Another thought on Grad School Funding: Ask Your Boss!

This past week, I spent at #AWP15, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual convention. There, I got lots of valuable information and had a great time running into writers I know from the Welty Symposium or from AWPs past. More on that in a later post, I hope! What I wanted to mention before I get to any of the fun stuff, was a bit of advice I gleaned about paying for grad school.

This came from a panel on Low-Residency MFA programs like our new one, where the directors were lamenting the fact that most low-res programs can’t offer the levels of financial aid that full residency programs offer. They don’t have as many scholarships, as a general rule, and the practicalities of having distance-learning students work as teaching assistants makes this less common (though we’re hoping to do this with at least one or two people next year).

One advantage that Low-Residency students have, though, is that they usually are employed! This means they can pay more towards their education right away, and it means that they have a resource most typical students don’t have: an employer!

Several low-residency directors noted that their students receive financial aid from their employers, and that these employers are not always in writing-related fields. One director told of a young woman who worked in a warehouse (if I remember correctly), and who got a scholarship simply because the company wanted to promote education. It’s one fringe benefit that many companies have, either out of altruism or because the company wants to keep employees who are driven to improve themselves, regardless of whether the skills have an immediate application to their current jobs.

As an aside, I had an interesting, somewhat related conversation with one of our alums yesterday. She gave up a career in teaching English (after deciding teaching 8th graders wasn’t her calling!) and went into business. Her skills as an English major were invaluable to her throughout a distinguished career in marketing and management. I’m reminded of this because a company might be able to use your skills developed in grad work in English, writing, or another field, in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. More bosses understand this than you might imagine (and some may have been in your shoes at one point in their lives).

So, when looking for financial aid, if you are employed and especially if you can stay with the company while you’re in school, don’t overlook the closest source of funding you may have: your boss! Ask politely whether there is a policy about continuing education for employees. The company may not fund your full degree (though it might), but it could make it a little easier for you with a partial scholarship. Be open with your employer about your plans and your needs in a low-residency program (or in a nearby full residency program, if that is your plan). At the very least, your boss may be able to work with you with flex-time or other options that can make it more manageable to juggle graduate school and a job.

And don’t think your employer has to be in a related field or that your job in the company has to be a high-end position in order for you to be eligible. It doesn’t hurt to ask! I would suggest having a plan to combine work and study, so that if there is any resistance to the idea, you can show how your educational goals will not get in the way of you doing your job. Most employers will be supportive, and some, maybe more than you think, will actively support your goals with some funding.

How to Afford Grad School

First, a disclaimer! As anyone who reads this blog can tell you, I am not a financial planner. My idea of debt management is not to go into debt. Seriously. My only major loan was on our house. I pay off my credit cards and have never had a car loan. I thank my parents for much of that, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation for the rest. My parents paid for my undergraduate education (and it wasn’t cheap), and a Mellon Fellowship paid for all but two years of my graduate school — a teaching assistantship and a Fulbright fellowship took care of the rest. So when it comes to funding graduate school if you don’t have a great fellowship, I’m no expert. That’s why I’ve been doing some research.

If you are going into a career with prospects of a lucrative profession upon graduation, then it makes sense to invest in your graduate education by taking out loans. If, on the other hand, you’re going into creative writing or one of the many other rewarding graduate tracks that should make you more marketable, but can’t promise a huge salary (not that those aren’t possible), then going into debt is a riskier proposition. Always remember that the longer you owe, the more you’ll pay, and interest generally begins to accrue while you’re in school, even before you’re required to pay off your loans. The less principal (money you can actually use) you have to take out, the less interest will pile up. So try to find ways to minimize the amount you need to borrow up front, and try to pay down the principal (pay more than the minimum payment) as soon as you can to cut the overall cost of your loans.

Many graduate students typically receive some form of financial assistance from their school. This can come in the form of a scholarship, but more likely will be in the form of an assistantship—either assisting with a graduate faculty member’s research or with teaching a class. Often a teaching assistant begins by leading discussions and doing some grading, but isn’t in charge of a full class. Then after a year or so, an assistant instructor may have complete responsibility for an undergraduate class. Don’t be fooled. This is work! It’s not easy money, but it is a job that is tied to your educational goals, and you learn as much by teaching as you will in your other classes.

If you are in a low-residency program, like the W’s new MFA in Creative Writing, then teaching opportunities may be limited. We’re a small university, after all, and we don’t have a ton of extra sections of classes to cover. Students in our program are not on campus, so there are even fewer sections that would be offered online, and it takes more expertise to teach online than it does to teach in the classroom, since you have to manage the online environment while you’re learning to teach your class. We are planning to offer some teaching assistantships, but those will be fairly limited for now. We ought to have some scholarships available as well, but again those will be limited. Often low-residency programs don’t offer a lot in financial aid, since the expectation is that their students will already be working and will do their degree on top of their regular job. So the first question before you apply may be whether you are ready, financially, to take that on. Here are some resources that might help you find the financial aid you need and make the decision whether you are financially ready to take on the expense of grad school.

If you’re applying to MUW’s Graduate programs, don’t forget to fill out an application for Graduate Scholarships and one for Graduate Assistantships, if you want to be considered for these opportunities. This needs to be done each semester that you are enrolled. These forms can be found on our program’s page on How to Apply.

Southern Literary Festival 2015

The campus of University of North Georgia in Dahlonega made an excellent venue for this year’s Southern Literary Festival, and our small group from Mississippi University for Women had an excellent time. It was our school’s Homecoming, so only three students were able to get away.

The Festival was very well run, and everything went off without a hitch, as far as I could tell. Highlights for our group were the Third Place awards for the literary contest, since MUW student, Tamara Rutledge from Reform, AL, won one of the awards. The other prize sessions were also excellent, and confirmed just how high the competition is in the contest — each of 20-some schools submits the top two entries in their campus contests to the main festival competition, so everyone involved in the contest at that point has gone through a rigorous selection process. We were also thrilled this year to have our student literary magazine, edited by Mark Burr and Kristi Ezernack with Sarah Barrett as designer, selected for second place.

Other highlights for me were the poetry sessions, especially Sandra Meek and Karen Head, who both gave excellent readings, and I also had a chance to hear featured writers Tony Grooms and Frances Mayes read from new and published work. I was especially interested to hear parts of two new manuscripts by Tony Grooms (author of Bombingham) and to hear Mayes accounts of her new memoir about growing up in Georgia and her discussion of moving to Italy and integrating into the village where she bought the house that is featured in Under the Tuscan Sun. Sandra Meek is a poet I’ve admired for quite some time, and Karen Head’s discussion of digital poetry was especially apropos as I am thinking of the Writing for New Media class. Many other good ideas came out of these sessions, and our students enjoyed masterclasses on fiction, writing for young adults, and playwriting.

For me, one of the highlights is getting together with colleagues from around the regions. Discussions with Mike Smith and Don Allan Mitchell from Delta State, Beth Spence from Ole Miss, Nick Norwood from Columbus State, Jennifer Kates of Middle Tennessee State (next year’s host school) and her students, John Glass of UT Martin, and Carol Westcamp and Christian Gerard of University of Arkansas Ft. Smith (who will host in 2017 and put out the anthology of prize winners next year). I also got to talk with a few of the authors, and I’m probably leaving a few people out. And of course, I come home with a few new books and copies of the anthology.

And finally, hanging out with Tamara, Katy, and Rain, learning about the sessions they went to and talking informally about school, writing, etc. over dinner or between sessions was also fun. This year, they decided to take their own vehicle, which gave them a little more flexibility on what to do and may have allowed for a little more sight-seeing. This meant there wasn’t a 6-hour drive for extended conversation (or sleep for all who weren’t driving, which sometimes happens, esp. on the drive home). But we all made it through Atlanta traffic and were reminded of the advantages of living in a less urban area (a sentiment echoed by many of the other faculty I talked with).

There’s a lot of good energy with the Southern Literary Festival these days. Dana Carpenter (former Executive Director) and Beth Spencer (former c0-director and now executive director) have done a lot of great work to keep that energy going, and I’ll be doing a little more of that, now that I’ve been elected co-executive director (whereas previously I’ve been a member of the executive board, since MUW hosted in 2010). Delta State and UT Martin are both interested in hosting sometime in the near future, and MUW will likely take its turn again relatively soon as well. We’re always looking for more member schools, too.

ATT’s Strong-Arm Tactics

Today I was surprised to come home for lunch and find the following error message when I tried to browse online:

Important Message                      NRCM

Your Internet access, including any VoIP services that utilize your Internet connection, has been temporarily suspended.
Please call us as soon as possible!

We have sent you a number of notifications about an important network upgrade to AT&T U-verse High Speed Internet service for your area.

You need to contact us to have your access restored and set up an appointment to have the necessary equipment installed in your home for the upgrade.

Please call 1.877.377.1686 at the times listed below:
8am – 7pm Local Time Monday through Friday    8am – 5pm Local Time Saturday    Closed on Sunday

It is important that we hear from you so that your current high speed Internet service is not disconnected on the date provided
in your notifications.

As you might expect, I was shocked and pretty PO’d at these strong-arm tactics. Yes. we’d received what we considered junk mail solicitations to switch to U-verse from our current DSL. This would mean a disruption in our service, figuring out a new wireless configuration in our home, and possible added cost with no benefit other than possibly faster internet speeds. (Note to ATT, maybe if you actually provided the internet speeds we pay for on a consistent basis, we’d believe your promise of faster speeds with U-verse). Like most junk mail, we ignored them. After all, we pay our bills, so why would they suspend our service?

It’s pretty reprehensible that they did. Yes, we were warned, though we never took the warnings that seriously, and in fact we had good reason not to. We called the number, and were told we needed our account number from our bill. Since we use auto-pay, we don’t get a bill. We couldn’t even access a recent email with that information. So the initial call ended in frustration. We had no internet and no way of providing the information we needed to restore it. We had done nothing wrong, yet our service was interrupted (not cancelled, of course).

Fortunately, when my wife, whose name is on the account, called back, the person she talked to that time was able to use her name and social security number to update the account. This operator also revealed that DSL service, which I had been told would be discontinued in our area, probably wouldn’t be discontinued for another year or two. We certainly have enough time to make our decision of whether we want to switch to U-verse or find another option. ATT’s tactics of turning off our service just to get us to call when there apparently isn’t a rush to make a decision don’t make us very happy customers. We’ve had consistent phone and broadband service at this address with BellSouth and then ATT for over 15 years. That’s no way to treat loyal customers, if you ask me.

We have two main issues with switching to U-verse. One is that we use internet constantly for work and for personal communication, so we don’t want an interruption (and really didn’t appreciate losing an hour out of our day to sort this out today!), so IF we decide to change our configuration, we’ll want to do it at a time when we won’t be using it heavily and when we can test out and deal with any incompatibilities that will undoubtedly arise. The other issue is cost. Yes, they make it sound like it will be cheaper, and for the first year it will be. But after that the charges go up, and there’s a $7 a month charge for a wifi router that we don’t want or need. Though we do need a modem or gateway for broadband, we have a wireless router that we’re happy with, so why should we be forced to use one provided by ATT? Yet ATT seems intent on either driving us away or forcing us to use their U-verse service. It may be time to investigate alternatives.

Are All MFA Grads the Same?

This is a follow-up post to my last one about what a Creative Writing MFA should do for you. In the wake of describing some of the goals for MUW’s new low-residency MFA, I’ve been thinking about that old saw that MFA programs have ruined literature. The idea, which has been around almost as long as there’ve been MFAs, usually gets stated something like this: ‘Because workshop classes act as peer pressure groups and the strongest voices (most dominant personalities, not necessarily the best writers) usually win, the writing coming out of MFA programs is all alike. Professors teach students how to write one way, stronger students bully the others, and the one way becomes the norm. What writers need to do instead is to read copiously and to develop their own individual style outside the influence of group-think.’

These prophets of doom usually seem to privilege a Romantic idea of literature, where the writer is conceived as an individual genius who distinguishes himself (and I use the masculine pronoun intentionally because often this argument has sexist overtones) by his unique style. Some of the best critiques of this argument remind us that the idea of individuality in literature or any art form is a Romantic trope that bears little resemblance to reality and that has a relatively short history. Any writer owes much, not only to the other ‘great writers’ of her tradition, but also to the many writers around her or him, who often go ignored in a concept of literature that only privileges the ‘greats.’ Maybe being unique is not what makes one great, in other words, but recognizing and acknowledging the multiplicity of voices in literature is a better model for understanding its means of production.

That’s not to say that most writers don’t want to stand out from the pack and be acknowledged at some level for the excellence of their craft. But we still might acknowledge the role the pack has had in our formation. In this case, one pack might well be the MFA program or MFA culture, and ‘making it’ as part of that culture is no less valuable than ‘making it on your own,’ which often seems to be the implied argument.

Nonetheless, whether we see the creation of great literature as the product of individual genius or of a communal effort, I’m still left wondering about the role the MFA program, as I’ve tried to describe it, might play. If the goals of an MFA are to provide breadth and depth to the writer’s experience, then it seems to me that the idea, summarized above, that the workshop will somehow homogenize American writing, is essentially flawed. The goal to the workshop should not be to make everyone sound alike, but rather to cultivate respect and understanding of difference. I learn more from working with writers whose writing is radically different than my own than I would by working with writers who write like me. I test my ideas against writers who are different — no one has to win, but each will change as a result. Perhaps my writing will move in the opposite direction of my colleague’s as I become more assured that my way of writing is right for me (and the other writer may have the same experience in her direction). Perhaps we will both learn from each other and adapt some qualities of the other writer’s style to our own, but it should always be an adaptation, not a pure appropriation. Rather than homogenizing American literature, the MFA experience ought to enrich it.

One need only look around at current writing to see that it is far from homogenous. If MFA programs have attempted to act as cookie cutter assembly lines stamping out perfect copies of their teachers, then they have been a miserable failure. But I seriously doubt that has ever been the overarching design of the MFA. To those who fear that their individual style might be stamped out by the MFA workshop, I would say that your writing will change (why would you pay for a degree if you didn’t want your education to have an effect on you?) and you should embrace that change, but not because it will make you just like everyone else, rather as an opportunity to explore common ground at the same time that you stake your claim to difference. Let the views of other writers challenge you to delve the depths of your own writing habits and styles. Make the difficult choices required to make your writing the best you can make it, but with the confidence that it will still be your writing. Only your writing will be tempered from the experience in the sense of making it purer and stronger by passing it through fire.

What can (should) a Creative Writing MFA do for you?

As many people will tell you, you don’t need an MFA to be a good writer. Many writers, even since the MFA became ubiquitous, have proven that point (not to mention the greats that somehow managed it before MFAs existed). So why bother (or pay for) getting a degree?

The traditional wisdom used to be that since the MFA is a terminal degree, if you had one, it meant you could always teach at the college level. But that hasn’t been a given for quite awhile. For one reason, the reality always has been that to teach you needed an MFA and significant publications to be considered for a teaching gig. And AWP continues to maintain that significant publication ought to be considered the equivalent of an MFA (though I don’t know that I buy that argument entirely—there is something about learning about academic discourse and research that happens in an MFA or PhD program that you don’t get from writing on your own—but that’s a discussion for another time).

So if an MFA in writing isn’t necessary to be a writer and may not be a guarantee of becoming one (no MFA program I know of is brash enough to claim that it will be), what does a writer gain from entering a program besides 3 letters after her or his name? That’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot as I read applications from prospective students for our new low-residency MFA program: not only “what can they expect,” but also “what do we owe them.” I’ve seen some very good writing samples in recent weeks, some of which could be published as is. What might they gain from our program?

Breadth

One way to think about the value of a creative writing degree is in terms of breadth. We all do some things well, but exposure to other writers, both the writers teaching in the program and the other student writers, can present you with new possibilities you might not have considered before. Responding to other writers whose style differs from yours can push you to think differently about your own writing, not necessarily to adopt the other writer’s style, but to try something in that direction.

And of course the readings in forms and literature classes can also expose writers to new possibilities that might extend the range of writing you do, whether that is new subject matter or a new genre — in our program we encourage students to work in more than one genre and students will be exposed to other genres in the mixed-genre residency workshops. So a students sense of the range of possibilities open to them ought to be broadened by the time they’re done.

Depth

Besides learning about more kinds of writing, an MFA program should help you become more intentional and thoughtful about the kind of writing you are most familiar with. Someone with good instincts still becomes a better writer the more he or she is conscious of the craft decisions to be made. Discussions in workshops and reading in forms classes should complicate and clarify our understanding of forms we work in. The goal is to dig deeper and get more out of the story or poem idea that might be ‘good enough’ to be published, but could be better or more rewarding (for the reader and for the writer). Ultimately, the experience of writing a thesis will present the student with the opportunity to explore a subject extensively, both in the creative writing portion and the research component. A thesis involves a defense, and the the creative thesis should still involve a reading list of other creative work in the same vein, as well as theory about the genre or genres represented in the thesis. Defending the thesis based on the tradition out of which it emerges requires a deep understanding.

Either of these qualities (breadth or depth) are ones you could learn on your own through extensive reading or by cultivating a writing community that challenges you to push further and explore more options. But it can be hard to find that community or to broaden your reading habits on your own. An academic program should have these features (extensive reading and a diverse community) built in.

Practical Knowledge

Another thing that most MFA students hope to get out of their experience (and that therefore ought to be provided as much as possible) is an entry into the writing life: specifically, networking and advice on how to become published. Though no program should promise publication — much depends on the talent and drive of the writer, after all — any MFA should be conscientious about providing its students with the information and tools they need to be successful writers, and these tools include advice and information on the publishing industry. Recently the argument has been made that no one can know what will happen to publishing in the near future. Changes in the industry are happening at a rapid pace: the publishing houses that have been dominant may or may not survive and the way that they do business may change radically. Still that is no reason to throw up our hands and say we can’t prepare students for the future.

When I was in graduate school, I would have laughed if someone had told me I would someday be teaching online. In fact, at that point, the world wide web as we know it did not yet exist. AOL was starting, there was Gopher and ftp, but html was only beginning to catch on. And yet, the graduate education that I received allowed me to adapt to a changing instructional environment, and in a similar way, the skills that we teach our students now about the publishing world as we know it today, will help them navigate the publishing world of tomorrow. And as we bring in speakers to talk about the current state of publishing, or as we help students and former students begin to get their feet in those doors, we will also learn more about how things are changing. I may not be able to predict what the world will be like in five to ten years, but I can give students the skills and the confidence to  be able to navigate those changes successfully.

Besides practical knowledge of the publishing world, though, students in an MFA program should gain practical knowledge of other writing-related careers, whether that is within publishing as publicists, agents, editors, etc. or in other fields such as technical writing, public relations, writing for the web, etc. These forms of writing shouldn’t be presented as a fall0back position in case you fail to ‘make it’ in the literary world, but rather as ways to combine literary writing with earning a living. We hope to accomplish this through internships, courses on new media, and seminars during full residencies that focus on publishing and other writing-related careers.

An MFA program, in other words, may not be able to guarantee a teaching career or a career as best-selling writer to all of its students (when was that ever the case?), but it should see one of its responsibilities to its students as giving them the knowledge and skills they will need to earn a living, as well as the knowledge of craft they will need to produce great literature. Too often these are presented as an either/or option, when in fact students and programs should demand both.

AAA: Epic fail

Note: I posted the following comments on the AAA Facebook page, but the way they have it set up, those comment posts don’t get broadcast beyond their page, so all the complaints and some accounts of good service don’t have much effect in social media. So I decided to post my account of last night’s fun with AAA here.

Our faith in AAA is shaken after last night’s epic fail. Dead battery in parking garage at Huntsville airport, so I tried calling AAA. First I was on hold for 7 minutes until my cell phone cut out, then my wife was on hold with them almost as long, until my mother-in-law called and got through. The operator promised service within the hour (!?!), but the operator said she’d put a rush on it.

Half an hour later, they called to say it would be another 45 minutes, so I stayed on the line to talk to a person. On hold for another 10 minutes. The guy explained that they had called two companies, since the first declined the job (after ten minutes). Later, the second service guy called to say he couldn’t get to the 3rd level of the garage in his truck, WHICH WE HAD TOLD THE OPERATOR initially! Why they sent a truck that couldn’t get to us is beyond me. He was going to try to get someone in a vehicle that could reach us.

I finally went back into the deserted airport (it was late at night), found someone who helped me call security, and they were able to jump the car and get us on our way, no thanks to AAA!

One bright note: we were able to cancel the service call without sitting on hold. Now, will it be as easy to cancel our membership? The snafu with the service contractors might be a fluke, but the long hold times on a Saturday night are extremely disappointing. What’s the point in having roadside assistance if you’re stuck on the side of the road listening to some of the most annoying hold music and a recorded voice continually thanking me for my patience, which ran out long, long ago.

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