Reviewing CCCC 2000: SIG Report (SI.15)

Voices From the MFA SIG by Alys Culhare, MFA, Ph.D., Katherine Fischer, MFA, David Starkey, MFA, Stephanie Vanderslice, MFA, PhD., Jane Wohl, PhD.

Good news: More than just Katie and I, the organizers, showed up at the MFA SIG.
Bad news: Only Katie, Maribeth, and I were "true" MFAs.
Good news: At least the others were sympathetic, and two did have MFAs in addition to their other degrees.
Bad news: Still, we're just talking about seven people here.

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Even the mighty, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi River starts as little more than a trickle somewhere near Lake Itasca just hours north of Minneapolis, our conference site--the site for the first ever MFA SIG. Oh, what floodwaters can result once the snow melts and other tributaries feed in.

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An MFA/PhD at the 4 C's MFA SIG. A foot in both camps. The story of my life--but I wouldn't have it otherwise, as most of my philosophies reside in shades of gray. I sought an MFA because I wanted to write fiction and discovered along the way that I also wanted to teach. Then I discovered that no one wanted to hire me.

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On our campus, my fellow MFAs and I joke about what we shall call ourselves.
Certainly, we are not "doctors." "Ms." and "Mr." seem equally out of kilter. "Magnificently Fine Artists," we decide is too long, too cheesy. "How about 'Moiwfa?" the Acting teacher suggests. We vote it down. Identity problems.
I think of how we need to be using our initials behind our names the same as Ph.D's.

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I'm not an MFA. . . if there had been a program close by, I might have been.
As a teacher of MFAs, I had better be sympathetic. As a PhD, I had better help foster communication and help eliminate academic rank-pulling.

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The room for the MFA SIG is double-booked. We bow out to the larger crowd waiting for the Working Class SIG. Leaving the room, I pass Ira Shor, have to quite literally bite my tongue to keep from saying, "We're the real working class here."

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Hindsight. I often look in the rear view mirror of life, in hopes of seeing the past in relation to the future. As I sit at yet another intersection, I realize that this is another one of those times. I'm again finding myself wishing that I could put my life in reverse and return to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where 12 years ago, I received my MFA. If I could do this, I'd tell the powers that be that I need to take courses which will better enable me to make the writing/teaching connection.

At the time, however, you could not have convinced me that this was important. I saw teaching as something that I'd do "in the meantime." Once I got my first book on the New York Times Best Seller list, I'd say adios to all those struggling composition students. The last set of student papers--I vowed to leave them unread.

I graduated. I continued to write. And I continued to teach. And at some point, the two endeavors became synergistic. Admittedly, there were times when I drove too fast. And other times when I drove too slow. And along the way, I burned out a number of pedagogical clutches. Like the time I had all my students write on the same topic. 75 papers later, I knew this was not the way to go. Lifeless prose be damned, I began to focus more on invention techniques.

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I went through teacher education in my undergraduate days, cut my teeth in teaching high school. My Phd and MFA counterparts alike may have had the mentoring involved in being T.A.s but nothing compared to a full-scale education degree. I wonder what all the shouting is about? New Phd's don't strike me as particularly ready to take the classroom by storm any more than do new MFAs.

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It makes me wonder if the MFA needs to be rethought. I wonder what the origins of the MFA in writing are. How did it develop? What were the original goals?

Clearly Flannery O'Connor didn't want to teach . . .couldn't have, I suspect. So the audience here, and potential SIG group are the MFAs who are teaching. . . clearly the others go to AWP. . . unless, of course, they are in garrets writing away.

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I'd bet that most MFAs are dedicated above all to their writing, that teaching issues don't drive them in the same way. They don't come to CCCC. They go to AWP, and at AWP they don't want "to talk about this shit." To quote a friend.

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Pursuing the MFA gave me time to write, time to build my own critical aesthetic by studying with leading fiction writers. I developed a close-knit circle of friends that emerged from the common struggle to write, to read, in a world that does not always value either--friends with whom I remain close personally and professionally, but whose faces I rarely see at C's--an issue that did not go unmentioned at the SIG. And hey, let's not forget, I met my husband during the MFA.

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Graduation cast me into rough seas without so much as a life preserver--unless that's what you want to call the adjunct position at the university where I'd gotten my degree. My husband, also an MFA from the same institution, had already been treading water for a year. We wanted a family some day. We wanted to be able to support them.

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I live in Oz right in the middle of the Midwest. My college is small, personal, and innovative, and is interested in faculty willing to wear many hats. As an MFA, I teach composition and literature, direct the Writing lab, and teach core courses in the Honors Program. I sit on key committees including the academic, general education, and planning boards. Heck, they even awarded me the college's teaching excellence award last year and I was the third MFA in the college's history to receive it. I'm up for tenure next fall and there are no roadblocks--not even due to the degree because an MFA is considered fully terminal on our campus. Sometimes I wonder what all the hoopla is over degree status until I remember that not everyone lives in the Emerald City.

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I work in a Department of Writing and Rhetoric, within a College of Fine Arts and Communication and alongside poets, pianists and sculptors with similar backgrounds. On matters of evaluation, I am encouraged by administrators to emphasize the fact that I have two terminal degrees.

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One question. However did brown become the official color for academic regalia for those of us with MFAs? My drama, dance, and art counterparts and I have spent hours over this particular concern. Perhaps only drabness can accompany such colorfulness and survive?

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My coming out anecdote. Telling a Ph.D. acquaintance at last year's Cs that I had an MFA was like coming out: strangely liberating for me yet mutually awkward, the other person struggling to maintain a face that says, That's ok, I still think of you as the same person.

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Reminds me of the fellow I met at the C's last year, a PhD in Comp/Rhet who was teaching creative writing. He made it clear that we MFAs should not be allowed to teach composition "except in emergencies." When I reminded him that I was an MFA, that David was an MFA, he freaked. He allowed that perhaps Starkey and I could "get away with this" and do right by students, but he wasn't too willing to cut the rest of the MFA crowd any slack. I picture him in hospital greens?

I wonder if this comp/rhet. fellow is teaching creative writing in the ER?

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"There's room at the top they are telling you still
If you want to be like the folks on the hill
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill"

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Who is privileged and why?

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We ran out of time before any of these issues could be discussed in the necessary depth. I remain optimistic, however. We found each other, scribbled down email addresses, have begun to collaborate on this article. Somehow, I think, we will find the ways to make our presence known in this conference space and from there, to press for change.

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Cognizant of the need to respect those writers who do not want to teach, the idea of a dual track program came up, a studio track for those who wanted to write, exclusively, and a pedagogy track for those who wanted to teach as well.

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In the circle we reach out to minds, hearts
open, birds winging out from winter trees.
It's the words that matter, provide the charts,
the maps for finding routes better than degrees.

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How do you organize invisible women and men? Where are you, sisters, brothers? If we build it, they will come.

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Possible future SIG topics might include writing center pedagogy, composition process theory and practice, writing alongside students, making the teaching/writing connection.

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