2017, Archives, March 2017, The MFA Years

An Ode to the Part-Time MFA

I remember the MFA post-application period like it was yesterday. I was six months into a dead-end job that I had found through a temp agency. I felt my brain liquefying every day I worked there. The profound apathy in the building was practically on the payroll. I knew my time at this job was short when my boss declined to give me a raise upon converting me from a temp to an employee. I had taken a job without a title and given him ideas to pad his bottom line. I had earned that raise, damn it!

His rationale for maintaining my meager hourly rate? “You’re a smart guy, you’ll leave here eventually.”

When I got my acceptance to Rutgers-Camden, I gave my notice at that job as fast as I could. I had some side hustle income and now I knew I’d be doing the MFA full-time in a few short months. The acceptance was especially life-changing for me. Finishing my Associate’s and Bachelors took eight years because work and money constantly slowed me down.

With a stipend or fellowship and teaching, I’d be free of all that and could just focus on growing as a poet and writer. I believed in my poems. I knew what I was going to write about and I wanted the MFA for the same reasons we all do.

I had hit a ceiling on my own. But in an MFA program, I could polish my work, make some writer friends, learn the craft and be on my way to the next adventure in 2 years. I could easily envision my MFA journey. I’d polish a killer book of poems, collaborate with some visual and graphic artists and maybe write some short stories, too.

Yet here I am a year later, a part-time student once again. I am living my own personal Groundhog Day. What happened?

This changed my fall plans and I’ve been trying to pick up the broken shards of my wife and I ever since. It’s been a six-month hangover of depression, rage and lethargy, usually all at once. I am angry, sad and lazy as I write this.

In the meantime, I’m still an MFA student at Rutgers-Camden. My only class in the fall was a teaching practicum, but this semester I’ve been much more deeply involved. I have two new identities: a teacher of English composition and a student in a graduate-level craft of poetry class.

Still, this isn’t the full-on immersive MFA experience of my dreams. I’m only on campus two days a week, three at most. My most profound memories of this semester will be my office hours and the delicious $8 lunches at the arroz con pollo restaurant two blocks from campus. I don’t know most of the other students in my program except in passing. They prefer the shit diner around the corner.

Despite all that, if you are reading this and weighing which MFA program you should apply to or attend, I encourage you to find out if your program(s) of choice will allow you to attend part-time. Not all programs will — I know this for a fact — and that’s an incredible shame. I wouldn’t have chosen to do my MFA part-time, but I am so grateful it went down this way.

Recognizing that I am still at least 2 years away from completing my MFA degree has been liberating in a number of ways.

  1. I don’t feel any intense pressure to start thinking about my thesis yet. I’m especially pleased about this because when I applied to MFA’s, I knew my poems were very unpolished. I didn’t have a lot of writer friends (still don’t) and had only taken 2 workshop classes. I was basically a lay scholar of poetry who bought all the stuff he read at book sales. As I learn about craft, I’ve seen my poetry blossom. I’ve also learned how to keep in touch with what is hot in the poetry world right now. And I haven’t even taken a graduate-level workshop yet!
  2. I am letting my guard down a little with faculty and staff. This is hard for me because I am shy. Not out of habit, but as a coping mechanism. Also, I was a part-time student through most of undergrad, so I’m used to going to class, getting in the car and going home. But I have forced myself to push through my reticence. So I stay after class every few weeks to b.s. with my craft of poetry professor and I e-mail him every so often. Not just about our class, but about topics he’s broached like how the MFA program can grow. He’s been very approachable. Same for my favorite staff member in the English department. We’ve bonded over a shared love of thrift stores and local pizzerias. If I had 3 classes to attend on top of the teaching, I’d probably skip these conversations in favor of reading, grading or getting the hell off campus ASAP.
  3. I’ve treated my program’s monthly reading series like a master class. Before the readings, I listen to interviews with the authors and poets and I buy their works in advance, usually the older stuff I can get for $4 on Amazon. I read as much as I can and then I take notes at the readings. I read more after the readings. I had only been to a handful of readings and festivals before my MFA, so this experience has been transformational for me.
  4. I’ve become concerned with how I can improve my program. I am taking the lead on setting up student readings and I hope, in time, to get the program more involved in the local community. As I applied, I was very cognizant of how lucky I am to even pursue an MFA. This will be how I show that. I have the luxury of time to figure out how to do these things.
  5. I’ve put more effort into teaching than I ever thought I would. It was not my dream to teach English composition and my background was in sales and physical labor, not teaching or tutoring. But I’ve asked a lot of questions of other instructors and done a lot of my own reading on pedagogy. Most of all, I’ve brought the enthusiasm I have for the MFA into the classroom. This has been a successful recipe. My students have been wonderful, eager to learn what they should do to earn a high grade and so willing to ask me for extra help. Teaching has been a tremendously rewarding experience and I am now excited to teach in the future.

I’ve been so encouraged by my first six months as a part-time MFA student that my priority is not necessarily to do everything I can to ensure I take a full-time load next year. Make no mistake, I am badly hurting financially like I have for most of my adult life. The money struggle is real. But so are the gains I’ve made. This is because I am doing this degree part-time, not in spite of it.

I want to continue to be an exceptional teacher. I want to make a bigger impact on my students, my MFA program and the world around it. I want to have time to read and write, not just what is assigned but what I like to read. I’m not sure I really knew what I liked to read before starting my MFA journey.

Maybe I still would have had time to figure out all these things as a full-time MFA student. Maybe not. I got to my MFA program in pain, but I’ll leave it with so much joy. I’m sure of that. Like my last boss said, I’m a smart guy. I’ll leave the Rutgers-Camden MFA program eventually.

But if it takes an extra year, right now that sounds perfect to me.

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