Saturday, April 23, 2016

MFA Pointless? Depends on who gets the checks.





     By Professor Doom

     It’s long been known that, for about half of college graduates, they are no different than high school students when it comes to cognitive skills, despite spending 6 years or so getting a college degree. This is simple fact.

      Many blame this on the higher education system, and I’m inclined to agree, although the complete sell-out of accreditation is a big factor in why so many schools are so loaded down with bogus/questionable coursework it’s quite possible for a student to spend years of “study” and gain nothing measurable.

     With college degrees increasingly worthless in the job market, people are using the degrees for their only remaining purpose: to gain admittance into graduate and professional schools. I’ve covered the law school scam, and University of Phoenix demonstrates the MBA scam, but today I want to look a little at the MFA, the Master of Fine Arts. It isn’t just that MFA programs are ripoffs, though that sort of thing is often the case, I want to talk about a problem that is similar to what we see in the college degrees: the graduate training doesn’t make any measureable difference, or at least a relevant one.

       The creative writing MFA, like the rest of higher education, has grown irresponsibly:


“…Creative writing has become a big business—it’s estimated that it currently contributes more than $200 million a year in revenue to universities in the U.S….”


      Now, if someone wants to study higher education as a means of happiness, I’m all for it…but the student loan scam pays for graduate school, even if the school isn’t really teaching anything, and charging a huge fortune for it. I’m against people taking out loans for happiness; the only justifiable reason to take out a loan is to get something that will help you pay back the loan.

      Anyway, we’ve been cranking out people highly trained in “creative writing,” fiction, for many years now, we should be seeing something, right?

      Well, some faculty decided to see if there was a measurable difference between the MFA-creative writers, and writers who decided just to write creatively, without having whatever magical training happens in creative writing MFA programs.
  • Write artfully, evoking emotions and expressing points of view

  • Critique literature with the eye of a writer and editor

  • Read in ways that creatively engage form and content in a variety of genres

  • Discover and address your own writing strengths and weaknesses


Foster your creativity in a positive atmosphere in which you’ll receive constructive feedback on your writing and learn to move beyond mechanical skills as you develop a more powerful voice.

---the promises of a typical program, all online. Note: you get your master’s degree in 10 weeks from this place. Fully accredited, of course. Someone entering this program has been writing for 15 years or more, so, yeah, a couple months more should be all it takes to become a master, sounds legit to me. Hey, anyone else remember those comic book ads? “Buy this book and become a Martial Arts Master in 2 weeks!!!” At least the comic books promised to make you a master for only 99 cents…


      The researchers put together some software capable of analyzing a novel. Granted, this analysis is only as good as the software, but the software is pretty good at some things:



    It even predicts bestsellers with 82% accuracy, or so the researchers say (man, sure hope publishers and literary agents don’t find out about this!).

     So how well does the software do when it comes to telling the difference between a “highly educated” author and some guy who just likes to write?

Computer was successful only about 67 percent of the time at guessing correctly. You don’t need a degree in statistics to know this isn’t very good—you can be right 50 percent of the time just by accident.

     I think these guys have an agenda. 67% accuracy is quite good, or at least much, much, better than guessing. 

     Allow me to slip into statistics here: making a guess from the methodology they describe in the linked article, this would indicate a p-value of around .00000000001. That’s better than many tests that try to relate smoking and cancer. This is not luck, their software clearly shows a measurable difference (not necessarily improvement!) between the two types of authors. If you can build software that can tell the difference, then, yeah, there’s a difference. But these guys say the opposite, as though they’re ignorant of statistics…I really wish statistics were a bigger part of education now, but many programs eliminate statistics from education (and most any other topic of any challenge), as it makes growth so much easier.

      Anyway, let’s look at the differences.

For example, MFA novels tend to focus more on lawns, lakes, counters, stomachs, and wrists. They prefer names like Ruth, Pete, Bobby, Charlotte, and Pearl (while non-MFA novels seem to like Anna, Tom, John, and Bill). But on the whole, these distinctions look pretty meaningless…

     Now, here I agree with the article, a slight emphasis on certain words and names seems to be a bit meagre considering the piles of student loan money involved.

As one brochure has it, the goal of the adjunct faculty of an MFA program is to “work closely with their students to help them develop their own voices, styles, and form.”


      Since the quoted article brings it up, allow me to mention those adjunct faculty in more detail. The student pays about $50,000 for this graduate school training. Of that money, a few hundred bucks goes to the adjuncts, and there are essentially no overhead expenses for writing courses beyond the adjunct’s pay. We’re talking a 98% or more profit margin here. I trust now the gentle reader understands why the Creative Writing MFA is such a growth industry…

     The software detects a few more differences of very minor interest:

MFA novels tend to use pairs of adjectives or adverbs less often, or avoid the more straightforward structure of a noun followed by a verb in the present tense. But other than that, there’s nothing detectably unique about the so-called “MFA style.”

--emphasis added.

     I have to admit, the researchers here have painted themselves into a corner. I mean, the whole point of creative writing is to create, create something new. You can’t honestly expect the 200 MFA novels they look at to be “unique”…that’s just not what the word means.

     That said, they do ask the question that keeps coming up for me:

As the University of Texas program says, “The best thing we do for fiction writers at the Michener Center for Writers is leave them alone.” But then why go?


     Unfortunately, the researchers, despite their agenda, seem to be incapable of correctly answering their question of “Why go?” The answer is pretty obvious, though the researchers miss it:

According to the latest research, only 7 percent of MFA graduates are fully funded, which means 93 percent are investing some portion of their own money to sound like everyone else.


     Wrong answer. These students aren’t investing “their own money,” they’re getting student loans. The whole reason all these stupid-expensive programs exist is because of the easy money of the student loan program. Without the student loans, there’d be far fewer programs available, and they’d be much cheaper. They’d probably be more useful, too, since people won’t spend so much of their own money on useless programs.

     I’m pro-education, mind you, but there’s just no need to pile this kind of money into creative writing. Honest, the way to learn writing is to write. While mostly you do that on your own, getting a private tutor would be more effective, cheaper for the student, and the tutor would make more money (time and again I’ve seen how much better education is for both student and teacher when the “accredited” school is removed from the process).

     Education is always touted as a way for “less advantaged” groups to get ahead.  For what it’s worth, I believe this is the case…but you can’t get ahead taking on a huge loan that never goes away. And, when it comes to writing, the education does no good at all:

The MFA promises to make the distinction of race come alive, take on literary heft, through learning how to write and the work of writing. But we have no evidence that MFA authors are any better at this than their less educated non-MFA peers. If there’s a quality that distinguishes a writer as Asian American or black, we could not find it.


        So when it comes to race representation in literature, MFA is failure. How about gender?

The percentage of male protagonists in novels written by MFA grads is well over half, at 61 percent, while that figure is 65 percent for non-MFA novels. Further, if a novel has a female lead, the chances that it has two strong female characters is only 32 percent for both MFA and non-MFA novels. Last, the percentage of novels that have a majority of male characters in the non-MFA group is 99 percent, whereas it is 96 percent for MFA novels. These are terrible numbers by any standard. They suggest that the contemporary American novel is disproportionately preoccupied with the experiences of men. And they suggest that the MFA novel is only barely better than its non-MFA counterparts.


So, we can’t justify all these programs on social justice concerns, and can’t justify them on any other terms. Thus, even if I think the authors had an agenda here, I do concede their conclusion:

$200 million per year, after all, is a high price to pay for very little measurable impact.


     Do these authors even know about the student loan scam, with student debt over 1.2 trillion bucks now? This money has had an incredible impact on the Poo Bahs of higher education, massively inflating their bank accounts, and creating huge overpaid bureaucracies as well. 

     Now, for MFA students? Yeah, there’s just no reason for it, or at least no reason to take out a loan for it.