Ryan Boudinot, MFA Programs and Pedagogical Responsibility

March 8, 2015 at 4:33 am (Uncategorized)

critical-cat

I wasn’t going to write about Ryan Boudinot. I really wasn’t. I was a bit late to the party. No doubt owing to my rather small Facebook friends list, I didn’t find out about the article until yesterday. When I read it, it immediately struck me as clickbait. Still, when I learned that it created tremendous waves on the internet, including a former colleague demanding he apologize to his former students, I couldn’t resist chiming in.

First of all, there’s one thing that needs to be made clear. Boudinot taught at Goddard, which means he was teaching a low-residency program, not a traditional one. I’ve seen a lot of the debate centering around the workshop format and teaching 24 year olds. However, at Goddard, this would have been a small part of his experience. The average age of his students would have been around 42. He would have worked one on one with his students remotely, generally only seeing them at residencies, with workshops being minimal. (Most low-residency programs only have workshops during the 10 day residency, although some programs have incorporated an online workshop component.) So, issues of youth or the value of the workshop aren’t really relevant here.

However, the format must be considered when evaluating his criticism. First of all, it means that when he says “But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late” that he’s addressing the person who, in midlife, decides they want to be a writer and enters an MFA program. Some of these students may have enjoyed writing earlier in life whereas others may have only taken a creative writing course at a continuing education center six months before applying to grad school. Low-residency programs are attractive to people that want to get an MFA without having to quit their day jobs, and these jobs can range from journalist to lawyer.

But is it really too late? It seems he’s playing free and loose with neuroscience when he says “You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.” In fact, it remains very much an open question as to whether younger really is better where writing is concerned . Although I started writing when I was nine years old, and although it has always been a passion of mine, when I finally went to college I decided to major not in English but Psychology and Philosophy and it only helped my writing. Writing is, at bottom, a highly syncretic pursuit. Without life experience and a significant knowledge base, you’re stuck with coming-of-age tales and little else. There’s an argument to be made for only seriously approaching writing once you really have something to say.

If that was the crux of Boudinot’s complaint, though, it might not be so bad. What’s really disconcerting, however, is not that he held such a pessimistic attitude towards the adult students he was mentoring. Rather, what really struck me was just how much of it masked weak pedagogy. At the beginning of his article when he says, “The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare” I can’t help but wonder about his own acumen in giving feedback. Giving feedback that is actionable and pushes the student to try harder without deflating them is extremely hard to do, and I think, is probably the most challenging thing for any teacher to learn. It’s easy to write it off as “some have talent and some don’t” but at the end of the day, it’s a bit of a cheat. If you spent eight years teaching and can’t point to students who showed significant improvement thanks to your pedagogy, then it isn’t just the students who are at fault.

Equally unsettling is his claim, “Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening.” While it’s true the industry is changing, if you’re teaching Creative Writing at the graduate level and you’re publishing (and if you’re teaching in an MFA program you really should be) then there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s going on in the industry and relaying that to your students. Their success is your success, whether you realize it or not. Furthermore, while the changes may be rapid, there’s no shortage of information out there. Arguably, it’s much easier to get the inside scoop on the industry now than ever before. Authors with small presses blog. Agents blog. Editors blog. If you’re going to be in the position of instructing graduate students, keeping up with what’s going on in your own profession really ought to be a top priority and you really ought to be able to relay that information to your students. In the very least, you should know in which situations a student ought to seek an agent, when a small press might be more appropriate and what the pros and cons of self-publishing are.

In conclusion, I think we can all agree (including, I’d imagine, Boudinot) that it’s probably a good thing he isn’t teaching anymore. I’m not sure that writers, especially in MFA programs, need any more discouragement. If anything comes out of this controversy, I hope it’s more than just making Boudinot’s name more readily recognizable. I hope that it promotes a discussion of pedagogy above and beyond the “MFA: Pros and Cons” variety. I hope it leads to a discussion of what it really means to mentor students, what it means to be a good Creative Writing instructor and what sort of responsibilities a professor has to his or her graduate students.