I was going to write a nice, luxurious entry on Frankenstein. I was going to revel in the fact that, despite being laughed at in my lit theory class for suggesting it was a work of Science Fiction, it is the first reading on my Science Fiction syllabus. I was going to make some poignant remarks about scientific responsibility and how man can’t decide to play god then wuss out halfway through.
But now, I’m going to write about MFA students.
My program is an MA program in English. It runs concurrent to an MFA program in fiction, writing, you know, that touchy-feely-with-a-pen stuff. I actually know very little about the MFA program here at Rutgers other than it exists, unlike my program it’s supposed to be a terminal degree program, as a result the MFA students are offered TAships which us MA students are barred from, and that sometimes I encounter MFA students in my classes.
I have found that, with the exception of a class I took on rhetoric and the teaching of writing, I despise having MFA students in my classes. They are trained to think about literature in a mode entirely different from how I am trained to think about literature. They speak about literature differently. They read differently. And this vast difference in philosophies really annoys the hell out of me.
We in the MA program are constantly looking at books critically with a mind towards theory. The MFA students look at works as stories. Pretty amalgamations of words that they could have written better. As a result, discussions about literature with these people does nothing but make me gnash my teeth and want to kill something. Preferably something fluffy and cute that thinks it can write better than any/all of the classical authors whose works have become my bread and butter over the course of the last year. I know, I know, discussions with individuals whose points of view differ vastly from one’s own makes one a better conversationalist and a more well-rounded person. You know what? I can live without it. I like my books unadulterated by artistic frippery.
Last night, ladies and gentlemen, was the final straw.
As you know by now, I’m taking a course in Science Fiction. The course, though listed under my program, is also cross-listed to the MFAs and the American Studies Grad program. The majority of its students come from these other two programs and, on the whole, I would say that fellow English MAs comprise about a third of the class.
Last night we were set to talk about Frankenstein. I came armed and prepared with arguments about Marxist critique, textual differences between the 1818 and 1831 editions, and a lot to say about humanism and minority as portrayed in the book. The discussion we wound up having was about humanity; what makes a human? Is the creature human? How can we define “human”?
About an hour and a half into arguing this out, the question came. I can still hear it resounding from the MFA side of the room, echoing in the air like some ghastly and hollow funeral dirge. “We are spending so much time talking about this, but what practical application does it have? I mean, this is just a book. What does it really matter?”
I felt the “kill” toggle get thrown in my mind. Flames burned at the back of my eyes. I could feel demonic urges begin to overtake me and it is a good thing that a dear friend of mine was sitting between myself and the offender. The sudden instinct to leap across the table and throttle said MFA overtook my senses and it was all I could do to keep the animalistic instincts and bay and retort with a sharp and not-at-all-well-thought-out reply which probably sounded more rude and jerkish than intelligent.
When I re-claimed my senses, my first thought was “seriously… what are you doing here?” Honestly, I’m only about 98% certain that he’s an MFA. If he’s not, he needs to re-evaluate his career choices.
I realize that part of the reason his little off-handed remark offended me so was that it was an invasion of outside sensibilities into my little haven of lore. At a dinner party the other night, same colleague/friend who saved aforementioned MFA’s life made the following comment, “I think we’re a little uptight about our major because when you…” (referring to his girlfriend who will very soon have a PhD in Chemistry) “tell people what you do, they go ‘wow.’ And back off. When we…” (referring to the rest of us English people at the table) “tell people what we do, they get that look of pity in their faces and say ‘oh… well… what are you going to do with that?’.”
It’s a battle I’ve fought my entire life. The world doesn’t see any innate worth in what I do and what I love. In fact, they understand it all to be a big waste of time. But at this juncture, I understand that. I expect it. When I walk into a cocktail party or family gathering, I am ready to defend my choices from the outsiders.
But I don’t expect it in the classroom. I am not ready to throw my warlike shield before my body in the very bastion of my misunderstood life choices. It was an affront to the companionship and unspoken understanding between us to question the validity of our presence in that classroom while sitting in the classroom itself. It was like being stabbed in the back, a sneak-attack from a strategic position I had once thought to be well-guarded. The expressed views are not supposed to be allowed in my citadel.
Questioning the validity of academic inquiry for the sake of academic inquiry is something I am prepared for from the real world. Not here in this utterly unreal and utopian fantasy of folios where the coin of the realm is Foucault and Derrida.
And for that, I say this:
I humbly request that you keep your ideas about the academy to yourself. I certainly won’t go around vocally criticizing your ultimate decision to take classes in writing poetry which, by the way, is a complete waste of time and money since studies have proven that the classroom is inefficient at teaching individuals to write. Either you got it or you don’t and the vast majority of you will suffer a lifetime of waiting tables and working dead-end secretarial jobs with the dream of someday being discovered due to your superior memo-writing skills. Your MFA won’t even get you into a PhD program, though it may get you a job as an adjunct teaching people like you that they have a chance in this world despite your own bitterness at having been passed over time and again in the field of publishing which some young and talented student of yours may some day hit lucky and become more successful than you are.
PS: next time, you may not be so lucky. I may be small, but I be fierce. And I have a lot of big friends who know how to wield cross-bows.