AWP began over 20 years ago to help professionalize the MFA as a terminal degree so that writers working in academia would be eligible for tenure. The logic was that teachers with the MFA could go back to their institutions and be as eligible for a tenured position in writing and literature as any PhD. As we all know, it hasn't worked out that way. What none of us – AWP included – anticipated was the slide of academia into business model it now embraces, which undermines tenure and relies heavily on poorly paid contingent (part- and full-time) faculty. There is a dearth of positions and an abundance of writers seeking positions. In other words, to quote Abraham Lincoln when asked about being besieged by eager office seekers, "there's too many pigs for the tits" – and in fact that mama pig has vanished into thin air. More accurately, she has been slaughtered by administrators, CEOs, and an industry that views students as customers rather than the product – and therefore its faculty not as colleagues in a larger mission, but as worker bees. Other than a handful of prestigious chairs or professorships for big-name writers, tenure-track positions for poets teaching in the land of Composition and Intro to Literature where most of us reside are so scarce as to be virtually non-existent. We need to rethink the purpose of the MFA if we want it to survive – and if we want to make a living.
How many poets do you know who hold tenured or tenure-track teaching positions? There are some – and God bless them, too. (Believe me, I'm not envious – I just marvel that they were able to do it.) Now, how many poets do you know who are existing on the verge of poverty while doing the Adjunct Shuffle over several schools, counting coupons and praying they will have a job next semester? I bet it's a lot more. I'll even bet it's you.
It's easy to understand the attractiveness of the teaching life. I taught for almost 20 years, and for most of the time, I loved it. For one thing, it's deeply important work. If you are lucky, now and again you get one of those students who you know is going to change the world – and you get to be justly proud you might have had a hand in that. You get to talk about the thing you love most – words and language – with colleagues who understand its importance. There are lots of exciting things going on around you – student productions, guest speakers, art installations, gatherings. You get to be self-directed (it's your classroom) and you get chunks of time off between semesters. And, most wondrous of all, you have unfettered access to that bastion of civilization: the academic library. The goodies that still exist are indeed good.
Only…you don't get paid remotely enough. In fact, you get paid wages so low that colleges have become the intellectual sweatshops of the Western world, particularly in the humanities. Academia is frequently cited by unions and labor advocates as one of the worst offenders in abuse of the gig economy. Contingent faculty have no job security. Your classes are often over-enrolled; you likely don't get benefits; you are expected to have office hours even if you don't have any office space; you probably don't get a vote in faculty meetings (in fact, you may not even be on the email list for faculty meetings). The institution indicates how little you matter by paying you less per hour than a barista at Starbucks and by subtly and not-so-subtly letting you know that, should you jump ship, there are plenty more where you came from. As for your writing, it only exists for the institution insofar as it can bring in publicity, prestige and more students. Poetry thrives on campuses in spite of the institution, not because of it. The sad reality is, despite its lip service to the lofty goals of higher education, academia today treats teachers like a 1910s shirtwaist factory boss treated his sewing machine girls.
We need to ask ourselves how academia has sustained this teaching model for so long. It's simple: By dangling the carrot of "maybe" – maybe next year, maybe when so-and-so retires, maybe we'll take it up with the Board, maybe, maybe, maybe. We want it so badly to be real that we willingly subject ourselves to a predatory and exploitative working environment in the hope that tomorrow things will be better.
Poets (and other writers), we need to stop this. Remember that old cliché about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome? Yeah, that. This is of course not to say everyone should instantly stop teaching. But understand what's going on. It's time to stop waiting for the invisible pig to reappear. Like Godot, she's not coming.
But…but…how? What else is a poetry degree good for? Lots of things, bunky. The MFA can be leveraged in many ways – editing, publishing, marketing, content writing, and so on. Despite received wisdom, humanities degrees show employers that applicants have a broad range of knowledge and critical thinking skills. Or you don't have to leverage it all. Go work in a field you like that doesn't care about your MFA. Go be a doctor, a lawyer, an insurance salesman, a baker, a candlestick maker, an office manager, a dentist, an engineer, an HVAC installer, a farm hand, a fighter pilot, a web designer, or a barista at Starbucks, where not only will you be better paid, you'll get free coffee. Look, all jobs are annoying at some level. That's why it's called work. Be creative. The one thing poets are is creative.
But if I don’t teach, how will I have time to write? Well, get off Facebook, for starters. Another thing to think of is how much time and intellectual energy is spent grading papers, planning classes, meeting with students, and worrying if you're going to be able to pay the electric bill. Teaching's "time off" lure is largely illusion, especially if you are scrambling to pay bills over the summer break. Lucille Clifton wrote her first books as a stay-at-home mom while raising six stair-step babies. Wallace Stevens sold insurance. William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and Rafael Campo is one right now. Dana Gioa worked in advertising, and Bob Hicok owned his own auto die design business. Poets writing now run non-profits, practice as psychologists, and build fine furniture. You want to write, you'll figure it out. And it's easier to figure out if the utilities haven't been cut off.
Then why get an expensive MFA at all? Because a good MFA program isn't really about teaching credentials anymore – it's about learning your craft and finding your beloved community. We live in a world which is happy to tell you every day that what you do doesn't matter. The MFA begs to differ. Can you get by as a writer without one? Of course you can. Does getting an MFA enrich your writing life? A good one does. In fact, the MFA program is probably the one place in academia where the mission of good writing and decent pay for faculty still exists. (The irony is that academic institutions love MFA programs, especially low-residency MFA programs, because they bring in significant money with low overhead in the form of student housing and other services, and a lot of publicity and prestige for the school.)
If you want an MFA, you must move beyond thinking that it's going to make one whit of difference to your chances of getting a good teaching job. Because it isn't, any more than it's going to help you move up in line for astronaut training. This isn't AWP's fault or the MFA program's fault. The playing field has been seismically shifted. We have to shift, too, to move into thinking more broadly about what other things the degree can give us. As for me, getting my MFA at Bennington was the most important thing I ever did. When I went there, I felt like I finally got to put my Batman suit on after a lifetime of walking around as Bruce Wayne. It made me part of a history and community of writers. And yes, it was expensive. In fact, it took me eighteen years to pay off my loans. But it took so long because I was making bupkis at teaching. To make ends meet, I taught here, I taught there, I taught everywhere at once (my record was eight writing classes in one semester). Even after years of adjuncting when I finally had a full-time (but still contingent) position, composition was still languishing at the bottom of the salary scale. If I had had a job that paid appropriately, I would have paid my loans off a lot sooner. But I was committed to the idea that my MFA meant I was supposed to be a teacher, no matter what. So for almost twenty years, I scrambled for those breadcrumbs.
It's time to change the paradigm. We as poets (and other writers) will have to change it, because why should academia? Tuition costs have risen astronomically while faculty salaries have stagnated; colleges are raking it in on the backs of its faculty. So as for me, even though I loved teaching, I will not teach in a college composition department again. For one thing, I can't afford it. For another, I refuse to participate any longer in a system that thrives on exploiting most of its workers. In reality, academia as a contemporary institution doesn't care about your art or your teaching. It only cares about the bottom line.
And I leave you with this: the average cost of an MFA in creative writing today is around $30,000. A 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee starts at $30,595. That's stripped, with no bells and whistles – and as soon as you drive it off the lot, its value drops exponentially. You'll also have to trade it in again some day and get a new one. Just sayin'.
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