Directors with MFAs

Editor’s note: Dillon Tripp, of Jackson State Community College in Tennessee, recently started a Facebook group for writing center directors. Sharing snapshots of our careers, several of us noticed that there were a fair amount of directors with MFAs. I invited them to share more about their experience transitioning into the field after finishing their degree, the advantages their MFA has brought to their careers, and the challenges they face today. Some excerpts are below:

403124_10151107688881571_2037315856_nPATRICK HARGON
MFA in poetry, Colorado State U, 2000
Director at University of Nebraska at Kearney Learning Commons

The main connection that ties my former experimental poet days to my WCD days is simple: despair. But the good kind, the kind that propels. Writing forced me into places I never actually found my way out of–I’d draft a poem for two years before it started to mean something unified to me. I wanted the medium to do so much more than I could make it do, and I felt drawn to find out what lies “north of the future,” in Paul Celan’s language.

from https://twitter.com/LCommonsUNK/

from https://twitter.com/LCommonsUNK/

It is the labor and the discouragement that immediately bonds me to the students who come to the writing centers I’ve directed. I find myself tuned into gradations of readiness–are you ready to just abandon this draft and come at it from a more promising vantage point? Are you ready to gut this paragraph? The next one too? Those writers I feel the deepest kinship with, just as I did with my fellow agonizers in the MFA program. They despair, but they despair productively.

Then there’s students–and who could blame them?–who just want it to be right, correct, sanctioned. I’ve learned how to draw them beyond the problem-solution fixation–by asking questions about what they were really thinking when they wrote ____, by asking them what they want this sentence to DO for their larger goals of the paper, its thrust, its gist, its purpose. And there’s always one moment in every session where all that other unfathomable stuff that goes on when we’re really writing–trying, failing, saying, unsaying, saying again–starts to emerge. I love those moments.

Liz headshot 1LIZ EGAN
MFA in creative writing (fiction) from George Mason University, 2014
Director at Millsaps College, Jackson, MS

Something I love about coming to writing center work by way of an MFA is that I feel my professional network is HUGE — there’s a place for me at WC conferences, WPA conferences, teaching conferences, ESL/TESOL conferences, and creative writing conferences. I like not being tied down to One Specific Thing That I Am. Sure, it can feel a bit like being pulled in a million different directions at times, but I think it helps me stay dynamic, open to new ideas, and energized about the work I do.

johnstone2As a new hire at my institution, it’s been a challenge to assert my professional identity. Though I get the sense that my institution is glad to include me when noting to prospective students the high rate of full-time faculty who hold “terminal degrees,” the word “professor” is withheld when describing my role in the courses I teach. While I’m sympathetic to the gulf of difference between the labor and scholarship that goes into earning a PhD versus an MFA, it’s frustrating to be perceived so differently.

That frustration makes it easy to fall in the trap of trying do and deliver more, more, and more, as though to “prove” that my MFA is an asset. And because I love my writing center job so much, it’s easier still to let that work edge out the goals I have as a writer. I have to remind myself every day that the work I do as a creative writer is as much a part of my job, and why I’m qualified to do my job, as all the other operational and research goals I pursue.

deniseDENISE ROGERS
MFA from University of Arkansas-Fayetteville
Director at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette

The benefit of the MFA for me as a writing center director is that I understand what it is to have to be changing gears all the time. I usually ask students to tell me a bit of their stories, and I suppose I look at all writing assignments in that way. A research paper is a kind of story, as is an argumentative paper, as is a case study. And in a writing center tutoring session, you have the story of the person who is the writer, and the story of the person’s product, which is the paper he or she is creating, along with the story told within the product/paper. I also hope to help anyone visiting us to understand the idea of revision, even when revision is frustrating. It’s frustrating for me, too, and hard for me to be patient with my own writing, so I try to get them to see they can just settle down at some point, put their anxieties and frustrations aside, and craft one paragraph, and then another, and then another. Or perhaps sort things out.
Most faculty members accept my authority in the center, but some folks (both tenure-track and graduate students) are surprised that I don’t hold the PhD. I point out my degree is a terminal degree, but we have a lot of graduate students who hold the MFA and are working on a PhD because they have found the degree limiting. I imagine some wonder how it is I have a full-time teaching position, even a contingent one. In these days of budget cuts, I am keenly aware that I am contingent faculty because of that degree, believe me.

ElliottFreeman_2ELLIOTT FREEMAN
MFA in Poetry from Adelphi University, 2012
Writing Specialist at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, Virginia

I feel that students do respond strongly to the idea of practitioners–our nursing students can talk at length about the difference in what they gain from their classroom instructors and their clinical preceptors. Neither is superior, both are essential, and in the end, they supplement one another–and that’s what I’ve heard students comment on in working with me, feeling more comfortable talking about skills and craftsmanship in a way that they couldn’t with their professors.

…In some of my earliest collaborations with our graduate programs, I felt like the professors were actively quizzing me on grammar, style, and rhetoric because they didn’t seem inclined to believe that I could be properly prepared. Most faculty members have been supportive, but those that aren’t can certainly be intimidating–when you’re sitting on a committee with six PhD.s and you’re the only one not being introduced as Dr. X, there’s definitely a strong political undertone.

dillonDILLON TRIPP
MFA in Creative Nonfiction, Old Dominion University, 2014
Director at Jackson State Community College, Tennessee

I’ve never felt like much of a traditional MFA graduate; I’ve never been the most well-read guy in the room and am just as likely to pick up a comic book as I am a small-press independent literary journal. I come from a Northeast Texas town of 315 people. I’ve been “blue collar” my entire life and all of my nonfiction/memoir seeks to highlight the pride and honor in that world. (Maybe it’s a bit of a chip on my shoulder). I worked for 4 years in separate Writing Centers (a couple of those as Senior Writing Consultant) and fell in love with the work. It didn’t take long for me to know that there was really nothing else I’d rather do. My MFA helped me get to achieve my dream job.
I think one of the largest benefits of my MFA to my position of Director is that it gave the ability to be harshly criticized and not let it wound me.

The MFA gave me the tools to explain those problematic things to others so that they can help the students. Workshop teaches you to see the work on the page; you learn to see what is there, what should be there, and intent. You can teach your consultants to be see a paper in the same entirety and tell a struggling student not that they are wrong, but that “hey this may not be correct in its current form, but I see what you are going for; this is how you do that.”

All of these directors have much more to say—but I couldn’t help but be struck by some common trends. All expressed concern about how their “terminal” degree was rarely treated as such. All expressed concern about finding time for their craft. And, perhaps most tellingly, all talked about how they appreciate and love their directing job.

Have a question about their experience? Are you an undergraduate peer tutor considering getting a MFA? Have a networking idea? Comment below!

2 thoughts on “Directors with MFAs

  1. As a director with an MFA, I’d also say that it’s beneficial to come from a degree program focused on practice and not research. Especially because I’m at a business school, I feel it’s let me better connect with students who aren’t necessarily interested in staying in academia (which at our school is most of them). It’s allowed to talk to them about the many types of writing they can and might do once they graduate, most of which won’t be academic writing.

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