2015, Archives, September 2015, The MFA Years

All about Class(es)

Earlier this week, we had a bit of fake fall weather (don’t worry, folks, temperatures are back up into the 80’s) and I realized that I was already finishing up with my fourth week of classes. Not surprising, given that the reading load seems to be, hmm, densifying as time goes on? (All words are words, even the made up ones!) But I wanted to spend this post talking about the classes I’m taking at Alabama and how classes work in general here. A lot of territory to cover, so let’s get started!

This semester, I’m taking three classes, which is the norm for first-year MFA students at Alabama—Hypoxic Fiction, Blood Melodrama, and Comedy (second-years often drop down to two classes as they starting teaching their own undergraduate composition classes). I know, I know, the course titles kind of sound like I’m at some strange hippy-dippy summer camp, but that’s one of the neat things about Alabama—the classes tend to be a bit more unconventional than your typical workshops and theory courses. I’ll start with Hypoxic Fiction, with hypoxic literally meaning “deprived of oxygen.” The workshop is taught by Michael Martone, a veteran of the Alabama program with a penchant for swanky bowties and trilby hats as well as a deep and passionate love of trains (he jokes that if you include a train in your story, you will receive an A. This is sort of a joke. But also sort of true.) The idea of Hypoxic Fiction is to generate as much new material as possible, so rather than a more typical fiction workshop, where a student in a group of twelve may only share his/her work a few times a semester, in Hypoxic Fiction, every student workshops a new piece every week, each getting eight minutes a piece for discussion, questions, etc. Because of the pace of the class, rather than turning in nearly finished works, we are forced to just keep writing, and to be okay with sharing pieces that may not be as polished as we’d like. And I appreciate that. I appreciate the respect for process versus product and I think it’s an important skill and mindset, to push away those fears of judgment and to just keep writing. Ultimately, that makes writers, right?

MFA folks at Alabama are also required to take three literature classes to graduate, so for this semester, I picked a course exploring the theory and development of mystery and detective fiction in the late 19th and 20th centuries, otherwise known as Blood Melodrama (catchy name, right?) The class is a mix of MFA students and Master’s/PhD candidates in the English department and is taught by Fred Whiting, a 20th American lit scholar whose current work in progress examines the literary, legal, and scientific representations of the sexual psychopath (his outfit of choice is a brightly colored striped T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers). The readings include work from authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Thomas Harris, among others, and while some MFA’s complain about the literature requirement, I’m enjoying the heady theory-ish discussions about genre conventions. Sure, the reading load can be a bit heavy (at least a novel a week, usually some theory as well), but it’s interesting to delve into a totally different way of thinking about literature (good to turn it off too, though, since once you start working on your own pieces, you don’t want to be thinking too much about critical theory as you write up that story about lesbian physicists at CalTech).

Finally, another type of class that MFA students can take at Alabama’s program is called the forms class, which is essentially a hybrid between a literature class and a workshop. The classes usually have some sort of particular focus/lens (I’m in the Comedy one this semester). Like literature classes, students will usually read about a book a week, but rather than generating critical responses, we’ll instead write a creative piece somehow influenced by our reading. The Comedy class, taught by Wendy Rawlings, focuses on contemporary comedic texts by writers such as Alissa Nutting, Paul Beatty, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders, among others, and assignments have included writing a comedic monologue, writing a satirical argument, and writing a comedic description of a place, real or imagined. The nice thing about the forms classes is that they allow you to experiment with writing that may not be your typical genre of focus (i.e. strangely enough, not every single person in the Comedy class is a burgeoning future professional comedian…just me…womp womp, not really…)

A last quick note about figuring out classes for subsequent semesters, since we at Alabama have already had to do so! (Early, right?) I would recommend talking to students further along in the program to see how signing up for/registering for classes works. For example, at Alabama, we were told to sign up for advising appointments, but most of the first-years (unless they’d been tipped off) were unaware of the fact that the earlier your advising appointment was, the more likely you were to get “dibs” on your first choice classes. A lesson learned (no Fabulist Fiction forms class for me, but yes to a fiction workshop, a Southern lit class, and a forms class called Remarks of the Beast that I’ll leave you to ponder yourselves). Every MFA program is different, but especially if your program is on the medium to large side, I’d recommend figuring out how picking classes for the next semester works so that if there is competition for classes, you can be sure to beat it out, Fight Club style! (Note from Michelle’s better half—do not try to beat out anyone Fight Club style.)

Next time I’ll talk about what it’s like being a teaching assistant for an undergraduate literature class a.k.a. how to be a pseudo-authority figure. In the meantime, more fun tidbits!

Currently Cooking: Japanese Curry with Sweet Potatoes, Onions, and Tofu

Currently Podcasting: Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast

Currently Watching: Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas)

Currently Listening: Kishi Bashi’s Lighght

Currently Reading: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates

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