How much of an adult must an MFA be?
April 26, 2012 5:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to graduate school, for a creative writing MFA! What can I do to prepare, and what's expected of me as an MFA?

I'm heading to a well regarded MFA program at a major university. It's a funded position, and I'll be teaching both creative writing and composition classes. I've read this excellent post about how to get the most out of an MFA, but I'm wondering more about what's expected of me professionally?

I would like to have a more adult attitude than perhaps I did while working on my undergrad, but how do I exhibit this? How should I dress to teach? How should I dress to attend class? Do I need a briefcase? Can I wear a beard? Can I wear a very long beard?

Is it okay for me to drink in front of students, peers, and professors? What about using other forms of chemical recreation? What mistakes can I avoid?

Any tips on avoiding department drama, or getting along with everyone there? I'm looking for a best-practice guide to grad school and fitting-in in academia.
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

Now then: you're not in academia, you're in an MFA. I've done both and there's a difference.

Teaching: everyone is different. When I was an MFA student, at 22, I dressed up a little to teach, so I didn't look like an undergrad; but "dressing up" just meant no shorts, shirt with a collar. You don't need a briefcase; however you carry stuff now is fine. You can wear a very long beard. On the other hand, if your feeling is "now's my chance to wear a tie to work and feel like a grown-up," do that -- some students in my program did, and it didn't come off as weird.

You can and will drink with your classmates, you may drink with your professors, you should probably not drink with your students. Chemical recreation, including alcohol, will get you in trouble only if you're the kind of person who pisses people off when imbued with your favorite recreational chemical. Your professors don't care what you do outside of class as long as you're writing. Don't show up drunk for class, obviously.

In my program, department drama wasn't much of an issue. Some programs are very careeristically oriented, with a sense that the professors were deciding which students are "anointed" and are going to get published; if you're at one of those, the drama level will be higher. But if that's the case, there is little you can do about it besides writing as well as you can so as to be one of those in the chosen group.

Main tip: you have been given a great gift, a serious chunk of time where someone is paying you to write. Your number 1 goal, every day, is to make use of that, and write. Write a hell of a lot. I wrote the first draft of my novel in the 9 months I was in my MFA and if I hadn't done it then I'm 99% sure I never would have done it.
posted by escabeche at 6:05 PM on April 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Much of this is extremely dependent on the program you're attending. There are different norms regarding, say, dress at different schools.

Is it okay for me to drink in front of students, peers, and professors? What about using other forms of chemical recreation? What mistakes can I avoid?

At my school, peers did all sorts of substances around one another. People frequently drank with professors at off-campus department parties (and on a rare occasion, during the last day of a workshop). However, drinking--or worse--around your students is both kind of creepy and a recipe for disaster.

Any tips on avoiding department drama, or getting along with everyone there? I'm looking for a best-practice guide to grad school and fitting-in in academia.

You probably won't get along with everyone in your workshops. I went to a program known for its sociable attitude between students. There were still weird occasional jealousies and rivalries. It happens in a competitive creative environment.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:05 PM on April 26, 2012

Act like a grown up.

Don't drink with students.
posted by k8t at 6:17 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just a note that "acting like a grown up" would not have gotten you far either socially or professionally in my MFA program. The MFAs had a well-earned reputation in the English department for being weird party kids. The faculty did little to discourage this and, in fact, may of the students who were given special faculty attention were those who socialized with the faculty. Sometimes in really casual ways, like making dick jokes together.

escabeche's right that being an MFA is different than being an academic.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:25 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Drink and smoke up with your professors and your fellow grad students, not with the undergraduates. No sex with the undergraduates. No sex with the professors. Sex with other people in your program is generally a massive dramabomb, but you will probably do it anyway. Still, it's best to find people in totally other grad programs to date.

The long beard will make you look like an idiot (though that isn't MFA-program-specific advice--don't wear a long beard unless it's for religious reasons, anybody, AND THAT GOES FOR YOU TOO MAST BROTHERS ::shakes fist::).

Get as much work done as you can. Don't just work on one big novel or non-fiction tome; this is the time to get some short pieces out there as well. Don't talk your work to death with your colleagues; go home and write it, because barroom performances don't pay royalties.

Don't trash-talk professors or your fellow grad students no matter how much you are tempted to do it, and no matter how much other people in the room are doing it. One of those people will be a malicious tale-bearer who will tattle on you while conveniently neglecting to mention that they were trashing the tattlee worse than anyone.

If you don't have good work habits already, learn some. Maybe the Pomodoro Technique will be helpful to you. Maybe there are other methods that will work better for you.

Be really clear with your students about how their grades will be determined. Put it on the syllabus and on the course's website and remind them of it in class. Some of them will still be ASTONISHED! when they find they got a zero for the paper they missed, even though you told them a million times. Some of them will have their parents call you. Do not flip out, but stay cool and amused and refer them to the many many printed materials that their child should have been responsible about reading. You will laugh about this later.

Be kind to the administrative assistants, to the librarians, and to anybody on the university's administrative staff who does something to make your life easier. They are the people who are making things work, and they notice who's a good egg and who's an arrogant douchecanoe.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:08 PM on April 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

From my experience and the experiences of people I have spoken to in other programs, I would recommend the following for a beneficial experience:

1. Seconding writing as much as possible all the time. There will be a lot of parties, social gatherings and homework. Don't get distracted. You should be writing even if it's not for any class. Find some people you gel with and put together a reading circle to compare stuff on your own. Read your work together and discuss it outside of class. Send stuff out to literary journals for publication.

2. Make sure you keep in touch with people after you or they leave. Once you are out of the program, it will be really easy to never write again or only do so only periodically. Good writing partners can give you insight on where to submit, help you make revisions, and provide emotional support.

3. If teaching is what you want to do as a career, then by all means work hard on developing your CV. Talk to the head of the department about other classes (on pedagogy and literature) and internships you can do in addition to your regular classes and teaching duties. You might be able to earn certifications on top of the experience that will help you later (such as a TESL certificate if you want to teach overseas). Or, if that's not your thing, definitely see if you can intern as an assistant editor on the school's literary journal or publishing house (if they have one).

Hope that helps. Good luck.
posted by princeoftheair at 1:55 AM on April 27, 2012

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