The Great MFA Debate

It’s almost an annual tradition: the Great MFA Debate. Last year there was Chad Harbach’s “MFA vs. NYC” (Slate) and Elif Batuman’s “Get a Real Degree” (London Review of Books).

This year we have the kerfuffle over Poets & Writers‘ dubious methods for ranking programs. The New Yorker Book Bench weighed in, as did several others. And then there’s the letter protesting the endeavor, signed by a scrum of creative writing faculty. If you have time, it’s recommended reading, and brings up fundamental questions about the function of graduate degrees in the creative arts. (I wonder if there are similar arguments in the world of Studio Art?)

Besides the wrap up above, I wanted to highlight this interview with Lan Samantha Chang, director of the (#1 ranked) Iowa Writers Workshop in Salon:

The program is so old, and so geographically on it own. It’s like we’re centrally located and geographically isolated, and we’re big. We’re big enough that we have our own community and our own traditions. And because of that, a lot of good things from way back, decades and decades ago, haven’t really changed. We’re still in some ways very similar to the way we were 75 years ago. An example of this is that we’re still very laissez-faire. We don’t really demand high productivity, and this is the age of professionalization, and in this day and age the degree of individuality that we encourage in our students, as I’ve come to realize, is stubbornly anachronistic. And to a large extent, the Workshop is protected from the current trend of widget-counting standards of the academy, and it works. We exist in order to bring writing to the center of life and to grow writers. Thankfully, the University of Iowa understands this and has been supportive of us for 75 years.

And then there’s the fact that we’re four to six hours by car from Chicago, Milwaukee, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis and Minneapolis. What that means is that we’re a high-residence program. So people are really here when they’re here. So some of the most significant learning in the program doesn’t take place in the Dey House at all — the Dey House is where we’re located; it’s our building. As you know, it takes place in the bars and restaurants, and people’s backyards and living rooms, and even though I’m the last person to hear about student romances, I assume in the bedrooms of Iowa City.

So we’re not small. We have, at any given time, 100 poets and fiction writers. We’ve got dozens of former students living in town. We have 10 professors; we have writers from all over the community in Iowa City. Then there are these other great graduate writing programs on campus: the International Writing Program, which is like a writers’ colony for writers from all over the world; the playwriting program; the nonfiction program; and then programs that didn’t exist when we were students — the Irish writing and Spanish writing programs — and then the translation program, which has a long history. Then there’s the thousands of undergrads who now come to Iowa because it has a reputation as a school that values writing. So there’s a huge community here, and that creates a kind of, I think, quirkiness. This is a town where if you say to somebody, “I’m a poet,” the person will be like, “Oh, yeah. My neighbor’s a poet.”

Read On.


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