In certain Masters of Fine Arts programs, “MFA” seems to stand for Macho Fucking Aesthetic. For the Iowa Review, writer and educator Jennifer Colville shares her experience studying at one such program in the late 1990s. In the wake of a sexual harassment scandal, Colville finds herself working with an up and coming talent with one book: author Junot Diaz. This isn’t simply a story about Diaz, though. It’s a larger story about the way certain programs advocated very gendered aesthetics, favoring plotted, linear narratives with economic sentences, instead of more image-driven, expansive, associative, or metaphorical prose styles, ones the author considers more “feminine.” For female and non-binary writers, life inside such turn of the century MFA cultures meant reckoning with the celebration of male genius and masculine norms, seeing critical thinking downplayed, and dealing with widespread toxic masculinity, from faculty on down to classmates. Colville shares not only her grad school experience, she distills the vital lessons she took from it, the lessons the program did not intend to teach her, which she now applies to her own life as a professor, literary advocate, and writer.
Those of us who have grappled our way “up” into precarious teaching positions may say we hire less on the basis of fame and publication record and more on the basis of a candidate’s teaching record or thoughtful teaching philosophy. Yet this is easier said than done in a culture that still devalues critical thinking, and that doesn’t make an effort to produce good teachers by offering teacher training in the first place. Faculty who understand the importance of teaching from a variety of aesthetic, cultural, and political perspectives are necessary because masculinity and Eurocentric values have been encoded into our rhetoric and storytelling structures. They are still the defaults. A good MFA program and a good teacher will acknowledge and find ways to challenge this, will be mindful of the problematic culture our most vaunted programs are built on. I use Syracuse as an example with the caveat that Dobyns was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where the age-old concept of reckless male genius was repackaged, macho barroom–style, under Paul Engle. Syracuse, in fact, may have gone through a productive struggle. George Saunders was one of the initial new hires, the one who apologized to me for not reaching out, who admitted his anxiety about approaching female students in the wake of the scandal. Gradually he helped to set a change in motion. A couple of years after he was hired Díaz left Syracuse, and a chain of brilliant and innovative women writers were hired.
Sexism is a deep unconscious vein. It’s embedded in our thought processes, our ways of communicating and telling stories. Traditional narrative privileges plot over details and in so doing trivializes the image, that conductor of the unconscious, of muted memories, dreams, and drives, those little loaded bombs of information, which if unpacked often contain secrets of the body, micronarratives of their own.
What if the creative writing classroom was a space in which critical inquiry was a given, a space for examining and questioning privileged forms or aesthetics, and the pedagogy that often reinforces them. Wouldn’t this kind of space feel safer, more welcoming for those of us brave enough to resurrect our moments, our details, brave enough to write the stories of our bodies. What kind of revolution might that unleash?