Reflections on Teaching Writing: Or, what’s the MFA got do, got do with it

For the first part of my academic career, before I got myself bogged down in the history of ideas, economics, and pedagogy, I was a writing teacher. I have a MFA in Creative Writing, and left the experience profoundly conflicted but not wanting to teach at an MFA. Now, this will sound profoundly judgemental, but there was a level of engagement in MFA’s that led one to, what I felt at the time, an inflated idea about what being an academic who was an artist meant. It was not the meta-analysis that led to this; in fact, the pedagogical and theoretical tendencies in academia actually played against this self-importance a bit. It was more than one engaged primarily with writing, attempted writers, and the craft that could, if one is not careful, become a narcisstic feedback loop.

Since then, I have taught writing: to ESOL students, to night class students at vocational colleges, at international schools, etc. My perspective is interesting in that I still love writing, but most of what I do have moved on from writing about creative writing (instead of writing about philosophy, history, philology, and, you know, actually doing creative writing). Furthermore, I am not teaching people to become creative writers, or to live the “writer’s life,” or to appreciate the struggles of crafting fine verse, or even to use writing to think. I teach writing: technical and creative, academic and business-oriented. I teach other’s to deal with the disadvantages of not being a native speaker, of having dyslexia and aphasia (I have both), and of being educated late in life.

I have done everything BUT teach at an MFA. I write my poems. I read my philosophy journals. I read my short stories. I teach literature, ethics, philosophy, etc.  Furthermore, I have strong suspicions that the MFA as an institution is self-undermining structurally: flooding a job market with students that undermine the value of the degree but growing on the backs of flooding the market.   The origins of the MFA are suspect too as its relationship to the CIA and the Cold War itself makes apparent. 

To be fair to the MFA, however, that is true for MOST of the American university system as Louis Menand has shown.  Furthermore, I actually really enjoyed my MFA community, and it was a good few years in retrospective. It has helped with my work even if little of that was directly related to what I do in my daily life.  It gave me two years to think about pretty much only three things: making literature, reading literature, and teaching writing (as opposed to literature).  I met many important writer, with some of which I still have correspondence.  It also showed me that my aphasia and dyslexia were not going to end my work as a writer or an academic if I recognized it was a real limit to my working process.   In the main, I am glad I did it, but have no illusions about the its structural problems and problematic history.

These structural and personal cavaets must be taken as being behind everything I am about to say. Two lists about what writers do have been making the rounds in my circles of writers;  Ryan Boudinot‘s Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One and Theodora Goss’s  response.  My list here can be seen as in dialogue with both and will reference both. (I also suggest reading Boudinot’s students response which I found kind of oddly touching and got to one sin I think Boudinot may be guilty of in a serious sense, but I will not be addressing in this list).

1) The purpose of teaching writing is often romanticized into nonsense. 

Part of the reason so many people get burned out and frustrated in creative writing programs is that they are alienated from the ideals from which they entered it.  Many, for example, have an idea of self-expression rooted in a romantic notion of either the individual or the individual artist that removes both from the larger context.  Furthermore, one sees writing as unique amongst modes of expression and valorizes it in a way that mystifies concepts like talent.

When Boudinot says “Writers are born with talent,” one is tempted to agree, but there is no evidence that there is a particular human gene that one is born with that makes one a good or great writer directly, so its hard to say what the talent exactly is.  There are things about being “talented” that we seem to lump together and mystify as “this is what works” and it leads to saying essentially silly things like “we can take minimal talent and maximalize it” but what you really mean is that you can increase expertise.   Expertise is something we can more clearly define than a nebuluous concept like talent.

The purpose of teaching writing, even creative writing, is not necessarily to produce the one.   As Goss points out in her piece, you are generally horrible at predicting who will be “the one”:

I’ve seen it several times: a teacher will “anoint” a particular student: the one with talent, the one who will succeed. The teacher will usually be a celebrated writer, who will assume that he or she can judge who is talented, who has potential. The problem with this assumption is that in real life, it doesn’t work. Over and over again, I’ve seen it fail. In college, when I was taking poetry classes, I was not the anointed one. No, the anointed one was another girl, who wrote weird, dark, innovative poetry. I’ll call her Jane. One day, I was heading to see my poetry professor, who was as famous as poets get nowadays. I stopped outside his office door, which was open a crack, when I realized he was talking to someone else. It was another of the famous poets in the department, and they were discussing who was going to get into the top-level poetry class, with the most famous poet of them all. I heard Jane mentioned — of course she was going to get in. My professor said the class was for students “like Jane.” I walked away before I could hear more, embarrassed that I had overheard a conversation not meant for me. And I never applied for that class, because it was clear to me, in a number of different ways, that I wasn’t one of the anointed. Years later, I wondered what had happened to Jane. I figured she would be a writer of some sort? Her name was distinctive enough that when I googled her, I found her right away. She had become a mother, a community activist — a lovely woman with a lovely life. But not a writer.

I have been in the annointed position before, and envied those in it myself. When I decided to become a teacher, partly to put my career were my mouth was and partly because I was tired of being too young to do anything other than adjunct, many people around me tried to talk me out of it. Some for valid reasons, but a lot of it was “it is a waste of your talent.”   In retrospect, it was the exactly right thing to do only if it took away a lot of my narcissism because it became untenable in that context.   It made me seperate as aesthetics from some noble or moral mission. I valued it because I did-an imposition of pure will.

Many of the more successful writers from my program were not the most talented–they were the most dedicated.  They worked the hardest, and they took the hardships of publishing and academic life more smoothly.  I won’t lie and say it wouldn’t be nice to teach poetry and essay writing in a Uni somewhere, but my world traveling life gives me a context that makes things richer.   I have not stopped writing poetry either, and still devote hours a week to marketing them most of the time.  My interests, however, are more varied and given that running a literary magazine gives me insight into their real readership, I get more people listening to what I have to say.

2)  You are not teaching writers to speak to the world as you can’t know what the world will value in hundred years, or probably even 10 years.

Boudinot keeps insisting on the “real deal” do the work, and on the “do the work” part, he is right.  I agree in that reading well and writing well are totally interrelated.   If you think you are read when you don’t read both intensively and extensively, you will probably saying thigns that aren’t particularly interesting.  Originality does not emerge without a context, and that context involves work.  That said, we don’t know what or who we are training for what and part of the problem of the MFA instructor is that he or she often deludes himself or herself that they have an understanding that will empower their students.  Yet the social context of the art is often ignored and some kind of Ur-writing that seen as “authentic.”  Anyone with even a cursory understanding of literary history, social history, or sociology knows we have no idea of the influences that will make something last in the moments in which is written.  Most of the best seller list is forgotten just a few years hence after the marketing campaign or the latest fad is dormant.

We should quit pretending we understand that: the MFA’s predictive rhetoric is even LESS standing than best-seller lists, so far.

3) Writing can be taught and learned, but we shouldn’t be right about it.

Even the students who feel like Boudinot was an asshole have said his bluntness helped them in the classroom and as writers.  Now, I don’t work in an MFA, but my admit, I am gently harsh to my stunts.  I never personalize what I say, and i don’t publicly shame, but I don’t give false praise or vacuous ego-building either.  I don’t do with native speakers or students who speak a foreign language, and so far this has worked for me.  My of my colleagues both in higher education and secondary education have taken protecting and encouraging to mean self-esteem building.  I don’t think this works, and my students don’t respect when I do it.

Research seems very inclusive on how much cognitive dissonance is required for learning, but it is clear some is required.  However, my studenst all do be better:  I am not training them to be Hemmingway or Octavia Butler.  I am helping them write and giving them a diverse set of readings to show them models.   I have to break their natural discourse patterns which can limit their socail and cultural capital, but also empower them to speak from those patterns.  This is not easy for me as a teacher or for my students.   It can bring tears, but my deal is that I never bring those tears out into the world beyond my classroom, office, or e-mail.  My students need to feel safe enough to take risks, but in an environment that does not lead to false security.  The difficulty in maintaining that and gettting have professor evaluations in the short term further complicates this, but I am not going to divert myself into the weeds of the current evaluative models of teaching.

Take this to say, though, that as a teacher–or more specifically a cultivator of a highly specialized human skill–I can help my students with expertise and challenges, affection and harsh reality.  It can teach them that as people and as writer’s they are NOT beautiful and unique snowflakes and yet its totally still worth doing and I totally care about them despite that fact.  Even when they start off awful, we can get them to being decent.   It’s relative to the individual, and this idea of the Ur-author seems to get in the way of that.

4) Writing is hard, but so is life. Deal with it.

As Goss says, real life gets in the way.   Writing is hard.  I stopped writing short stories for almost 14 years because of the difficulty I have with endings that I would accept.  (A lot of fiction angers me in its resolutions and lack thereof).  Writing is harder for certain people.   I am actually one of the people for which it is harder.  I can’t write or read until I was almost eight years old.   However, the first book I read was the Hobbit, so the growth leap was sudden.  I was probably internalizing language patterns far, far before I could use them.   To this day, the turn over time for me to successfully proof-read, and given my other commitments, this makes long-form writing quite onerous.   It’s worth it to me to do it, but its not pleasant.

Add to the fact the current market means the people who can make their living purely on writing is decreasing while the amount of writing available increases exponentially.   I think that is part of the popularity of the MFA in the first place. It seems like a refuge… because it is… for a few years.

Academia, however, and its demands are not really ideal for long considered pieces of work as the publish or perish paradigm means one must churn out work at only a slightly lower frequency than pulp writers did before.

5) A lot of writing teachers confuse their frustration with Academia with failures of their students, but can’t really see the structural problems that lead to that situation.

One of the most freeing things for me personally was making my academic concerns different from pure poetry and fiction.   I used to write predominantly about avant-gard writing, particularly a few Asian American writers who complicated their own experiences, a few Christian writers who were far more broad-minded that one would expect of otherwise traditionalist religiousity (think Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton), and a lot of marginal poets who were from Jewish and Buddhist backgrounds.  What I discovered is that my writing life was enriched more by reading than work and studying than context, then by constantly evaluating student writing on their work.   Teaching high school moved my concerns into more practical and my research interests more into the historical and social sciences–ironically, where I started in uni back in undergrad in the late 1990s. Now I am free to persue my contextual and historical work for myself, and to enrich my students lives, but not as the intersection between the two which gives no respite from either.

When I didn’t do this I found I had a harder time understanding why my students were not concerned with the same things as me.

6) Writing happens in a social context, and that includes economic contexts whether we like it or not.

I am a freelance reader for a publisher and sometimes have to reject books that I think contain interesting ideas because I know would not make our money back on them in the current market.  I sometimes hate it.   I used to have an romantic notion that editors and readers would not do such a thing and would be about finding the next big thing.  It’s true, we try.  But frankly sometimes we can’t.

One of the better pieces about the Bourdinot controversy was by Sarah Seltzer at Flavor Wire, she contextualizes this battle as such:

It’s tempting to heap blame on students who enroll in these advertised MFA programs looking for therapy, support, or encouragement rather than tough feedback. A lot of people may even enjoy yelling “you’ll never be a writer” at this group and, like J.K Simmons’ sadistic instructor in Whiplash, expecting the geniuses to deflect the blow and keep going while everyone else veers off the golden path to Art. As entertaining as it is, this model ignores the fact that for every genius who thrived on being cut down, there were geniuses like George Eliot who hated criticism and had to be shielded from it. It also ignores the existence of mediocre artists who love their art, and themselves, so much that they’ll keep going no matter what you tell them. And why shouldn’t they?

This is given, you may say, but let me get to the meat of her argument here (or at least the savory seitan of the argument).

The question that interests me more — both now and when I was enrolled at an established low-residency MFA program which included in its ranks students fresh out of college and octogenarian, those eager for harsh critique and frightened of the same — is this: why are so many more people signing up for MFA programs at this particular moment to begin with? Where does the new demand come from? Is it because we’re all deluded into thinking we’re the next Fitzgerald or Faulkner and willing to put ourselves into debt to achieve that unachievable dream?

No. People aren’t that stupid. They may hope, but deep down most of them understand the odds for publication. Rather, I think this surge in demand is because creativity and play — whether it’s basket-weaving, coming up with frisbee golf strategy, or writing short stories — feeds a part of many people which can’t be satisfied by work, family, or even home. Let’s call it the soul, since that’s a convenient metaphor.

I hate to inevitably bring it back to capitalism, but I really must. Because we live in a society that grants us zero established time to create without the expectation that what we create will be lucrative. And this engenders a culture in which everything we love, and do, is meant to be a consuming passion or vocation (unless we’re mega-rich, in which case, see you on the links!). The idea of writing as a lifelong hobby or interest to be nurtured seems absurd in this kind of culture. Therefore the only way to scoop out time and legitimacy for one’s abiding love of writing is to enroll in a degree-granting program that will offer both structure and more importantly, authority and permission to spend time doing something that, in fact, offers little to no monetary promise.

Furthermore, as a writing teacher, I have teach writing with the cultural and social expectations in mind.   In more basic or disadvantaged students, I have to teach them how to make implicit code switching more explicit to themselves so they can mirror it.  I have to teach prescriptive grammar even if I don’t think its linguistically justifiable because my poorer students ARE judged on it whether we believe its fair or not.  I also do not think I am teaching all my students a vocation or a lifestyle.  I am teaching them a skill which could become either, but just like we would not everyone who takes a woodworking class to be carpenter, we should not expect everyone in an MFA program to be a professional writer.

Lastly, I am going to end on Goss’s final point:

6) Great writers are not necessarily great teachers just like great mathematians are not necessarily great teachers of math.

Teaching is a different skill from being a master and requires separate mastery.  It’s not that those who can’t teach, its more like those who can, can’t necessarily teach and those who can’t also probably can’t teach. Like writing, these skills can be learned, but there is very little in the current academy which encourages it, and the “encouragements” in secondary ed are a sledge hammer which often forces people out of the profession and has little effect on pedagogical expertise anyway.

Furthermore, I do often suspect that blaming the kids is often ignoring that perhaps you aren’t able to teach them. Goss goes into this:

“Honestly, I think teachers (or former teachers) who are snarky about students are often in that mode because: (a) they have just finished grading a large pile of papers, in which case it’s temporary and understandable, or (b) they feel their own failures as a teacher acutely, and it’s only by blaming students that they can make that feeling — of inadequacy or sometimes shame — go away. It’s actually noble to feel your own inadequacy in that way. There are certainly times I have failed as a teacher — times I have been unhelpful or unclear, times a student was frustrated and it was my fault. What I can say for myself is that I try harder to do better. And I try, always, to give the student the benefit of the doubt. To believe in the student, as I wanted my teachers to believe in me.”

You have to be self-honest and reflective here to do this, and often that self-honesty is not just psychological discouraged, but could be career ending.  I don’t necessarily agree with Goss that we should give our students the benefit of the doubt, but I do think we admit that if they fail in their goals consistently, either we should not be encouraging their goals or we should not be offering a bill of goods we cannot deliver. Furthermore a lot of the better teachers I have had were mediocore academics.  The best middle school math teacher I ever met could do only up to basic calculus and was originally a theatre major, but she was remarkably good at illustrating mathematical concepts in non-mathematical ways, and then making the students do them until they get it right.   As a means for meeting basic skills, the mixture of imagineering with drilling worked.

Conversely on the most brilliant math professors I have had seemed incapable of teaching of me shit.  Why should writing be any different?

In the current educational context, there will be a lot more debates on university writing programs because the place of the university itself is precarious and, if we are honest, has not helped itself in these matters.   As teachers and writers, we should just be more honest about all these debates.  I like the Boudinot’s rant has led to some necessary bleeding.

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