2017, Archives, May 2017, The MFA Years

A New Beginning

If you’re reading this post on this blog, it’s because you have some level of investment (financial, emotional or both) in the MFA degree. When I applied to write for this site last year, I fully expected to recount a year chock full of nothing but reading & ‘riting, the first such year in my life.

However, that’s not what happened. Life (& death) reared its ugly head. Over the past year, my MFA was a mere background note. To be honest, I’m lucky it was even that. Not every MFA program would allow you to enroll in August after you turned them down months earlier. Not every program would let you attend classes part-time.

But Rutgers-Camden is not like every other MFA program. If you’re reading this while considering your own applications or while you are in the midst of your own MFA year(s), I urge you: please make sure your program cares about whatever issues might potentially affect your life while you pursue this degree. Nothing is more important, not even funding.

I say that as someone who needed his MFA degree to be funded. However, since I enrolled at Rutgers-Camden so late this year, I was only offered enough funding to cover one class per semester. In the fall, that class was a required teacher’s prep course so I could teach later on. So in my first semester, my MFA experience was limited to the monthly on-campus readings.

This spring, at long last, I finally got to be a “real” MFA student in a craft of poetry class with a poet I admire. I was the only student in a class of 8 who was not full-time. So I devoted myself to every assignment like it was the only assignment I had. Of course, (little did anyone else know) this was actually the truth.

I didn’t just focus on the classwork. I also made a real effort to talk to the professor about poetry beyond the constraints of the class assignments. This was hard for me because I am shy and I come from a working-class background. Talking to someone who makes their living through words is still a bit of a culture shock to me. I can get tongue-tied. But my professor was always willing to talk to me. I left the class with a slightly larger portfolio of decent poems and a much deeper understanding of the formal elements of poetry. These are exactly the things I hoped would be part of my MFA experience. I had hit a bit of a ceiling with my poems on my own. I needed a greater understanding of how to mold them into something different and I wasn’t getting there as a lay scholar. It was nice to see some progress this spring.

Like most of my cohort, I also had the opportunity to teach English Composition this spring. I didn’t want to be a boring teacher or worse, a lousy one. So I spent a lot of time making sure that everything was clear: my expectations and my assignments in particular. I also made it a point to bring my personality into the classroom. A friend in another MFA program gave me the great advice to ask my students questions about themselves (what’s your favorite food? favorite vacation spot? what tv show are you into?) and also answer them. For the first weeks of the semester (and intermittently after that), I started off each class with an index card and some questions, then had them partner up and “meet” someone else. This established a great rapport among the students and they got to know me a little bit, too.

Because composition is a required class for all Rutgers-Camden undergraduates, I focused most on trying to help my students improve their writing. I did this through extensive comments. I scribbled on in-class writing and did electronic comments on drafts and final papers. Sometimes these were short comments but I often spent 30 minutes or more on one draft, especially if I knew the student was reading my (many, many) comments. At the end of every single class, I would encourage students to e-mail me or come to office hours. Somewhat to my surprise, something like 16 out of my 24 students did one (or both) of these things consistently throughout the semester. All of this was only possible because I didn’t have other classes (as a teacher or student) to worry about.

As you likely know if you’re reading this, salaries for graduate students PTL’s are not very high. I don’t want to know what I made per hour this semester. I had to keep up my side hustle, an eBay business, another 10-15 hours/week just to pay my bills. But it was all worth it. Teaching was a great experience on its own.

Throughout the semester, I worked not knowing what my funding or teaching situation would be next year. Would I only have enough funding for one class per semester? Would I teach again? I was hoping for funding to cover two classes and to my surprise, I wanted to teach. I didn’t expect to enjoy teaching, but I did.

It was the last week of the semester. I was a few days removed from the flu and I was tired. After teaching, I wandered into my favorite administrator’s office for a few minutes of small talk before the long drive home. She & I have a shared love of thrift stores and pizza. Lifelong friendships have been built on less. Almost as an aside, I said to her, “Hey, have you heard anything about the teaching situation for next year?”, hoping to maybe get an idea of what I might know by mid-May.

She said, “Didn’t you get the e-mail?

I hadn’t. Of course I hadn’t. What e-mail? Probably went to spam or something. I always check spam, no idea what happened. Look here, you’re on my TA list for next year — wait, the TA list? Does that mean what I think it means? She spins the monitor around and shows me the e-mail…

Congratulations, Craig, we want to offer you a teaching assistantship for the 2017-18 academic year…

Then it’s a blur. I yell out, I babble incoherently, she jumps out from behind the desk and gives me a hug even as I protest, No, I was sick all weekend, I don’t want to get you sick. I float down the hallway to call my wife and as soon as I say TA-ship she shatters my eardrum.

I’m still a little deaf in my left ear weeks later, but I don’t care. Full tuition remission, a living stipend, health insurance: the dream of every MFA’er everywhere. I will teach two sections in the fall and one in the spring. I was selected for this. I am lucky. I realize that.

I don’t know how everything will work next year. I’ve only been a full-time student one or two semesters in ten years. I still want to be the best professor and as a student, turn in the best assignments. That’s much harder to do when you’re juggling multiple classes.

I also don’t know what my funding situation will be after next year. I don’t expect my TA-ship to get extended beyond a year and unlike most of my cohort, I won’t finish my MFA in two years. I won’t even be close to finishing because this year was so truncated.

All that aside, for the next year, I will get to really live the life of a writer and teacher. I’ve been doing that for years now. I see that now. But this will still be a new beginning in many ways, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.