30 June 2008

Graduate students and professionalization: too much, too soon, or never enough?

This isn't going to be one of those posts wherein the author complains incessantly about the whippersnappers today and their silly electronical magazines, and I am certainly not going to open the debate about the role of degree programs in creative writing. But professionalization, and the needs of a new generation of creative writing students, is on my mind.

I'll preface by saying that I started professionalizing (which I'm describing as actively sending out viable poems, attending and/or presenting at conferences, reading work in public, and writing critical prose and reviews) shortly after finishing my MFA.

However, I attribute most of this to being a colossal nerd, not to pressures I sensed in my academic program, or fears about the job market. I didn't start sending out a book ms until after I'd graduated with my Ph.D. I attended all of those job market seminars, and they did scare the crap out of me, but I guess I felt like the degree program was mostly a place for generating new work. If one of our grad student peers had a book, it was an anomaly, and we were slightly terrified.

It's amazing how things have changed since the 1990s. Now there are colossal nerds everywhere, and so much nerdier (or just more successful) than I was. Grad students with books! Grad students with multiple books! Grad students from all over the country at AWP! Grad students publishing in the best journals and winning hefty awards! Not to mention the collective awesomeness of their glasses!

Back when I was attending job market seminars, there was some minor hysteria about the idea of premature professionalization, which was usually eclipsed by hard facts about the placement rates of grad students. It was difficult for me to understand the hazards. Of course, everyone secretly thinks that they will somehow be miraculously exempt from the perils of the academic job market, that the legendary "big wave of retirements" will open up the perfect opportunity. The standards keep getting higher and higher. When I serve on search committees, I am often shocked at the credentials of some applicants who are still looking for an entry-level job. (NOTE: this does not get any easier once you actually get the job, and have to keep churning out the professional activity at breakneck speed).

As an advisor to my own grad students, I sometimes wonder if younger/newer writers are just more motivated these days, or if there's an institutional push to push (which I can understand, since we're always trying to justify the importance of our programs to the administration). I try to be helpful, and I certainly encourage folks to send work out when it's ready, but I don't push.

I do, however, hope to bring as many grad students to as many AWPs as I can. When I was in school, you only went to AWP when it came to your town (or nearby). Now everybody goes. But I think that's important, and not just so that students can load their suitcases with free pencils and magnets and back issues and spectacular hangovers. There's a sense of community that I never had when I was that lone nerd with her dead bird poems. Today, you could probably find a panel about dead birds, a 'zine dedicated to them, an off-site dead bird reading, a tattoo parlor offering the hottest dead bird tattoos, and depending on the location of the conference, maybe even some real dead pigeons in the park.

I'd love to hear what other writers out there feel about professionalization. Is there a danger in doing it too early? Is there ever enough? Where does the pressure come from? Does the blogosphere encourage competition? Does professionalization take all of the fun out of writing?


Frank (the Colt) said...

I'm not professionaling enough because I don't send that much work out, but I'm trying to do as many interviews with writers to get my name out there. In this program we have people who work their butts off and people who don't. I just hope I'm doing enough to be in the former catogory.

Penultimatina said...

Frank, you totally work your butt off. Who are you kidding? ;)

You don't *need* to be pushed.

Adam Deutsch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Deutsch said...

As long as the professionalization isn't over-shadowing the art, it should be fine. Community is a positive thing.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Mary, I think this is an interesting post. I don't have an MFA -- only a Master's and I felt terrific pressure at the grad level to present, publish, and do all sorts of extra things (without pay) so I would look good on the job market. When I got my job (tenure track), I found out that most of my colleagues never did any of that until after they got tenure!!!

So, now I see grad students with books, and awards, etc..and they still can't get a job! The fact is...the demands are so much higher today.

Justin Evans said...

My hopes and dreams of professionalization came to screeching halt even before they took off. As a married college student with a kid and another on the way, my wife and I opted for a job teaching high school over the dream of graduate school. My top options were going to be American Studies (with a focus in Film and history) or law school. Graduate studies in History or Literature require a foreign language, ad my German really is that bad. To tell you how little of the professional ideal I had, I did not even know I could get an MFA in Creative Writing until I graduated and was doing my student teaching. Honestly. I doubt my poetry was anywhere useful by 1997, but I simply didn't even have that in mind.

When I was settled out here in the desert, I started looking for a graduate program I could work with without making myself vomit. I hooked up with Ken Brewer who offered to sneak me into Utah State University's Professional Writer Program. That lasted right up to the point where learned I would be required to take two classes (at the cost of $1600/semester and each course had an estimate of 10,000 words of pedagogy in addition to the creative assignments. Not that I can't write 25-30k words a semester, but do justice to them while trying to teach high school sophomores to write was not what I could handle.

So my Master's degree came from UNR in a literacy program. I feel like a money whore because the pay-raise is about the best thing the degree gave me, but then again, I am able to sleep nights because it was a lot of money. I make more from this job than most Ph.D.'s in Utah or most of the Western States.

If I ever do get an MFA, it will be at the end of my career, when I no longer have obligations and when the study will be just for me.

What I have learned from observing grad students and hearing what they have to say, there is a pressure, but I see it as a healthy pressure to keep the field fresh with new people and show some value in being a professional writer/teacher of writing.

jeannine said...

When I was in my early twenties in grad school at UC I was really worried about the "dark side" of professionalization so I took the other road and went into the "clean, safe, completely ethical" corporate environment for ten years. (LOL - quotes are for irony!)
Now I realize I didn't have anything to worry about. You're not forced to be fake-nice to anyone you don't like, or sacrifice your individuality to get published, etc. Moving around to different cities and getting involved in online communities also helped me realize there were a lot of "weird" poets like me - who had a lot of great ideas and energy. My MFA program was one of the best things for my writing ever - I've never felt more connected to my genuine self, and felt so encouraged - a marvellous experience all around. I even argued with my advisors when I disagreed with them and no one cut off my head or anything!

Kelli said...

I agree with Jeannine & had a great MFA experience.

As for the competition, I guess I've never worried about it in any part of my life including writing because it has always felt as if there's enough room for everyone.

Mostly likely, I'm ridiculously naive, but this basic personality flaw has worked out well for me most of my life.

Great post, btw.

Margaret Bashaar said...

There are also a good number of talented people (I may or may not actually be one of them) who are bypassing MFA programs all together for one reason or another, but who are still quite professional and who, from what I have seen, work very hard at building community.

I'm in a boat similar to Justin's -- I have a family to take care of and therefore no viable way to enter an MFA program at this time.

However, this hasn't stopped me from publishing in some pretty well-known literary journals, running a successful poetry cabaret, going to the AWP a number of times, and doing a lot of other projects within the literary community. I have been doing many of these things to one degree or another since about the midpoint of my undergraduate study, which I suppose plants me firmly in that new generation of poetry go-getters.

I certainly don't do these things in the hopes of getting one of the coveted jobs mentioned above -- one has to have a higher degree for that, and said degree is not in the forseeable future for me -- but to be honest, I don't know if I can claim that I do it purely and simply for the love of poetry either.

So I don't know if this qualifies as potentially premature professionalism or someone taking their hobby way way too seriously. The word hobby makes me cringe.

Accidental Admin. said...

I think that like all things, professionalization "in moderation" in an MFA program is a very good thing. I loved my MFA experience, but I wish I had a bit more of a "push" towards some of the professionalization. Like all things--because I am a stubborn Greek girl--I decided I was going to take my own steps and do it my way (since no other ways were presented to me) whether my professors liked it or not. The result? No one discouraged me from sending my poems out to journals, and I got 3 published during my 2 years in the program. My professors found it delightful that I was doing that. But still, I didn't learn too much about how to take my approach to submitting--sending my work (which ranges somewhat) to all of the journals that publish stuff I like--and tailoring it to finding just the right fit for just the right poem whenever possible.

When it came to other things, I had mixed results. I co-organized 2 conferences on campus that became the beginning of what is now an annual conference series. My thesis advisor and my biggest cheerleader in my department said she admired that I would take on something extra and that she knew I would make a fine conference while doing my work wonderfully. My workshop professor pulled me aside and told me that, as a creative writing student in a CW program, I really had no business getting into the business of literature conferences. She was very crabby about it all.

What I do wish I had was more than a 2 hour talk on how good it is to get a job teaching post-MFA. I took it upon myself to go to some of the workshops that the graduating PhDs had on job stuff. I wanted to get a reasonable looking CV together. I wanted to do mock interviews. I wanted to learn what the 'ingredients' were of a cover letter. I wish I had some guidance on what it is to gather a teaching philosophy statement and to marry the realities--adjunct, teaching comp (or business writing, which I did for a couple of years), the ethos of the community college (or large state school, or uni-that-employs-grad-students-and-adjuncts) environment--with my training as a poet. I wish I had people talk to me about the pros and cons of moving to different parts of the country--what the job search might be like (ie adjuncting in Boston or NYC is VERY tough--glut of people wanting to adjunct--vs. the 'very tough' in less urban parts of the USA because maybe not as many colleges) and how to prepare myself for that. I wish I had people talk to me about different "ways" to teach (ie community learning center, educational nonprofits--in which I wound up teaching anyway, and by fluke, corporate training facilities, etc.) while still paying rent, having health insurance.

THAT kind of professionalization is needed more and more in the MFA program. Lessons in 'how to submit' to literary journals is needed more and more. SOMETHING that eliminates the stigma around chapbooks vs. full-length manuscripts is needed more and more.

Well, at least, from my point of view...but then again I am a dork who eats that for breakfast. I can't get enough, I can't learn enough, and I am going back to school for te next 5 years...

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