u.s. writer and creative writing professor Lynn Freed has called MFAs
the “cash cow of the humanities.” That may be true in the U.S., where
Iowa charges over US$25,000 annual tuition (and nearly US$40,000
for international students), but it’s in sharp contrast to Canada and the
$3,800 per year it costs at U of S. Considering the ideal class size is eight
(but can work with up to 12), these programs are expensive to staff, according to UVic’s Mr. Gaston. Degrees in engineering, tech and science,
such as nursing and chemistry, are costly too, but these get better funding
and more generous alumni donations.
The UBC MFA was nearly shut down in the early 2000s as it struggled to fund and justify itself. Two professors recently retired from the
U of S program, and now its coordinator, Dr. Lynes, is doing most of the
teaching because she can’t afford to hire replacements. “It’s just a condition of universities today that they’re rarely prepared to throw a bunch of
money at one program,” she says.
While Canadian writing MFA programs are inundated with applicants that could fill more spots than available, expansion is a challenge.
“We don’t have the resources to make the program bigger at this point,”
says Mr. Gaston. “When it comes down to a vote for more courses or more
money, creative writing doesn’t stand a chance.” Dr. Whetter at Université
Saint-Anne says undervaluing these programs is a mistake. Many schools
struggle to attract grad students, he says; graduate writing programs, including doctoral programs, offer a way to bring them in. This view, he
admits, hasn’t been warmly received at some of the schools where he’s
shared it. “I was looked at like I had two heads,” he recalls.
Much of this administrative apprehension has to do with outdated
opinions. “Creative writing looks like a bird course,” says Mr. Gaston.
“But schools find the most popular courses are the creative writing op-
tions.” Both grad students and undergrads want more writing courses,
but the myth that you can’t (or shouldn’t) teach writing – that you either
have the talent and the creativity or you don’t – persists. “That always
baffles me,” says UNB’s Dr. Leckie. “We have this idea that writing can’t
be taught, but no one in painting or music would ever think that.” What’s
more, says Mr. Gaston, “one of the main struggles is convincing people
that creative rigour is just as rigorous as academic rigour.”
Detracting from the push for greater respect in the academy is the fact
that there’s no prevailing model for teaching creative writing in Canada.
Dr. Whetter has called writing pedagogy “wildly scattershot.” The diversi-
ty of approaches only reinforces the concern that writing instruction has
no gold standard. In response, program heads promote their award-win-
ning students and graduates. It seems to impress administrators at some
universities, though others just want to talk dollars and cents. So Don
Sedgwick, executive director of the MFA at King’s, highlights the pro-
gram’s low overhead. “We don’t use a lot of the resources of the universi-
ty,” he says, because students in the limited residency program only visit
the campus for two weeks in August, when classroom space is abundant.
But their networking trips to New York and Toronto are pricey, he admits,
as is running a one-to-five ratio for mentors – at least the professionals in
these roles are paid as freelancers, which helps keep payroll costs trim.
At U of Guelph, undergraduates clamour for creative writing classes, and that’s good for graduate students, says Ms. Bush. “Expanding
undergraduate creative writing can be a way to support a smaller graduate program.” At UBC, 10 percent of undergraduates take at least one
creative writing class. The financial health of the master’s program now
rests on courses such as Introduction to Creative Writing, a second-year,
lecture-hall survey course with 300 students per section. UBC runs six
sections a year of the course and two or more sections each of intro courses in eight writing genres (MFA students serves as TAs for these large
courses). Upper-year undergrads can get more one-on-one mentoring in
third-year lecture-seminar courses, often capped at 30 for the seminar
portion, and final-year workshops max out at 14 or less.
while many writing grads go on to vibrant literary careers, almost all
must bring home the bacon through other pursuits. MA grads may pursue
academic PhDs and seek teaching posts, while MFAs are generally able to
take up instructor posts with any number of creative writing programs.
(MFAs are often terminal degrees, though some grads are able to pursue
PhDs.) Still others tap away at screenplays and poems in their spare time,
stay active in the literary community and make money at other careers.
Perhaps that’s just fine, and the ultimate goal of these creative de-
grees can be graduating a few literary hotshots, more part-time writers
and many expressive people who use their advanced degrees in various
roles. “Within the humanities, we all need to step up and say why reading
and writing matter,” says Ms. Bush. “Being able to tell stories and to have
empathy and understand writing with all its ethical complexities, these
things are valuable.”
“We havethis idea that writing
can’t be taught, but no one in painting
or music would ever think that ”