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. Cassandra Gillig

      “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.”

      It’s not like you really NEED an MFA to pursue writing, though; I mean this problem is widespread across graduate fields–more PhD holders than positions, etc.. Who’s to keep people from doing what they want?

      Of course what a lot of universities are doing is near criminal, but there are still ways to get affordable education. People go into it willingly. Can’t really get mad about it.

  2. leapsloth14

      But a plumber is a practical profession and writers are artist. A plumber goes to plumbing school to learn how to plumb. A writer goes to an MFA to write. Right? They are already a writer when the walk in the door.

      Is someone making people get an MFA? I thought that was a free will decision. Unless you want to be a professor, you don’t need an MFA, ever. But some go for an MFA just to divorce the real world. I mean for years you get to write and hang out with people who actually care about writing. Good luck finding that amount of time dedicated to writing elsewhere.

      I do agree with don’t get into debt. I’d say have the MFA pay you. If you can’t figure that one out, don’t go. Before I got an MFA (they paid me), I worked full time as an RN. Guess what I did when I got off my shift? I wrote.

  3. Catherine Lacey

      It’s not that you need an MFA to write, but you do increasingly need an MFA to teach at a college level. And yes, no one is forcing anyone to get an MFA, but the universities are exploiting a market & now the bubble is bursting, that’s all.

  4. Catherine Lacey

      I totally agree: you can’t tell people what they should want– even if it’s spend 50k or more on two years of classes and luxury time.
      The system, as it is now, just isn’t sustainable.

  5. Jaye Viner

      Several of these thoughts echo my own fears and laughabilites. Thank you.

  6. Roxane

      I also think that by the time you get to the MFA stage you should have the common sense to do the research on the viability of the degree. An MFA is not enough to teach at most schools these days. We’re currently doing a poet search that requires a PhD and we are not the only school doing so. A graduate education is a choice. No one forces students to get MFAs. You’re absolutely right that one should only make that choice if they can do so without debt or if they understand the consequences of the debt they do incur and the chances that they will be apply their degree to compensated work in the profession. I don’t disagree with what you say here, but there are too many graduate students in most fields mostly because people aren’t taking the time to do the research and figure out if the education is worth the price and the limited opportunities after. I also don’t think the only reason to get a graduate degree and an MFA in particular, is to get a job. Sometimes people want the time to write, or they want to improve their craft, or they want to put their student loans in deferment or they don’t feel like entering the workplace just yet. The problem isn’t necessarily that there are too many MFA programs. The problem is that there is not enough demand for holders of the degree. 

  7. Catherine Lacey

      Exactly. There certainly isn’t a need for more MFA-holders in the job market– so why are universities being complacent in this? Obviously its a choice to go to an MFA program and everyone has a right to make choices, good or bad, but it’s the universities that will ultimately have to change. Downsize, go extinct, etc… I am curious about how that change is going to effect books produced.

  8. Marc

      But it is sustainable, isn’t it?  The current system of creative MA, MFA and even creative PhDs only feeds the ever hungry adjunct pools at public and private universities. Adjuncts make up what, almost 70% of the faculty in most English depts.  Isn’t that the problem?

  9. Anonymous

      Sorry to jump in midstream, but in this comment you give a succinct version of something I disagree with: “There certainly isn’t a need for more MFA-holders in the job market– so why are universities being complacent [complicit?] in this?” 

      True, there isn’t a need for MFA-holders in the teaching job market, but so what? Why should the job market be the final arbiter of what gets taught in a university? Not everyone wants an MBA or an HVAC certificate. I enjoyed my time in an MFA program and I learned things. Afterward, having incurred no debt, I went back to the non-teaching job I’d had before. 

      It seems to me (from reading the comments at MFA blog) that Penn State’s MFA program is closing in response to a cut in funding at the university and/or English-department level. That’s different than the way you characterize it, as a department committing harikari rather than dupe any future students into the debt boondoggle MFA dream.

  10. Bradley

      Dirty secret: Pretty much all degrees are useless. Experience PLUS degrees = not so useless. 

  11. deadgod

      There are ‘too many’ graduates and post-graduates – in programs and degree’d – in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts.  –but I don’t think the problem is that there are too many educated people, too many writers, too much production of art, thought, knowledge.

      I think the problem is that technological development has rendered a huge amount of labor into machine-hours.  (A tiny number of workers – plus machines – , compared even to a hundred years ago, can farm enough food to feed everybody.  A tiny number of workers – plus machines – , compared to factory workers and tinkers 200 years or blacksmiths 400 years ago, can put a car around every person in the world.)  All of society has a tremendous leisure surplus, compared to the last ~10000 years of community.

      But, again, the problem isn’t that there are too many deadbeat artists and, eh, thinkers!  –any more than that it’d be a ‘problem’ if plumbers were always available (and affordable).

      The problem is political economy: how writers can survive, however many people want to write.

      To me, the solution is for a community to evolve that would privilege writing (and plumbing!) over exploitative accumulation (and especially laborless accumulation).  Choose politicians who would spend more money on public universities, who would spend money on NASA and particle accelerators and middle-school libraries and so on, and less money on tanks and drones and capital-gains-fed parasites.

      Practicalities–sure, an almost-unquestionable Good.  But what’s really ‘practical’ about fewer pieces of literature and less education??

  12. Paul Clark

      sign on, log in, drop out

  13. shaun gannon

      i’m going into debt in an mfa program because i don’t give a fuck about living anymore

  14. Anonymous

      The MFA sounds like an ITT Tech certification, except the MFA exploits middle-class white/azn bros, while ITT Tech exploits anyone who is poor and tired of working 3 minimum-wage jobs a week.

      I feel less for the middle-class white/asian demographic.

  15. Anonymous

      If I were looking for a poet to teach — which I assume is what’s going on here — I’d be looking for the best poet I could find (with some demonstrated teaching skills) — PhD wouldn’t enter into it. Not that having a PhD isn’t a fine thing for a poet to have, but it should be irrelevant to hiring a poet to teach. This reflects badly on the university involved.

  16. Roxane

      In a perfect world, the poetry would matter more than the degree. We don’t live in that world. It’s a union mandate that all faculty at my univ. hold a PhD. Other institutions have different reasons for requiring the PhD. Some of them are good reasons, others are not. It remains a market reality.

  17. Schmüdde

      I couldn’t agree more.  Education is not the problem.  Cost of education is.  The MFA graduates are not the problem, it’s the fact that we have a culture that doesn’t value the arts.  In a disposable society, frivolities like architecture, heritage and the arts don’t seem necessary.  But outside of the sciences, nothing tells us more about ourselves as a species than the arts.  It is essential if you want to create a better world tomorrow.


  18. Jeffrey Morgan

      I have an 

  19. Anonymous

      That’s a pity — the market reality is satirical.

  20. Jesse Hicks

      A system that creates increasingly more indebted participants on the assumption that growth will continue in perpetuity? Does this sound familiar?

  21. Neil Griffin

      I was always under the impression (perhaps mistaken) that MFA programs were generally moneymakers for schools, so I find it surprising that they shut down due to lack of resources. 

  22. Mary Miller

      I agree–don’t get an MFA if you have to pay for it. Period. End of story.
      If you can’t get into a fully-funded program, learn to write on your own. Read. Wake up before work and write for a few hours. Connect with others online. I know people who have spent 100k on an MFA. They clearly have not thought this out at all. They will never pay this back. This is not debt you can ever get out of and the government will get it back, one way or another.

  23. Anonymous

      Never seen such a phenomenon of degree holders trashing their own degree. If a bunch of MFA grads keep writing articles describing an MFA as worthless… well… we can’t really expect universities to take MFA grads seriously in the hiring process. It’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      I have my own doubts about the utility of an MFA vis a vis becoming a better writer but… damn. Let’s not completely crush that kid with stars in her eyes who— yeah— is probably making a bad financial decision by taking on MFA debt but passionately believes in what she is doing.

      People in MFA programs are not like plumbers. That is such a disingenuous analogy. The reason the paragraph about plumbers is funny (“dreaming of the pipes they could someday plunge”) is because we all know that isn’t how plumbers view their work. But MFA folks really do feel that passionately. Point being— the role of MFA programs is not to pump the optimal number of writers into the economy (so strange to make an economic utility case against the study of art).

      I think of Ben Lerner, who got his MFA, leveraged that into his fellowship in Spain, and then wrote a really successful novel. It seems to me (I could be wrong; I haven’t asked Mr. Lerner) that getting the MFA/being in that academic/writerly environment was a crucial part of his success. There are MFA success stories. Let’s nurture those rather than lament all the losers who ended up with debt and unemployment (which, BTW, is a risk even in more sensible grad programs such as JDs and MBAs).

      To the extent the point of this article is that all MFA programs should be fully funded– well, sure, that would be great. But they’re not. It’s kind of unseemly to hear people who were lucky enough to get into funded programs demoralize all the sad sacks who have to take on debt.

  24. shaun gannon

      i agree with you. what i meant by original comment fits with your eyestar idea – basically i don’t give a shit that i’m racking up debt (i’m partially funded, but not wholly), this is what i wanted to do, and i greatly look forward to getting yelled at by adults on htmlg and a million other writer websites about my decision. i’m not fucking retarded, i know what debt is and that i am becoming one with it. i’m just going to do what i want, MOM

  25. Kyle Beachy

      Do…do you feel this way about all education? Would you say the same thing to an undergrad who can get textbooks and learn on his own, find a community to connect to, and learn that way?

  26. Anonymous

      The subtext of all these sanctimonious writers preaching “no one should ever attend an MFA program unless they are fully funded” is:

      1. I am so kewl and talented a university paid me to get an MFA b/c they wanted me that bad.
      2. People paying for an MFA are pathetic, deluded rubes.

      But hey, they’re just telling you this because they want to help, that’s all.

  27. Anonymous

      I would advise anyone wanting to play with the New York Philharmonic not to study at a conservatory. Just buy a violin, a book on how to play it, and befriend some musicians. Practice for a few hours before you go to work each day. You can do it!

  28. Nick Mamatas

      State universities are often at the mercy of state budgets.

  29. Nick Mamatas

      Not quite the same thing—tons and tons of excellent writers don’t have MFAs, which demonstrates that one can do it without the help of schooling. The basics of a liberal arts degree, or a natural sciences degree, often involve access to resources other than a pen and paper, or a word processing program.

  30. Anonymous

      The derision at the beginning of this post (which is really just an extension of previous obnoxious judgments from other posters on the subject) has convinced me to stop reading this site entirely.  The writer concedes a little at the end, but the damage is done.  I’m sick of MFA grads judging MFA students for what is, when it comes down to it, none of their business.  The arguments made here are not new, but they are parasitic in their uselessness.  At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to figure out how to best function in a hungry society that doesn’t favor art, but achievement.  HTMLGiant, please back down on this topic.

  31. Kyle Beachy

      Well sure, but tons and tons of excellent people don’t have college educations. But is that an argument for only going if it’s free? 

  32. Lincoln Michel

      I understand all the comments about how the MFA is an artistic degree, and people have lots of reasons to pursue one that aren’t only about future employment. That is totally true. 

      However, I do think that there is a degree that a program accepting someone is telling them that they have the chops to “make it” in the writing world. Not to make it as in make a ton of money, but to at least to be published in known literary magazines and so on. And this clearly isn’t the case, as a lot of MFA graduates these days do not publish and I think that many of them are probably bitter about basically being told, via acceptance, that this was something they should pursue. There are so many programs out there and so many people being accepted that a lot of faculty are accepting people they know don’t have a knack for it, but they need to fill the slots. 

      I think this is an issue whether you pay or don’t. Even if you get a free ride, you are still spending years of your life on this. 
      Of course, perhaps the above is true of a lot of fields. There are a lot of programs in a lot of fields pumping out grads who won’t succeed (even by whatever modest standard you want to employ) in them. So maybe there is no point in blaming the MFA exclusively here. At least in this case, people are doing something they love and care about unlike say certain law school students I meet who realize their whole employment plan is fucked with the law grad situation these days. 

  33. Anonymous

      When I think about MFS programs, what seems most important is the amount of people (hopefully talented writers) who are reading and responding to you work (1) and (2) the access to books or photocopies of writing. So much of writing is reading but for example poetry especially cutting edge stuff is hard to get a hold of if you don’t have a big budget for books and don’t live in an area with high quality libraries. If someone could total up the cost of all the poetry they’ve been exposed to in a poetry MFA program, and what that would cost in used book amazon orders that would be useful data for an otherwise highly subjective conversation. There’s got to be another model. I know that some CUNY faculty are discussing starting a free MFA program for artistic fields. Everyone reading this forum should read this article [http://www.villagevoice.com/2012-01-04/news/a-cuny-professor-proposes-a-bailout-for-starving-arts-students/] where creative writing professors from Yale to Columbia straight out acknowledge that the system is flawed. An important point they make is that expensive PhDs like law school and medical school are not only already subsidized but have the potential for high returns later in life that can pay off the debt – unlike MFA writing grads.

  34. Anonymous

      MFA not MFS duh

  35. leapsloth14

      I don’t see that many people trashing their MFA. I have a job I love to do every day. My job is impossible without my MFA. I love my MFA.

  36. leapsloth14

      I was on two recent job search committees and MFA or PhD was fine. Also, my friends who graduated with MFAs have jobs. I mean let’s not go too crazy here. They even have jobs in things outside academia. Apparently the degree worked for them.

  37. leapsloth14

      I think you’re way off base. I don’t know what others with MFAs are saying but let me tell you what I meant, since I advise students all of the time that do go and get their MFA. I tell them, with research and persistence, they can get their MFA paid for. Sometimes it takes them a few years of applying to do so, but many of them figure it out. I don’t care who pays what for what, but if you’re asking my advice, I’d say figure out the system. If you want to pay for it, go ahead and do that, too.

      Your second point seems to be more about you. I don’t think anyone getting an MFA is a rube. They are just someone who has a great interest and passion for writing.

  38. leapsloth14

      I think we should have an MFA moratorium for 12 years. This site is going backwards like a whale on an escalator something.

  39. Anonymous

      I liked your comment bya ccident

  40. alan

      Literary writing is something people have traditionally learned to do on their own.

  41. Catherine Lacey

      Why not crush that kid with stars in his eyes? 

  42. Catherine Lacey

      and it’s the over-abundance of MFA programs that is degenerating the degree, not the degree itself.

  43. Catherine Lacey

      I know. I’m sorry.

  44. Nick Mamatas

      Yes, but people don’t go to college in order to be “excellent” people either. Even if one’s degree is not purely vocational, there are economic reasons to go to college, and reasons of cultural capital.

      If non-MFAs were really suffering either when it came to being published or when it came to cultural capital as writers, when an MFA would be comparable to any college education. But they ain’t, so it’s not.

  45. leapsloth14

      This society might not favor art but it sure as hell has a lot of art. Hold up, got to get back to my reading list.

  46. Anonymous

      Depends on how you view the degree. If it’s primary function is to help one get a teaching job, then more MFAs flood the market and increase competition. So I guess you would be right.

      But if you view an MFA as primarily about learning how to write (pretty naive, I know) then more MFAs doesn’t really hurt anything. Maybe it even helps by creating more people potentially interested in reading the work of MFA grads. 

      It seems like the fact that there are alot of MFA slots for those wanting to study writing can’t be a bad thing by itself. You’re arguing to reduce the supply of MFA slots but I’m not sure why. To increase the value of those already out there for totally self-interested reasons? Or is it some paternalistic desire to “protect” people who want to get MFAs from making what you think is a bad decision?

  47. Anonymous

      Why not punch him in the mouth? He’s such a loser.

  48. charles

      i got the mfa to learn to write better and had no interest in using it as a career move.  maybe i was more informed than most or maybe i was foolish.  i went into to debt to get it and maybe i’ll feel differently about the situation after paying for ten years instead of the three years i have been paying.  i got what i paid for but i also knew what i was paying for.

  49. leapsloth14


  50. Anonymous

      So was medicine until about the early 1700’s.

  51. 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 […]

  52. Daniel Bailey


  53. marshall mallicoat



  54. marshall mallicoat

       private universities are often at the mercy of what?

      can we complete the analogy

  55. marshall mallicoat


  56. 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

  57. 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.

  58. 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.

  59. 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. 

  60. 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.”

  61. 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.

  62. alan

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

  63. 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.

  64. Anonymous

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

  65. 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.

  66. 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.

  67. 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?

  68. William

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

  69. 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… 

  70. Marc
  71. 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.

  72. 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.

  73. 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?

  74. 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. 

  75. 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. 

  76. 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.

  77. 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.

  78. Roxane

      I sure can’t, Marc.

  79. 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. 

  80. 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.

  81. Riva

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

  82. 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.

  83. 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?

  84. 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.

  85. 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.

  86. 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.

  87. 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.

  88. 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.

  89. 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.

  90. 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. 

  91. leapsloth14

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

  92. Anonymous

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

  93. Anonymous
  94. Anonymous

       I was remembering this comment and laughing about it this morning