Thursday, February 16, 2017

An ethical question to myself

What if...

I were offered a job as a writing instructor in an M.F.A. program? If it were for enough of a salary to make it possible for me to quit my current job, which pays the bills but is a little uninspiring? I've been pretty clear that I don't think much of M.F.A. programs, that they often don't make their students much better writers and almost never pay for themselves. But say I've got an offer in the hand. Let's say it's a job that lets me go back to Ohio, where I'm from. It even gives me an open enough schedule I could fulfill my dream of being able to home school my son. Do I take the job?

Qualifying statement one: I do not at all question the ethics of current M.F.A. instructors, or writing instructors in general. If you believe that writing can be taught and you can teach it, there is no ethical dilemma in being a writing instructor, just as there is no ethical dilemma in being an ordained minister if you believe what your church teaches.

Qualifying statement two: This is entirely hypothetical. I have no such offer. It's just a question that occurs to me now and again.

Qualifying statement three: If I lost my current job and had a decent offer to teach writing and needed that job to feed my family, there is no question. I take the job. This question only has to do with whether I would take such a job if I thought it would improve my life but weren't in a forced position.

And here we go...

Part of me wants to say there is no debate. I don't think writing programs help writers write better or get published, which means they take money--sometimes a lot of money--and don't provide a service in return. They make the quality of life of their users worse, in other words. I have no business teaching writing in a college program.

But then, Herman Melville asks that question he always asks me: Who ain't a slave?

How many jobs on Earth have no ethical downside? Even a doctor or nurse is part of a medical-insurance complex that favors the wealthy, overcharges, mis-charges, and makes mistakes born of cost-cutting. Soldiers are selfless, perhaps, but they can be used as pawns in terrible political machinations. Even if I try to picture the job with the least negative impact in the world I can imagine: organic farmer, say, or massage therapist for cancer patients, if you put your salary in a bank, you are putting it into an investment package that includes stealth bombers, strip mining, and private prison companies. Not that there aren't jobs that more or less directly feed the beast, only that nobody who consumes anything is really totally innocent.  Even an organic farmer has to sell his kale to a few Wall Street crooks.

I have tried several times and failed to write a story about a young man who visits the Holocaust Memorial and draws the conclusion that efficiency is an enemy of man. He feels that society needs lazy and unproductive people to act as a natural drag on the speed of progress. If society is ever headed in the wrong direction, these braking mechanisms help to keep it from going too far. I often attempt to write the character as the head of a lazy yet stubbornly popular cult movement. This character encourages massive under-employment: spending thousands of parental dollars on useless academic degrees followed by long stints in retail, that sort of thing.

Maybe most people are sort of in this under-employed category. We might make better salaries than a stock clerk, but our essential alienation from our labor ensures we're probably never working too terribly hard at it. But in a job like writing teacher, I think there's an assumption on the part of the customer that you do love your job, that it's more a calling than a way to pay the bills. So maybe there's more dishonesty in doing a job like this cynically than there is in working at a job where it's assumed you're living out your Plan B. The main character in my story "Infection"--which, again, I can't apologize enough for being hard to read in the format presented--plays blues music, but insists he can do it without particularly liking the music he plays. He ends up smashing the heart of someone who has a more spiritual and earnest relationship to the music he plays.

On the other hand, maybe one could argue, like Jonas Nightengale in Leap of Faith, that by giving people the hope that they might become writers, you're giving them their money's worth.

It's just a thought experiment, and not one I have a definitive answer to. Maybe one day, after I've published a hundred stories, I'll feel like I actually could teach somebody something. Until then, with my fourth due out in July, it seems a little too dishonest to pretend to sell a platinum package I almost certainly couldn't deliver.


  1. By the time you have published a hundred stories, you must have taught something to those who have read yours. Indeed a writing instructor yet alienated from being one off officially wearing that hat

  2. I'm a little troubled that the ethical question disappears depending on your level of desperation. A little too situational, I think. At any rate, do you seriously claim that nothing intellectual happens in an MFA program? That seems a bit much.

    1. Much like I'm willing to believe that some people found--completely contrary to my experience--that the Marine Corps is a great place to develop and become a better person, I'm willing to believe others had better graduate writing program experiences than I did. The problem for me was always the workshop. I don't believe anything useful happens in workshops as I experienced them. They are too unfocused, too full of people with bad advice, and generally too much a waste of time like a corporate meeting. Even the use of "workshop" as a verb (let's workshop this story) sounds like buzzword talk borrowed from industry.

      For the amount of money being spent, I'd have hoped for a lot more attention from the actual expert in the room. I guess all colleges do this nowadays: they have students break into discussion groups to bore each other with their bad ideas because pedagogical theory has determined for some reason that students learn better this way than just listening to the guy with the degree talk.

      As for the other issue, I agree you can't just say that a guy is okay to do whatever he's got to do to feed his family. I don't think "I needed to pay my bills" justifies becoming a drug lord, for example. I do think that the more difficulty one has in finding a job in the economy, the more one might justifiably seek employment somewhere legal but not exactly ideal. An individual is not responsible for economic conditions that lead to the supply of jobs, and we all have to make the best choices we can with the macroeconomic constraints we're given. I don't know exactly where I'd draw the line, only that writing instructor doesn't cross it for a guy in real trouble but drug dealer does.