2016, Archives, February 2016, The MFA Years

Back to the Grind: The Beginning of Spring Semester and Notification Season

Last weekend, Morgantown was buried under two feet of snow. Today it is 60 degrees. I’m recovering from a head cold; on Friday I sniffled, red-eyed and exhausted, through conferences with 40+ students. They’re writing personal narratives for their first project. I’m excited to read their work, to learn about their diverse lives and perspectives. I realize this may be the closest I ever come to teaching creative nonfiction, and I want to savor the time now even though I’m wondering how I’m possibly going to get through reading and responding to all of these papers, read for my lit seminar, and finish a draft of one of my own essays for workshop. Every new term starts like this–figuring out a routine that works, often not until the end of the semester. I panic, certain that I can’t get it all done and then inevitably get it all done (although not without stress and sleep-deprivation).

As a writer in academia, I think of everything in terms of deadlines: Those papers must be passed back in 10 days, I need to write 1000 words before tomorrow, the leftover cod brandade must go into the garbage before there’s visible mold. It can be a stressful way to live when there’s a long list of tasks to be completed and comparatively few that seem to have been accomplished. The early calamity of this semester (long weekend for Martin Luther King Day, longer weekend for last week’s blizzard) seems behind me now and I have few excuses for being or feeling unable to complete everything I have ahead of me.

Outside, the snow is melting in torrents.

I’m looking forward to this new semester even as I feel dwarfed by the deadlines I mentioned. It’s great to be back in workshop and talking craft with my writing community. I’m also taking an American lit survey on the ecogothic, and I’m excited about thinking about the assigned texts through a critical lens I am learning more about. Over-all, my students this semester seem thoughtful, mature, and about as eager as you can realistically be in a required course that doesn’t align with your major interests. During my summer orientation, which was essentially training on how to teach comp at WVU, we received advice not to make marginal comments on student drafts, and instead focus solely on giving holistic feedback. The rationale behind that is that generally speaking, students don’t read line comments and/or address those concerns in revision.

I didn’t actually take that advice and I do think it put me in a position where I was spending too much time grading, and by extension, not enough time doing everything else. And like my teaching mentors noted, there wasn’t a real pay-off when my students turned in their final portfolios at the end of the semesters.  So, this semester I am going to give myself permission to to read and respond to papers without marking them at the line level. Hopefully, I’ll free myself from the red ink, so to speak.

You might be reading this post and thinking, “Cool story, Kat, but how does that actually relate to writing?” I think it does–strongly. There are some people who are lucky (and talented enough, of course) to be accepted to programs, make 15k+ a year, and only teach 1 class a semester. Others who attend fully funded programs either make less money to have a lower teaching load, or take on a heavier load to earn a higher stipend. WVU’s program definitely falls in the latter category. I appreciate our generous funding, but it does come with the labor of teaching two courses a semester. And that’s time taken away from your course work and the other work that’s part of being in an MFA (reading non-assigned books, editing or reading for publications, etc).

Most of you who applied this season are going to have to weigh the trade-offs of programs with high or low teaching loads. Do you want what is potentially a more generous stipend? Do you want the experience of teaching a lot? Does the idea of teaching freshman composition make you want to barf? Are your long-term goals outside of academia? Do your top programs have alternate modes for funding beyond teaching? These are all important things to consider as you hopefully begin weighing offers. Something else to consider is the length of the program you want. At WVU, we have a 3 year program. I think that makes the higher teaching load much more manageable. For me, personally, I’m not sure I could keep up with this teaching load and write a good book in a 2 year program. I also liked the idea of having more time to develop relationships with faculty and peers. And of course, more time to figure out what I want to do post-MFA. Some of you already have that figured out, have a job lined up, don’t care much about academia and just want to get in and write our book and leave.

It’s really just about figuring out what it is you want out of an MFA, what your long-term goals are (if you know), and seeing how that fits in with a time-line. Many schools might be 2 year programs but feature an unofficial third or half of a third year. Here is where doing your research and asking department heads will be key.

I know I may be getting ahead of myself here, as most programs haven’t made offers yet. You may be thinking like I was at a certain low point last year–that you just want anyone who will have you. It can make it hard to weigh things like a 2 vs 3 year program when you just want in SOMEWHERE, ANYWHERE. I just wanted to give you something else to think about as end application season and enter notification season. Congratulations to those of you have finished your applications. I understand how emotionally, physically, and financially exhausting the application process is. Now you’re done! And you can use this time to reflect on the programs you chose to apply to and weigh what you want out your MFA experience.

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