2016, April 2016, Archives, The MFA Years

Challenging the Whiteness of MFA Programs: A Year in Confrontations at UW

Image: Rene Mensen

1: UW vs. POC

Last weekend, our program held its annual recruitment weekend, which means that a bunch of acceptees were flown out here to Laramie, on our program’s dime, in order to see for themselves what the town and program are all about. It was lovely meeting the few prospective students that I did, and I’m eager to hear, once acceptances are all squared away, who will be our new incoming cohort for next year. In some ways, I’m sure these potential newcomers received a fair impression of what life is like in the program as well as in the town. In other ways, not quite. (Of course, I didn’t attempt to catalog exhaustive testimonies on this, so forgive me, members of my cohort, if this assertion feels inaccurate.)

Bubbling beneath the falsely serene surface of the University of Wyoming’s MFA program is a tension, common to most MFAs, between its minority students and the “apolitical” culture that, while in and of itself is not a crime or aggression, usually results in aggressions when students of color, queer students, trans students, etc., attempt to point out the problematic dimensions of such a culture. This past Monday, March 28th, we had our second program-wide meeting on the issue of minority experiences and how well, or not so well, our program supports minority students. As you might expect, this constructive meeting, on how to improve the program for minority students, and all students honestly, didn’t spring out of nowhere.

So, I will tell the whole story, but not purely for information’s sake. If there’s one thing that academia sometimes has trouble with, it’s transparency. If there’s no transparency on the institutional side of things, then students will be making uninformed decisions—faculty, aware of themselves or not, can fuck with a student’s agency in this way, and it’s really not okay. This needs to be fixed. For transparency’s sake—for the sake of all potential students, current students, and the wider culture of creative writing MFA programs—I’m going to tell my program’s story. However, my program’s story is also my story because this narrative begins with me, and it would be remiss of me to not mention that this post is also a way for me to speak up, finally without fear, within the larger turn of events that, now, extend much further beyond myself.

This past November, I wrote a post that was meant to act as a run down of basic yet important factoids about the program, though not without my own commentary. A student—who has since talked with me and apologized, so we’re now on good terms—contacted my editor here at The MFA Years to complain about my post for a few different reasons, including the bottom section in which I state that there’s a divide in perception amongst students. Students, who come from a more or less normative background (“normative” meaning a cultural paradigm which we can now conceptualize as—thanks to the past few decades of both grassroots and academic theoretical work—constituting historically-situated and violently enforced constructs based in a white, cis, hetero, patriarchal, ableist, etc., values) tend to have a positive view of both the town and the program. Minority students—whether of color, female and/or woman-identified, queer or asexual, transgender or genderfluid, or disabled (and other marginalized identities I may have left out)—may have a different experience. This is because these students’ subjectivities are systematically determined by interlocking structures of oppression; therefore, their experiences, simply put, will be different. Furthermore, these students are likely to experience aggressions just by virtue of living in Laramie, which is a very white, Libertarian-conservative (to what degree, I don’t know, but generally speaking, this is what I’ve been told) town that is generally averse to those of us who can’t present as a “normal” white person.

This student who reported the complaint to the editor and founder of this site also made our program director aware of my post. He was frank in his disappointment with me, though asked me how we could fix this “divide.” I was a bit taken aback by this, because, for one, how is the assertion that minority students’ experience, or even disdain, a surprise? And secondly, what exactly had he meant by “fix”?

It didn’t take long for me to find out that “fix” meant smoothing over this disruption to bring back the previous “harmony” of the program’s culture, aka its culturally white homogeneity. This sort of action works to invalidate and erase minority students’ subjectivities should they choose to reveal just how different their experiences and perspectives are. So, I had effectively been silenced.

This is how my spiral of isolation started. The program director told the other faculty members. The student had said in one their messages to my editor that other students felt the same as they did. Who had I upset? Who would hold this against me? How alone would I be in this struggle?

Luckily, I wasn’t alone. My housemate, another MFA student, emotionally supported me, stood by me. Other minority students, mostly of color, did more than just sympathize from afar. They rallied to my side. My incident became an opportunity for them to voice their own grievances. If my post could be said to be the spark, then they were the fire that blazed against letting this issue die.   Still, after many emails, facebook messages, and an in-person conversation between our program director and myself, it died out.

Fast forward to this semester. One of the students who spoke out on my behalf last fall made a public call to grab the attention of our program director once again. He bluntly stated in his introductory speech for the visiting writer’s reading that our director plays a complicit role in systematic racism, particularly when, as just one example, our director had made a statement that tokenized minority students. Almost the entire program was there, and they all definitely heard.

There was a couple weeks’ worth of radio silence after that, though some behind-the-scenes conversations took places. Dialogue was exchanged that, though I was not witness to, tried to dismiss the speech of this particular student of color by means of the typical white pathology that attempts to claim that people of color are irrationally angry. By this point, a couple faculty members had already vocalized their support for, as well as defended, minority students’ concerns. Finally, there was momentum again, both on the student side of things as well as on the faculty side thanks to these allies.

Right before spring break, we had our first program-wide meeting on this issue on March 9th. This first meeting was meant to act as an airing of grievances so everyone could understand what exactly was the collective issue at stake. It was really healing, at least for me, to have this meeting occur. While I had already been developing a sense of who had I felt I could trust, this meeting helped me, and everyone, become grounded in the issue. People who I thought might’ve known more perhaps were not as clued in as I might’ve thought, and those who finally had a space to speak up did so and were properly heard.

Which brings me back to this past Monday. This second meeting focused on discussing solutions and making recommendations for the program to take to create a more supportive environment for minority students. As some of us had said, while students should have a say in such matters of policy, it is not our job to make the changes ourselves. It would be an undue burden on us while also holding us to our duties as students and English GAs.

2: Support and Action

And so, this is the part of the post where I reach out to any minority MFA students out there who are reading this, but also the MFA and writing community at large. I’d like to offer up the lessons of my own program’s trials for those who’d like to know what can be done to improve on this situation, and perhaps to also learn what it means to confront this issue.

Sure, Junot Díaz’s much-needed piece, MFA vs. POC, was a kind of public catharsis for many of us, and what he asserts in his tell-all, I can say, is true: “It’s been twenty years since my workshop days and yet from what I gather a lot of shit remains more or less the same. I’ve worked in two MFA programs and visited at least 30 others and the signs are all there. The lack of diversity of the faculty. Many of the students’ lack of awareness of the lens of race, the vast silence on these matters in many workshop.”

All the things Díaz describes, the lack of a supportive environment for students of color, the workshop as a space which reproduces “the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions about race and racism,” the tendency for people to erase matters of race (as if it’s passé at this point) in order to highlight matters of class, minority students retreating into their solitary “bolt holes”—even though these all might exist in, ultimately, unique cultural dynamics from program to program, I’d like to testify for UW and say that they exist here as well.

So, the questions that MFA programs need to ask themselves—“how can we support minority students in a way that responds to their specific lived experiences while still acknowledging the ever-shifting nature of community in the program? How can we properly artistically care for the writing of minority students in the workshop?”

First of all, let’s get one thing straight—as one student here said at the meeting this past Monday, writing is a social act. Workshop is a social act. There is no such thing as “Pure Art” as many white writers might have you believe. For them, “real” writing is devoid of socio-political concerns. It ought to exist in a transcendent realm which attempts to pin down the universal human condition. These writers will try to get you, writer of color, to “go beyond” matters of race in order to transcribe these “universals” into your work. This is bullshit, plain and simple. It attempts to erase the very fabric of our marginalized realities.

So, what can be done about this? Something I noted in a kind of address I gave during our first program meeting (the one on March 9th) was that the key to amending many of these problems lies in the transformation of consciousness. As bell hooks asserts (in a text that I can’t recall), transforming consciousness will transform structures and cultures. However, minority students are not responsible for transforming the consciousness of faculty. We are not bit players in their white enlightenment. So, while it’s necessary for faculty members to get in touch with such social justice discourses of the here and now, they owe it to us, and themselves as well, to take initiative on this. We can encourage, urge, and make text recommendations, but that is where I, personally, draw the line (other POC and minorities may feel differently).

Still, there are concrete actions that programs can take (after weighing the thoughts and opinions from their own students, of course—such power disparities must be acknowledged or else policy implementation, that may be well-intended, could end of hurting the students). Such ideas, at least that we proposed here at UW, I’ll list below (note: many of these were collectively devised ideas, and one or two, I believe, came from a faculty member)—

1. MFA programs only cover so much terrain in terms of the wide range of creative interests as well as research interests. If you have a student(s) that has interests that the expertise of your faculty cannot address, then help that student find a mentor outside of the program, or even the university. It may be wise to develop such networks over time with these concerns in mind.

2. If your program is located out in some rural middle-of-nowhere town surrounded by potentially aggressive bigots, then say so. Don’t sugar coat the cultural situation on the program’s website. As having previously said, if you catch a minority writer unaware and they accept your offer, they won’t have the proper information needed to develop protective measures. In brushing such details under the rug, you risk harming your minority students.

3. Point 2 being said, if you want to bring “diversity” (disgusting PR word, I know) to your program in spite of its location, then declare a genuine commitment to serving and protecting your students. Pretending that what happens outside of class is none of your business for the sake of “professionalism” is just another way of ignoring the problem and will worsen the situation. I’m not saying you should butt into students’ affairs per se, but check in with them. Ask them how they are. Do what you can for them within the bounds of respecting their agency and gaining their trust.

4. If there are nearby MFA programs, reach out to them. Develop inter-program relations so that students can network with other MFAers outside their own program. This is especially important if your program is small, and therefore runs the risk of being isolating.

5. Develop a relationship with the departments that concern themselves with minority issues—Gender and Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Ethnic Studies, Latino/a American Studies, African American Diaspora Studies, etc. If possible, perhaps devise a class which intersects creative writing with these other areas. Cross-list classes. Even better, create a committee or support group which provides “talks” or “training” to faculty and students who would like to know more about social justice discourses and don’t know where to start. These are especially worth considering if your program can’t afford to hire another tenure-track faculty.

6. Speaking of institutional inability to provide more tenure-track positions, make sure the program brings in a diverse range of visiting writers. Furthermore, if the program is to respect the students’ interests and agency, ask students who they’d like to bring to campus and take such wishes into consideration (I know—budgets, schedules, and other logistical concerns can’t fulfill all wishes, but, still, take them into consideration).

7. Diversify course reading materials. That one doesn’t really need further explanation.

8. If major, or even minor, policy decisions are going to be made, consult the students. Acknowledge the power disparities of academia and at least listen to thoughts and concerns students may have, if not act upon them. Develop ad hoc committees for certain issues that consist of faculty and students.

These are most of the recommendations (possibly all of them, but I’m sure my memory and notes left something out) that were voiced during our latest meeting.

However, I know the idea of using these recommendations come with a bit of a caveat, particularly if you’re a student. I know many minority students out there don’t have the cultural space to speak up or are afraid (or, if your experience is perfectly fine for whatever reason and you feel this post doesn’t apply to you, disregard this last note). For those students fighting it out alone, I just want to say I get it, and I’m sorry. So so sorry. If you’re in survival mode and just want someone to talk to, feel free to reach out to me! Drop a line into the The MFA Years’ Contact page saying that you’d like to speak to me and why (the editor here will pass this onto me, and I can assure you she’s kind and trustworthy). Whether you want advice or just need a friend who will listen to you vent, send me a message and let’s talk.

UW has entered, it seems, a new, constructive phase that strives toward improving the quality of the program for the sake of minority students. While I want to say that things will be sunshine and rainbows from here on out, I can’t speak with any certainty as of now. Still, there’s a new atmosphere of openness amongst many students and faculty, and, from I can tell, the program has already taken a big step in working toward creating a safe and comfortable cultural environment just by acknowledging that they have work to do.

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