Friday, April 28, 2006

The Columbia MFA

It seems that not everyone is happy about the MFA degree in creative writing which is offered by Columbia University in New York.

Mark Slouka, who describes himself as a 'second-generation Columbian' (which presumably means he's an alumnus) is also a professor in the department of English language and literature and the chair of the creative-writing program at the University of Chicago. So he probably knows what he's talking about. And he has absolutely nothing kind to say about the Columbia approach to teaching writing (link from Maud Newton).

Slouka calls the Columbia MFA 'a self-perpetuating cycle of mediocrity', and refers, for instance, to:
...master’s theses that are routinely passed despite the fact that the level of writing exhibited in them is remedial at best and virtually illiterate at worst, tenure-track hires of close personal friends of the chair who have, quite literally, not a single publication credit to their names and who are hired over candidates with two and three books — resulting in a situation in which students often have more experience and more publications than their instructors, and an institutional culture in which those who have done nothing for 10 or 15 years hire others like themselves in order to make their own lack of accomplishment less visible.

And as if that's not enough, Felicia Sullivan, a graduate of the course, adds her own endorsement of the article:

'A -fucking-MEN. The comic highlight of my year? A letter from Columbia asking me to donate money to the MFA program and its students. Are you kidding me?! I wish I could have gotten some of my money back from some of the incompetent professors who i’ve suffered classes with...

Golly. Crumbs. Who would have guessed that a creative-writing degree would be taught by people who've never done anything much, and be an expensive waste of the students' time? Hard to believe really, isn't it? Although such opinions have been voiced before.


archer said...

an institutional culture in which those who have done nothing for 10 or 15 years hire others like themselves in order to make their own lack of accomplishment less visible.

How long's this terrible thing been going on?

ivan said...

Many years ago, I attended an MFA programme at a satellite campus of the University of California.

Found the teaching at a high level, thugh the internecine fighting was fierce.
Instructors and guest profs were impressive, Vance Packard, Bob Sommerlott, Robert Scott (nonfiction).
It was when some squabble between faculty and Irvine developed that UC finally withdrew its accreditation.
Bad luck, since I as a published writer had been pressganged to teach.
At least UC had the integrity not to put up with second-rate teaching, and when it came to doubt, there was clout."You're all fired, and we're pulling out."
Hope it wasn't my teaching.

Jillian said...

I would venture to say that this level of mediocrity exists on a grand scale, in writing and in many other areas of study, in colleges and universities nationwide.

I have a degree in music from a liberal arts college. I had a poetry course which consisted of a hung-over professor stumbling in, handing out copies of poems, and telling us what they meant, line by line. Good thing I brought my morning coffee with me to class.

MFA Gordon said...

this is weird because the visual arts MFA at columbia is so well respected. but with gradschool you never know.

Anonymous said...

This is hogwash. Columbia is one of the best programs in the country. Most of the professors are exceptional, insightful, hardworking and personable. Slouka, btw, wasn't one of them. He never returned our essays, picked favorites and ignored the others. Several of my classmates, along with myself, have books coming out this year. We publish more books than any program other than Iowa. People just love to slam programs that are successful.

Anonymous said...

langston huooos lived near columbia

u r racist gaf

Anonymous said...

It's not just the writing divison, the whole MFA program is a joke. A very expesive and spoiled joke. Every "artist" in the visual arts division gets their own Studio! Thats right in a city where every sqaure foot is precious, they dedicate entire floors of buildings for the MFA studnts to drinbk beer and get high in. It's a shame. If you have the choice, go elsewhere. or use the money to make art on your own, they aint gonna teach you a thing. :(

Anonymous said...


I am a student who was accepted into Columbia and possibly planning to in the Fall of 2007 --- this blog definitely disturbs me --- I don't want to waste my time and money in a mediocre program --- is there anyone out there who can give some up-to-date feedback on Columbia, someone who has graduated recently or who is currently attending? I would much appreciate it!

Columbia Fiction MFA '08 said...

While I am, admittedly, in a highly subjective position, I will still attempt to maintain objectivity and eludicate some of the concerns that have been aired here.

Obviously, the program is expensive. The question here is whether or not the investment is worth it.

I am betting that it is, and I am taking out the loans necessary to finance that bet. So here, if you'll forgive me, is where I spit out a bunch of information to support why I feel that way:

-Recently Poets and Writers did an article about the Top 5 programs -- Columbia was placed in that group.

-One of my classmates (non-fiction) was just published in the 2006 Best American Series (Nonrequired Reading).

-One of our recent alums ('99) won the Man Booker Prize.

-Richard Ford is teaching a class next semester.

-Philip Roth is giving a lecture in two weeks.

-I have classmates who are working or interning for Esquire, The New Yorker, The Believer, 92nd St Y, the list goes on...

And all this in addition to what I feel is the most important thing -- that there are some absolutely fantastic professors who have helped my writing immensely. Yes, the program is expensive and yes, there are some mediocre students -- that's present in any art school or liberal arts program, for that matter. The thing is, there is clearly talent in the program and equally important, opportunity. And if you're the kind of person who makes it his/her point to go out and take advantage of those opportunities this program as good a place in any.

Finally, the claim that the MFA as an institution is "a joke" is simply ludicrous. Check out your favorite author's bios. Chances are most of them went to programs whether you realized it or not. Certainly there are exceptions to the rule, but seriously -- how can you dismiss "MFA products" such as Raymond Carver or Denis Johnson or Flannery O'Connor as a joke? How do you expect to learn how to write if not from teachers? And if you say "life", please -- life doesn't teach you how to write, the only thing it gives you is stories and characters to write about.

R.T. said...

I disagree with above can't be "taught" to write. You have it, or you don't. You can develop your writing, you can get better at it, you can expand your vocabulary. But everyone and their mother it seems, more and more, is writing a book/has written a book/published a very bad book. And some asshole told them to do it because they told them they could write. There are very few Faulkners and Fitzgeralds in the world.

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