Monday, January 26, 2009

Those who can do...

Not too long ago
I was having dinner with a recent graduate from the NEOMFA creative writing program. This is the one that is awarded from a syndicate of Northeast Ohio universities including Cleveland State.

Over our bowls of soup this person told me of some issues he was having in a composition class that he was teaching at a local community college, basic classroom management stuff. ‘Cause what else is one going to do with a MFA? I mean what do folks tell you when they are in such a program, “I can always teach.” So I asked this guy how many education classes had he taken as part of the program. He replied, “None.”

I have to wonder, is this typical? How many of these programs are out there that foist people into professions with absolutely no training for the profession. Was this idiosyncratic to this one person? A cursory look over the courses required shows no education classes. Do you want your gall bladder taken out by someone who understands the theory of its function but couldn’t tell a scalpel from vibrating saw on the stainless steel tray of surgical tools? Who’s to blame?

Too often it seems, when the arts are concerned, the craft of teaching is chucked aside especially by “teaching artists”. No wonder creativity in the classroom is so marginalized. So we successfully completed a series of experimental villanelle examining man’s inability to come to terms with his mortality. What are we going to do about the four inner city youth, high school grads, in our Comp 101 class who obviously are not reading above a sixth grade level? What responsibility do these programs owe to their candidates to provide even the barest modicum of preparation for the main opportunity for use of the terminal degree they are bestowing?

Similarly, artists who go into the classroom without taking the time to learn at least the basics of teaching are liable to, with all good intentions, actually do harm. The best teaching artists I know continue to educate themselves not only in their art form, but in pedagogy and the latest educational theory taking dozens of workshops a year.

See, 99.99% of those in Comp 101 are not going to become professional poets. What is our obligation to them?


pottygok said...


I'm a bit disturbed by this because when I went through the Cleveland State M.A. program in English with a Creative Writing Track (pre-NEOMFA) I had to take a class in composition education for my graduate assitantship.

Now, with that in mind, I've also experienced the fact that community colleges are so desperate to stay within budget that they hire adjuncts, many of whom are unqualified to teach even at a degree level, i.e., there are many people teaching English with non English degrees because they'd rather pay 3 adjuncts to teach two or three classes each than one full time teacher to teach six classes (benefits, health care, insurance, etc. make a full timer cost more).

Also, in an effort to give students a liberal arts atmosphere, community colleges (at least, Tri-C) crams literature into their composition courses, so students are learning poetry and drama appreciation alongside of basic research writing. The theory then, of course, is that someone who WRITES poetry would be able to TEACH poetry appreciation. On top of that, both community colleges and four year colleges offer free classes and workshops throughout the year for teachers focused on all aspects of educational theory, from technology in the classroom to classroom management.

So there are opportunities, both in the program as well as at the school to become a better teacher. Now, as far as the four inner city youth who graduated highschool and can't read, there are also opportunities--FREE opportunities--through the community college system for personal, one-on-one help and tutoring. There are also remedial classes geared specifically toward that bracket of students. Having taught some of these courses, I'm left wondering how many graduated from highschool, and who, at the highschool level, maintains that these students have received a decent education or deserve to pass. This is not to bash high schools or high school teachers, or put the blame on them. Personally, I'm all in favor of a stepping up of standards across the board, from gradeschool through college. In my experience, too often the lowest common denominator is considered acceptable, and it doesn't serve anyone in the process.

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

as a teacher I agree with your statement that a bad teacher can do harm. In the Ohio public schools we are just getting around to teachers who are "highly qualified" in their subject area. But we still have substitutes and other people that affect the students' daily lives that have no teacher training.

michael salinger said...

Hey Diane,

I'm not insinuating that folks graduating from this program would be a "bad" teacher per se. Just thinking out loud that they may quite possibly be unprepared for the realities of a classroom through no fault of their own.

My question is more for the framers of these programs who must know that one of the very few chances to utilize the resulting degree is in front of a classroom and that reality dictates that the chances of that class being populated by lit majors is relatively slim.

I find it a bit cynical the powers that be are willing to launch these folks with heads crammed full of theory into a profession with no practical tools for a classroom.

Josh, you say there are ample opportunities for professional development after the fact – how would you like to be in those first couple classes needed for the instructor to come to the realization they need further instruction?

pottygok said...


First off, please do not think that I consider the system perfect. There are MANY errors in thinking and planning, and many teachers who, after ten years, cannot understand their students' apparent inability to learn, and yet do not come to the realization that they need further instruction.

That being said, many of these developmental classes and meetings happen the week or two before the semester begins, and many occur through out the semester. Teachers are even financially encouraged to participate. This system is by no means perfect, and you're right, the MFA programs are setting up a lot of folks for failure by not giving them the tools to teach, but there is some opportunity for success.

I'm also curious to know if the MA in English program is run differently. The reason I ask is because I'm wondering if the expectation of the MFA program is for students to go through the program, building up a portfolio of publication credits over their two or three years, and then come out with a publishable manuscript (i.e. thesis) that gets picked up in a year or two after the program, earning them a slot in a creative writing program through out the country, or even a job as a visiting professor somewhere.

If you look at many of the teachers in the NEOMFA program, or simply MFA programs in general, they have very few books to their name, some only one, and a much larger list of national publication credits in magazines, journals, etc. Some may have edited an anthology, work on a magazine, etc. However, I'm wondering if the NEOMFA doesn't want their graduates teaching composition or teaching at the community college level, and so they don't emphasize the discplines necessary for those careers..

I'm also curious to know how much teaching background the professors of the NEOMFA have themselves. How many have taken classes in educational theory or know of George Seimens, Jean Piaget, B. F. Skinner, etc. It would be interesting to see how many of them consider it a priority to have some knowledge of education or educational theory and whether or not they apply such ideas to their classrooms. I've had one teacher explain that their theory is to teach the same class three or four times, and learn from one's mistakes each time. At the time he told me this, I was in a degree required course that this person was teaching for the first time, so was certainly at the receiving end of this "theory". This was coming from a person who had taught for at least 10 or 15 years at various universities, and should have had his teaching skills down pat. The course was still clunky, and still needed improvement. I'm wondering if there's any getting away from that?

However, you're absolutely correct. Generally, composition jobs are the jobs available to MFA students, so these students need to be prepared for them. I know that coming out of the program, even with the training I received, I was probably not as prepared to teach as I should have been. I've also been on the other side of this formula, in both of my graduate schools, receiving "education" from professors who really should not have been teaching, and did not teach anything; one teacher was so bad that students organized a protest against them. So I can absolutely appreciate the predicament of a student caught in a class where the teacher is not qualified to do their job. At that point, I truly believe the student still has options, whether it be transferring to another class, working with the Dean or Department Head, etc.

On the other hand, as a teacher, I still wonder if some of the burden can't fall on the school systems that graduates these students. Having taught in three different schools in the area, the disparity between different systems, or even different schools with in the same system, are disturbing. Also, some of the approaches to English education in the highschools are equally as appalling. This certainly is not to put the blame there, but to consider whether or not the college professor is having difficulty because they lack the background, or because the students simply aren't ready for college, community, four year or otherwise.

John "JC" Burroughs said...

I've been thinking a lot lately about pursuing an MFA - so I find this rather in-depth discussion interesting. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

not being in the education system at the moment, i also find this interesting. especially since a while back, a fairly reputable, locally-based author, who holds an MFA herself, told me that an MFA is a waste of time and money. she told me that if you want to write, write. but if you want to teach, get an MFA, because you won't be taught how to write by going for your MFA.

still don't know if i agree or disagree, but i thought it was an interesting take.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure there are some people involved students or instructors with the neomfa who read this blog.

Maybe they have a good reason for structuring their program without any teaching classes.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau