MFA Days, Part I

I am sure this is the first of many posts to come about my MFA degree at Western Michigan University. Those years, 1993 to 1996, were some of the most formative of my adult, professional life. There have been many benefits to my time spent in MFA land (most notably, the degree allowed me to land a tenured job at a university). But it was not entirely positive.

I would definitely do it again, and probably would be more serious about it, but of course one cannot know that, not having already done it when one starts. I formed some strong views then about art and life and the relationship between the two, and I thought myself rather revolutionary for those views, but mostly I know I just created a persona that would fit in.

I began the degree already behind, already marked as a second-tier student. I had a relatively low GPA for graduate school. I had done my BA in English with a creative writing emphasis at WMU after a failed attempt at an Engineering degree (another long story). I got A’s in my creative writing workshops along with praise from professors, but B’s and the occasional C in literature courses, not due to lack of reading ability or writing on my part, but due to procrastination and an inferiority complex. WMU had these weird classes—the 500 level courses—that both undergraduate and graduate students could take. I took my Dante course that way, for example. Of course the graduate students dominated the seminar and had rich intellectual resources to call on. I was a junior, just getting going in my heavy-duty literature courses (beyond the intro/survey courses) and I found myself in a class with master’s and doctorate students, some of them from the Medieval Institute, who could actually read Italian. I sat silent the entire course, took copious notes, tried to wade through The Divine Comedy, researched my ass off, and still got a C in the course. I tried to make a connection with the professor once during a smoke break where a few of us were sitting in the stairwell listening to him prattle on about basketball. In my nervousness I ended up saying something about natural ability that came out sounding horribly racist. His most stinging comment on my papers was “You need to read your Virgil again.” The assumption, that I had already read The Aeneid, put me in my place. I did buy a copy of it that semester, but it still sits unread on my shelf to this day.

So, I got accepted to the MFA program on the condition that I complete two graduate-level literature courses with a B or better. I was also told that I would not be getting an assistantship, for two reasons: my sample paper for the application was “flawed,” and, since I was already at WMU, having done my BA there, they did not need to use the assistantship to recruit me. It was explained to me that they would rather produce two or three graduates rather than a single one with a BA, master’s degree, and Ph.D.

The outcome of this denial was that for the first year of my MFA, I was an outsider. One thing that I learned quickly as an undergraduate is that there is a strong difference between the idealized world of college presented by high school teachers, guidance counselors, and college brochures and the real world of being on campus and getting a degree done. Colleges are inhabited by people: flawed, political, limited people, and thus the experience will have flaws, politics, and limitations. The same is true for graduate school. The graduate students with assistantships, often younger students fresh from their bachelor degrees, had a bullpen of offices on the eighth floor of Sprau Tower, and had the shared experience of being through a week-long boot camp to learn how to teach and struggling together through their first teaching experiences (or had a year under their belt and were doling out advice). Naturally, they formed strong bonds, and were the insider folks. They talked about teaching (which I hadn’t done yet) they spent meals and evenings together, and they got invited to work on department projects. I was stuck on the outside, mostly with the middle-aged graduate students, those who has been away from school for a long time and had children and jobs and lives outside of graduate school. Just like in high school, I was with the outsiders and didn’t get to sit at the cool kids table at lunchtime.

There was another outsider group created by good intentions with unintended consequences. There were a couple scholarships reserved for minority students that gave them the same money as graduate assistants. The intent of the program was to relieve them of the burden of teaching so they could focus on their studies. The result was that they too felt marginalized, and they were denied the teaching experience that was essential for any hope of a continuing career in academia.

So I started the first week terribly nervous and with a strong sense of purpose. This was it. No more fooling around as an undergraduate. Time to grow up and get real.