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?