Messages from the Damned

I woke up this morning to a stream of email, having to do with today’s Chronicle of Higher Education and their beautifully rendered excerpt from the forthcoming book. I’m pleased with their work, of course, and grateful to have the opportunity to weigh in on a vital conversation. But the messages themselves—via email, through LinkedIn, through comments on this website—reminded me all over again of why the conversation matters so, so much. I’ll paraphrase a few of them…

  • I too am in an ongoing struggle to be accepted into the club, having nowhere else to turn. I cry out of shame, and then try harder. It’s a vicious circle.
  • I’m a capable professional with advanced education and notable achievements in my past occupations, but I have felt incompetent in higher ed. And as you describe, I thought it was me.
  • I gave far too much of my life to a system that ground me down and disposed of me (but continued to use my work to demonstrate my employers’ “research excellence”).

How is it possible that an institution aimed squarely at cultural progress and social justice can leave so many of its own participants ashamed and alone? How can we demean and dismiss our colleagues so easily, and so often? What is the matter with us?

I’m grateful for all of those who’ve reached out, and I’m responding to each. You’re not alone. You’re not insufficient. This is not your fault. It’s natural to internalize all of this, but it’s not correct. We are all just caught up in the parade of the damned, hoping for that unpredictable nod that will save one of us while leaving so many others to march on.

Honest, Fair, Generous

The third of three parts about structured development of your writing talents.

Let’s look at three ways that a writer can respond to a section of text:

  • First person: I was confused by this section.
  • Second person: You confused me in this section.
  • Third person: This section is confusing.

There’s only one of these three statements that can be objectively true. Readers can disagree about whether a section of text is or isn’t confusing, or whether the writer’s strategy is or isn’t confusing, but no one can dispute the simple fact that I was confused. I’m not blaming anybody, I’m not attributing error, I’m just stating my experience.

The fact of criticism—of receiving it, and of delivering it—is one of the great struggles of life. It happens in our families, at work, in our civic lives. But it surprises me that in scholarly programs designed to create original work and get others’ impressions of it, we haven’t done a more rigorous job of understanding how to frame feedback for others, and how to work productively (and emotionally healthfully) with the feedback we receive.

“Be brutal,” we hear people say. “Rip it to shreds.” But nobody really wants to be brutalized, and unless you’re Banksy, nobody wants the work they’ve invested their hearts in to be shredded. We’re not coming to be judged; we’re coming to be aided. What we want is feedback that’s honest, fair, and generous.

Two years ago at Bread Loaf, the ten stories from our group were at different stages of wonderfulness—everyone was talented and dedicated, and the craft showed fully in the pages we read. But even in that packet of high skill, there was one story above the others, a story of a rural father with cancer who’d been long estranged from his well-educated urban daughter. That story just shone. It was better than anything I’d read in any professional publication for ages. It was heartbreaking, precise, brilliant. And in that workshop, in a group of well-trained and capable critics, the author heard suggestions. The suggestion that she should begin the story at the family reconciliation and work backward to the relationship’s breakdown. The suggestion that she should focus more on the neighbor boys the same age as the distant daughter, but who had themselves stayed home and taken over their own failing father’s farm. The responses were perfectly understandable. They fulfilled our responsibilities. And they missed the pure joy of just reading a wonderfully shaped story.

A member of my own writing group, himself having just come from an MFA program, talks about what he calls “fan fictioning,” when a critic takes it upon himself to make the writer’s project a different project. “You could have Dan tell this story retrospectively, recognizing that he was in this idyllic moment. Maybe he discovers that his high school teacher just died of pneumonia five years later… maybe Dan doesn’t have a sister and a mother, it’s just him and his dad at home, so we see that he’s really isolated…”

This is not helpful, but it’s what happens when writers read.

I’m Midwestern enough to have absorbed one guiding principle for human relations: “Unsolicited advice is never welcome.” My wife will correctly tell you that I haven’t fully mastered that one yet; you may have by now intuited it yourself. But when I lead writers’ workshops, I try to remember that guidance. I have one strict rule for giving peer review in my workshops: everything we say has to be in first-person construction, about our experience of reading these pages. The writer whose work is on the table doesn’t need another writer; she needs exactly and only the one thing she can never be, which is an external reader who offers their experience of reading. When a reader tells a writer how he responded to a part of the work, the writer gets to consider whether that response is widely shared or idiosyncratic, and how to repair a flaw while remaining true to the larger vision. The reader has no right to write. The reader may only read, and convey the experience of reading.

As writers receiving feedback, even this good kind of reader-focused feedback, we have to decide what to do with it. I often hear my students say “So A wants me to do this, but B wants me to do that… what do I do?” Well, you do what YOU want to do, knowing that reviewer A found something problematic, and that reviewer B didn’t. What do you know about those two people? What do you like and trust about their writing? What can you take from both of them that will help you be better at reaching your own goals for this piece? They aren’t your supervisors, they’re just smart people who’ve told you what they see. You aren’t “accepting” or “rejecting” their criticism, it isn’t a binary—you’re listening to it, to see how you can come ever closer to doing the work you want to do.

I’d love to see a broader pedagogical discussion about how critique-based creative education can be improved. I know first-hand and from both directions that architecture schools are terrible at it, that writing groups can be terrible at it. Focusing on the experience rather than the judgment is my own first foray at trying to make it better.

The $10,000 MFA

We talked yesterday about the three things that you’re purchasing when you embark on an MFA program: colleagues, structure, and readers. Is it possible to buy that kind of training without that particular container? I think that it is, but of course it won’t result in those three letters appended to your e-mail signature. Here’s a self-structured recipe for achieving most of what an MFA program can offer, at a quarter or a sixth or a tenth of its cost, in about the same amount of time.

Admissions. You have to demonstrate some degree of credibility to be accepted to even the Childress MFA; we don’t let just any old body in here (though it’s damn close). Before you embark on this course, you need to be published at least a couple of times by somebody who paid you money for it. I started that in 1989, when I was writing freelance architectural and urban design criticism for the East Bay Express at $150 a pop, about once every couple of months. (If I were doing it now, thirty years later, I’d still be getting about $150 per article. Writing for money is a mug’s game. Elmore Leonard said that the most lucrative writing gig was ransom notes.) Why publishing for money as a quality threshold? Because someone whose job is to bring out a publication has decided that your copy was worth space. The classical composer Nico Muhly recently wrote, “The primary task, I feel, is to create a piece of art that is better than the same amount of silence.” That’s the professional editor’s judgment—that your writing is better than some other thing, or nothing, that would fill that same space. So get a couple of bylines to demonstrate your baseline capacity before you get into the more advanced class.

Semester 1. Create a local writers’ group. You can meet at each others’ houses, in a tavern, at a Dunkin Donuts, by Google Hangout, whatever. There should be no fewer than four and no more than six members. You set up the rules for page length and the schedule at the beginning: say, each member gets one reading of up to 6,000 words, and that the readings are every three weeks. So that means we can go through four writers in twelve weeks, or six writers in eighteen weeks. But here’s the deal: each member has to put up $100 at the beginning, and you receive $10 for each on-time review you write to your colleagues, and $20 when you submit your own work on time to get reviewed. You want structure? You’re losing money if you don’t make your deadlines. That’s a decent structure. At the end of that cycle of reading, the best writer (judged by her peers) gets all the remaining dough, and gets kicked out of the group to join a better one. So your cost for the semester is at most $100 if you totally flake out and don’t do anything at all; $50 if you meet all your responsibilities in a four-person group; and you actually come out $150 to the good if you win. Low risk, low reward, but it’s an awesome gumption test. If you can’t do even this much, then I’ve just saved you tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, and you’ve learned an important life lesson.

Semesters 2-n: Repeat Semester 1 until you get voted up to the next level.

So congratulations, you’ve now become a fully admitted student of the Childress MFA, and it’s only cost you, what, a hundred bucks plus donuts and coffee every three weeks.

Now you have to create a better writers’ group, which probably means doing it online unless you live in a big city. My suggestion is to go to a serious writers’ website (the QueryTracker discussion forum, your preferred genre community like RWA or HWA or the other HWA, or whatever) and spend some time there looking for commentators to the website who you think seem a) intelligent, and b) generous. You know who to avoid: the curmudgeons, the know-it-alls, the kind of people you’d try to get away from at a potluck. You’re going to replicate your first writers’ group, but you’re going to add a few variables. First, you’re going to pony up $500 at the beginning, plus pay for your membership in the writers’ organization. Second, you’re going to commit to more extended reading, say 30,000 words—a third of a novel, or a collection of stories. Third, you’re going to give yourselves a little more time to read, but not much; four or five weeks instead of three. Pay yourselves fifty bucks per review and a hundred bucks for your own submittal, leaving several hundred dollars in the kitty at the end. Now that’s worth fighting for; write better. Again, best writer gets thrown out (you NEVER want to be the best writer in a group).

At this point, if you’ve moved up twice, you’re probably roughly broken even on your investment. If you haven’t moved up yet, think about going back to stage 1 for a while, get more fundamentals behind you, maybe a community college creative writing course, write for the local newspapers.

Now you’re going to spend your first real money. You’re going to apply to a not-very-competitive conference that has both coaches and visiting agents. For instance, my very first writers’ conference was New York Pitch, back in 2012. They’ll crow about how many books got published from there, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’ll hear other people talk about your work without knowing it very well, which puts the burden on you to be able to describe it economically and powerfully. That’s a huge skill to learn. And you’ll be surrounded by other people serious enough to have made the investment. To be ready for that, you need a manuscript to talk about, and need to spend $500-$1,000 to register, plus travel and lodging costs. That sounds like a lot of money, but three grand isn’t even a scratch in a semester’s MFA tuition. And you’ll get feedback from people who read book proposals every single day.

While you’re there, it’s not tourism time, not chit-chat. Tell every interesting person that you’d be happy to read some of their material while you’re there, and be prepared to stay up late at night to do it. This is where you’re going to recruit the members of writers’ group #3, the first group in which you’re going to commit to reading the entirety of one another’s novels or short story collections. Keep your deadlines short; four weeks is totally enough time to read a novel and write intelligent notes about it. Same rules as before, and $500 is still enough to keep people serious.

Once you’ve graduated from that group, NOW you’re ready to apply to one of the big conferences: Sewanee, Tin House, Bread Loaf. You’ve gotten serious commentary on a full-length work from writers you trust, and you’ve learned some things about making comments yourself (more on that tomorrow). You’ve had a chance to revise, and you’re ready to take it to the major leagues. Figure five or six grand to register and travel, and don’t imagine that you’ll necessarily be accepted on your first application.

At the end of this sequence, you’ll have done a ton of really important things:

  • You’ll have had a lot of practice in reviewing others’ writing, and you’ll have seen a lot of stories that work well and a lot of stories that don’t. You’ll know your own tastes better, and know why you like what you like.
  • You’ll have completed and revised a book-length manuscript
  • You’ll know how to summarize a complex work
  • You’ll know how to assemble a peer group of writers you look up to and are honored to share work with (my current writing group is me plus four writers I met at Bread Loaf in 2017)
  • You’ll know whether a life of commitment to writing feels right to you

And you’ll have spent maybe ten thousand dollars to do it. (Will you have a publication contract? No, but MFA programs don’t offer that, either.) And that list of experiences totally qualifies you to think of yourself as an MFA: a M-F’ing Author!

What Are We Really Buying?

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

middle stanzas from Marge Piercy, “For the young who want to,” 1980

We were in Burlington last Thursday, stocking up on some groceries we can’t get locally. I joined Nora in the checkout at Healthy Living, putting cheeses and unusual produce onto the conveyor, and spotted this month’s Poets & Writers at the checkstand. (You can tell a lot about the nature of a grocery store by what they consider plausible impulse purchases.) So, on impulse, I bought it.

I think the magazine exists any more to advertise MFA programs. A quick count shows 37 display ads for MFA programs, 59 display ads for workshops and conferences, and eleven display ads for contests, along with pages and pages of classified ads for contests at twenty or thirty bucks entry fee each. It’s an aspirational magazine, for those of us who want to.

I’ll admit, I’ve been tempted to enroll in an MFA program myself now that I’ve been writing fiction seriously for a few years. And every time I think to myself, what is that sixty thousand or eighty thousand dollars going to buy me?

Enrolling in an MFA program purchases three guaranteed things:

  • Smart people to talk about books and stories with
  • Deadlines
  • About a dozen or so people, faculty and fellow students, who have to read your work carefully and think about what it’s accomplishing

That’s really it. The credential itself doesn’t accomplish much, especially in an academic job market where permanent hires in creative writing are scarce as four-leaf clover. The networking varies, as networking always does, with the horsepower of the school. If you go to an MFA program with a bunch of faculty who all publish in “the little journals,” then those are the doors they might be able to help you open as well. If you go to the University of Michigan’s MFA, they have keys to bigger doors. (And they don’t advertise in Poets & Writers, because they don’t need to. They already get sixty applicants for every student spot.)

The thing is, writing is just hard. We have to create the entire structure all over again every time we sit down to work, have to make our own deadlines and pretend they matter. We have to read other writers and try to figure out what it is that they’re doing, for better and worse. Finding readers is maybe even harder. And there are days when the structure is so far beyond our grasp, and readers are so difficult to even contemplate, that sixty thousand dollars feels like a fair rate.

I’ve done three writers’ conferences as well, one a great big name that cost $3,500, the other two more humble events that cost about $1,000 and $1,500. And they’re selling the same things: colleagues, structure, and readers.

We are a gullible lot, we writers, we aspiring artists. We have entered into work for which we are perpetually unprepared, and will remain forever. We want to believe that the work is knowable and achievable, and so we buy a knowable and achievable structure, even though it’s only a proxy for what we really want, only the box that the work can fit inside.

We’ll talk tomorrow about other ways of achieving the same three goals without spending quite so much money.

Bad News in Threes

Green Mountain College, Poultney VT announced its closure on January 23rd

Southern Vermont College, Bennington VT announced its closure on March 4th

The College of St. Joseph, Rutland VT announced its closure today, March 22nd

In total, this doesn’t account for a lot of displaced students: 1,066 undergrads and 353 master’s students across all three schools. But those fourteen hundred students are only a part of the trauma. Those colleges also shed 75 permanent faculty, who are highly unlikely to land jobs at another school now that they’ve lost all those years on low-ranked campuses. They’ve shed over a hundred part-time faculty, who have almost no local opportunities to sell their course-by-course services elsewhere. They’ve shed another 250 or so other staff, ranging from financial aid to housekeeping to grounds maintenance to three college presidents, all of whom are looking for work in a pretty dubious regional economy.

We’ll have three defunct campuses, 117 acres and 371 acres and 155 acres. Three gyms and health centers. Ten dormitories. Fifteen or so academic buildings, five or six office buildings. Downtown Rutland and downtown Poultney and downtown Bennington are already pretty hollow, empty storefronts scattered throughout town, so the local demand for real estate is soft, and this is pretty specialized real estate.

Vermont as a whole is soft. The population has declined a tiny bit over the past decade, and the region is suffering all of the travails that rural America knows too well. Agricultural uncertainty, manufacturing loss, drug addiction, the smart kids leaving and the other kids not bothering with college at all. The loss of these three schools in such short order feels a little bit like the state just giving up on its future.

The state colleges are suffering, too. Castleton University is down about 10% in students from its peak a few years back, Northern Vermont University down 23%, Community College of Vermont down 20%. The flagship, The University of Vermont, is stable in undergraduate enrollment at about 10,000, but only a quarter of its students are Vermonters. The number of Vermont high school graduates at UVM reached its peak in 1972, at 4,204; now it’s down to 2,862.

A friend who grew up in the rural Midwest said that his experience of different small towns in his region was that the presence of a college made all the difference in the world—the difference between lively and depressing, the difference between hanging on and giving in. And we’re letting ours go. We’ll pay for that, in large ways and small.

Managing Your Volunteerism

If you step up and take something on once, people will be grateful.

If you step up and do it again, people will notice your dedication.

If you do it a third time, it’s just your job now, and people will resent it if you stop.

We’re in the heart of mud season here in Vermont, with the frost melting under the road beds and causing roads to fail without warning over the space of three or four hours. Our road crew is putting in 15-hour days seven days at a time, as conditions change from 50° this afternoon to a predicted eight inches of snow tomorrow and Saturday.

I’ve been posting reports to our community’s online resource to let people know where the road crew will be working, to encourage ridesharing and let people know that they should have their prescriptions filled before the storm. And now that I’ve done it three times in this last week, it’s now just taken for granted that it’s something that I do, and I’m getting phone calls asking me to put up some information or another on Front Porch Forum.

Now, I could whine about all this (maybe I already am…), but instead I want to use it as a cautionary tale about what is euphemistically called the “service” component of faculty evaluation. Every college, and every department within every college, has more interests and more possibilities than could ever be adequately addressed. That’s just what happens when you put a bunch of smart, creative people together. And every permanent faculty member at every college is periodically reviewed on the great three-ingredient recipe of the intellectual cocktail: teaching, scholarship, and service. Different schools will expect different proportions of these ingredients, but they’ll all always be there at some level.

You should seek out your service opportunities with just as much dedication and planning as you seek out your course mix and your research projects, because service will take time just as teaching and research take time, and time is your most scarce resource.

Think carefully about which committees or task forces have a job to get done, rather than just being perpetual and often decorative. Among those committees with real work to do, which kind of work matters to you? If you want to keep your colleagues and students intellectually abreast of the current state of your discipline, maybe you’d want to serve on the guest speakers’ committee, recruiting and organizing the invited talks. If you feel yourself getting stale in the classroom, maybe you’d want to serve on the faculty development committee, advocating for the kinds of professional development that you yourself would most value.

If you DON’T actively choose your committee assignments, they will be chosen for you, and you’re not going to like it.

I think that service work may be a major contributor to faculty burnout, because committees often work without recognition, at things that never get finished, on projects that really don’t matter much to any of the people involved. If you’re in a position to ask for a committee to be formed, make sure you have a product in mind and a deadline for its accomplishment. Give the committee the parameters for success, and the freedom to achieve those parameters however it sees fit.

My last bit of advice is to find the person on campus who’s the acknowledged expert on Robert’s Rules of Order… and to never be in the same room as that person. Anyone who’s dedicated their lives to the minutia of parliamentary procedure is someone for whom the structure of meetings far exceeds their interest in its contents or outcomes, a person who has far more tools than you ever will for not ever getting anything done.

The Hidden Curriculum

One of the most important pieces of American education research was a paper from 1980 published by Jean Anyon, called “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” (if this link fails, just Google it; it’s out there in quite a few places.) In an ingenious research design, Anyon and her colleagues were able to name the core dilemma of education—we don’t know why we do it. Or, more accurately, we know exactly why we do it, but we don’t talk about it, and we wouldn’t agree if we did.

The executive summary is that in schools aimed at working class kids, the goal (no matter what the “subject area”) was to have them follow procedure. For middle class kids, the goal was to have the independently calculate the right answer. For kids of professionals, the goal was to have them be expressive and interdependent. And for kids of the 1%, the goal was to have them be strategic. Read the article, it’s totally worth your while. The belief, unnamed but thoroughly evident, was that school should train kids to replicate their parents’ work lives; that some kids were capable of analytical and creative work, and other kids just needed to follow the footsteps on the floor.

The importance of this work came to mind again today when I read that the University of Akron has offered buyouts to 47% of its faculty, in an effort to control long-term spending patterns. Why 47%? Because they want to keep faculty in all of their “career fields,” and shed only those in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. All the social sciences faculty are eligible to leave; all of the humanities faculty. Math and physics can go home, but chemistry has to stay. U of A makes its money in teaching kids business, law, IT, healthcare and polymer engineering. They’re betting the ranch on being a trade school.

The supposedly commonsense notion that you go to college in order to learn a profession is actually only true for colleges aimed at working class and middle class kids. They’re bootstrap schools, the kinds of places where you go to be the first in your family to work an indoor job without injury risk, a job that doesn’t require nametags and uniforms.

College for the more well-to-do kids, for kids from college-experienced families… they’re under no such constraint. You can major in dance instead of athletic training, in physics instead of engineering, in history instead of public administration. You can change majors in light of discovering a new love, and not have your carefully curated path fall apart around you. The fundamental meaning of college is different for different schools and different students.

Not surprisingly, the nature of the faculty is different as well. Students at the bootstrap schools will be met by a majority-temp faculty, paid by the course to know a little bit more than their students, to check students’ progress as they work through the problem sets. Schools at the liberal arts temples will be met by broadly educated, curious, permanent faculty who are willing to guide a student through whatever interests she develops. And schools of the elite, the research universities both public and private, will be taught extensively by grad student TAs, who demonstrate the daily experience of the next steps their undergrads will be taking themselves in a few years.

American higher education is perplexing to the public and to policymakers because it isn’t one single thing that can be discussed coherently. It is a complex network of social relations that funnels different students down different roads to different lives.