Archives for posts with tag: Teaching

Through random surfing this weekend, I stumbled into a whole blog community related to MFA programs: blogs about getting in, blogs about programs, blogs about the idea of the MFA.  Perhaps the most interesting was Seth Abramson’s blog, which is mostly links to music videos, but he has some fabulous analysis and data on MFA programs that he uses to compile an annual MFA program rankings for Poets & Writers.  Abramson also has some great advise for writers considering MFAs.  I admire him for emphasizing the absolute importance of funding in MFA programs.  The best tip I ever received when I began to apply for schools was from a professor who told me that I should not pay for my MFA–my MFA program should pay me.

Now that I’m a few years out of my MFA program, I thought it might be nice to pass along that favor and some other thoughts I have about MFAs to other aspiring writers.  It should be noted, I am not in academia and have no desire to return.  My profession is currently more along the lines of PR.  That being said, I am very grateful for my MFA and I do think it has helped me in my professional life.  My MFA was funded and I also received a stipend for both years of my program (it was more than enough to live on).

Anyway, here are some tips for those interested:

1.  Do not pay for your MFA

An MFA is not a professional degree and as Seth Abramson and countless other people (including myself) will point out to you, an MFA is unlikely to advance you towards any career.  Leaving an MFA program with any sort of debt will put you in a bad spot financially and will limit your choices of what you can do after you graduate.  If you have a funded MFA, you will have less debt and will, therefore, be able to live on less income.  This can free you up to spend a few years working part-time and writing, or to go back to school for a professional degree, or to travel for a while, or to take a low-paying internship, or to be unemployed while you look for something.  Academic teaching jobs and writing fellowships are extremely competitive and difficult to get and you should not assume that you will have one lined up after you graduate.  You likely won’t.  There are many programs that fund MFAs candidates and you should not support programs that do not support you.

2. Have Goals

There are many different types of MFA programs. Although all MFA programs exist to support your writing, they are each different.  Having a sense of what you want out of the MFA will help ensure that it’s a meaningful experience. For instance, it would be a smart idea to consider programs that help you develop professional skills that might lead to a job you won’t hate.  Although many programs will help you learn to teach, you might also find programs that provide opportunities to edit journals and literary magazines, or feed into literary studies.  Are you interested in book making or print making? Would you like to take some journalism classes?  See if you can find an MFA that might open up doors to actual wage-earning opportunities.  This is a very mercenary way to look at it–but frankly, I’m glad I did, because I can afford to feed myself.  I like that.

3. Like the Atmosphere

If you have a chance, visit some of the campuses you’re considering applying to.  This is especially important if you haven’t had much experience in workshops.  See if you like the way the school approaches writing and if you just like the atmosphere.  I imagine that pretensions probably abound in all MFA programs, but see if the students in the program mesh with you.  Is there a nice variety of students and writing–or is everyone essentially working on writing the same poem the professor wrote ten years ago?  Is there a sense of collegiality between students and faculty?

Beyond the school–do you like the city?  Is the cost of living reasonable for your budget? Does it have enough of the right components to make you happy?

4. Look for Teaching Faculty

Although it can be swell to spend two years worshiping at the altar of your favorite living poet–if that poet can’t teach, you may not learn all that much.  Some teaching techniques just don’t work.  Some MFA professors clearly resent their students or have virtually no commitment to the teaching process.  I had a professor who, it was obvious, generally just glanced over the poems before workshop.  She rarely had notes on the poem before class, but would add them during discussion.  Much of the discussion was wasted on her trying to figure out what a poem was about.  Eventually she would have some reading of the poem and would start talking about technique.  This was often helpful, but would then be rushed because we had to move on to other people.  My other professor was better at discussing techniques, but he’s the one that told us to get off our meds because our writing sucked.  Also he hated when I wrote anything that seemed like it was staged in Wisconsin.  Although I had a very tenuous relationship with my professors–it wasn’t anything compared to what I had heard about on some other campuses…Drunk writers=drama city.

I can go on and on, but the main thing that’s important with MFAs is to make sure you get what you want out of the experience.  An MFA is a great opportunity, but it’s important to be honest about its limitations.  Yes it can help you claw your way up the ladder to teaching jobs (but be sure you actually want to teach if this is a goal you have–I hated teaching). MFAs from good schools can impress certain employers by suggesting you have academic skills and creativity.  You can also use an MFA to build towards a literary PhD or a PhD in creative writing–if you really like academia.  Also, if you’re really lucky, like I was, you’ll meet some great people.  Just go into it with eyes open.


Randall Jarrell was hit by a car. Possibly what I remember most from my MFA classes is keeping track of how poets died: head in oven, car exhaust in the garage, getting drunk and walking off a pier, getting drunk and falling down the  stairs, being run over by a beach vehicle on Fire Island, typhoid, Aids, TB at age 25.  Randall Jarrell was hit by a car.

During my MFA, a professor suggested in a workshop something to the effect that not enough poets commit suicide these days and maybe we are all too medicated to write well. That professor loved Randall Jarrell, who was hit by a car in 1965.  Also Randall Jarrell may have walked into the car on purpose.  It’s a mystery!

Randall Jarrell also served in the air force during WWII, which led to some stirring poems about the war experience, including the Randall Jarrell poem you are most likely to encounter in an English textbook: “Death of the Bell Turret Gunner”:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

As a former English TA, this is a poem I love to see in an English textbook.  First, it is related to World War 2, so a discussion can start just by asking what a Bell Turret Gunner is, and then a teacher can burn off 10 minutes by drawing a bomber on the chalk board and explaining where a bell turret gunner would be in the plane and what that person would.  FACTS impress students.  Also, if the students are 18-19 years old, it’s helpful to point that 70 years ago they could have been stuffed into a glass womb to shoot  at things while 30,000 feet in the air.

This poem is also dense and short so it can be read out loud in class and the whole class can work together on scanning it line-by-line for meaning first and then later for interesting details and devices.  The ending is a rhyme and a surprising rhyme so students can talk about why they were surprised by the rhyme.  Does it seem appropriate to the content of the final line, I’d ask. Then we can talk about rhyme being used for irony and other purposes.  It’s great.  Also, Jarrell’s use of animal and other non-human language is a theme students can track and use to think about what such language says about the gunner.  And then broaden it out to what the language says about the war.

Finally, it’s not an easy poem.  One can read it over and over again and not really know exactly what Jarrell is getting at, but one could come up with a few different plausible interpretations.

Although “The Death of the Bell Turret Gunner” (DOTBTG) is a great war poem, it really isn’t representative of Jarrell’s work. For that, I give you a favorite of my professor who loved Jarrell:

90 North

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
After the night’s voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

Jarrell poems tend to be longer first-person narrative structures and not nearly as tight as DOTBTG.   Although “90 North”  has more space than DOTBTG, the lines still feels so controlled and perfectly broken. The language more colloquial, but words finely chosen for sound and clarity.  The ending still surprises by ending on a short sentence after several longer sentences.  I don’t want to analyze this one to death because much of the joy (and misery) of it comes from Jarrell’s incredibly personal voice,  but if anything else, this is just a beautiful human expression to commiserate with the next time you find yourself roaming the Arctic passages of your mind.

I have so much to say about Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I am so, so tired.  So I’ll just try to summarize it: he changed what people understood about poetry, meter, and the English language. Read his poetry out loud, or better yet, have someone read it to you.  He was a Catholic academic during a time in England when that pretty much destroyed academic careers.  He became a Jesuit priest and projected guilt issues onto his poems and burned them all at one point.  He referred to this as his very own “slaughter of the innocents.”  I could go on and on…he’s sort of like the English Emily Dickinson.  There’s great speculation that he was homosexual, but nothing conclusive, which biographers sweat and stammer over.

My favorite Hopkins story from Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life by Robert Bernard Martin is that Hopkins, as a child, bet a classmate on which of the two of them could go the longest without water. Hopkins managed to resist water until his tongue turned black.  This story is also on Wikipedia so all my extra reading is useless, apparently.

Here are some examples of his work.  Perhaps my favorite poem of all poems ever is “The Windhover”:

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Okay, so this is the Hopkins poem that everyone knows–but it’s that way for a reason.  I loved teaching this poem, because it’s hard for most students to understand “the message” of the poem, but it very easy to absorb the prosody behind the meaning.  This in turn seems to allow students to experiment with sound, form, meter, rhythm without killing the meat of a poem by fixating on expressing “an idea.”  Also this poem is lush and just  wonderful to have in your mouth.  Also the meaning as I see it: I’m a log for God.

The other great thing about Hopkins is that, although a priest, he took on doubt and mortality in a way that most skeptics could relate to:

(Carrion Comfort)

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

There’s another mini-masterpiece of sound.  For a lesson on phonics, this is a nice compliment to “The Windhover” as it’s easy to see the shift in fluidity and corresponding tone.  Here as Hopkins grapples with his faith, the sounds are all jagged and stuttered, mimicking his own tenuous exploration of doubt.

There was an interesting article in today’s New York Times regarding the prevalence of plagiarism at our nation’s fine universities–although this is really not so interesting for those of us who have taught in them recently.  Although, I do find it disheartening that it is so prevalent–copying sentences from Wikipedia was a common offense committed by my students.  I always called them out on it and to my knowledge there weren’t repeat offenses.  At the time I told myself that I was reminding students about the boundaries of plagiarism, but I can never know if any lessons were learned.

The simple fact of the matter is students aren’t always engaged in the curriculum, or in the writing process because the hard work of writing loses out in their mental cost-benefit-analysis.  I don’t know if the article really explains why this is (surely, as the article suggests, the ease-of-use of author-less information, has something to do with it). But when I taught, I often wondered if part of it was the value placed on secondary sources over a student’s own creative analysis. Sure there are always going to be brilliant students ready to battle Foucault for supremacy in an essay about voyeurism–but what about the students who don’t believe themselves capable of that?  Why should a student take the extra time to rewrite background information when they don’t think that effort has any value–my sense was that students often assume they know how to do it well enough, so practicing proper attribution is an empty gesture.

The wall that I found myself so often beating my head against–how to get students to believe they can and should contribute new ideas to the world.  What does it mean for the rest of us when a 22-year-old leaves college risk-averse and ethically-challenged?