Dogends and Cold Leftovers

Nora and I were talking this morning, and she said, “I wonder if all of these women-in-STEM and minorities-in-STEM initiatives are just a sign that STEM is finished…”

One of the arguments I make in the new book, drawing from research in economic sociology, is that once a career path is fully opened to women, it’s suddenly not compensated as well, not as prestigious, more highly regulated than it had been when it was mostly guys that did it.

For instance, Hadas Mandel’s research describes what she calls the “up the down staircase” phenomenon of “declining discrimination against women as individual workers, and rising discrimination against occupations after the entry of women.”[i] Or Josipa Roska’s research that shows college grads entering male-dominated fields starting out at salaries far greater than those of college grads entering female-dominated fields.[ii] Or Anne Lincoln’s research in the “feminization” of veterinary practice, and the ways in which male students begin to avoid academic disciplines that become the site of increasing women’s participation.[iii] Or Levanon, England and Allison’s research showing more evidentiary support for devaluation of “feminized professions” than for exclusion of women from “masculine professions.”[iv]

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that it’s deeply uncertain whether the nation is facing a “STEM Crisis.” Certainly there isn’t one in academic science; the BLS study shows that the average doctoral faculty member in STEM produces about four new PhDs over the course of her or his career, far above the required replacement rate for academic jobs. In non-academic fields, employers in the study showed little difficulty in finding bachelor’s-degree holders for entry STEM work, but a shortfall in students with advanced degrees. But those industry demands are fluid, changing with the price of oil and Federal infrastructure and defense policy, fluctuating far more rapidly than a long educational process can predict.

(This is true, of course, for all career types. Students are asked to guess, at age 18, both what they want to do and what careers will be in demand, five or six years into the future. If they could accurately do that as a group, they’d be way, way ahead of almost every Wall Street investment house or venture capital firm, which are wrong most of the time.)

Anyway, when college was only for the sons of the well-to-do, there wasn’t much oversight, and wasn’t much handwringing about choosing the right major; now that women and students of color are there in high proportion, it’s become more vocational and subject to far more oversight. When college faculty were mostly men, there were plenty of tenured faculty jobs; now that women have succeeded enormously in faculty work, the job availability has collapsed and contingency has boomed (and the majority of adjunct teachers are women). When college was a mostly male endeavor, state governments funded more than half of the costs of public universities; now that college enrollment is nearing 60% women, state funding has collapsed almost everywhere.

So here’s an economic rule of thumb: once something that had been restricted to elite participants is now made available to a broad community, the original participants have mostly sucked the nutrients out of it, leaving a depleted landscape. Nora’s comment over breakfast makes me think that STEM is no different—we’re going out of our way to invite women and minorities in, just at the moment when the possibilities are drying up and we merely need cheap workers.

[i] Mandel, Hadas. “Up the Down Staircase: Women’s Upward Mobility and the Wage Penalty for Occupational Feminization, 1970-2007.” Social Forces 91, no. 4 (June 2013): 1183-1207. See also the Crates and Ribbons blog post, “Patriarchy’s Magic Trick: How Anything Perceived As Women’s Work Immediately Sheds Its Value.”

[ii] Roska, Josipa. “Double disadvantage or blessing in disguise? Understanding the relationship between college major and employment sector.” Sociology of Education 78, no. 3 (July 2005): 207-232.

[iii] Lincoln, Anne E. “The shifting supply of men and women to occupations: Feminization in veterinary education.” Social Forces 88, no. 5 (July 2010): 1969-1998. 

[iv] Levanon, Asaf, Paula England, and Paul Allison. “Occupational feminization and pay: Assessing causal dynamics using 1950-2000 U.S. Census data.” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (December 2009): 865-891.

On the Fading Tail of the Technological Wave

Douglas Adams once wrote (in paraphrase) that any technology around when you were a kid has seemed to have always been there; technology developed when you were between 15 and 35 is new and amazing and you can probably make a career using it; and technology developed when you were 35 and over is against the natural order of things. And an awful lot of taken-for-granted technology has been developed since I passed that threshold 25 years ago. Cell phones were barely around, but smart phones are new and evil. Web 1.0, where specific people worked hard to get their voices out on the internet, was the norm, and Web 2.0 that lets any anonymous idiot spread conspiracy theories on comment boards has ruined public discourse. And so on. You get the picture.

I say this today because I’ve been trying to set up a second website through my WordPress account, and the online instructions are full of simple things like “using your WordPress aggregate management software, connect through your FTP client and modify your wp-config.php file…”


And it made me think that the ability to write software code in the 21st century is like the ability to read in the 15th… most people didn’t have it, and those that did became powerful. The rest of us remained serfs.

I also got invited today to participate in a podcast, which is kind of like radio so I approve of it. I’ll be happy to do it. But we’re going to connect via a software package called Zoom. <sigh> I’m increasingly resistant to new apps, not because the apps themselves are hard to learn or hard to use, but because it’s another account with another username and another password. Passwords used to be for getting into the boys’ treehouse; now I have to have a password to shop, or to bank, or to write, or to check my mail, or to talk with someone through my laptop microphone. And the software have dumb names. Snapchat, Wufoo, Zoom… what are we, six years old? Get off my lawn.

I’m writing all this (as well as all of my books and all of my client data analysis, everything I do professionally) on a 2012 MacBook Pro with OSX10.10.5 Yosemite; I’ve gotten past all the predatory cat OS versions, but I’m still working my way through California landscapes. I do all my work with five-year old versions of Microsoft Office products. There’s absolutely nothing I need to do that can’t be done on this machine. I don’t download movies or play video games, so I don’t need lots of processor speed or active memory; and I’ve still got 85% of my meager 500GB hard drive open. I back up all seven years of my data files every two weeks onto a flash drive, which takes about ten minutes. (Clouds are for shade, not data storage.)

I admire all of this technological change, though I’m really not interested in using much of it. But I recognize that the landscape is changing all around me, and every day brings another instance of the same question—do I participate, or do I ignore it and go on doing what I already know how to do?

Nora is writing a history of a 19th century family that saw their economic order disrupted over and over again, not because they did anything wrong, but because other political and technological changes from hundreds or thousands of miles away made their work obsolete. Spinning mills made Rebecca Morison’s home spinning less cost effective, and rendered Samuel Morison’s knowledge of building spinning wheels useless. Mulberry trees were planted in New England to grow silkworms in the 1830s… by the 1850s, French silk had flooded the US market. Northerners lost access to cotton cloth during the Civil War, so home spinning of wool and flax fiber became momentarily useful again, lost again permanently by the 1880s.

I grew up in a city that the first half of the 20th century built to strength, the second half tore to ruins. My hometown of 20,000 people lost 12,000 jobs in fifteen years, a generation of men and women who never learned the password to the future. Industry left them behind, as surely as Wufoo and ApplePay have ditched me.

The prophets of a brave new world
Captains of industry
Have visions grand and great designs
But none have room for me

They see a world where everyone
Is rich and smart and young
But if I live to see such things
Too late for me they come

from Todd Rundgren, “Honest Work”

It’s not just the tools that change, but the kinds of work that the tools enable. I blog instead of tweeting and instagramming, because I value a certain kind of writing, but I know that tweets and flash fiction are meaningful work. I love 19th century buildings because you can see the labor in every brick course and every carved cherub; 21st century buildings leave me cold at least in part because the labor is hidden away under the sleek, swooping skin. I like cash, because I like to count things, and because I like privacy; I don’t buy things online much because every time you press “Pay,” it weighs the same, and every trivial purchase is memorialized forever, likely to show up as a junk email in two, weeks offering some add-on purchase or a coupon luring me to a return visit.

We all find certain things to be native, other things that never fit. Our lives are all in negotiation, weighing then against now against next.

On Being Purposefully Undeclared

Yesterday, I had a few thoughts about the importance of being an “undeclared major” for the first year or more of college, thoughts prompted by ideas from Matt Reed on Inside Higher Ed. Today, I’ve got some thoughts about what students should be doing instead, prompted by ideas from a different Inside Higher Ed commentator, John Warner. John’s a strong writer, but more importantly, a generous and thoughtful critic of the whole higher ed enterprise, in which he’s been an adjunct faculty member for a long time. He exemplifies the idea of student-centered teaching.

Anyway, a couple of months ago, he asked the question: what if every class was a version of ‘music appreciation?’ That is, what if our fundamental aim was to help students understand a new way of thinking? To help them realize that they themselves can start to think that way? And then to help them imagine which ways of thinking are most exciting, most fundamental to their emerging sense of self?

John writes movingly of his high school music appreciation class, which he took for its easy grade, but which led him to understand why music mattered, led him to be able to clearly hear (and later, to perform, though that wasn’t the course’s goal) things that otherwise would have been muted. He then talks about how he uses that in his creative writing classes: “Most of the students in that kind of class already love stories and reading, so to set aside some time for me (or one of them) to read a story out loud in class and spend a few moments afterwards marveling about how it worked its spell on us is as natural as anything.” He proposes a similar course in humor appreciation:

I could share lots of things which would engender laughter, after which we could ask why exactly we were laughing, the same way my music appreciation teacher could ask why we were bopping along to the music at our desks. Students could also bring humor to me, expanding the palate of what we discussed beyond my own preoccupations. Later, they would attempt to write their own humorous pieces, bringing their understanding from observation, to self-generated theory, to execution.

What we typically do with the “core curriculum” is (as one student put it) give everyone the opportunity to do a number of things they’ll never, ever be forced to do again. They’ll have to learn how to calculate a derivative, and memorize the 206 bones of the body, remembering for a moment which was was the radius and which was the ulna. They’ll take Intro to Psych so that they can have a new flash-card vocabulary to forget—behaviorism, cognition, Skinner and Piaget, somatic and autonomic. They’ll take US history so that they can chronologically order the world up through about twenty years before they were born.

Let’s imagine another way. Let’s imagine a year of evangelism, a year in which students are introduced in thoughtful ways to a series of obsessive adults. They would get to see in detail what historical thinking looks like, what mathematical thinking looks like, what musical thinking or storytellers’ thinking or scientists’ thinking looks like, and why those differences matter. They’d have carefully structured opportunities to practice those modes of thinking themselves, to discover which ones fit natively… which ones are excitingly new… which ones remain alien even with their best efforts. At the end of that year, they’d know themselves, which is the “core” of any informed choice of major.

I taught first year writing at Duke for four years, and all the teachers got to design our own way into the work of teaching academic writing. The very best version of it that I ever concocted was about stages of life, looking at the ways that our culture keeps inventing stages of life that hadn’t previously existed, and what those inventions say about us. We talked a lot about how ill-defined adulthood was, the phase that one might think would stand at the center of all. And for the last four weeks, I asked them to imagine something about their own pending adulthoods that they were looking forward to, or afraid of, and to discover what the research literature had to say about it.

Oh. My. God.

They learned to write an academic paper in a social science mode, for sure. But they learned so, so much more. They learned about their own struggles with body image, with ethnic identity, with money and class, with family heritage and the ways that legacy can be both gift and burden. They wrote anywhere between well and brilliantly, but far more importantly, they learned more about what they wanted from the world, and developed some paths to achieve those things.

So it’s not enough to say that the first year is undeclared. It’s not even accurate, if we do it right. The first year is an opportunity to make a declaration: a declaration of self, a declaration of purpose, a declaration of the community with whom we aspire to belong.

The Lost Power of Undeclared

Matt Reed had a really smart column in today’s Inside Higher Ed, though that’s nothing new; he’s one of the writers I regularly turn to. Matt’s a community college leader in New Jersey, and really has worked through a lot of specifics that folks in more comfortable institutions have never needed to address. Today’s column is about the importance of being able to be an undeclared major, and the efforts he’s made to create an undeclared community college path that still qualifies for federal aid funding. As he put it, “The problem is that much of the time, students on the front end don’t really know what they want. That’s not their fault; if you’re sixteen or seventeen, how many options do you know in enough depth to say?  Some students just know, but many don’t, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.”

I didn’t know. I thought I did. I thought that I wanted to be an architect, but I had no idea what architects really did, and nobody in our community was an architect. Lots of factory workers, a bank teller, a phone lineman and two phone operators, but no architects in our neighborhood or in our church or among my classmates’ families. The high school drafting program, which I loved and was terrific at, was aimed at mechanical drafting, because being an industrial draftsman documenting machine parts was still a good, safe, indoor job in the 1970s, though it is no longer.

What I WAS, was interested in buildings, and the ways that people made decisions about them. Looking back now, from 45 years later, I could have told that kid that he should study architectural history, or anthropology, or material culture and folklore… but there was nobody around Muskegon, Michigan in the early ’70s who would have had that knowledge.

I think that the undeclared major has vast power to reveal the details of a student’s interest. It becomes a kind of archaeological dig into the meanings of nascent goals, the custom assembly of ideas and knowledge and methods. It allows us to discover ourselves.

At the college I worked at most recently, we did a significant overhaul of the “foundation curriculum” of our undergraduate degree programs, all four of which were aimed at areas of environmental design: architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and design studies. During those discussions, I argued strongly—and unsuccessfully—that all students should come in for the first year without a major, taking the same courses, and that after that year, they could choose the materials and scales and questions that most enlivened their interest in design. I know that I would have been dismissive of interior design as a young man, thinking of it as a career only for the feminine, whereas it has everything to do with questions of human use and satisfaction, far more than architecture. It would have been a lot closer to what I actually wanted (though still not as close as anthropology).

One of the arguments in favor of every student coming in as a declared major was that it would give them “a sense of purpose,” an argument similar to the “guided pathways” for curricular completion laid out in community colleges. The underlying idea in both cases seems to be that some students just don’t know enough to be safe in their uncertainty, that we need to lead them firmly toward knowable ends rather than give them room to discover.

But among my colleagues arguing for declared majors from day one, none of them had come from colleges that expected immediate declaration of majors. No, they went to places like MIT and Bennington and the University of Virginia, places where the vault of learning is left unlocked for every student to browse. They had once been trusted, as undergraduates, to productively learn themselves. To change their minds. To develop their minds.

I would not merely encourage an undeclared first year. I would require it. I would prohibit the selection of a major until thirty or forty credits had been achieved, credits designed specifically to learn one’s own dreams.

More on that tomorrow.

Be careful…

A couple of months ago, Nora got me a T-shirt that reads, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.”

Characters come from unpredictable places, especially lesser characters. The main characters are complex, closely observed. They reveal themselves over time, and often surprise me by thinking or doing something that’s absolutely true but that I never would have seen coming. The facts that Sarasa wears mismatched socks, and that her parents don’t mind, are exactly right, but I didn’t know it for the first 146 pages.

But lesser characters, the folks on the margins… those are a rendition of people I’ve met. They’re cover songs. Just this morning, in fact, I needed an attorney from a law office in Bonn for a phone call in the story (you’ll have to wait for the book), and I had exactly the right person in my experience. I’d led a professional development event for a group of faculty a couple of years ago, and one participant was imperious, disdainful, casually insulting me and others. He was clearly looking down upon us all from his more elevated status, and didn’t hesitate to make that known. The fact that he was German helped me remember him this morning, and his offhand contempt at having to even deal with a civilian became a lawyer’s tone of voice over the phone.

But the borrowing of character isn’t always for third-tier villains. In an earlier book, my protagonist Robert had some interactions with the great pool player Willie Mosconi. I’d read extensively about his history, but didn’t know Mosconi as a person. I watched a video of him in his prime, conducting an exhibition, and that offered his physical characteristics, shooting from a much more erect posture than most players, working quickly, “moving from shot to shot like a man late for a bus.” But I needed him to have a longer conversation with Robert. How would he behave? What kinds of things would he say? For that, he became my friend Frank, a poolplayer and retired engineer who was my regular partner for seven years in Somerville. Generous, funny, kind. I heard Frank’s voice as I worked my way through a conversation before the final match of the 1956 US Championships.

You might end up in one of my stories, too. Whether you’ll be a friend or an adversary is up to you.

Implied Warranty

I’ve had an enormous outpouring of support from friends, and from people I’ve never met, about the excerpt from the book that was published last Wednesday in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The stories have been achingly reminiscent, infinitely different in detail while all too similar in structure.

Two of them, though, left me a little shaken. One was from a friend who has just retired as a faculty member at a major research university, who’s seen her department drop from 45 faculty to 25 in her forty years there. She recognizes the changes that have gone on all around her, and says “I no longer expect grad students to be able to become tenured professors.” So what is it, I wonder, that her department now DOES tell its incoming doctoral students? I wonder how that department, a premier destination in its discipline, communicates what doctoral education is for, now that it clearly isn’t a reliable key to the academic door? It’s really become like selling lottery tickets now—there’s absolutely no guarantee of the product, but as the state boards love to remind us, “You can’t win if you don’t play!”

The other, from another friend teaching at a major research university, was a little darker. I’ll paraphrase to disguise details: “Thanks for the heartbreaking essay. I’m sure I’ll share it with many of my former students who are trapped in adjunct service. It must start to feel like a stairway to nowhere after a few years.”

And I know this person, smart and generous and deeply supportive of his students… but there’s something a little off about this. The analogue that came immediately to mind was a comfortably employed mortgage lender sending a note to his many[!!] bankrupt former clients, sharing a touching account of the experience of being foreclosed upon that they might find relatable. It’s just… ick.

The National Research Council shows roughly 4,800 departments in American universities that are authorized to offer the PhD across their various disciplines. That seems off by an order of magnitude, a supply that comes by the barrel for a demand that comes by the quart.

Grad students and postdocs are good for colleges, getting lots of work done at low cost. But the doctoral product increasingly needs to come with one of those standard disclaimers right on the welcome letter:

Bigdeal University makes no warranty, expressed or implied, on the marketability of its graduate degrees, or their fitness for any particular use or purpose. This degree product is purchased as-is, and hazard for all flaws—both those known and unknown—will be assumed by the purchaser.

An Excerpt from the Coming Book

On Wednesday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an extended excerpt from The Adjunct Underclass. They did a brilliant job of it, disassembing the Oreo to bring readers the emotional cookies from both ends while leaving the creamy analytical center to be the work of the book itself.

They’ve also created a follow-on that asks readers to weigh in on their own experiences of feeling marginalized by higher education. We imagine our work as academics to be wholly intellectual, but there are powerful emotional ramifications to our work, and to our inability to work, and to our questions about how and whether the work matters.

I’d invite any of you to visit that site and add your own stories.

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!