On Vandenberg’s and Clary-Lemon’s “Advancing by Degree: Placing the MA in Writing Studies”

This is a little early for a New Year’s resolution, but I guess now is as good as time as any to share it: I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve reached the end of the rope of my “Blogs as Writerly Spaces” project. I think I’ve gotten plenty out of it, actually– a sabbatical, a number of good conference presentations, maybe an article or two if I get around to it. But I just have a hard time believing I’m going to get to the next level of a book project out of this. That’s kind of a bummer, but it is what it is.

Anyway, one of the things I decided about all this was that before I even think vaguely about starting another big project, I thought I should spend some time actually reading some scholarship. After all, academics spend all this time producing this stuff, but who actually reads it? I don’t, at least not on a regular basis, not when I’m not trying to write something myself. So this year, my main goal is to do something novel and actually read for the sake of reading and see what I come across. I’ll post some reviews here, hopefully at least one a week.

To kick that off, I thought I’d start with the first essay in the December 2010 CCC, Peter Vandenberg’s and Jennifer Clary-Lemon’s “Advancing by Degree: Placing the MA in Writing Studies.” In brief, it’s an article that historicizes the place of the MA degree in graduate study in general, and then describes several MA programs in Writing, suggesting the importance of local conditions for the role of the MA. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but something that still has to be said.

As an interesting “small world” footnote, one of the people they quote is Marcia Dalbey, who was the department head here at EMU when I started back in 1998. Go figure.

Anyway, Vandenberg and Clary-Lemon wonder why there are so many more students in these “in-between” degree programs, and they lament the way “the MA has functioned in the field’s collective mindset as little more than a Büchner funnel, employed to screen an undesirable element in a process of purification. Yet as the discussion above makes clear, the MA in writing studies for some time has been a flexible, responsive, self-standing enterprise, with intrinsic value rooted in the kinds of knowledge and skill it can produce in local conditions (277).”

I’m not so sure about the scientific/chemical metaphor there, and while I’m also not crazy about sports metaphors, I prefer to think of MA programs as being more like the minor leagues or a farm system, at least in relation to PhD programs. Many students in our MA program– though certainly not all, as I’ll mention in a second– are essentially testing the waters and trying to decide if they want to take the leap into a PhD program. This seems like a really good thing to me. After all, entering PhD studies is a life-changing event, and it is not the sort of thing that people should pursue without careful consideration.

Incidentally, this is at least one reason why there are many more MA students than PhD students. I have had very good MA students here at EMU who had intended to go on to get a PhD, but then when they learned more about what they were getting themselves into– through coursework, through experience as a teaching assistant, from talking to other students and faculty, etc., etc.– they decided getting a PhD was a bad idea. Or they realized they didn’t really have “the chops” to succeed academically and professionally at that level.

In any event, what I’m saying is I think the “filtering” role of MA programs is important for both PhD programs and for students. But I also think that it’s important to point out, as Vandenberg and Clary-Lemon do, that MA programs are as often an ends to themselves. They give several examples/ “case studies” in their article about different MA programs, which I might want to research some more as we consider revising our MA in Written Communication here. Our MA has been around a long time– at least 20 years, maybe more– and it has definitely been changing with the times. Well, at least the students have changed.

We have two emphases in our program: Teaching of Writing and Professional Writing. Back when I came to EMU, I would guess that about 70% or more of the students in the Teaching of Writing strand were practicing secondary school teachers who were coming back to get their MA so they could receive a pay raise and other benefits from their school districts. For all sorts of reasons, those students have largely disappeared from our program. Now the majority of our students focused on Teaching of Writing are interested in teaching in community colleges (a lot of our graduates are full-time or part-time at many area CCs), thinking about secondary school teaching (though it isn’t a certificate program), they’re thinking about the PhD, or they are interested in pursuing a graduate degree generally to see where it takes them. As one of my MA students told me a few years ago, in a job market where “everyone” has an undergraduate degree, a graduate degree– any graduate degree– distinguishes you from other applicants. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it seems possible to me.

Things have changed in the Professional Writing side of things too. It used to be that a lot of area employers would pay for for their employees to earn graduate degrees, so the Professional Writing emphasis was almost entirely made up of students who had real jobs that could be broadly described as “Professional Writing” and they were attending on the company’s dime. That’s changed a lot in recent years. In fact, with the economy as crappy as it is in Southeast Michigan, we now have many students in our MA in both the Teaching of Writing but especially the Professional Writing program who are attending (in part) to gain professional experience they hope will make them more employable.

These changes (among other things) are causing us now to reconsider the arrangement of our MA program, though that’s something that has taken years, and it will probably take us a few more. My point though is this: we have lots of students who have no intention of going onto a PhD program, and we have always had these students. We have always been an MA program that has mostly attracted students in Southeast Michigan and that has responded to those students’ local plans and needs.

2 thoughts on “On Vandenberg’s and Clary-Lemon’s “Advancing by Degree: Placing the MA in Writing Studies””

  1. I appreciate Vandenberg and Clary-Lemon selecting a handful of aspects from which to consider MA programs: “its demographic and curricular diversity, its responsiveness to local conditions, and its intra- and interdisciplinary flexibility” (265). I suppose its worth asking how and to what degree are we in heeding these conditions, especially as we press ahead with the revisions conversation. They make a solid case for how adaptive MA programs can be distinct from PhD programs because PhD programs bear a different kind of burden to prepare their candidates for general, disciplinary durability (i.e., graduates of PhD programs oftentimes do not remain local; the opposite is true for MA graduates).

    The way this article deals with “local conditions” left me wanting just a little bit more because it’s incredibility difficult to pin down. I mean, on the whole, I felt like their work helped clear up some of my thinking about MAs in Writing (Studies). But the focus on “local conditions” might refer to a host of different conditions. “Local” could mean anything from faculty specializations or department landscape all the way out to a scale of surrounding communities/scenes, anywhere from the Detroit Center to the music and arts workshare warehouse on the edge of campus. All of these “local” conditions turn out to be incredibly complex and varied. I wonder whether these are in some respects more challenging to sort through than widespread (i.e., published) sensibilities about disciplinarity.

  2. I think “local conditions” here means a combination of all of the things you mention, Derek, plus “gut feeling.” I think that we do or don’t do certain things based in part on the faculty we have, though we have made hires in the time I’ve been here to fill what was perceived as voids– I was hired that way, for example. We (some faculty more than me) have connections with employers who have hired our graduates and/or with our former students who have gone on from our program into more or less local jobs.

    But there is no really systematic way here to see how we are (or are not) responding to local conditions, and I don’t get the feeling that the case studies discussed in this article have any quantifiable system either. Of course, I’m not entirely sure what that system would look like, and I don’t really see how we could collect the data very carefully either.

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