Who Pays for the MFA?

I can think of a variety of answers.

I. Your Students
Or their parents. If you are the kind of MFA student who has to teach writing or other courses to earn your tuition remission, then it’s the tuition money from your students that, for the most part, pays for you to be there. What does it mean when your students pay for you to do whatever you’re doing for 2, 3, or 4 years? What sort of duty or obligation do you have to those people?

II. Foundations
There’s lots of private money in the MFA game. Sometimes this is clear. At Alabama there was all kinds of Truman Capote money floating around. Also the McNair Foundation. When foundations pay for your MFA it’s like you’ve got a patron. What is it like to have, in 2014’s job market, a patron?

III. You
There are plenty of people who don’t get private money to fund their degree, or who don’t teach courses paid for by their students, and who thus have to either find the money to afford their education, or take out loans and make plans on how to pay it all back. These people pay their own way. What does it mean in a democracy for someone to pay his or her own way?

Despite what they say about lunch there are lots of things to get for free, and more and more these days I’m thinking that an MFA degree might be one of the worst of them. The strings attached, you see, are like spider silk: you don’t even see anything until you walk face-first into them, and then they’re stuck on you.

At stake here, or maybe just at question, is the writer’s obligations. If it should be to anything but the writing itself, to what, then? To whom? If the MFA is understood to be the start of a career, what does it mean to start that career owing it all to yourself?

2 thoughts on “Who Pays for the MFA?”

  1. During the final terms of my undergraduate years, I worked in The Graduate School (the scary place that every university has on its campus that we have to navigate before we can be awarded our graduate degrees). I worked mainly in admissions and later in fellowships, but, one thing I did the entire time that I was there was to cover the front desk when the receptionist went to lunch, was out for the day, or on vacation.

    My final year there (after I had already been accepted into an MFA program at another university), the MFA candidates (along with all the other graduate school candidates), began filing in to drop off their applications for graduation, which I stamped and set aside for filing. Whenever I received one from an MFA candidate, I tried to make small talk in order to pan any dust from the mysterious MFA River whose rapids I was about to run.

    A question that I often asked was, “What are your plans now?” Obviously, I wanted to know what the hell people with MFAs did after they graduated. Did all of these people have published books and tenure-track jobs lined up? Of course they didn’t. The answer that I heard most, the answer that made the most sense, and the answer that was the most depressing was, “I’m going to medical school.” Law school was a close second.

    Ethan Canin is a good example of this strategy that, for him, worked out quite well, but this adds another wrinkle to the problem. We have students who have patrons in the university itself, and we have wealthy professionals who can afford to write on their own time and dime. This is not much different from how writers have found the economic means to write for millennia.

    And there are the great unwashed. Some of us are lucky enough to land assistantships that waive our tuition and pay us a stipend to teach, but these don’t, in most cases, pay the cost of living. We are not as small as the fellowship cadre, but we are still in the minority when compared to the students who receive little to no funding whatsoever. Every year, there are more and more of us, and there are fewer noble courts who can afford to pay the patronage a poet requires. Working as an MFA professor is great work if you can get it, but only a tiny contingent of us can and do.

    An MFA is often billed as a two or three year vacation from the real world during which the student has no obligation to do anything other than write, and, at the time, it may even seem like that. I no longer (if I ever did) believe this. Like everything else in our culture, the MFA has become monetized, and, like everything that is about money, the conflict is between the haves versus the have nots.

    I do, of course, have a solution, and all it would take is a Constitutional Amendment outlawing creative writing, which many people doubt can be taught anyway.

  2. I’m in the lucky situation of getting a free ride, so I’ll use my position of privilege to preach to everyone else about how they should act, and in the process risk losing stuff I’m not in danger of losing. And my P.hD is in literature, so I don’t know exactly how an MFA would be different.

    That being said, I think everyone has obligations– to students, institutions, etc. Those obligations should take priority over what I would want to do for my own fulfillment (e.g. writing fiction). The important thing for me is that those obligations not contradict my own values. If I have to do something that makes me feel compromised, I’d rather lose my job or even go to jail, which is always a possibility in my neck of the woods.

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