Saturday, April 2, 2011

Funded v. Not Funded at Montana

Anonymous writes:

Does tiered funding create a problem in the workshops? Various handbooks and popular blogs out there say it does. The "advice" tells prospective students that it creates a situation which negatively influences the dynamic in the workshop. (Like a war between the "haves" and the "have-nots."The "advice" tells students to attend only if funding is offered. Can you and others weigh in on this? Obviously, I know from your comments that you were funded, but how were the experiences and opportunities of unfunded candidates? Do they come into the program with the stigma by other students and staff that their talents are less?

I admit when I discovered that I was the only funded person in nonfiction (out of five admits), I felt like pretty hot shit. I was chosen, special, the Star-bellied Sneetch. I had this idea that Judy Blunt had wielded my application like Excalibur from the stone. And sure, those first few weeks that I arrived in Montana were kind of nice. I was the “funded one.”

But after the initial thrill, the only difference became that 1) I was paid 9K a year and 2) I had to teach Fresh Comp. Once everyone began submitting their writing into workshop I had to admit that I was no better than anyone else. Everyone was super talented. There was absolutely no qualitative difference between the “funded” and the “unfunded.” None.

So far as how people were treated in workshop, I don’t think the faculty even remembered who was funded. I know that they hate not being able to offer funding to everyone. Basically every year the faculty sit down with a pile of apps, come up with who they would like to work with, and then make some very tough decisions. Dee and Kevin have told me that sometimes the final cuts feel very much like a coin toss.

Experienced writers know that it’s impossible to predict the career of a beginning writer. Think about it. What is there to know from a lone MFA writing sample? Once in a while there’s a Karen Russell or Lorrie Moore. But most of us dog it out for years before we write publishable work. Kevin said to me over again that while talent is nice, it’s the work ethic and determination that’s wins out in the end.

Of course, lack of funding has its problems. There’s the obvi, money. Those without TAs don’t get the teaching experience, and everyone teaching meets that first week of TA camp. There's nothing like the common enemy of pedagogical discourse to promote bonding. When I was at Montana, only TAs had an office. Finally, there’s the trickier and ickier idea of feeling less “wanted,” although I as I’ve said above, I don’t believe this is true. At least not at Montana.

On the plus side, not having to teach comp frees up time to write. Freshman Comp is time suck, an energy suck and a suck/suck. Slogging through twenty papers on the death penalty wears a writing soul down. I noticed that the unfunded writers often kicked more ass. They published more during the program. They took on outside jobs that were more interesting. And who knows? Maybe feeling like an underdog served as a motivation.


Travis Fortney said...

It's also well known within the program that the unfunded students tend to "kick ass" upon graduation. I don't think Aryn Kyle was funded. Carter Benton, who won the Atlantic prize while we were there was unfunded. Brian Kevin, the only member of our class so far to publish a book you can buy at Barnes and Noble, was unfunded, and so was Marvin Shackelford, who's published stories in 40 or 50 magazines and was pretty much universally thought of as the best writer in the program while we were there.

I think all of this has something to do with being forced to deal with the horrors of "the real word" (i.e. paying rent, buying groceries, etc.) while still in school. That's a real benefit to a writer.

Kelly Kathleen Ferguson said...

Aryn was funded, although it all happened last minute. But yeah, I agree that the time free from teaching is pretty huge. Some Phds here have fellowships and I wonder what it'd be like to be that free to write.

R.T. said...

I think it depends on how many courses you are required to take as well, in terms of time.

While at Hopkins (we were all equally funded, and all required to teach Intro to Fiction and Poetry), there was plenty of time to write. We were required to take only one workshop and one reading seminar per semester, which came out to 6 hours of class a week, and 3 hours of teaching.

I was admitted into Montana, but couldn't imagine my life without the financial support. Regardless, it's true that talent without determination means little.

The selection process for admitted students was sort of haphazard. The pile of applications was split into four, and each of the faculty would select a few favorites (at times it was clear which professor had chosen which student not because of favoritism, but because of their common and very specific interests, i.e., Victorian ghost stories). But they would throw their faves into a pile, and then choose again.