In the mid-1970s, when I was young and even more ignorant of the ways of the world than I am today, I learned that it was becoming necessary to have completed an MFA to get a paid position in the arts world. This struck me as ridiculous, a sheepskin standing in for actual work created. After all, I’d gotten the joke—when the Scarecrow starts spouting mathematics on being presented a diploma—of The Wizard of Oz by the time I was five.
Yesterday, I read an article by Lorraine Berry on Literary Hub that includes this:
Last year, I went to a writing conference in Boston. One of the first panel discussions was about how a writer claims authority, how it is that a writer asserts that he or she possesses the expertise to write about a topic, and how concomitantly the editor reading through the submission slush pile can determine whether the writer is someone who can claim authority as a writer.
One of the panelists, an editor, offered that the first thing he looked for when skimming through the cover letter was whether the writer possessed an MFA. He did this, he hastened to qualify, not because it guaranteed that the submitter would be a better writer, but because taking a year or two off out of one’s life to dedicate oneself to writing proved that one was serious as a writer.
As an editor myself, I understand the necessity of making quick and, of necessity, sometimes wrong decisions based on almost arbitrary standards. Often, given the volume of submissions and time restraints, it is impossible to give each submission adequate attention. At the same time, however, I understand Berry’s point and share the anger she goes on to describe. Though Academe is directed at faculty—and though I want it (and the blog) to be primarily written by faculty—I do not use possession of an advanced degree as a criterion in my decision-making.
One of the reasons for that—and this is the real point of Berry’s article—is that we have a class system in academia (though she is focusing specifically on literature) and I don’t want to promote its continuation if I don’t have to. Berry resonates Virginia Woolf who, near the end of A Room of One’s Own, writes:
great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so–I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals–and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come.
What Berry, like Woolf, knows is that the opportunity rarely comes—still. Few but the elite (those who have been given that “five hundred a year… and rooms of our own”) have been provided the necessity for art. Or for education, particularly the advanced education rewarded with university diplomas. Berry writes, and I find this true but extraordinarily said, that:
very little has been explicitly articulated about the exclusion of the great American underclass, that perpetually poor group on the bottom tier of society that includes all races/genders/creeds. And as we winnow out opportunities for art about poverty, we lose so much potential for change.
I think about this every time I read something about today’s “coddled” college students. Those attempting to earn degrees on my campus certainly are not: Most of them work or have families or come to college from backgrounds of poverty or cultures where American-style higher education was never even a consideration. They, I think, represent a huge percentage of those students in America pursuing higher education—yet they, I know, are not who we (as a country) are thinking of when we talk about today’s college students.
Berry illustrates her point by talking about internships. Students where she teaches have a range of options—but the extent of that range depends on financial resources. The best internships, career wise, are in big cities like New York, but they pay poorly and life there is expensive. Not even my Brooklyn students can afford to take such internships, for the most part, for the reduction in income would be devastating. These stepping stones become impossible to reach.
We need to be careful what we talk about when we talk about college students. Sometimes, we let our assumptions carry us away. We do little more than confirm both stereotypes and class divides and nothing to improve the learning possibilities and career opportunities of students not supported by the resources of the elite.