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so what the hell good is the mfa anyway?

updated thu 22 nov 01


vince pitelka on tue 20 nov 01

Tom Sawyer wrote:
> I agree with Mel that degrees
> are nice but like the scarecrow in Alice in Wonderland, the award doesn't
> bestow knowledge or necessarily skill. Degrees may help in obtaining
> employment but not necessarily in bestowing insight, a passion to continue
> learning or ensuring quality of one's work. I don't believe anyone is
> denigrating formal education but rather making the observation that
> don't automatically confer excellence.

While I basically agree with Tom's reasoning, I am wondering why even say
it? It is so obvious, and it is also true in every field of study. Follow
the rules, do exactly what is expected of you, and it is possible to get a
degree in any field without developing real depth or breadth of
professionalism. The degree itself provides very little guarantee of
excellence. The reality is that it is up to the individual to take control
of their own destiny and make the most of educational opportunities, and in
my experience, a good slice of those who receive college degrees have done
just that. They are the ones who quickly find their stride in their chosen
field. Others take longer to fill in the parts they missed before finding
their place, and a few flounder and never do achieve their objective. Why
should we be surprised by any of this?

In addition to the individual student's ability and determination, which are
by far the most important factors, the success of an MFA program depends
upon the faculty, the studio facilities, access to resources and
information, the individual University's requirements, and the whole nature
of the school environment. My MFA is from UMass Amherst, and of the dozens
of art students I know who completed the MFA there, I can only think of one
or two who slid through with minimal work and were barely granted the
degree. Personally I think they should have been denied the degree, because
when someone is matriculated on the basis of inferior and inadequate work,
it lowers the value of the degree for everyone.

The reality is that almost every single person who receives an MFA degree is
immeasurably richer for it. It changes their live for ever in many ways.
Career training is one possible objective, but more important than that is
the way graduate study activates the mind and imagination and expands one's
perspective on the universe. Sure you can gain those things on your own,
but there is no other opportunity which provides such total emersion in a
rich, inspiring environment of wonderful possiblity and high expectation.
Given the desire and the ability, it is possible to cram a great deal of
living and growing into a few years of graduate study.

Every six months or so there is a round of MFA-bashing on Clayart. It
always perplexes me. You don't find many people out there with MFAs in clay
who are bashing the MFA in clay. There are always a few who went through it
when they were too young or were not fully committed, and made poor use of
the opportunity, and sometimes they are unwilling to take the responsibility
for their own failure, and choose to blame the school, the degree, the
teachers, everyone but themselves. Their rhetoric is empty.

Finally, in this longer-than-usual rant for me, I maintain that if a person
completes an MFA in ceramics with the intention of getting a university
teaching job, if they are truly committed to teaching, and if they have the
ambition, patience, fortitude, and determination to follow through on the
necessary intermediate steps, they will end up getting a teaching job. It
is as simple as that. To get a teaching job, an individual must be truly
committed to teaching, and AFTER completing the MFA they must demonstrate
that commitment without relent. They must pursue every conceivable
opportunity to teach. They must seek residencies or internships which will
give them valuable experience. They must continue doing their own art work
no matter what, and they must seek appropriate venues for exhibition. They
must be addicted to education, and must constantly expand their knowledge
and abilities. They must pursue opportunities to write and publish.
Fortunately, all of these things are a natural fit with the deep-seated
ambition to be a university teacher. For anyone truly committed to that
objective, these things come naturally.

Following the above formula involves a great deal of hard work, and I'll bet
that in the long run it amounts to a hell of a lot more work than is
required to complete a PhD in any field of study.
Best wishes -
- Vince

Vince Pitelka
Appalachian Center for Crafts
Tennessee Technological University
1560 Craft Center Drive, Smithville TN 37166
Home -
Work -
615/597-6801 ext. 111, fax 615/597-6803