Things MFAs Are Expected to Know But Aren't Taught-and How Knowing Them Might Get You a Job
Beth Ann Fennelly | August 2003
All MFA candidates know that it's hard to get a teaching job after they receive their degrees. With many more qualified applicants than there are openings, entering the job market is a daunting endeavor. Of course, there are certain obvious things one can do while earning an MFA that up one's chance for getting a job-publishing well, for starters, and gaining teaching experience and good student evaluations. There's another thing candidates can do that ups their chances, though it's not discussed as much, perhaps because it's harder to quantify-being a good MFA student. And here I don't just mean getting high grades, though that's important, too. I mean doing all the little things an MFA candidate can do to be a valuable citizen in his or her community and to create opportunities that might prove beneficial later. Some of the following suggestions might be self-evident to some, and others might not work equally well for all students, but here are some ideas worth considering:
Work on your teaching portfolio. Keep syllabi and notes from all classes you attend, as they may make guides for classes you'll later design. If you have a teaching assistantship, keep syllabi from classes you've taught, or unusual assignments you created. It's not too soon to start thinking about future interviews, in which a question commonly asked of applicants is 'What classes are you prepared to teach?' List topics of interest and possible texts-this is something you can do even if you don't have a teaching assistantship at your university. If a professor is teaching a class that you're interested in but not enrolled in, ask for a syllabus. All of these things might help you later assemble materials that reflect your teaching strengths when going on an interview.
Work on improving your teaching. If you are working as a TA and hit a rough spot in a class, talk it over not just with your friends but with a teaching mentor or program director, to get advice and perspective. Try to see teaching mistakes or difficulties as opportunities to grow. When considering the comments students make on their end-of-the-semester teaching evaluations, pay special attention to comments that show up on more than one evaluation. If your school's teaching evaluations don't target the areas in which you are most interested, you might design a supplementary evaluation to receive additional feedback. Another important way to improve your classroom performance is to be evaluated while you're teaching. Some schools will even videotape their graduate assistants so they can see how they come across to students. Find out if your program encourages 'teaching chains' where you visit your other professors' classes to observe and learn from them. Also, if there's a teacher in your program who has the reputation of being an outstanding person in the classroom, you might contact him or her directly to see if you could make a class observation. This is a great way to pick up tips from those more experienced than you are. When you have a sense of which professors you'll ask to write letters of recommendation for you, ask them if they will visit your class and observe you teach. They'll be able to write more convincingly about your teaching strengths having done so.
Go to talks by any job candidates applying for jobs at your school. And, if you are able to volunteer for search committees, do so. Seeing the job market from the other side will give you important perspective on how a candidate is evaluated and the mechanisms of academia.
Visit your professors during office hours-getting to know them outside of the classroom is one of the most rewarding aspects of grad school. Keep in mind, however, that while your workshop teacher might be glad to read your creative output while you are in his or her workshop, that relationship will probably change once the semester's over and that teacher has new students and new responsibilities. It's probably best not to ask former professors if they will read your work. They can always offer.
Give readings from your work when the opportunity presents itself. You might be very nervous if it's your first public reading, but it does get easier, so you might as well get the scary part behind you. You wouldn't want to be in the strange position of reading for the first time at a job interview.
Naturally you'll want to attend the readings of your visiting writers and professors; attend the readings of your classmates, too. This goes a long way to building the community in which writing can thrive. If there is no outlet for students to read, create one. Begin compiling a list of the dates and places of any readings you've done for your resume.
Find out how long you are expected to read, and don't, for any reason, ever, read beyond the amount of time accorded to you.
Before you read, thank the people who organized and/or paid for the reading.
Buy books. Buy, read, and have signed the books written by your professors and by as many guest speakers or visiting writers as you can afford. If you think you can't afford to buy your workshop teacher's book, but you can afford to drink beers at the bar after workshop, you might reconsider your priorities.
Go to conferences. Meeting MFA's from other schools will be fun, but it may also be useful later-if, say, you wanted to make a panel presentation at a national conference, your panel should be composed of students from many schools, not just your own. Or if you were interviewing for a job at a school where some of your friends got their degrees, they could offer you helpful information. Attending the panels and readings can be informative or inspirational. Also, you'll be building a knowledge bank of various schools and faculty for your job search later. It is, of course, easier to go to conferences if you have money. Even if you don't, however, sometimes you can find opportunities. Does your department provide travel money for you to make a presentation or reading? Does the conference itself provide any type of scholarship? You might look for opportunities, such as when the AWP conference is in a town where you have friends you can stay with, or when your school is one of the host schools, because students at a host school get to attend without paying the registration fee.
Find out where your program's graduates are teaching, as they might prove to be interested in helping recent graduates from their alma mater.
Get to know the program's administration. This could help with financial aid, class assignments, etc.
When asking a professor for a recommendation letter, don't just drop the form off in his or her mailbox. Make an appointment to see that professor at least one month before your first letter needs to be mailed. After making your request, provide a graceful opportunity for your professor to get out of writing the letter. You don't want anyone writing on your behalf who feels railroaded into writing for you, or resentful of your request, or unenthusiastic in their support. Something like, 'I know you're busy with your upcoming book tour, so I'll understand if you don't have time' will suffice. If the professor agrees to write your recommendation, provide him or her with your cover letter, updated resume, writing sample, and other application materials, along with details about whom the letter should go to, and what areas, if possible, you'd like mentioned. The more specific the letter is, the more convincing it will be, but don't expect your professor to remember all your publications and teaching experience without your assistance. Also give your recommender a stamped, addressed envelope for each letter. It is easier for the professor to send out your recommendation letters at one sitting, so be organized and make all of your letter requests at the same time.
Check the box that forfeits your right to see the letter before it goes into your file. Of course you will be curious about the letter's contents, but it shows bad faith to demand to see it. Also, it makes your letter worth less to the receiving institution, who might wonder what you were so nervous about. Often, the professor writing your letter will give you a copy of it, anyway. Of course, you should only be asking professors who you feel are enthusiastic about you in the first place.
Send thank-you notes to the professors who wrote you letters of recommendation. Do not send gifts. It is also a courtesy to let the professors know how you did on your quest-whether you got the job or fellowship you applied for. And stay in touch over the years-not only when you need something, but when you have good news to announce, or even a simple holiday card to send; this will keep your professor remembering you over the years.
Beth Ann Fennelly has published essays in the Michigan Quarterly , the Black Warrior , U.S. News and World Report, and the Utne Reader. Her poems have appeared in TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, the American Scholar, and the Kenyon ; they have been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize 2001, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Poets of the New Century, and The Best American Poetry 1996. Her interview with Miller Williams appeared in the Writer's Chronicle in 1999. Her book of poems, Open House,won the Kenyon Prize for a First Book and has been nominated for the L.A. Times Book Award.