I have occasionally identified my master’s degree by the more common term MFA (Master of Fine Arts), but it is time, once and for all, to own my MPW (Master of Professional Writing).
For those of you unfamiliar, the traditional English MFA in creative writing requires the student to specialize in one genre, either fiction or poetry, while the remaining classes are devoted to the study of literature. MFAs in screenwriting and playwriting also exist, but those are offered by film and theatre schools.
In contrast, the MPW is a multi-disciplinary degree in which the student specializes in one genre but is required to take workshops in the other forms. For example, I majored in fiction, but I also took courses in nonfiction, poetry, and playwriting—in addition to classes on the business side of publishing, where we learned how to collaborate with agents and editors. (Screenwriting was also offered, but I already completed several years of those classes and wanted to diversify my training.) The University of Southern California, my alma mater, was the first institution to offer the MPW in 1971 and has been the model ever since.
The difference between an MPW and MFA may seem small; so why am I telling you this?
The name of the degree speaks to the larger issue of perception.
I used to think that saying I had an MFA would be easier for people to understand than designating the lesser known MPW. The degrees are on par with each other, but the MFA commands a more common brand.
This is where the issue lies.
By taking the path of least resistance, I gave short shrift to my own decisions and identity. I chose USC because I agreed, and can now confirm, that practicing multiple writing disciplines reinforces the others. My fiction improved because I practiced poetry and playwriting. I explored the devices that worked in those mediums, then used my experience to heighten the unique traits of fiction and vice versa. Since graduation, I’d forgotten some of these lessons.
However, my approach to my craft and career has changed in the past six months. I don’t understand the full effects yet because I’m still in flux. Suffice it to say, I have grown a new confidence and have chosen, once again, to raise my MPW flag. I now see educational interactions as an opportunity to inform others about what makes my training special.
(Author’s note: I wrote the above section two months ago after having the MPW/MFA debate with friends. What follows is the context that inspired me to finish this article.)
Last week I received the unfortunate news that the USC Master of Professional Writing program is coming to an end. I emailed the College dean regarding my concerns and received a form rejection in reply. He, or at least his assistant, knows the writing life better than I thought:
I have come to the decision that Dornsife’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program will cease admissions and begin a phase-down, with the aim to graduate current students no later than Spring 2016, after which the program will come to a close. I recognize the excellent pedagogy of the MPW program, and have made this determination solely as a business decision. I have complete confidence in the current program director, Brighde Mullins, and will work in partnership with the program’s leadership and in consultation with College faculty to maintain the high quality of this program through the next couple years as it draws to a close with its final class.
Steve A. Kay, PhD
I told Dean Kay that I understand if USC must engage in creative destruction to move in another direction, and I’ll bet this new course involves the creation of a traditional English MFA.
The USC English department, from which I earned my BA in fiction, offers one of the leading PhDs in literature and creative writing–a recent invention. The feather missing from their cap is an MFA program because MPW has been serving those students.
My program has also published its own literary journal since 1982, the Southern California Anthology, redeveloped as the Southern California Review during my tenure as an editor. Since most MFA programs publish their own student-run journals, English would certainly prefer to take up that mantle.
This course of action is speculation at this point, but it would be a missed opportunity for USC not to create an MFA to replace MPW. This would raise the prestige of the English department in the traditional manner expected of a university writing program, even though that leaves multi-disciplinary authors unserved.
So, why does this matter?
In terms of the education I received, it doesn’t.
I’m proud of my MPW peers and professors, working writers who behaved more like colleagues and guides to help us bolster our craft. I have since formed professional relationships with many of them. We advise and support one another’s endeavors in both traditional and independent publishing, film and TV, copywriting and advertising, plus everything in between.
In terms of the perception of the MPW degree, politics have real consequences.
(Fair warning: the following delves into the nitty-gritty of academia.)
My concern is that USC has assured us, both verbally and in writing, that “the MPW is a terminal professional degree since it is not intended to lead to an MFA or PhD” (MPW website) and “the MPW is a terminal degree (equivalent to an MFA)” (MPW handbook, p. 13). The curriculum also supports this designation.
For the uninitiated, “terminal” denotes the highest academic achievement in a particular discipline. The MPW/MFA has been considered the highest degree in creative writing. The recent invention of the PhD in literature and writing may seem like a higher credential—and it may be in the distant future—but its focus is more research-based than practical, just like the difference between an MA (Master of Arts) and MFA.
Sadly, I’ve been told certain individuals have unsuccessfully attempted to change the MPW’s status to non-terminal in recent years. There is no precedent or rationale supporting this move, and professors have assured me that USC would not debase their own graduates. Then again, there was no precedent for the creation of the MPW degree 42 years ago.
This is why I want USC to stand behind the Master of Professional Writing, to not harm those graduates interested in teaching, myself included, by retroactively depreciating the MPW to a lesser, non-terminal degree—especially given “the excellent pedagogy” of the program.
Own it, the way we own it
I’ve already argued that an MFA is unnecessary if someone wants to write. After all, Shakespeare, Dickens, and a host of scribes did just fine before the University of Iowa created the first MFA in 1936. Yet if someone wants to teach at the university level, a terminal degree goes a long way toward academic appointments and tenure.
Even though USC will shutter its MPW windows in 2016, I am proud of my master’s program, and I am confident I made the right choice for my creative goals. Now I get to tack a “limited edition” seal to my résumé.
For my MPW peers, there are Facebook and LinkedIn groups for us to stay in touch. We are now an even more select breed of multi-disciplined writers—of professional writers—and we should continue the support we shared during our time on campus.