing a Pulitzer Prize winning toilet. What we’d have if that was the case would be cafes chocked full of unemployed plumbers dreaming of the pipes they could someday plunge, or sad-looking Mario-ish plumbers walking in and out of bathroom fixture stores just to run their hands over hot and cold knobs. We’d have would-be plumbers writing cover letters to total strangers, begging to let them plunge a toilet for free.

How many academically “certified” writers does a country need? How many creative writing teachers? How many novels should be published a year? How many totally capable, creative-thinking, intelligent young writers need to go into debt for the chance to take a seminar with a writer they maybe don’t even like to read just so they can get a piece of paper that says MFA! and then stumble away broke and only hopeful that later, eventually, someday they can become a writer/teacher that their students have never heard of because they’ve been too busy with paying off debt and learning the art of creative writing pedagogy to write anything in a while? Is this a good system? Do I sound like a crank yet?

I think that system sucks but to say that it sucks is more complicated than just saying it sucks. It’s elitist. I am being an elitist. I’m saying some of those plumbers maybe should just do something else as a profession. Hell, most writers, even successful ones and certainly the just-started ones, have to supplement their income in some way. I know I do right now and likely will for whatever career I eek out in the future. But I think it’s cruel for universities to allow people to go into many thousands of dollars of debt for a degree that is little more than enjoyable to get.

No one, save a rare few, make a lot of money writing and teaching writing. The universities know this. They also know that selling an MFA program is at least partially selling a dream. But I think there should be way less MFA programs and they should all be fully funded. That seems only right.***

However, let’s envision what that looks like 10 years down the road. The universities will have a lot more sway as gate-keepers than they do now. No longer will so many students be bolstered by an acceptance letter, an invitation to write. Those who write books will be the ones with the luxury of time & space in an MFA or those who are the “fuck-what-anyone-says” kind of writer, rejected by a program or too proud/scared/indignant to apply. This would certainly have an effect on what kind of literature is produced overall but no one can be sure how much of an effect it would have. Basically, the economy of writing, writers and academia, when you draw back and look down at it, is a strange and unfair system, which makes it a lot like life.

**(Don’t get me wrong– an MFA can be a great thing. I have one that I do not regret getting because there was no debt involved. If I’d had to take out loans to do it, I wouldn’t have done it. That’s my plain advice to anyone considering an MFA. Do not pay for it. Anyway– that’s a different post.)

***There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have gotten an MFA if this was true, though, because the competition would have been so steep I would have been rejected or too intimidated to apply, and that’s fine by me. The MFA is a luxury, not a necessity.


  1. PEN.org » Blog Archive When You Were Shooting at Me - PEN.org

      […] State’s MFA program announced it was closing, pleasing a critic who believes that MFA programs are too expensive and too […]

  2. Daniel Bailey


  3. marshall mallicoat



  4. marshall mallicoat

       private universities are often at the mercy of what?

      can we complete the analogy

  5. marshall mallicoat


  6. deadgod


      no luddism here

      technological development has made it possible to have a society of many poets (and many plumbers)

      but having more artists and research scientists – and a plumbing community of craftspeople and not wage apes – would cost the current political economy all of its capital-gains parasites

      –was my point

  7. deadgod

      So, too, was washing clothes by hand.  Newton ‘learned’ calculus on his own . . . but Einstein? Bohr? Hawking?

      Also true:  that there were institutions in which writers ‘learned to write’ as if in craft guilds:  drama in 5th/4th c. BC Athens; English-language journalism since the turn of the 18th c.

      To me, the most practical “tradition” is the one of subjecting the subjection of action to custom to reasoned question.

  8. deadgod

      The blogicle does smack of the last person into paradise pulling the door shut behind her.

      I don’t think smugness is what’s animating Catherine:  I think she’s alerting her reader’s to (this slice of) education being a racket–which it somewhat is, no?

      But if, as Jeffrey Morgan suggests – or am I misreading his comment? – , Penn State’s program is/was fully funded, then Catherine’s takeaway is doubly misguided, in that it’s not one of the exploitative schemes that folded.

  9. Anonymous

      Unless someone just has their heart set on teaching creative writing in a college, I think the creative writing MFA should be seen as an end in itself, a luxury-pursuit to be taken on if one has the time, money, and interest. A vanity degree, I guess. 

      I’m not sure if that’s ideal, but it seems like the most practical approach to take. From the perspective of a working writer, anyway. If someone used an MFA mostly to edit student or uni mags and work on their chops as an editor or publisher, I imagine it could easily be worth it. 

      Something I kind of wonder about: many writers I know seem to go in the direction of the MFA and future teaching gigs because they think of it as the type of job that allows them to also focus on their writing. To what extent is that the case? The creative writing professorship has the advantage that advancement is predicated upon publishing, and publishing requires doing the kind of writing that you love, so in a sense it’s a job that -requires- you to focus on your writing, thus allowing you to. . . sort of. But, but. Have you really gained that many writing-hours? In my interactions with the people who lead workshops for a living they seem pretty crunched for time, and their production as writers usually is middling. Not that it’s not a fine way to live, as most of them were fantastic teachers and people and seemed to love what they do. But if they got into the career in order to preserve time for their writing, how much of that did they get? A full four classes keeps you pretty busy, and especially if the job isn’t something you’re just sloughing off. You get semester breaks, but to me small regular chunks of writing time are more valuable than large irregular chunks. 

      It seems like the best teaching positions are those where you teach only a class or two while continuing with your writing, yet in order to do that you have to already be fairly successful selling your writing, and that’s even more unlikely if you’ve already taken on a high course load. 

  10. Anonymous

      Someone who dedicates her life to cultivating a “personal aesthetic”–whatever that it is–sounds like someone who by definition cannot be a “passive nihilist.” 

      Also not sure how pursuing an academic degree is “giving up on the world.”

  11. Anonymous

      My understanding is that those who are fully funded have to do a lot of extra teaching and/or editing work, usually. “Fellowships” rather than outright scholarships. If a person wants an MFA but does not wish to do all that other stuff, I see no problem in paying for it. It’s probably the path I would take, if I were to get one. 

      I don’t see how you can say whether it’s worth paying for an MFA on anything other than a case-by-case basis. Maybe one person’s earning potential is such that paying for it makes sense for them. People have certainly paid for sillier things. 

      Edit – THOUGH, it would certainly be a mistake for someone to pay for an MFA degree while being totally unaware of the many ways they could get it funded. If you read the debt-advice in this light, perhaps it seems less preachy and showoffy.

  12. alan

      But writing is just talking except you note down what you’d say.

  13. Anonymous

      And also more degrees means that it’s easier for a person to study writing for 2-3 years without totally uprooting their lives, since it’s likely that there’s a program in their state at the very least, and many times there’s one quite close to them. 

      I think it’s interesting to talk about pedagogical models and how we could tweak the workshop to make it more productive and fun. If the degree’s a solid degree, and if unis keep finding seats for the classes, the more programs the better, imo.

  14. Anonymous

      I don’t understand. How does investing in the arts and sciences rid of capital-gains parasites? What is a capital-gains parasite?

  15. Anonymous

      writing isn’t a practical act. we may want it to be, with plans of action and a healthy economy and jobs at the end of a rigorous and well regulated study, but it’s not, it’s fundamentally impractical. which isn’t the same as being frivolous or useless. it’s impractical to build a cathedral for 100 years, but it’s lucky for us we do it anyway.

  16. deadgod

      The expression was not of one pushing the other out, in that investment in arts and sciences would themselves get rid of capital-gains parasites, but rather, of priorities, in that the interest in the former would be greater enough that it’d be chosen to the exclusion of the latter, which, in principle, ought not to be interesting at all.

      ‘Capital gain’ is income resulting from an increase (“gain”) in the value of an investment in a “capital” asset.  Buy low, sell high:  if the thing exchanged twice is a capital asset, the difference between ‘low’ and ‘high’ is a “capital gain”.  This income is merited, in the sense that nothing economic ever would happen without capital; in the sense that capital is a fictive pseudo-explanation for the illusory fabrication of surplus value and the exploitative separation of that “value” from the labor that “value” itself springs from, all capital gain is unearned income.  By virtue of that latter sense, people who live off of – or, indeed, profit at all from – capital gains are capital-gains parasites.

      –Willard Headroomney, for splendid example, is a “capital-gains parasite”–to be fair to accumulation apologetics:  a self-made parasite.

  17. Anonymous

      There’s a leisure surplus compared to 200 years ago, but not really much more than there was 50 years ago or 75 years ago.  The 40 hour work week has been pretty much standard in the US since the 1940s.  Is this just a much more macro-scale argument you’re talking about, or is there something I’m missing?

  18. William

      Well I knew the grim connection between MFA programs and child rape had to be brought up sometime.

  19. Anonymous

      Hi, Marc – Adjuncts do not make up almost 70% of the faculty in most English depts. I’m not saying there aren’t more qualified candidates than positions, but that’s also true of many other professions as well, especially right now. Maybe it is especially bad in English depts (and academia in general) but I have seen many English departments and know many English professors, and none of them are made up of ‘70% adjuncts.’ Cite your source? I am willing to be wrong on this. 

      The problem isn’t “TOO MANY MFAS!?!?## BLAHHH” – it’s the expectation that an MFA from any school will get you a tenure track teaching job. There is no problem with people pursuing writing in graduate school. I’m not sure where the expectation of teaching comes from – everybody in my MFA program knew the reality of the teaching job market. This has been a problem for a long time. None of the MFAs at my undergraduate institution (this is 15 years ago) have tenure track jobs. Those who went on to earn PhDs all have jobs… 

  20. Marc
  21. Mary Miller

      An MFA isn’t an undergraduate education. People don’t need an MFA to learn to write–we all have access to books, pens, and paper. I think the MFA offers time and that’s about it. You could also take out a loan and sit at your apartment and read and write for two/three years.

  22. deadgod

      40-hour weeks were gained for organized workers by their unions–not sure, but I think that’s where the general ‘rule’ came from.  You could argue that people work more paid hours now than during the ’50s or ’20s:  multiple jobs, unprotected hours (including salaried jobs or ‘jobs’), and, of course, the huge case of working women (thanks for destroying the stay-at-home mom, Reaganomics!!).

      –but look at how much less work you do at home or in the yard than did your grandparents. – for simple example, in the case of microwave ovens.  Look at how much less walking people have to do and actually do.  Look also at how much longer people live (on average, of course).

      But I was thinking in a different way, namely, at the tremendous (political-economic and cultural) pressure to fill our time with leisure pursuits.

  23. deadgod

      Is there reasonable doubt that this structural underfunding of teaching (and research) is part of the Reaganomic destruction of public education? the ‘conservative’ transformation of meritocratic education into low-intensity warehousing of a permanent under-class?

  24. Anonymous

      Thanks, Marc – I’m curious how many of these adjuncts are teaching freshman composition exclusively…. where I teach, there are adjuncts, but they do not outnumber full time faculty by a stretch, and they’re all teaching freshman comp. 

  25. Roxane

      Indeed. I’d also add that you cannot take a statistic from one school and make a statement about all schools. There is a serious problem with the erosion of tenure and the supplanting of tenure lines with adjunct faculty. There’s also a serious problem with the way some universities exploit adjunct faculty. However, I’d also say that not all adjuncting situations are nightmarish. And most departments do not have a majority of adjunct faculty. At my university, adjunct faculty, perhaps 30% of the department, only teach composition. They are unionized, with benefits, good contracts and good salaries. They have offices, though shared. They teach a 3/3 load the same as TT faculty, who also teach composition, regardless of their area. Certainly, they are far more vulnerable than TT faculty because the contracts are renewed annually but it is not a terrible gig. 

  26. Marc

       Roxane, I’m curious if you could provide a source for your statement “And most departments do not have a majority of adjunct faculty,” because it directly contradicts the NYTs numbers in the second article I linked above.

  27. Marc

       Who knows, Mittens. I’m sure it varies from one school to the next. I’d say that most teach comp, but I’ve known adjuncts who’ve taught creative writing, Lit, ESL, etc. Most teach whatever is thrown their way.

  28. Roxane

      I sure can’t, Marc.

  29. deckfight

      supply meet demand. you’re right on point about the “selling a dream” part. the only thing that will change it is buyer’s remorse, and/or dreamer’s remorse. 

  30. Riva

      Agreed. Just because they are both in the arts doesn’t mean that creative production is the same as a performance skill like ballet or violin, and that they would benefit from the same types of training.

      It’s true that there are almost no autodidactic concertmasters or prima ballerinas, but the same cannot be said of writers.

  31. Riva

      But how many of those guilds demanded lifelong debt in order to become an apprentice?

  32. Riva

      I don’t understand the argument that an MFA = time if it costs money. If you just saved the cost of going to an MFA program (say, 100K + living expenses for 2 years) and lived simply, you could have 3 or 4 times as much time to write.

  33. Riva

      Or another subtext could be: in most other countries, artistic training is government-funded. Why not in the U.S.? In those cases, I think societies have made a decision that supporting the arts is worthwhile, and by funding training, they minimize the financial risk for each individual artists (if they aren’t financially successful after graduation, at least they don’t have debt). One question would be, in a system that has chosen not to do this, is it smart for the artist to take on the risk individually?

  34. Riva

      I hope we, as a society, can learn a way to value art without indenturing ourselves to the banks for the privilege of making it.

  35. deadgod

      “[L]ifelong”?  “[T]o become an apprentice”?  Odd, those expressions.

      The program Catherine started this discussion by talking about is “fully funded” (according to a graduate of it on this thread), meaning that its students won’t have any tuition-and-fees debt when they graduate. 

      ‘Having to borrow heavily to get an education’ is not what anybody on the thread is supporting.  Rather, what I take alan to have been challenging is the idea itself of post-graduate training in “creative writing”, which I–with no personal experience in such a program–support.  Do you think MFAs (or CW PhDs) are worthless at any price?

      It’s my understanding that, generally, when one earns an MFA in literature, one has a Bachelor’s degree and has met ‘masters’-level criteria in writing literature–usually, then, after at least six years of tertiary education.  Surely what an MFAer has “become”, in our late-mediaeval analogy, is a journeyman writer.

  36. Riva

      Well, I was responding to commenters who seemed to think that an MFA was worth it at any price, and that Lacey was being elitist in suggesting otherwise.

      I happen to be in agreement with the original article. MFAs are worth it as long as they’re following a journeyman-like or Ph.D.-like structure, where the participant is either not paying to be there, or is receiving a modest stipend in exchange for work. What I’m worried about is how far most of them have departed from that economic reality.

  37. Riva

      I do also question the absolute need for formal “training” in the field of writing. Now, don’t misunderstand: I think it definitely can help. I think most people would be better writers after an MFA program. But are there no other ways, maybe more circuitous and difficult ways, to get there? Can one find mentorship outside of the academy? Often, when writers are interviewed, they talk about what they learned from reading. Can one not read outside? I’m not saying these alternatives would be better than a fully-funded MFA, but I’d argue that they’re a better alternative for the majority who are paying their way.

  38. Michael J. Martin

      I think people oftentimes miss the point of why this keeps coming up. It has less to do with going into debt over an MFA or not, is an MFA worth anything or not, and more to do with the behemoth structure of the MFA program. If there was less stress in the literary industry to have an MFA, or be in some form affiliated with the academic structure, people would be less — look around you. While the aforementioned issues are related, I’m pretty sure the “industry saturation” is really the culprit. I mean, if all I had was literature, and all I wanted to be was a writer, I would be stressed, angry, pissed (in this hypothetical, when truly, not in the least) if I could not afford an MFA. As it stands now, if I wanted to apply for a music grant or award or something, or jump in the industry and grab an agent, I wouldn’t need some music degree. They would wait to see how I perform or if they like my music. And then my style of music wouldn’t be frowned upon because it didn’t meet a standard. Now disliking/refusing/minimizing music because it doesn’t meet the industry style standards happens across all disciplines, but in terms of artistic industries, having an MFA these days in literature is pretty much the gold stamp of approval. And that is where the difference arises. It is opinion and taste and style wrapped into a degree’d packaged, with a high fucking price tag.

      I am not being specific here in terms of individual experience. While the original post was emotionally individual, I am not trying to do that, obviously, so don’t get defensive, will you? But the byproduced ills of the MFA program are apparent, though no one wants to accept and admit it, but instead, those within the system (a word one shouldn’t abhor, as it appears the “counterculture’s” aggregation of ‘system’ seems to have stuck) begin defending their food Pavlov’s dogs stye. But when you have a writer who may have written the most harrowing account of whatever, based upon the life of whomever, but would like some time to work on it, and is applying to grants/retreats/etc, and they notice things like references, circulum vitae, where did you go to school — it is assuming, likely based upon MFA culture, that the writer is hobknobbing, or has associates, and isnt some vagabond of, gasp, actually learned to write by going to the library, or, gasp, actually has some innate skill developed over years or practice and grindouts, similar to the MFA environment, only on their own. Yes, when it starts getting like that, there’s a program.

      Word Riot is the shit.

  39. deadgod

      Well, we agree that extortionate pricing of education is shitty for MFA students (and (?) that it’s terrible for the community).  And also that, when it comes to literature, it’s not necessary to be taught much more than the basics in a formal way.  These points, together, are no argument against the MFA in ‘creative writing’ altogether, though, right?  And I’d (strongly) emphasize that the narrow, expensive bottleneck isn’t there (in tertiary education generally) because it should be, but rather, because of lobotomized political-economic priorities.

  40. Anonymous

      I haven’t read every single comment but did anyone mention the debt you can go into just for living expenses when you’re in an MFA but don’t have an outside job? I imagine some people take out loans to pay for rent, food, etc. even while in programs where the tuition is fully funded / fellowshipped. So even fully funded programs can leave people paying interest and loan payments years into the future. 

  41. leapsloth14

      Then get an outside job. Most undergrads I teach have one.

  42. Anonymous

      Because those are so readily available these days … surely you can see my point.

  43. Anonymous
  44. Anonymous

       I was remembering this comment and laughing about it this morning