why your (and my) MFA is probably bullshit.

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i’m trying to figure out how higher ed somehow morphed, in the span of less than two decades into a many headed hydra of predatory loans, degree completion failure and insane, overarching privilege.

let’s back up a little and look into my own anecdotal experience. i was lucky enough to grow up in a family with two college educated parents, which meant of course that it was a foregone conclusion i would attend college. this was never in doubt. it was what i was going to do, even if (for me) it was less about expanding my brain and improving my work and more about getting the fuck out of Central Pennsylvania. i was also lucky enough that i had two parents who (having gone to art school themselves) fully and enthusiastically supported my decision to do the same.

now, let’s do the numbers. in 1999, i applied to five schools. i got into all of them, and i seriously considered two: Tyler School of Art (where i ended up attending) and RISD (because, well, RISD). RISD not only accepted me, it gave me a $10k a year scholarship. tuition at RISD in 1999 was just about $29,000, which today seems laughably low but then seemed absolutely insurmountable. i could not imagine paying $19,000 a year for school. my parents had a set amount of money set aside for college and told me that once it was gone, the rest was on me. Tyler, on the other hand, offered me scholarships too, so that my first year out of pocket totaled about $4,000. yes, you read that right. my parents were able to pay for my first 2 and  a half years outright. so i went to Tyler, and graduated with an entirely manageable student loan debt of $12,000 (it would have been a lot less if i had decided not to do a study abroad program my senior year). my monthly payment was so low that i ended up overpaying each month for a couple years.

i only lay out the numbers because i want to emphasize that this wasn’t 20 or 30 years ago. this was 15 years ago. the way things have changed in terms of cost is simply staggering.

in 2010, i got my MFA. despite having a stipend and a tuition remission i graduated with an amount of debt that is sort of crazy, a number so large that i’m not going to talk about it other than to say i’m fairly sure i will in fact never pay it off. but hey, i make a living wage today, a good middle class income, because of that MFA. i do not regret getting that degree.

but after finishing graduate school, i realized something: nearly every person i went to school with at UMass (public university, relatively inexpensive) came from a middle class background. our parents had college degrees. we grew up wanting for nothing, living in comfortable houses in safe, suburban neighborhoods. we were nearly all white. the homogeneity of my program’s population smacked me in the face a few years too late, but it’s something that i can’t stop thinking about.

because i have a high falutin’ MFA in ceramic sculpture, i tend to know a lot of people who have the same education and background as i do. i scroll through them on facebook, my artist compatriots. we are startlingly the same.

art is one of those fields that likes to pretend it’s a meritocracy (like many fields, i suspect). everyone says smugly that it doesn’t matter where you went to school and what degrees you have; all that matters is the work. the cream will rise to the top. if you make good work, you will be discovered and lauded for it. they forget that a lot of the purpose of BFA and MFA programs is making connections with people in your program and beyond, cultivating professors as mentors, going to conferences, workshops and symposia, and of course, the unbelievable gift of a two or three year stretch where you worry about nothing except advancing your own work.

i wrote a little about this in an essay a few months back where i talked about my family, my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and how their sacrifices made my education and my MFA possible. for every person like me who was afforded these opportunities, there stand thousands for whom getting a degree like an MFA in sculpture is not only impossible, but a ridiculous, impractical pipe dream, all by dint of the cost, both in time and money. if we can even take the monetary factors out of the equation for a moment, the idea of setting aside two or three years of one’s life presupposes that that person has means to move to go their chosen program, an understanding spouse, no children, no family obligations, no parents that need support, no siblings who need care. all those voices being shut out from this discourse, a discourse that, despite its imperfections, is the lifeblood of art making in the world as we know.

this is, of course, how structural oppression works: by pretending it’s the individual’s fault if they cannot hack it.

i find myself stunned that the issues i’ve outlined above were never even TOUCHED during my three years in graduate school. there was never a mutual acknowledgement among us in grad seminar that the issues we were all talking about were sadly, deceptively narrow, winnowed down by our relative sameness. we all came from the same page, in many ways – and while there is validation and camaraderie in finding those who share your background and viewpoints, there is also very little challenge and very little learning in it.

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