Why Pay for Your MFA?

Awards, Accolades & Publishing
News came in yesterday that Alan Chazaro, a MFA student at the University of San Francisco, where I teach, won something called the Intro Journals Award from AWP. For those outside MFALand, this is an annual series of awards granted by our prof. org.: the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. (Like the MLA but for creative writing.) Every creative writing program in the country is invited to submit one student’s work in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, which then get judged by a single writer. The top 4 students (8 in poetry) are chosen to win publication in a leading journal and, of course, prestige?the idea being that AWP is introducing the world to talented new writers via journal publications.

Two key things:

  1. The judging is blind. No names or affiliated schools are anywhere on the manuscripts.
  2. A USF student has won an Intro Journal Award every year for the past four years. And we’ve had someone win in every genre.

This is a success worth bragging about, and so I have. Here and on Twitter. And it shows a continued track record of excellence: our students’ work wins awards and finds publication while they’re still students here. And yet, as far as I know, USF has never once been ranked in even the top 50 MFA programs in the country.

We’re not ranked here. We’re not ranked here. We’re ranked here, but we’re tied for last place. Here, we’re tied for third-from-last place, which I guess is something. We’re not even mentioned among the Top 25 Underrated MFA Programs. We’re less rated than underrated.

Now: most if not all of these rankings have been abandoned and debunked. And yet they’re all still online, as you can see. And they serve as guides for people looking to apply to MFA programs. And so, pretty much forever, we might stay off everyone’s radar.

There’s one reason for this, and it’s that USF charges tuition.

There are lots of reasons USF charges tuition for its graduate programs, and many of them have to do with the size of our university and its lack of public funds, and yes some of them have to do with the earning potential of graduate/professional programs. Earning potential for the university and for the graduate student: you pay to get a nursing, management, or law degree so’s to learn the skills you need to enter those workforces.

Nobody believes in paying for an MFA degree because it’s an art degree, and the US in the 21st century isn’t (or maybe has never been) a place where artists can earn a living wage. Plus nobody has any clear idea of what “the workforce” might be for writers. So what happens in MFALand?how MFALand can continue to exist, in fact?is that programs accept as many students as they can afford to give teaching assistantships to. TAships give MFA students the opportunity (or burden) to teach one or two undergraduate classes, usually first-year composition courses. For doing so, they’re paid a pittance (I got $14,000/year by the end of my time in grad school) and their tuition is waived.

The message is this: to make a living as a writer, you teach. And you teach whatever you can get. I won’t get into all the doom statistics about the academic job market, or the ways universities continue to rely on (and then exploit) adjunct professors. But it seems to me that the “Don’t Pay for Your MFA” mentality is feeding into this problem of jobs and wages. There’s a lack of imagination in MFALand about what the degree might do.

Writing & Citizenship
At USF, our students can’t teach. They can TA, but that means assisting an instructor in a class, which is different from teaching the class themselves. It pays, but not well. So because we can’t prepare the next crop of teaching writers, we take it as our job to prepare the next crop of writers.

I’m biased, but USF is the leading MFA program in the Bay Area. (There are, to be clear, only five.) We’re right in the center of San Francisco, which is one of the leading literary centers in the country. Literary agents have offices here. So do Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, and Zyzzyva. City Lights Bookstore, and its press, have been revolutionary to book culture in the U.S. The Bay Area is current or one-time homes to such writers as Maya Angelou, all the Beats, Richard Rodriguez, Dave Eggers, Mary Roach, ZZ Packer, Michael Chabon, Sarah Manguso, my astounding colleagues, and countless others. It’s the most writerly city I’ve ever lived in.

And here’s my point: the literary culture is San Francisco isn’t created from?and thus tied to?a university. Instead, we at USF find ourselves inside this vast and rich literary culture. And so it’s not the task of the culture to serve/promote the university (or any of them around town), which has been the case in the college towns I’ve lived in. It’s our duty to serve the culture.

Our program isn’t for everyone. Not everyone can afford our tuition, and not everyone can afford to go into debt. But I mean what I say when I talk about service. My students quite literally and directly pay my salary. Which means I work for them.[*] Which means that to stand in front of a class and say to a student, “This work you’re doing, it’s just not for me. I don’t see how I can help you, if this is the kind of stuff you’re going to write,”[?] would be tantamount to telling the boss to go fuck himself.

Our students graduate in December. One student from last fall’s class is now a literary agent. Another student just interviewed for a position at one of my favorite presses (fingers crossed). A third manages the writing center at Stanford (and also won the AWP Intro Journals Award). Our students publish books, and they get jobs, and the jobs they get they get because they’re good at writing and know a lot about books.

They’re not suckers. Nobody was duped. Talk to our students and they’ll give you thoughtful and rational reasons they chose to come here. I wish our program was free. I wish prescription drugs and abortions were free, but getting there is going to take a while. In the meantime, we do everything we can to send as much funding and scholarship money their way. But again: our program isn’t for everyone. But I guess my whole point in this post is maybe the “free” MFA program isn’t for everyone, either.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I’m being a little cute here, in that I am now tenured and so it’s not like they could fire me…not easily, at least.
  2. This is something I sat and listened to a professor tell a friend of mine in a workshop once, and I’ve got any number of comparable MFALand horror stories from friends. “Free” MFA programs are full of all kinds of terrible teachers.

2 thoughts on “Why Pay for Your MFA?”

  1. I received my BA in English/Writing Emphasis from USF, and you might want to speak to your colleagues about how they publicize the MFA program. Susan Steinberg told my entire Advance Fiction class we would be “insane” if we paid for our MFA programs. D.A. Powell, who was also my advisor, said pretty much the same thing to his Intro Poetry class; back when he was teaching the undgrads,because he had a falling out with the MFA program. I think he is now back with the MFA side.Actually, we were all encouraged not to apply to USF’s MFA program. If your own colleagues are not speaking highly of the program to their undergrads, then what does that say about the program?

  2. Hi, Mary:

    My thoughts here are mine and not necessarily USF?s or my colleagues?, whom I can?t speak for. It sounds as though you went to USF a while ago. Our program has changed drastically in just the three years I?ve been here?all, I think, for the better. You should check us out: https://www.usfca.edu/arts-sciences/graduate-programs/writing

    Also, I’ve talked with Susan about your comments and she said she’d be happy to meet with you and talk about the MFA Program at USF and how much it’s improved over the years. But maybe our program isn?t right for you, in which case I wish you the best of luck in finding the one that is.

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