Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Decision Time: Discussion Question No. 3

I've always believed that, as an aspiring college professor, gaining college teaching experience would be one of the most important and valuable aspects of an MFA program. Very recently (as in, as of this morning), though, I have had reason to consider the possible benefits (and drawbacks) of funding packages that do not include teaching as a requirement. My thought process:

On the one hand, being funded but not required to teach would free up a lot of extra writing time, and would be a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (because, I mean, how often does one get paid to write without anything asked for in return?). And if one were to plan on going to a PhD program anyway (as I am), one would inevitably gain teaching experience as part of the PhD study. Therefore, it might be a good idea to accept the non-teaching funding offer.

On the other hand, though, teaching experience is a lot more important for the aspiring professor than it is for people not interested in education as a profession, and perhaps one should take advantage of as many opportunities to get that experience as possible. Also, teaching is often said to energize the mind in ways conducive to writing, and so perhaps the extra time constraints dictated by a teaching position would not hinder writing very much if at all.

So, assuming the teaching and non-teaching offers are roughly comparable in monetary value, which would you recommend? Are there other factors not considered here that one should consider should one find him- or herself in this position? Thoughts?


  1. I don't have any logical input, other than what you've already laid out, but I can tell you that from my own experience, I would NOT give up teaching even if I still received the same stipend.

    I really got a lot out of teaching my first semester - the benefits were as diverse as the warm fuzzies of students telling me I'd really helped them all the way to a subset of student narratives making their way into a paper I wrote for a class on teaching writing. And during the first few weeks of this semester, I'll be honest and admit that teaching was the only thing that I felt good about; I wasn't happy in my classes for various reasons, but my teaching was going well, and my students were engaged, and they kept me from getting completely insane and depressed.

    So, based on my own personal experience, I would recommend teaching. If you were someone who didn't necessarily want that career path, I'd say go for the "free money" instead, but if you want to teach eventually, the more experience you get the better, and I believe you'll get a lot more out of the experience than you're expecting right now.

    And on the topic of time, I think there are only so many hours in a week in which one can be a productive writer. My lesson planning and grading are almost a "break" from creative and/or academic work. Sure, they take up some time, but it's time that I'd probably otherwise spend vegging out or playing on facebook.

  2. This is a tough one because teaching is awesome, but not teaching is also awesome. That said, teaching is also really time consuming, totally overwhelming and makes it hard to find time to write, especially when you first start.

    You might consider too, that in a PhD program you will have to teach comp. usually at least for the first year, often for much more than that. In an MFA program you usually get to teaching writing, if you teach. I have only taught comp. and still think teaching is awesome, but I'm dying to teach writing and/or lit in the future.

    Will the MFA let you teach even if it is not required of you? If I were in your position, I would not be quick to turn down funding with no teaching responsibilities, esp. if you are planning to do the PhD eventually. Having that time to develop without having to teach would be great. That said, I really love teaching even when it drives me crazy and it often does.

  3. Damn. I had to wait a day to post my response, and Emily said much of what I said a lot better than I did. Much in agreement with Emily.

    Ms. Sushi, I feel your pain, but don't really agree with your points (except for the loving teaching even when it drives you crazy). Teaching can be really time-consuming, overwhelming, and hard to find the time to write, but only if you let it be. I think even when one prioritizes writing over teaching, one can still be a good teacher (the pedagogical research also backs this up: if you're grading too much, you're hurting yourself more than you are helping the students).

    And MFA programs, from my own limited research, mostly have you teaching composition--they only let you teach creative writing one year that you are there (though the rare program is nicer than that, I'm sure). Admittedly, I like teaching comp, and feel pretty rewarded teaching kids how to write basic expository writing.

    Okay, a more direct response to Nick's questions.

    Does teaching experience matter? Depends on what it matters for.

    Learning how to be a good teacher? Yes, undoubtedly, every bit of experience helps.

    Learning how to manage your time, for when you do have a (substantial) teaching load? Yes, undoubtedly, the experience of reading, writing and teaching is one that requires learned time-management skills. And I do think starting that practice in school is a good, supportive place for it, because it's a situation where you are not only encouraged but expected to write, and where a lot of the prep work (syllabi, hand-outs, assignments) might be available to you in ways they won't be when you are adjuncting or new assitant faculty somewhere.

    However, is it necessary for getting a job? It matters some, for sure, but you're planning on the PhD anyway, where you will get teaching experience (that assumes you get the PhD right after the MFA--something I'm hesitant about, myself, since its easy to burn out doing so many years of study so soon out of college, and I also think one should spend time in "the real world" before retreating to academia again, but that's a personal opinion [one I might even break]).

    Okay, your next question: does teaching energize the mind in ways conducive to writing. Yes, I think so, and it certainly helps teach you more about the purposes and uses of clarity in your own writing, once you step into the teacher-ly role.

    But even more importantly, it energizes the mind in terms of feeling like a productive person. I think that feeling of being productive and having "something-to-do" helps keep you moving and thinking, and makes it easier to want to sit down to write when you can find the time (which you always force yourself to do, whether in a studio program or a lit-heavy or a teaching-load heavy one). In other words: sometimes it's not all about the myth of pure writing time, but rather, about how you choose to live your life.

    Do the extra time constraints hinder writing? No more than the extra time constraits of catching up on Lost or The Wire or Community or going to the bar, again or clicking that link on Wikipedia. No matter what, you're always prioritizing--it's just a matter of what and how you are prioritizing.

    (More below...)

  4. Other factors that should be considered here: Is the non-teaching fellowship offer universal? Though it may be gratifying to be offered that once-in-a-cohort spot, you might end up with a lot of classmates who begrudge all of your free time and the fact that you got something that they didn't.

    So that being said, go with the fellowship or go with the teaching spot? My gut says teaching, actually, considering that you want to be a teacher someday. If you didn't want to be a teacher someday, I might say fellowship (but only if you were highly organized and had lots of literature classes or something non-academia focused to keep you busy). And there's always the competitive fellowships: Stegner, Wisconsin, Provincetown etc.

    But yeah, I think you'll make a good teacher, Nick...

  5. Nick... You may never get another chance to devote yourself full-time to writing. Given that you already know you'll have other opportunities to teach later on in your academic career, my advice (for what it's worth) is to take the most generous non-teaching fellowship you’re offered and run with it. I’ll be willing to bet that 30 years from now, the thing you’ll regret won’t be that you didn’t teach during your MFA.

  6. I have to agree with Cloudbuster. Regardless of how much I love teaching and the teaching experience I got during my MA and now MFA...the idea of NOT having to teach is so glamorous/out there/utopian to me. If you have the discipline to devote yourself full time to writing, and you're not going to waste away all your time on Facebook or Twitter... why the hell not?

  7. I'll chime back in and say also that in my MFA program (and many that I know of), I teach freshman comp the first year, then have the opportunity to teach creative writing my second year. Josh also asks a perceptive question about whether the non-teaching fellowship is universal. I am skeptical of the vibe of programs that offer some students a substantially "better" (or different) deal than others; if some people have it much easier than others, it seems likely to lead to a more competitive, more bitter, atmosphere.

  8. Not to be too much like a troll (my apologies, in advance) but: discipline shmisipline. In my personal opinion: You write more when it's balanced with doing more (balanced, obviously, so not when you're working an 80-hour a week job). I just think it's nice to have other things to think about than your writing when you're sitting down to write.

  9. Speaking from personal experience, I have not found my writing impacted negatively by my teaching duties. This is because teaching is all about what you put into it. It is possible to be a good teacher without putting much work into it, especially after you've taught one quarter and come with a preset curriculum and plan for the subsequent quarters.

    That being said, it certainly would be lovely to write without any substantive duties, however how realistic is that? If the MFA is preparing us for life as working writers, it seems to me that having to manage writing with a job is precisely the sort of thing that an MFA should entail. It's more representative of how our lives will be when we leave the program and have to deal the real world/job thing, or how being a writer in academia is.

    And when it comes to the universality of such an offer, the teaching is nice because it links you more immediately with your colleagues (MFA as well as MFA/PHD's) who also have to teach since you have a unifying concern/duty/responsibility/annoyance to rally behind, discuss, and talk/bitch/whine about.

  10. These are all great perspectives. And this has actually helped me a lot already, I think.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Josh. I'm a teacher currently, but I'm not sure that I'm a good one yet. I think I'm okay, and I have a few students that are really showing interest in class, gladly, but I don't think I've reached the point of being really, objectively "good" at this point. I hope to be as soon as possible. That's what I want to do with my life.

    I actually see the teaching as the real career goal. This may change as time goes on, but right now I feel as though I'd like to end up teaching CW and lit to smart undergraduates at a rural liberal arts college somewhere. (Preferably in North Carolina--Warren Wilson College, are you listening?) I'm an obsessive person, so I've already been doing PhD program research, and I'm actually really interested in some of the more pedagogy-focused programs. Illinois State, for instance, which also has a CW concentration, used to be a Doctor of Arts program, and the pedagogy focus still lingers. On the lit side of things, Idaho State also used to be a D.A. program until very recently. I don't know that I'll end up going that route, but it's just something I'm interested in right now. But, then again, my obsessions change on a near-daily basis, so who knows!

    Ok, now I'm rambling. Other thoughts?

  11. late to the conversation but i think the biggest question i would have about teaching is how much and what subjects. if it is a small course load then go for it and get the experience as well as the diversity of not just writing.

    i was low-res and i worked full-time for the first part of my program and then i stayed at home while my husband worked two jobs. just writing can really flatten your writing sometimes. you need some other outlets and diversions ;)

  12. Another MFA-decision-time question popping up on my end: Two years or three? I'd be curious to hear thoughts from folks already in either two- or three-year programs.

    Thanks, all! This blog has been truly helpful both during the application season and the now just-as-nerve-wracking decision process.

  13. Katie, I say three. I couldn't imagine writing my thesis NEXT YEAR. But I like a slightly slower pace than some, and my desire to NOT return to the real world at a breakneck pace may be part of it. If you end up somewhere unpleasant though, I could see how that amount of time could become tedious. Also important: funding. Obviously three free years are a lot better than three financially devastating ones (*coughs Columbia*).

    Of course I am but one man, albeit a sexually charismatic and audacious one. Surely others can weigh in on this!

  14. Hey Katie,

    I'm in a 2 year program with the possibility of staying a third year to teach comp and not take classes. I'm not going to do a third year (I am prone to totally flip-flopping and changing the direction of my life so this could change). While I'm getting a lot out of the program, there's really no need for it to last forever. I'm aware that there has to be life after the mfa and I'm ready for whatever that next step will be. I have one more year left and I think that year will be enough for now. Plus, I get anxious about the future. For me, another year would just mean another year of being anxious about what I'm going to do next.


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