34. The Biped Rat
After many years of observing graduate students, I worked up the following story to illustrate the developmental stages of the typical M.F.A. student and some of their potential consequences. Of course, not all graduate school professors use the same techniques and, as always, “individual results may vary.”
In spite of the thoroughness of the grad school application process most professors know very little about their new graduate students. Each student is assumed to have a broad knowledge of issues and techniques as well as the focused expertise that created their application portfolio. However, that portfolio is ancient history now and it’s time to move on.
Let’s say the new student starts out wanting to work on teapots. Perhaps the application work involved a clever series of pitchers. Teapots involve many of the same issues but demand greater skill and sophistication, a good choice. The work begins.
No matter how good the results may be grad school is not about praise. It’s about criticism and a constant poking at anything which might be improved. After a while, the teapots stop seeming like such a good idea and the concept teapot becomes unbearable. The student shifts to ewers. After ewers, amphoras, and so on. In the middle of this, predictably, is the “why am I in grad school” period of doubt and despair.
In this way, through an unrelenting negativity and the student’s increasingly desperate search for success and approval, the student starts a series of Byzantine dog dishes. This time when the criticisms come, as they must, the student has no choice. The deadlines for degree completion are upon them. The student rises up on its hind legs like a cornered rat and, hissing its defiance, says, “No, it’s perfect. It’s just as it ought to be. It completely matches the originality of my vision and purpose.”
The professor shakes the student’s hand, more or less congratulates them on now being a biped, and within a matter of weeks the new MFA is out on the streets with their personal esteem bound to the successful creation of Byzantine dog dishes. They experience a perverse blend of confusions combining “how did I get here?” with “what do I do now?” and “why am I next to this hideous dog dish?” No wonder so many new MFA’s never work in clay again.
There are several lessons to be learned here. First, you don’t go to grad school to make more of what you already know how to make. Get over it. Expect to be working on unfamiliar problems and expect to have your failures noticed. Second, pick good problems to work on. Nothing too small, but also nothing so extreme that you can’t possibly achieve worthwhile results by the time of your thesis show. Third, give yourself a full year for your thesis problem and be prolific that year. These will be your job search portfolio pieces. They will also be your self-esteem for years to come. And finally, learn to critique (your own work as well as others). But don’t forget to praise as well. Few professors will ever feel that it is their place to hold your hand and sweet talk you through grad school. Don’t expect it. But neither should you be going through grad school completely alone. Learn from and support your fellow grad students. Teach each other and help each other to make sustainable choices. Don’t be shy about praising what is praiseworthy, and when it comes time to truly defend your own work, make it work worth defending.
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