Teaching and the MFA

view from Joshua Tree Natl ParkIt says something that one of the most popular posts on this blog is What Are You Going To Do With An MFA? Namely, that there are a lot of people out there who are looking for answers to that question… So in need of answers are they that they google the question, which lands (at least some of them) here on a regular basis.

It should be said that I don’t have the answers, I was only musing about my possibilities and letting off some steam about the incessant questions I was getting about my future. And here I am, a year and a half later, still musing. (And still getting questions about my future.)

Earning an MFA was a great experience, but for me (and I think for a lot of others), finishing the degree brought about an instant personal conflict that had been held off, with the help of student loans, for two or three years. The conflict comes down to this:

I have to make a living.
I want to keep writing and get published.

As most MFA grads know, it can be difficult to balance those two needs, because of lack of time (due to working full-time), or lack of creative energy (due to the demands of working full-time), or both.

Since earning my MFA I’ve tried freelance writing and I’ve tried a full-time reporting job. The full-time gig, while it paid better than the freelance, filled me with panic over my lack of time to write. I felt all that creativity I had rediscovered during my MFA program slipping away, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to end up back where I’d begun before I started the program in the first place. So I quit. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about what do next.

I’m still taking the patchwork approach that I thought I might a year and a half ago. A little freelance writing here, a little freelance editing there. And now, I’ve begun looking into teaching.

I did not teach during my MFA program, for a variety of mostly logistical reasons, and now I feel ill-prepared to do so. There’s this idea that teaching writing is the prescribed career path for MFAs, but a lot of MFA students don’t have the opportunity to gain this experience during the course of their programs. Without decent, or enough, publication credits and no experience it can be tough to swing a job teaching writing at the college level. Most job ads ask for several years of teaching experience… but how to get this experience?

-Author Michelle Richmond has a helpful post about her experience landing teaching jobs and suggestions for getting your foot in the door.

There are a few other resources I’ve found on the web for MFA grads looking into teaching, but not as many as I would have thought.

Practicing Writing lists some post-MFA job-hunting resources here.

This article on the MFA weblog lays it all out, no punches pulled. Sigh. It also suggests, for a slightly more hopeful outlook regarding teaching in academia, going on to earn a Ph.D.

I’m iffy about the continuing-with-school options. On the one hand, usually more school = more debt. And that’s the last thing MFA grads need. On the other … maybe it helps, I don’t know. There are also shorter post-MFA teaching certificate programs out there (for example), which again, seem like a good way to acquire more debt … Do they work? Do they help when looking for teaching jobs? Are they worth it? I’d be curious to know.

I am, in fact, looking into taking a couple of classes locally in order to gain some experience/preparation for teaching, but also to potentially get my foot in the door at the school where those classes are offered. It seems like this path is all about persistence and connections, just like most others that MFA grads walk.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching and the MFA

  1. My MFA program, thankfully, had a great curriculum for teaching writing (focused primarily on teaching at community colleges, with some relevancy to high school)–and there were a good number of TAships. I took a course on teaching writing, and had a practicum at a community college, and then ended up as a Head TA my 2nd year, and then in my 3rd year, I had the opportunity to TA the graduate level teaching writing course.

    So if you want some advice, I can help you out–just reach out to me. I’ve got some connections, too–though yes, you may have to start out by volunteering in a classroom, or doing a “practicum” (interning for free).

    It’s a mixed bag, teaching and writing. You don’t have nearly as much time to write as you think–and the first 1-2 years is very intense, getting ramped up with teaching and lesson plans and such. I guess you have summers off, though.

  2. I had similar concerns when I was an MFA student at a school which, at the time, offered nothing along those lines. I ended up doing what jadepark suggests and volunteered to teach writing in an after school program, which then led to a workshop gig. Some things intervened and I didn’t continue down that path, but I still ponder it sometimes…

  3. With your qualifications, you could easily land a job teaching English at a local private school. You do not need a credential, just a bachelor’s degree. Your MFA would be a bonus for them. You wouldn’t have had to publish any books, either. It is, however, more work than you probably realize. Now that I don’t teach anymore, I read or write letters in cafes on the weekend and see my former teaching colleagues spending their weekends grading stacks and stacks of essays. Exhausting work. You also have to accept that if you’re going to teach writing well, your kids will need to write every day in their journals and so on, and you will have to read that stuff pretty often, i.e, more frequently than just on weekends.

    However, many private schools have limited budgets and often hire people to teach just one or two classes, a part time gig that means you wouldn’t have as heavy a load of grading. At one teaching job I amazingly had two paid readers who read and commented on kids’ papers. That’s unlikely to happen to you.

    I think that would be a good way for you to explore teaching. One school I worked at had a one-year teaching intern program where they gave you several classes to teach, a minimal salary, and lots of feedback. If you look around and learn a little about the local market for teachers (just as you would for writing publications) you might find something good for you. Public schools tend to be hidebound and bureaucratic, so it’s harder to get a flexible job there, and the classes are bigger. When I taught public school I had 150 students and that was far too many essays to read. Mix that with trying to explain Shakespeare to them and well… it was tough.

    A part-time job for one year or so would give you a taste of teaching and see if it suits you.

    If you want to talk to some of my former colleagues about it, just let me know. I will point you towards some cool people.

  4. Thanks for all the comments/encouragement/suggestions, everyone.

    I didn’t mean for this post to sound discouraged or discouraging but I suppose it does, a little.

    I’m still considering my options and what I want to do. I’ll keep you posted!

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