We come into the world. We come into the world and there it is. The sun is there. The brown of the river leading to the blue and the brown of the ocean is there.
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The US has a particularly vexed version of this: there are eight private universities, grouped under the term Ivy League, with long histories, prestigious reputations and the robust networks that come with such stuff, and yet these institutions graduate fewer than 10, students a year. There is no way for any school—no matter the size of its endowment—to compete with them. There then follows a version of everything else, including state universities, state colleges, state community colleges, private research universities and private liberal arts colleges.
Then there is the subversion of everything else: the for-profit schools that wax and wane in direct response to how permissive the federal government is with its loan programs. All of these schools are pay to play. All are expensive. All maintain a cryptic and impossible to figure out and unregulated scholarship system. Thus students without the financial means to pay up-front for a degree end up borrowing money from the federal government.
And so the US government makes over a billion each year on student loans, a great deal of which comes from the astronomical fees charged to those who default. Article continues after advertisement This is, of course, just a cartoon sketch of this system, in which endless contradictions and absurdities abound. Floating above it is a series of utopian claims made by all who are employed by the system—about the potential of education, about its shared ideas, about its positive impacts.
And these claims are correct, for the sharing of ideas is utopian. But the higher education sector monetizes this sharing in decidedly un-utopian ways. I have worked in the university for over 20 years in various ways. It is basically a degree in how to write literature, and comes with a fairly rigid and set pedagogy. The workshop has some pedagogical conventions that are unevenly followed, but are still true at most programs—for example, that the person whose work is under discussion should keep silent for most of the discussion.
Similarly, the aesthetics of the work should be analyzed more than its content, political concerns, or relation to society. Article continues after advertisement Most programs have a literature requirement, though this varies from institution to institution. The MFA limped along as a degree until the s, when it really took off. At the end of the s, US universities awarded fewer than 1, degrees in creative writing; by , close to 6, were bestowed.
There are many theories as to why the discipline has expanded so rapidly. Others think that people get an MFA because of limited job prospects the fact that enrollments are counter-cyclical to the economy provides some support for this. I am partial to the theory that in the age of MOOCs massive online open courses and large lecture classes, the creative writing workshop is one of the few learning environments where students can still get personal attention.
It is probably not a coincidence that the MFA expanded so dramatically during the same years that US state governments reduced funding for higher education; at the same time, the US federal government significantly increased the amount of money students could borrow.
This forced universities to think about how they might get students to attend and pay tuition. Yet, at the same time, many of the complaints about the MFA are about the communities it creates. The degree skews inequity in all sorts of ways, not just in terms of race. In general, I am not convinced that faculty members, who tend to be more odd than not, should be in any way presumed to be capable of offering mental health support.
At the same time, it is impossible to ignore that many who enroll do so with the desire to tell their story—a story they often have a bunch of emotions about. Or that many see writing as having some sort of therapeutic potential. One more theory about why the MFA is increasingly popular equates its rise to the decline in talk therapy. I am also unconvinced that diversifying the sorts of people who pay for a questionable degree is the answer.
If I had my way, I would kick higher education out of cultural production. In my heart I believe that writing is egalitarian: all it requires is pen, paper and inclination. There are also increasing opportunities for publishing. Poetry, in particular, has robust and decentralized publishing models, many of which are becoming cheaper and easier to access. My preferred models come from prior moments when communities supported literary production for and by their own means.
And there are many to choose from. Many leftist movements have valued the arts as a mode of representing, preserving and disseminating cultural ideals and as a site of political education and debate. The Harlem Writers Guild of the s is another. Umbra, for example, was a collective of mainly Black poets founded in out of On Guard for Freedom an organization that in led a fairly intense protest against the murder of Patrice Lumumba at the UN.
All these organizations were formed by specific communities to support artistic production relevant to them. How can and should such courses be configured?
Part of my answer is fairly conventional. It tends to teach a canon that is contemporary, written in English and skewed towards literature produced by its own graduates. In my ideal version, an MFA curriculum would focus less on contemporary literature and more on the social, economic, and political forces that shape literature.
In addition to a thesis, students could do fieldwork projects. These could have a pedagogical focus such as teaching a free skool somewhere , a relational aesthetic focus, or an editorial focus a reading series, a journal, a press, a website or something similar. There would be other less conventional ways I would redefine any academic program attempting to train creative writers. For example, I would have each student develop an individualized course of study that includes 25 books designed to help them figure out what it is they want to do, aesthetically and politically.
And other insistences: that administration work be shared equally by faculty; that everyone would be paid the same amount; that admissions would be open; that cost would be set after assessing the financial situation of admitted students, not prior. Here I just want to break down some of the traditional academic hierarchies. But I am not really convinced this sort of program will make a better world.
The MFA was, oddly, a degree that writers brought to the academy. Almost all of the programs were started by writers, and these folk had to do a lot of work to start them. Nothing ever is in higher education. Undeniably, they saw the degree as a chance to get themselves and their friends employed. They were reacting to the economics of the time as much as those enrolling in the programs were.
I am not going to fault them for this; I, too, have used this system to keep myself eating. I also recognize that this type of degree provides an entry into the notoriously closed and elitist New York publishing system. While I would argue this belonging is an illusion, I get that it feels more egalitarian to some. There are three utopian moments that suggest to me a way out. But there was no next issue. The journal was censored and its authors, studying in France at the time, were repatriated.
The riposte of the revolutionary artists to these new conditions must be a new type of action. All imagine art that is non-nationalist. All presume that art can be autonomous from government and used to support resistance and radical social change. All might be failures. The history that comes after these moments suggests this.
Shataur But I also want to not overestimate their aliveness. It has often been noted that language poetry makes room for its reader. Biography of a Place September 3, In its deliberate play with ideas of lineage it suggests that language writing is the bastard anti-heroic child of the New York school and French post-structuralism. A kind of post-left neo-liberal politics? I got trained in an avant-garde, in a modernist tradition. It may jjuliana be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.
Building a Better (Socialist) MFA System
The US has a particularly vexed version of this: there are eight private universities, grouped under the term Ivy League, with long histories, prestigious reputations and the robust networks that come with such stuff, and yet these institutions graduate fewer than 10, students a year. There is no way for any school—no matter the size of its endowment—to compete with them. There then follows a version of everything else, including state universities, state colleges, state community colleges, private research universities and private liberal arts colleges. Then there is the subversion of everything else: the for-profit schools that wax and wane in direct response to how permissive the federal government is with its loan programs. All of these schools are pay to play.