The other day I got an email from my dad, which among other conversation included the comment: “Mom says you only have three classes per week.”
To which I replied: “What are you implying?”
It’s a pretty common thing, right? The constant back and forth about who has more work to do and which disciplines have it easy. I even experienced this at the undergraduate level. “What? You’re studying English. You don’t have to worry about your grades at all.”
But I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the humanities because they require more subjective standards to measure success. The demand for critical and original thinking is the same. If science courses tend to have more numeric standards for scoring, well, that’s in part the nature of the beast.
Which isn’t to say that science is easy either. It’s not. More the point is that you’re really comparing apples to oranges to kumquats when you talk about the sciences vs. the humanities vs. the arts. The standards for success simply don’t translate.
Of course, this kind of laying out and measuring only gets worse as you continue up the Ivory Tower. Pain and suffering is currency on the graduate level. I.e. The more you have to work, the more you have to sacrifice time, energy, and personal hygiene to said work, the more serious your discipline is. And by extension, the more worthwhile and validated your endeavors as a student are.
If you haven’t guessed already, Creative Writing is often regarded as a long way off from serious.
That idea might bother me. But it really doesn’t.
Mostly because it seems . . . well, silly to feel bad about the fact that I get to read, write, and talk about literature more or less exclusively for two years. It’s fun (usually), it’s rewarding, and we do put a lot of hours in, believe it or not.
If you’re wondering what exactly an MFA entails on a weekly basis in terms of work, I can give you an idea based on my own habits. I’ll even throw in some numbers for you quantitatively inclined folk.
First of all, your average MFA student has an assistantship, which requires 20 hours of work per week. Most of my classmates in the first year work in offices. I personally work for the graduate school as the editor of their biannual newsletter (see: working from home is awesome). Typically these positions cover our tuition, health insurance, and living expenses. In the second year, the opportunities are a little more varied. Some people work on the program’s publication, others teach intro level composition courses or tutor in the school’s Writing Center. Still, we all have the same part-time commitment.
In addition, first year students spend 9-12 hours in class per week, depending on their course selection. At the moment, I’m enrolled in two workshops, a craft class, and a tutorial. For every hour we spend in class, of course, we spend at least an additional 4-6 hours preparing for said class. In workshop, this entails not just producing original work but reading and commenting on our peers’ efforts, as well as reading assigned published works for discussion.
How does an MFA student go about commenting on a work? Your average piece of prose turned in for workshop is 20 pages, which takes me about an hour to read carefully. But one read is hardly sufficient to write good commentary (generally a single-spaced 1-2 pg. thoughtful and tactfully written letter). For each piece I receive for class, I do an initial quick read, a second read for line edits and in-text notes, and a third final read for me to formulate my thoughts on a piece. The letter takes an additional hour. It’s a process I like to spread out over a few days, which doesn’t allow for pre-class cramming.
And as graduate students, we are expected to pay a similar amount of attention to assigned texts. This semester, for instance, in addition to short stories assigned week-to-week, we’ll be reading ten novels and six nonfiction books. I’m genuinely looking forward to that part, but it will also be time-consuming. Thoughtful reading is.
Officially, we have other time commitments, of course, such as full participation in program events. On average, we have a reading every other week — this semester more so, as the second years will be doing their thesis readings starting in February.
But beyond that, of course, there is the expectation of doing more. Because that’s the real mark of graduate level work, isn’t it? Having the self-discipline to work independently on your writing or your research or whatever it is that brings you back to school in the first place.
So even I’m not in class, working, doing homework, or attending a program event, I’m still expected to be doing a fair amount of writing and reading on my own. Which I do. This amounts to approximately one first draft or revision and two books per week in addition to be previously mentioned requirements.
So even if the arts are difficult to quantify, I hope this gives you a sense of what an MFA can entail. I’m not arguing that it’s harder or better or any of the above. But it does keep me fully occupied and engaged and I certainly wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was worth the time we put in. Because we do put in time.