My own years as an M.F.A. student felt at the time a bit narrow and lacking the kind of expansive and divergent experiences I had hoped to gain from graduate school. But many years later as I have taught in various M.F.A. programs, I have come to understand that the elements I felt lacking in my own educational experience have been the primary drivers in shaping my pedagogical philosophies as well as classroom and mentoring practices. James Baldwin once said, “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” This seems a perfect predicament for the writer, but also a sentiment that would hold true for all the educational institutions that exist in a given society. So I have come to adopt this as my position: that I believe in a critical education, in an educational process that seeks to evolve social institutions by engaging in the complex and sometimes paradoxical relationship of being both a critic and beneficiary of these institutions and the societies that cultivate them.
The fundamental ideas of the rigorous and focused practice and study of writing that underpin the value of the M.F.A. degree seem to me to hold true to a set of artistic goals such as discipline, a mastery of craft, and ultimately a yearning for artistic innovation and a desire to evolve the art form. These goals have long been a part of many global traditions. That we have often deviated from these principles should not be surprising to anyone who has had to navigate 21st-century higher education practices. The pressure to create curricular pathways that lead to codified and tangible outcomes—such as jobs and book publication, in the case of M.F.A.s—after graduation is all too real, but the philosophical and pedagogical foundations of why we teach, make art, and study it must remain central to our practices, and, dare I say, we must maintain the idealistic belief that if one is trained to think critically, discipline oneself in craft, and manifest the imaginative and conceptual into a finished piece of writing, that this may lead to positive outcomes in the realms of publishing and employment.
I work vigilantly to avoid speaking with any singular set of values about the incredible art of writing. I read as diversely and subtly as I can in order to serve my students, not with a road map to do as I’ve done but with the ability to discover their own artistic lineage and to develop an aesthetic palette that always seeks to engage the complexity that Baldwin alluded to, to make art that reflects the expansive consciousness that education should inspire. And as I do these things, I realize more each year that the discipline of creative-writing education is still very young and that my effort to fill gaps that felt gaping when I was a student is a step toward a more deliberate and holistic education. My hope is that the students I mentor may, too, discover my deficiencies in ways that I cannot see and one day fill those gaps in their own teaching and mentoring practices so that, with each generation of this discipline, we may come closer to learning just what it means to truly educate a writer.
Matthew Shenoda is the author of the books Somewhere Else, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, and the forthcoming Tahrir Suite. He serves on the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund and is interim chair and associate professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, visit www.mathewshenoda.com.