Aug 11, 2004, 4:43 AM
Post #19 of 2090
Hi Victoria (and everybody):
Re: [fattery] creative writing ph.d. ?
It does seem to me, more and more, that the MFA is not "really" terminal. I've heard quite a lot nowadays about the competitive job market, and it seems that PhD's have an easier time than MFA's. Especially without a book (which does not apply to you, Victoria).
I am happy at Houston, but it took a little while. The first year is hell. It's hard to adapt to the teaching and class loads, and I had 2 less-than-supportive instructors my first 2 semesters. I encountered some pretty severe homophobia, though nothing violent. It's gotten MUCH better, but it was indeed a culture shock. I come from South Florida, a mini gay mecca. I used to see drag queens go by on their rollerblades on South Beach, dressed in full regalia, and no one would bat an eyelash. Here, the only drag that seems acceptable is big hair for the ladies (a trend I can get on board with) and cowboy hats for the fellas (I really thought everyone was just being ironic for the longest time).
1. The faculty is amazing. In poetry: Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland, Nick Flynn, Claudia Rankine, Bob Phillips, and Adam Zagajewski. Kimiko Hahn will be joining the faculty in Fall 2005. In fiction: Antonya Nelson (whose writing I just LOVE), Robert Boswell, Bob Phillips, and Chitra Divakaruni. Colson Whitehead taught here for 2 semesters, and they're currently looking for another fiction person. In nonfiction: Ruben Martinez, who is one of the best souls around. Mark Doty also teaches a much-praised nonfiction workshop sometimes (I took a memoir class from him that was just life-changing).
I've worked with Adam, Mark, Tony, Ed Hirsch (who no longer teaches here, though he's still listed), and J. Allyn Rosser (who visited one semester). Each of them were instrumental in helping me to be a better poet. Indeed, that's the focus here: better poets, not better poems. I think that's right-on.
So, there's an interesting mix aesthetically. I think that fosters some very challenging, memorable, and provocative writing among students.
2. Students here are very serious about writing and literature. There are intense debates in classrooms about poetry and about aesthetics. No one brings a first draft of anything to the workshop. I think the workshop is less about being "praised," however, than learning how to push yourself beyond where you can push yourself. That said, the students can be a bit cliquish and competitive. But mostly they're generous and supportive of each other. Once, when one of our number needed to get home to see his dying father (and couldn't afford it), the program members took a collection and bought him a plane ticket. There's compassion and brilliance here among the students.
3. The students have worked hard to create a community. The women in the program have formed a Women's Dinner which meets once a week. It balances what can sometimes be a "boy's club" mentality in some of the workshops (and perhaps was formed to balance what turned out to be a boy's poker night). If you've any interest in feminism, you can complete a graduate certificate in women's studies (3 classes, 1 of which must be outside your field).
4. Rice is nearby, and you have access to classes there, as well as the Rice Library.
5. Montrose, which is where most people live in Houston, is a really cool, hippy-subversive place to live. Rent's higher there, but it's full of independent music stores, coffeehouses, and 24-hour Greek restaurants.
6. U.H. does a lot to help a student gain professionalization. There are seminars on preparing conference papers, publishing critical and creative work, etc. The professors are all very open and willing to help students achieve their goals.
7. There's a great network for teaching assistants. First-time teachers take a class their first semester about college teaching, and a bond really forms. You'll teach more than Comp -- it's just going to take at least 2 years, and maybe 3, before that happens. (That's a pro and a con). (I have a friend entering Western Michigan's PhD program this Fall: she's teaching beginning creative writing her FIRST semester).
8. Reading for Gulf Coast has helped me immensely. Gulf Coast provides a great opportunity for a lot of students to help produce a nationally recognized journal. Almost all of the editors right now are PhD students. (There are openings almost every Fall and Spring for Poetry and Fiction editors).
9. The creative writing administration works really hard to help students. You truly feel as if they're on your side.
10. Fellowships are given to every incoming student, of at least 5,000 (split between the first and penultimate semesters). Select students receive the bigger awards. Each year there are awards judged by an outside, unannounced creative writer for which everyone except first-year students are eligible. Amounts vary from 10,000 (the Michener award) to 2,500 (the Barthelme). There's even a contest for non-fiction, though not one awarded at the Michener level. U.H. has a great friend in Inprint, a non-profit organization that sponsors a reading series, as well as workshops and classes at its location in Montrose. Inprint was founded by U.H. faculty, but is now a separate entity. Still, they fund those incoming scholarships and the annual competitions.
11. A kick-ass reading series. This year, we'll be visited by poets like C.D. Wright, Harryette Mullen, Eavan Boland, and Paul Muldoon among others. Fiction writers coming this year include Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen. Nonfiction writers Abraham Verghese and Richard Rodriguez will be reading too. The writers usually give a craft talk or an interview at U.H. in addition to the reading series. Always, some of the visitors give residencies with students. These are pretty open and easy to get, in my experience. (The con of the reading series: the after-party for the big writers are always at someone's mansion; and it's really strange to be in these rooms with Picasso and wine and French cheeses and mostly minority men and women serving us. It's a bit distasteful).
Here's the cons:
1. It's the South. Expect sexism, homophobia, and racism to some extent. U.H. is not a progressive institution, but it tries very hard. Same for the city of Houston -- it tries very hard to be diverse, and in some aspects it is. You can eat any kind of food in the world here. Street signs are in several different languages in different parts of the city. But, still, when I wanted to write a queer Dickinson paper, I encountered some resistance to those critical ideas from a professor. And some of the creative writers feel a bit uneasy with sexual minorities. But, on the whole, I think I've been treated with respect and dignity.
2. It's the South. It's freaking hot. I mean, really.
3. We're not paid enough. Most people have another job or take out loans. As a PhD student, expect to earn about 1,000-1100 a month (there's a slight raise after the first year) -- for nine months. People scramble for summer employment, though there are some opportunities.
4. The administration won't tell you this: you are only guaranteed funding for 3 years of the doctoral degree. Usually, the English department petitions the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for funding for doctoral students for the next 2 years of the degree, and usually that request is granted. It's been more questionable in the past 2 years. There is a possibility that your last 2 years (the years in which you'll be taking doctoral exams and writing the dissertation) you'll have to pay tuition. If you continue to teach for them, you'll be allowed to pay in-state tuition. If this happens, it will eat away 2/3 of your paycheck at the least.
5. Teach 2, take 3. Every semester. 1 workshop; 2 literature classes. It's really heavy on the lit. I like that, as do others, but some people find it really hampers their time to write. You have to be able to budget time and make borders between your identities as a writer, a student, and a teacher (and a person who likes tv or movies or golf or whatever else). The major complaint around here is that we don't have time enough to write. I think a background in a low-residency program can really prepare you for this challenge better than anything.
6. As a PhD student, you have to be very careful about your requirements and electives, and so your exam areas are a bit dependent upon what classes you've taken (and thus what's been offered). But there's a regular seminar on Dickinson, a regular Queer Theory class, a regular Feminist Theory class, and pre-seminars in most of the major movements. There's a Modernism class (this Fall, it's a seminar in Marianne Moore). Three classes can be a bit much, but I've been rewarded, I think, in being pushed so hard. There are regular complaints, though, about the dearth of good offerings.
I hope I've been thorough enough. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me.