Reviewed by Elizabeth J. Fleitz, Lindenwood University (email@example.com)
Chair: Natalie Belcher, Delaware State University
Speakers: John Peterson, Stanford University
Marjorie Stewart, Glenville State College
Duane Roen, Arizona State University
Steve Bailey, Central Michigan University
Daniel Cleary, Lorain County Community College
Steven Krause, Eastern Michigan University
This roundtable cited recurring Writing Program Administrators (WPA) listserv discussions as the motivation for its presentation. The question up for debate was whether or not a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree holder was appropriately qualified to be a faculty member in a university writing program. Unfortunately, as the roundtable progressed (and as the Q&A illustrated) the debate became more of a MFA versus PhD debate, turning questions regarding qualifications for writing faculty into a discussion of qualifications as faculty in general.
Four of the six listed speakers were in attendance. (The reviewer apologizes for not knowing the speakers’ names; introductions were not made at the beginning of the roundtable.) The first panel speaker discussed his experience hiring writing faculty, explaining his reasoning for not hiring MFAs for tenure-track full-time writing faculty due to their training as creative writers instead of as academic writers. Each of the speakers drew on their own experience in their own writing programs as support for their arguments; research on the subject was not cited. The second presenter provided an argument for hiring candidates with MFAs, referring to the large number of MFAs graduating every year, in debt and looking for jobs such as these; the presenter explained the necessity of hiring MFAs because they are so plentiful. He explained how to phrase a job advertisement to include the possibility of getting MFAs as well as PhDs to apply. The third speaker brought up the problem of the MFA being or not being a terminal degree, as its terminal status has been up for debate in recent years with the rise of the creative writing PhD. Because of this problem, some MFAs end up doing a PhD as it is increasingly seen as necessary, even obligatory. Additionally, the speaker brought up the problem of creative writing and rhetoric/composition not being in communication with each other, as there is much that the fields can draw from each other but currently do not. The fourth and final presenter noted that most of the speakers on the roundtable had MFAs, if not additionally PhDs. By a show of hands, that was the case for quite a few in the audience as well. This presenter argued in support of the MFA degree, noting that having MFA experience will be an aid in getting a faculty job.
There were about 25 attendees at the session, though about 8–10 left partway through the roundtable, an unfortunate distraction to an already fractious panel. The Q&A, as mentioned earlier, devolved into an MFA versus PhD debate, exclusively using the speakers’ individual experiences as support instead of established research. One audience member made the generalization that MFAs see composition teaching as uninteresting and want to teach only creative writing courses; thus, they can be a problem when hired for a writing program. Another audience member made the generalization that PhDs are uninterested in teaching exclusively in a first-year writing program and will leave the first chance they get. There was also a discussion of the wide variance in quality of MFA programs—in particular, the prevalence of online, no-residency MFAs that by definition do not provide any sort of teaching experience. There were reminders of how we must be collegial between MFAs and PhDs, and additionally the point was made that the credentials themselves are less important, and instead what is more telling for teaching success is the candidate’s experience and ability to adapt. Ironically, directly after discussing how to create collegiality among writing program faculty regardless of degree, another audience member made a sweeping generalization about PhDs and their inability to teach. Unfortunately, very little was said of what is needed to be “qualified” for teaching in a writing program—which was the stated goal of the panel. More organization of the panel and better focus on the overall question for debate, along with reference to research on the subject, would have made this a more productive discussion. As it was, if this roundtable intended to bring together MFAs and PhDs in a collegial, intellectual discussion of the qualifications of writing program faculty, from this reviewer’s perspective, it did not succeed.