February 27, 2015 by Jaimie Gusman
Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Professors Now That I No Longer Have One
On a cool summer day in 2008, I graduated from the University of Washington’s MFA program. I was one poet among eight in my cohort, a pretty competitive program when you take into account how many starry-eyed wannabe writers there are flocking to such programs offering professional creative writing instruction.
On graduation day my advisor, a Yale Younger Series winner and Stegner fellow, introduced me on stage before I was prompted to read a couple poems from my thesis. I’ll never forget what he said. “If there was a most improved award, it’d go to Jaimie.”
There was something endearing about this half-handed compliment. I worked hard, maybe harder than some of my peers, to produce hundreds of poems, which have since been banished to my filing cabinet.
Nonetheless, he knew through my incessant emails, fifty poem workshop submissions, and countless office hour visits that I was dedicated to the craft of poetry 1000%.
But I wasn’t a great poet. Not even a good one. And I knew it. I was the only student admitted to the program that year through the wait-list. I called the office every other day to ask, “How is the weather in Seattle?” followed by, “Any news for me about the wait-list?”
It’s not that I so wanted to go to the University of Washington. I had already been admitted to American University’s program in D.C., but the cost of that program was three times the amount of the tuition at UW.
Eventually I either hassled the department so much that they just let me in, or some more qualified candidate dropped out for a better, more well-funded opportunity. I quickly packed my bags, went to Rome as a mentor for UW’s summer creative writing program, and then moved from Florida to Seattle.
Like so many MFA students today, I went to UW without a tuition waiver or stipend. In addition to the generous donations from my family, I worked in retail, at an Irish pub, and Amazon.com to help support the cost of grad school. Also, like so many MFA students that have graduated, now that I am out of the MFA program, and academia, I have some perspective on my particular MFA program and the commodification of the MFA program in general.
The gist is that the MFA’s competitive environment sometimes led to hostility between students, professors often favored particular students (usually white males) and made it known, and sometimes money was unfairly distributed to students based on abstract qualifications. For example, I was awarded a $15,000 “minority” scholarship for reasons still unknown to me. (Is it because I am Jewish? Because I’m a woman? Because my last name sounds Hispanic?) The director of the program applied for the scholarship on my behalf.
In addition, there are such a small percentage of graduates who go on to have writing careers or stable, full-time teaching careers in academia that afford them to write that the idea that the MFA is a terminal degree seems antiquated, at best. Ask the thousands of adjuncts flooding the highways to run from one gig to another so they can teach at whatever university or community college that has an opening.
On Friday, February 27, 2015 former professor Ryan Boudinot wrote an article for the Seattle based newspaper, The Stranger, titled, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” To save you the pain of reading the advice of the disgruntled prof., given under 8 confessional sub headings, I will give you the recap in two sentences:
First sentence: Ryan Boudinot, an obviously white male professor who taught at the graduate level for eight astounding years, tells you how much his students, with the exception of the”Real Deal students” he could count “on one hand, with fingers to spare,” bored him almost to the point of quitting his job.
Second sentence: According to Boudinot, in order to be a “Real Deal” writer, you must be a young and nimble, white, male that will have read The Great Gatsby and other canonical books way before graduate school, like, in a 5th grade private school English class or in a high school AP English course.
I am admittedly making assumptions here about Boudinot’s own maleness and whiteness, and his claim that the only successful writers are those who come from privileged backgrounds, but if you read the article, you might agree with me that it’s hard to walk away with any other inference.
Regardless of my personal characterization of Boudinot, it seems pretty clear that he is exactly the kind of MFA writing teacher you’re glad you never had a class with.
With observations like “Some people have more talent than others” and “MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy” it’s no wonder this guy comes across as a miserable former MFA student himself who hasn’t quite learned the difference between mentor and just plain mean.
This may seem harsh. Maybe Boudinot had a really taxing eight years in the academy. Maybe the administration has gotten to him, or departmental politics has made him salty. Or, maybe, he’s just so uninspired by the same work turned in by his students year after year that he’d rather tell them to “give up and do something else.”
But even if I give him the benefit of the doubt–that he’s just a tired, overworked, and possibly under appreciated teacher trying to do good in the world– it’s hard to argue that someone who wishes that a student writing, even if in poorly constructed sentences, about his or her experience being abused as a child, should have “suffered more,” isn’t a complete ass.
That’s right. He said he had wished that one of his students who was writing a memoir about being abused as a child would have suffered more because of the student’s “inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences.”
I’d also like to point out that from his tone and pronoun usage, Bourdinot’s “Real Deal” students, the ones who don’t make him want to quit his job, are assumed to be males with a privileged background, like himself. References to “he” are given in explanations of students who show promise/have innate talent, while the she’s of the world are reading books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.”
This kind of elitist, overtly sexist, judgment-making is exactly what authors like Junot Díaz have spoken out against, telling their own MFA experiences as a call for more diverse MFA programs. Not only are course materials in need of re-envisioning, apparently so are the instructors who teach them.
Instead of judging a student as to why he or she hasn’t read The Great Gatsby–a book that offers a criticism of social privilege and American excess–maybe you should ask why that student hasn’t read what you consider required reading (think about opportunity, much?) and why your privilege affords you to think that this student’s lack of Gatsby-knowledge is emblematic of someone who will never be a successful writer. This guy didn’t read Gatsby until he was 37, and he’s writing in The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, and The Village Voice. I would say that he’s pretty successful.
I could go on and on about how awful Boudinot’s article is, citing how his idea of rigor is not facing the real social, sexual, cultural, and racial injustices of American life, but rather it’s whether or not you can read titles like Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow (all award-winning booking written by males) between semesters. But I won’t, because you can do that for yourself.
What I will point out is that this article is evidence of two other things: 1.) white male privilege is still alive, well, and applauded in the academy, and 2.) the commodification of MFA programs leaves an imbalance between sponge-like students who are willing to, even at the high price of $10K-$40K per year and sometimes from the depths of their own pockets, learn the craft of writing and jaded professors who think only a handful of students deserve to be in the program to begin with.
This past summer, Poets and Writers published an article called “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect” that claimed the problem with the MFA is that the students are entitled. The students are reading less, always on their smartphones, and think the fiction selections in the Best American Short Stories aren’t that captivating–author Steve Almond’s main complaint. But why? To quote one Goodreads reader (who happens to be the director of the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University, mind you), Sian Griffiths, “it struck me as a little too monoculture. I would have liked to see a greater assortment of stories from non-white authors.”
The problem, seems to me, to be that there is an opinion that the MFA has evolved into a vanity degree that no longer holds the weight that some are nostalgic for, mixed with the opinion that the digitalization of the 21st century has changed what’s considered “good” writing, blurring the boundaries that once put white male writers on a pedestal.
This leads professors like Boudinot to come off as messengers for the dooms day of the MFA, when in fact, these changes are emblematic of a social and political landscape we should all be paying attention to. A landscape of inequality, where the stories we want to hear or need to hear, written by people of difference, aren’t being written for lack of encouragement and support.
My MFA days are long gone, but it’s still a degree I care about. Even if I don’t have a career in academia. Even if I haven’t been a traditionally “successful” writer (I’m 31, so I’ll never be the “Real Deal,” right Boudinot?).
The experience I had in my program gave me a unique perspective on my own writing and the writing of my generation. And as someone fresh out of adjuncting, I’m fortunate to have had the chance to listen to what the next generation of students think about literature, what kinds of stories represent their backgrounds, experiences, wishes, and fears.
I was that kid that didn’t read Gatsby until grad school. But I was also the only entering MFA student who could scan a line of Hopkins like a champ.
And even if my advisor was a bit paternal in his introduction for me during the MFA graduation ceremony, he was right. I worked hard, and got a lot better. Being most improved is nothing to be ashamed of.