2015, Archives, July 2015, The MFA Years

Katharine G. Monger Introduction (Washington University in St. Louis ’17)

Image: Alice Popkorn

Is there a typical MFA admission story? I’m not sure. Mine feels atypical, but perhaps that’s a self-centered need to be a special snowflake. I’m a second round applicant. I first applied during my senior year at The University of Iowa, because, even though the MFA friends I had gotten close to in college had advised me not to, and even though my professors advised me not to, and even though blogs and Facebook groups and forums told me not to, I was stubborn.

I ended up applying to eight programs, all in fiction except for my alma mater, where I had to choose between applying for fiction and nonfiction. (I chose the latter, but that’s another post.)

Round 1: 

  1. Brown University (R)[1]
  2. The University of Texas-Austin (Michener Center) (R)
  3. Washington University in St. Louis {W}[2]
  4. University of Notre Dame {W}
  5. University of Montana (R)
  6. Cornell University (R)
  7. The University of Iowa (R)
  8. University of Massachusetts-Amherst (R)

[1] (R) Rejected

[2] {W} Waitlisted (official and unofficial)

Complicating my self-made abyss of MFA applications was my newfound excitement for a field I hadn’t heard of before working in my university’s writing center: rhetoric and composition. I loved the idea of studying pedagogies of college writing, of the history of argument. Why did we teach writing the way we did? Who came up with the rules? To whom do they apply?

All too quickly, I realized a truth about the field of English studies: it’s complicated, it’s messy, and not all concentrations get along. During my application process, I talked with more than one professor who thought rhetoric and composition was a “woman’s field,” whatever that means, or that it was “fluffy” and “not real work.” One professor, who I’m sure meant well, told me that he thought I could do better than rhet/comp. Others would complain loudly about “having” to teach composition when they really wanted to teach literature or creative writing.

Now, this doesn’t apply to everyone in the field. Plenty of compositionists and rhetoricians are creative writers. Plenty conduct serious research in craft studies. But just as I had heard comments from creative writers and literary scholars about composition not being a real field, just as many rhetoricians considered creative writing a fluffy black sheep and literary studies a wooly mammoth: bloated and obsolete.

Again, I’m stubborn. I applied to composition programs anyway. It was the best decision I could have made, and not just because—as you can see above—my free-throw stats in the MFA application process weren’t so hot. This past May, I earned my MA in rhetoric and composition.

MA Thesis Project
MA Thesis Project

During my MA studies, more than ever before, I began to read like a writer (Bunn). I read Aristotle and Quintilian, Price and Rose, Vygotsky and Berlin. I considered Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers and Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations. My study of the teaching of writing made me a better reader, and a better writer. As my self-confidence grew, I started submitting an essay of my own here, a flash piece there.

I never, never thought I’d be a teacher. Tutoring one-on-one was the only form of instruction I thought my introversion and anxiety could handle. When I started teaching, I was shocked I didn’t faint. I could actually stand in front of a class, or sit in the arc of a circle, talking with a group of people about my thoughts, their thoughts about writing and reading. I could make jokes! So by the time it came time to think of the next step, I applied to teaching jobs in community colleges and advising positions in college support programs. I wanted to teach and mentor those students who didn’t think they stood a chance, who had been told all their lives that they weren’t good enough, smart enough, disciplined enough.

I also never thought I’d be a nonfiction writer, but even with my teaching load and studies, I was writing for my own pleasure all the time. As I was sending out job applications, in the back of my mind, I thought, “Maybe I should apply to an MFA program. Just in case. Maybe I’ll get lucky.” I had spent the last two years telling students not much younger than me, and often older than me, that they could do it, that I was proud of them, that they were improving and learning and teaching me things, too. I decided to take my own advice.

I told my students what I was going to do, because I wanted them to see that I also struggled with my goals. While they tinkered away at research projects, I was finishing up my thesis. We were cheerleaders for one another.

“What do you have to lose?” one student asked me in conference after we had finished discussing her paper.

“Well, an application fee, for one,” I joked.

“Shush,” she said. “Just do it. C’mon.” I remembered saying the same words to her just a few months before.

I focused on my favorite program from Round 1 (above), Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). When I reached the top of the waitlist in 2013, I drove down for a visit and fell in love with the professors I met there. Finding out that they had a new track in nonfiction, the genre I think I was really meant for all along, convinced me to give it another shot. I also applied to a new program at the University of Kentucky.

Round 2

  1. Washington University in St. Louis
  2. University of Kentucky
  3. So many jobs.

I applied to over thirty jobs. I was called for one interview and received zero offers. I wasn’t surprised, but I was a little panicked: all of my work experience after high school had been in academia. I was not looking forward to teaching swimming to three-year-olds again.

And then a funny thing happened.  I was waitlisted at WUSTL again, except this time, about a month or so later, I was accepted off the waitlist. I was also accepted at the University of Kentucky. The decision came down to meeting the professors I’d be working closely with, workload, and stipends. After considering all the factors, WUSTL ended up being a better fit, and I accepted.

Photo Credit: Baili Min, Wikimedia Commons
Image: Baili Min, Wikimedia Commons

In this and all my posts this year, I want to be as honest and straightforward as possible with my thoughts, feelings, expectations, disappointments, and the somewhat tedious logistical points of, well, everything. To all the writers out there worried about money or proving it to Mom and Dad or proving it to your favorite high school teacher or proving it to those certain Facebook friends that aren’t really your friends, let’s be honest—none of these people matter. Sure, getting into graduate school will make you feel great. Validated. But getting in is just the first step. The real work is still to be done.

I will end every post by answering three questions: what I’m reading, what I’m writing, and what I’m cooking.

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