The MFA program has been under a lot of scrutiny lately. It seems like it always is. People like to discuss the merits of creative arts schooling to death. But a few days ago The New Yorker ran an excerpt from a Junot Diaz article, titled “MFA vs. POC,” in which the professor and Pulitzer Prize winner calls out MFA programs for their unflinching “whiteness.”
He chronicles his experience as an MFAer at Cornell, an experience he doesn’t look back on fondly. “I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here…That shit was too white.” Anyone who’s ever done an MFA can relate to this fight-or-flight moment. An MFAer is always one step away from a major existential breakdown. Trust me, I’ve had about five since I started this sentence. Such is the way.
But Diaz’s real issue is one that continues to plague American MFA programs: Where are my minorities at?
“…my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all.”
I’ve spent the last three years of my life in grad school. I’ve never paid for school. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive full funding for both my graduate degrees. Sometimes the fact that I am not paying for this education makes me feel like I don’t have the right to complain. But I promptly tell these thoughts to fuck off and complain anyway.
(Obviously) Diaz isn’t wrong. In fact, he’s painfully right. Of the three writing schools I’ve attended, two of those have 100% white faculties (predominantly male), while the other has exactly one POC. But what about the student body?
“I guess I assumed that a graduate program full of artists dedicated to seeing beyond the world’s masks would be better on the race front—that despite all my previous experience with white-majority institutions the workshop would be an exception… In those days I must have needed that little fantasy.”
Diaz’s “little fantasy” about the minority-populated workshop is still a fantasy to many. As an undergrad, I was the only ethnically marked poet in a room of six or eight. During my MA, I was one of two out of nine. As a current MFAer, I am one of five in a program of 17. This doesn’t discredit the true talent and support I have found in these rooms, however predominantly white they are. But you can’t help but feel like the poster child or flag bearer for ethnicity when you take stock.
But I take issue with Diaz’s approach to the “too-white” problem. I don’t believe the answer to unpleasant MFA experiences is a) not going to them, or b) creating more exclusive communities, like his multi-genre workshop, The Voices of Our Nation Workshop.
“Something right out of my wildest MFA dreams, where writers of colors could gather to develop our art in a safe supportive environment. Where our ideas, critiques, concerns, our craft and, above all, our experiences would be privileged rather than marginalized; encouraged rather than ignored; discussed intelligently rather than trivialized. Where our contributions were not an adjunct to Literature but its core.”
This is lovely and all but it’s not the answer. The answer is to use your privilege and status as Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz to put pressure on institutions to balance attendance at universities, design diverse curriculums, and expose students to material outside of their white wheelhouses. VONA is a fine workshop but there’s more at stake here than the very important task of preserving conversations about race.
Segregating these conversations within the communities that are already interested in having these conversations doesn’t create change. It’s letting institutions off the hook. It’s not creating an opportunity for white writers to engage with ethnically marked writing. It’s saying there is a time and a place for this kind of thinking and that place is Summer Minority Camp.
Do I share Diaz’s general frustrations? Yes. Do they make me want to quit? No. I have a whole list of reasons why I would want to quit an MFA program that doesn’t include “This shit’s too white.” I don’t quit because quitting doesn’t solve the problem. Quitting enhances the problem by further eradicating minority bodies from educational institutions. Quitting also potentially bars me from communities that publish and organize, communities that can feel out of reach when you’re not in school, communities that in the long run could help you—Joe POC Schmo—land teaching jobs.
But Diaz didn’t quit either. He graduated in 1995, but not before fielding questions about his use of Spanish in his work. Unlike Diaz, I’ve never had anyone question the Spanish in my work. They know not to ask. That might be because that particular group of people “got it” or because it’s 2014, not 1995. I think it’s also important to take my appearance into consideration. I can “pass” for white—I am very pale—and I have no distinguishable accent—growing up on a steady diet of Roseanne and Saved by the Bell will do that to a girl. Has this determined how I’ve been treated or how my experiences have unfolded? Probably. Most likely. My presence doesn’t scream “ethnicity.” It doesn’t make white people aware of their own whiteness.
The all-too-white problem also creeps into supplementary reading material. In grad school you’re taught to have lenses, lenses fashioned exclusively by dead white guys (usually from Frankfurt). And so there’s a general sense of “white men know best” when you enter these institutions. Sure, you can turn to a myriad other disciplines (feminism, queer theory, disability studies, etc.), but Marx and Foucault and Derrida and Hegel will haunt your dreams, in both literal and spectral ways. What about creative work? Well, there’s the men’s varsity team (the Wallace Stevens, O’Haras, and Ashberys of the world), the women’s league (e.g. Plath, Sexton, and Olds), and then we finally get to the WOCs (maybe some Baraka, maybe some Anzaldúa). Those are the three tiers many schools peddle. And so it’s up to the student to cover other bases. Students have the opportunity to do independent studies, to craft their own challenging curriculum. We shouldn’t have to do this in order to get a well-rounded education, but until these structures start resisting the urge to whitewash and canonize, it’s on us to make our privileged education mean something.
This change has to start with how we cast our institutions. We have to move away from the default image of The Professor: the straight, white, able-bodied male. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t ever be employed or that they are useless. (Some of my best friends are straight, white, able-bodied dudes!) And of course you can find white professors engaged in movements and aesthetics outside of their own skin color (I certainly have). But the fact remains: these programs are eternally, dominantly, lily white.
In the end, I’m exhausted by all of these articles either celebrating or demonizing the MFA program. Of course they’re problematic. You’re telling people HOW to write. You’re funneling a general sense of aesthetic into the hankering mouths of fledgling writer babes. You’re making value judgments according to marketability and personal interest. You’re—intentionally or unintentionally—furthering hegemonic value systems.
But it is also a place to build communities, to find support groups, to read more than you’ve ever read, to access “real world” resources, to take in disciplines you would’ve never encountered by yourself, to genuinely alter people’s way of thinking, to become better educators.
I’ve had great experiences, but I’ve also had toxic ones like Diaz: workshops where people shit all over your shitty writing because it makes them feel better about their own shitty writing. I’ve been rooted for and against. And it has all felt necessary and important because I look forward to the day when I, The Professor, can preside over that long workshop table and hear radically diverse voices and see radically diverse bodies and identities while teaching a radically diverse syllabus. This is why my schooling means something to me, because of what it could some day mean.
I’m curious to hear what fellow POCs have experienced in their recent MFA programs. Is this resistance to the conversation of race apparent in your classrooms? Are you overtly regarded differently? Do you feel silenced? Are you the lone “ethnic” ranger in your program? Tell us.