2015, Archives, January 2015, The MFA Years


Image: Emmanuel Keller

So it seems always I am forgetting to include things in my posts and so I have to pick them up the following month. So I’ll bring up two such topics today. First, in November, I attended my first-ever thesis defense. It was for my friend Vicky, who was finishing her MA in English. Her thesis was on the use of video games as instructional tools within the composition classroom, and, in particular, with how she used the game Portal in her class. I was surprised at how a thesis defense actually looked. About 25 of us crammed into a conference room, around a table, with Vicky and her committee at the head. I had always envisioned this sort of thing as being much more formal, with a lectern and rows of audience and the committee sitting like a panel.

And the committee asked her a handful of questions about her thesis, and she responded. This took about forty-five minutes. Then we all hung out outside the conference room to await the decision, which took all of ten or fifteen minutes. She got word (approved) and then some of us went off to Lemongrass, a Thai restaurant in Fairbanks that is the default restaurant to go to for fancy things, and then the rest of us went to the campus pub. It was all so much more casual than I expected. I don’t know if this is typical of thesis defenses. If not, the laid-back nature was definitely typical of Fairbanks and of our department.

The other thing I didn’t really relate last month was exactly how I spent my winter break. The first ten days or so were mostly spent in bed with Netflix and video games. My brain was kind of jellified. I had worked very hard, particularly at the end of the semester, writing a 20-page paper and compiling grades for the freshman-comp class I taught, and I definitely needed a break. A lot of my friends had left town for the break, but some like me stuck around, and we ended up hanging out some. One couple (yes, coupling is something that sometimes happens in grad programs) put together a most enjoyable Christmas Eve get-together. One of my cohort-mates and his partner threw a dinner party. I hung out with one friend–he made the most unusual move over the break of moving out of the MFA program to pursue a graduate degree in education–and he and I even workshopped our writing a bit. I doubt I could have borne a month solid without social contact, and I was most grateful for the friends I’ve made thus far in the English department.

The choices for my class schedule were rather constrained. All first-years, both MFA and MA, are required to take critical theory. And though theoretically that was my only requirement, students are required to take a forms class in their chosen genre before taking their comps, and this was the one time that nonfiction forms will be offered before I take my comps, almost exactly one year from now. So that only left one free class, and boy, did I have a tough choice to make–three courses, all intriguing to me. (There were more offerings than that, of course, but three that I really wanted to take.) A lit course in 20th-century British feminist literature, taught by Dr. Chris Coffman (with whom I’m taking critical theory)–this subject is one of her specialties. A prose workshop with Gerri Brightwell, our fiction prof and someone I’m considering for my thesis committee. And a comparative-lit course in Pacific literature, the specialty of Rich Carr, our department chair–not only is this subject his specialty, but what are the odds that I’ll ever have a class again where I can study novels from Tonga and the Marshall Islands? Those odds sold me on taking the Pacific lit course.

Between Martin Luther King Day* and the fact that we start classes before Martin Luther King Day, my nonfiction forms class met twice before my other two classes had met once. So it makes sense for me to talk about nonfiction forms first. I once again study with Daryl Farmer, who is the nonfiction instructor in our department. I’ve sung his praises before, when he taught my nonfiction workshop–laid-back, good sense of humor, and so wise when it comes to writing nonfiction. I feel so fortunate to be working with him in my genre because we get along really well. We’re forming exactly the kind of relationship I’d hoped for in my MFA experience. Anyway, forms. We read a book a week, generally across different genres, though we do have a couple of books that are more theoretical. For this past week I had to read The Made-up Self by Carl Klaus; next week, it’s Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Later in the semester we’re reading Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, about which I’m geeking out to no end because I’m really into the academic study of graphic novels.

Each week we have two assignments, one a response to the reading, another a short writing based on a prompt derived from our reading. For the creative assignment, this past week, I had to write about a political issue from three different perspectives–a neutral position (inspired by James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son from the week before), my side of the political issue, and the other side of the political issue, all done without alienating people. I took some creative liberties with the assignment, but Daryl has told us, “There is no ‘wrong’ in this class.” For this next week, every day for five days, I am to write a journal-like entry, 300 words, on the weather, but I can’t use the word “snow” or reference the weather. (This comes out of the last essay in the Klaus book.)

In terms of reading, this will probably be my heaviest semester–two books a week, plus a handful of essays for critical theory. But I will finish my first year having already completed half my lit courses; I wanted to get them out of the way early because I’d rather be taking lighter courses (relatively speaking) when I take my thesis hours.

February will be big for me. I’m submitting a proposal for sophomore-level lit course. Well, it’s not exactly a lit course. The subject is “Writing about Literature,” and is treated as a comp course, but it is reading-heavy. I could also submit to teach “Writing about the Physical and Social Sciences,” but that is also actually more literature-based. However, I’m also considering applying for a position to teach ESL composition. I have decent experience working with ESL students and I really enjoy it. But I think it’s a two-year commitment (I need to verify), and I would be required to spend my two electives on these two courses related to ESL teaching, rather than put them towards classes that tie into my thesis. So I have a lot to weigh. I already know what I want to teach for the lit class–graphic novels, go fig–and even know what my reading list will be. But the experience teaching ESL feels like something that could come in handy in a lot of ways after I finish the degree. So I have to see.

I’ll close with my thoughts on the structure of this program. The MFA program is part of the English Department. At some schools it is entirely separate, and some students prefer this. But I like how they do it here. I like the kind of cross-pollination of ideas between MA’s and MFA’s, and, as I opened with, I enjoy the friendships I’m making with the MA’s. We have one graduate instructor for each genre–fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenwriting/drama. That sounds too small for some folks. But bear in mind that the English Department is much larger; we don’t just have four faculty members., and your thesis committee will in part come from the rest of the department. Also, remember that you study a secondary genre here–heck, some people change their secondary genre to their primary genre after they get here–so again, that gives you exposure to more faculty. That said, I like that, overall, our program is small. I might not have had umpteen classes to choose from this semester, but I get to form closer relationships with the faculty, and that is much more important to me.

* Which is not called Martin Luther King Day here, but Alaska Civil Rights Day. And that may sound like some kind of anti-PC red-state maneuver, but it’s really quite the opposite. It used to be, round about early February, Alaskans celebrated Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. Who is that? Well, she was an Alaska Native (which is considered distinct from Native American) who  pushed for civil rights in the Alaska Territory. Alaska saw civil-rights legislation 15 years before it became a state, and a full 20 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. So when Martin Luther King Day became a thing, they merged the holidays and chose a name that would honor both civil-rights leaders and recognize Alaska’s distinct history in civil rights.

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