Oh, for the love(hate?) of academia.
August 25, 2009 3:35 PM   Subscribe

I’m getting an MFA in creative writing in a fairly decent program. I’m starting my third and final year and faced with some choices as to whether or not mental sanity or career options are more important. I could use some feedback from people outside of the program.

Really long story short: last year was a much worse year than I could have ever imagined having in grad school. In the Fall I had work stolen from me. I went to the appropriate people and the entire situation was just brushed under the rug. (Sadly, it’s really a dead issue so please don’t suggest I attempt to get someone to finally do something about it.) Unfortunately, this seems to be what happens at this school when the person who took my work also serves as poster child of the program. This, understandably, made me uncomfortable in workshop situations. In the Spring semester, I had workshop with the same person. Add a few more incredibly egotistical writers to the crowd and it turned into an incredibly toxic environment where if anyone other than this small group spoke up there would be eye rolling, exasperated sighs, and almost immediate “no, you’re wrong” statements. This made it uncomfortable for me to participate. I talk to the professor about the toxic environment and my discomfort participating (when I am usually very vocal), am told to essentially get over it, and don’t get anything out of the class.

The summer goes well, but as school approaches my anxiety level builds until I almost can’t handle it because the thought of being in classes with the same people I had such issues with last year is nauseating. (For the record, I’m prone to depression and anxiety attacks and am therapy for both.) I can’t take an independent study for program-related reasons, so decide to actually drop down to take the undergraduate workshop in my genre (which grad students are permitted to take but usually take in a genre other than their primary) in order to avoid program drama and help my mental health. Was told today that dropping down to the undergraduate level would look absolutely terrible on my transcript if I want to pursue further education when I’m done here, which I do.

So. The question. Is it better to potentially sacrifice my mental state and take the workshop this semester with the people who caused me loads of anxiety, discomfort, and unnecessary drama in the past, or do I go ahead with taking the undergraduate workshop even though it might negatively affect my ability to further my education and my perception at this university?

Yes, I’ve been through difficult situations before. I know that there is a value to working through it. But what about picking and choosing battles? And is this one that I really need to fight? (Unfortunately, while “just get over it” and “writers can be egotistical assholes” are perfectly valid responses, due to my own mental issues and how affected I am by environments and situations, I also know that they’re not realistic for me.)

throwaway email: askme.mfa@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think we need more information, maybe you can email a moderator and they can add to your post.

1. MFA is a terminal degree, so what are you going on to? A PhD in English Lit or something else?
2. Do you want to do the PhD at your same institution or a different institution?
3. Do you want to end up with a faculty job, or eg teaching at a writing center, or something non-academic? What degrees are required to get that job?
4. Is there another faculty member (other than the one who told you to get over it) that you can work with to get recommendations for the programs you want to move on to next? Or who you can talk to about this question with more particulars of your goals in mind?
5. Do you have a support network of fellow grad students, or other people outside your department, who can help you put up with the asshole brigade?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:48 PM on August 25, 2009

No higher degree is worth this shit, and an MFA least of all. You've already been through this particular difficult situation, and there isn't likely to be any value in going through it again. Either quit the program, or do the program in a way that won't make you feel awful.

You want to be a writer, right? The beauty of being a writer is that you can do it no matter what. If being in the MFA program at Fairly Decent University is helping you be a better writer, sure, stick around. But you don't need an MFA to be a writer. All you need to do is write. And if your writing is good enough, you'll get published.

If I were you, I'd quit the program, spend the money I'd have spent on future semesters to support myself for a while in an inexpensive place, and just set pen to paper and write. Find people whose taste you trust, have them read it. Revise. Have different people read it. Revise again. Repeat until you think it's publishable. Then get yourself an agent. If quitting the program is going to cut the ties you'd planned to use to pull strings for this step, find yourself a young, hungry agent.

Then, keep writing. Don't stop.

You can do this, kiddo, and you don't have to play by their rules.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:49 PM on August 25, 2009 [12 favorites]

Well, do you want the master's from this particular school badly enough to put up with a few more months/one more year (whatever it is) of being around these people, knowing very well that nobody at this school seems to like you or will back you up?

That's really the question here, unfortunately. Yeah, this is going to be awful, no getting around it short of quitting. On the other hand, that wastes the time and money you've already put in to let these bastards get you down and out of the program.

I think I'd just suck it up and put up with the jerks. You've learned not to speak in class around them, so don't. So the class sucks and "you don't get anything out of it," you can still come out of the program with the degree in the end. It sounds like you would be letting these people scare you/screw you out of getting your degree, and are they so horrible that they're worth damaging your academic career just to avoid them? Is that worth it to you?

I am not and have never been a grad student, though, so my advice should probably be taken with an entire shaker of salt here. But it sounds like your school would kick you in the crotch big time if you didn't suck it up and take the graduate workshop with the assholes, so...I'd vote to suck it up. Sorry.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:51 PM on August 25, 2009

It's not so much that you "need to get over it" as you need to decide, ultimately, what's more important to you -- re-motivating yourself and salvaging some possible advice and experience out of the bad situation you've found yourself in, or hanging on to your resentments over what has already taken place.

I'll assume for the sake of argument that you are as talented a writer / poet (you don't specify genre) as any of the others in your program. I would think the best thing you could do would be to direct all the energy you are now putting into worrying about the assholes and what they can do to you and how they can make you feel, and aim it with a laser-like intensity at your work. Kick their asses with the best writing you can produce. Do everything you can to shut their smug mouths.

If you don't want to do this I am not sure why you would continue with the program. The maturing of your work through feedback and the connections you make with peers and professors toward a career are as important a part of the process as the degree itself.

Be aware that cut-throat competition and unfairness in the system are part of the writing profession as a whole, so learning to cope/overcome might be important if you really want to write for a career. It's a simple fact that writing can be thankless, brutal, and lonesome work.

If a direct approach won't work because of your issues, is there any possibility you could take a year off and finish the various workshops and other classes with a different batch of people? I would strongly advise against settling for the undergrad version of the workshop. It could in fact be seen on your transcript as an anomaly you might have to explain -- you don't want to have to be explaining at a job interview at MLA a few years down the line this awful drama you've posted about here. The only one who would look bad in the telling of that story would be you, sad to say.

In any case, good luck. If you're in therapy no doubt your therapist, if he or she is worth their salt, has some opinions about this. Think about what *you* want. Then work to get it.
posted by aught at 4:01 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you should write a fictionalized account of the ordeal as a novel. Certainly you can make the clique into really villainous people and have fun with the academic setting. You may be able to be the one who finally made chicken salad out of chicken shit.
posted by bz at 4:06 PM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Was told today that dropping down to the undergraduate level would look absolutely terrible on my transcript if I want to pursue further education when I’m done here, which I do.

By the same people who were dismissive when someone stole your work?

You need outside perspective of a different kind, I think--not AskMe, but people in whatever type of program you're hoping to pursue after you finish your MFA. Do you know anyone (or can you network your way to someone) who could listen to your whole story? Not in the sense of you just venting at someone. I mean you should find someone in the field you'd like to get into with whom you could go down the list of what's happened ("1. Decided to get MFA; 2. Pursued X program; 3. Had work stolen from me; 4. Program drama resulting from said theft; 5. Dropped down into undergrad workshop; 6. Am hearing this will reflect negatively on my future prospects") and talk about what your options are according to the people who actually matter (your next grad program).

If your current school actually screwed you over as badly as it sounds like they did, you need to be talking to academics who might actually respect and support you. See if you can find a contact in the field you're looking to pursue next.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:56 PM on August 25, 2009

I don't see this mentioned anywhere, so: is it possible to transfer into a program at a different university? It probably doesn't need to be as "good" a program to be much better for you. If it's too late, you can take a semester or a year off.
posted by grobstein at 5:18 PM on August 25, 2009

I wouldn't give up my dreams for a handful of people that sighed or rolled eyes, or didn't agree with me every time. You can't please everyone.

I don't think you need approach this as a battle to fight. Align yourself with a few decent people, don't take your eye off the goal, take extra good care of yourself, and keep on keeping on.

And if you do wish to view it as a battle, they'll win if you quit.
posted by Fairchild at 5:57 PM on August 25, 2009

I'd say stick with it and here's why. These people sound like the main reason you want to give up. I'd consider that too. They sound like real pretentious dicks. You'll probably encounter a lot of said pretentious dicks in your career. Probably best to start inuring yourself to them now.

To paraphrase My favorite Stephen King character from my favorite Stephen King novel as he threatens Johnny Marinville on the side of a nevada desert highway...

"Edgar rice burroughs was a better writer than you. You know that don't you johnny? You know why? Because he was a bad writer but he knew he was a bad writer. But he kept on writing and he made tarzan. Have you made Tarzan? Then shut the fuck up."

So, in short, you need to go in there and ask these people if they've made Tarzan, then tell them to shut the fuck up.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 6:09 PM on August 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

Oh, this is a rough one. I really hate that your program is so competitive. It's such not a conducive environment for, you know, actually creating. If it were me -- and I'm in an undergrad fiction writing program that shares class time with grads -- I'd stick it out for the last year. If this were your first year I might have different advice but honestly, what's two more semesters?

I don't know how useful this advice is for you, but as someone who also suffers from anxiety and depression and prepares for uncomfortable situations by totally dreading them, you need to get angry first and then you need to put that anger back into your work. You need to sit in the class and not feel bad for those awful things that have been done to you. Laugh when they roll their eyes. Realize that you have the power to not let them get to you. Yeah, it's a lot of fake it till you make it at first, but in my experience it's worth it.

Do you have any friends in your classes? Knowing someone is on your side might really help.

I hope you feel better soon.

I feel like my mother, giving this kind of advice.
posted by sugarfish at 6:12 PM on August 25, 2009

There's a lot of great advice in this thread. Two points stand out. Meg_Murray is right: you need advice from people in your field outside your program. LobsterMitten is right too: we need to know at the very least what degree you plan to pursue after this one because an MFA is a terminal degree.

My understanding is that MFAs help position individuals to get work as writers and get published. It's about improving skills and making contacts, no? Unfortunately you don't have a supportive environment, your professors don't take your concerns seriously and you don't like your classmates. Are these people going to help further your career as a writer? Probably not enough to make the tuition and other costs pay off. If you want a writing career, you've gotten enough exposure to a third purpose of the MFA: socialization into the world of writers. It doesn't sound like you like that world very much though.

I'm curious about the PhD angle. You don't need an MFA to get into a PhD program; dropping out of an MFA program isn't going to hurt your chances necessarily getting into a PhD program either.

Also, PhD programs can be vicious like this and worse, all the more so when funding is unevenly distributed. In fact I'd bet unequal funding is causing some of the viciousness around you.

My sense is that you are somewhat isolated from others in your field and need to know more about graduate admissions for PhD programs. You need to ask questions like this of people in other MFA programs, perhaps on a field-specific forums. Approach a former mentor, even if many years have gone by.

The answer to the question about the primary seminar depends entirely on how other programs regard that decision, and how potential PhD programs would see it. The sources I just listed will have the answer.

If it were me, I'd drop out of the program. For the record I'm a history prof.
posted by vincele at 7:59 PM on August 25, 2009

Can you take a semester off, and be off-sync with the mentioned people? If the courses are not offered next semester, how about a full year? You can use this time to work/write/etc, and go back next year, with new people.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:15 PM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

Is there another section into which you can transfer? My program had four. The program assoiciate was very understanding when I made it clear I did not want to be put in the same section with one of the more difficult students---two semesters with him had been more than enough.
posted by brujita at 10:03 PM on August 25, 2009

I have the same issue as LobsterMitten and others, it's very hard to advise when we don't know what you want to do in the future. This is my mantra, but if it's education advice that you seek, post this to the relevant fora in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

As far as the present is concerned, I would just tough it out until you get your MFA. Of course, if you do intend to do a PhD, this might not be necessary. Then again, standard advice for a people thinking of doing a PhD in the humanities is: don't. So without knowing more, any advice is going to be pretty circular.
posted by ob at 7:18 AM on August 26, 2009

My understanding is that MFAs help position individuals to get work as writers and get published.

Nah, that's how they're sold, but they don't really deliver for most people.

What MFA as a degree does is give you a credential to teach writing to others.

I would suggest option 3: find a professor in the MFA program who doesn't like the crazy attitude shit, tell him or her your problems, and ask him or her to do an independent study with you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:34 PM on August 26, 2009

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