Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Mark Slouka challenges the integrity of the Columbia MFA in writing

in the Columbia Spectator. (Thanks to Ben for the link.)


  1. Funnily enough, I just had a conversation about this with my c.writing professor, who thinks that some of this is sour grapes, and that some of the criticisms he makes of the students are unfair given that these students have already progressed with multiple semesters of coursework. As for his professorial criticisms, it was observed that some professors are primarily editors, not writers.

    I'm not really cognizant of the MFA program so I'm not really aware of whether or not his criticisms, or my professor's rebuttals, are accurate. But I wonder - if he had gotten tenure and stayed here at CU, would he still have written this piece at this point?


  2. A few comments on the article:
    These complaints flow through nearly every MFA program. They're not so much as sour grapes as they are honest complaints.

    Universities are a hotbed of nepotism -- that's always so. Friends get jobs and often those who have been for years are under no obligation to produce. Even in the 1990's I knew someone who obtained a job for what was widely rumored to be the result of sharing a bed with the Chair. This person was awarded having no teaching skills, horrible interpersonal skills, and an appalling professional record. C'est la vie -- it's as it always was. Don't be so surprised. In this case, half the tenured faculty sent a letter of protest, and to no avail, of course.

    Criteria for judging works has long been deconstructed and re-evaluated. Is it any wonder the schools cannot develop a grading rubric? Thus the pass fail system works. It also keeps things moving, keeps the degrees heading to the hands of young writers, keeps the money flowing in. I mean, which one of those profs would dare say so and so has no talent -- they'd most likely be proven wrong to their own embarrasment.

    Further, the tenured crowd has always felt threatened by new blood. It's easier to hire someone who never rocks the boat rather than bring on someone who will make you look bad in terms of publications and energy. Hey, these tenureds are out to protect their hallowed reputations, the last thing they want is for someone to make them look self-absorbed or lazy about teaching (which most of them are).
    They would never hire Slouka -- he calls them on their hobbyhorses.

    It is true that great artists do not necessarily make great teachers, and likewise great teachers often do not publish as much as others. They won't see this. They want their buddies, they want to fill quotas based on race, gender, style of work, and anything else you can devise. I'm not knocking a diverse faculty but I value great teaching over any other criteria.

    The trustees are out of the loop, they care, but they don't want to invest any time, they feel nothing will come of it, they believe and will be told by the department that things are running just fine and they will say, because they will be told by people like this quoted prof, that it's just a bunch of sour grapes. It's not. It's generally legitimate. Ask any adjunct who has neither tenure nor benefits, who has no job security or health care, they'll tell you honestly and you'll find they agree with most everything said above.

  3. I do think it's outrageous though that Columbia charges so much and offers so little financial aid to so few of its MFA candidates. What these young writers who enter the program don't understand is what they need when they leave the program is time and freedom from financial burdens so they can pursue their writing. Instead, those of them without wealthy parents to bail them out are going to have to work high-stress jobs for many years paying off that $75,000 + of student debt.

    I also understand that the writers coming out of the Columbia program are very socially and ethnically homogenous, because only the affluent can afford the program.

  4. As a second-year MFA student in the writing program at Columbia, I can attest to the fact that "the affluent" are hardly filling up the seats in seminar rooms. We're all strapped for money - most of us work partime jobs, take hefty student loans, and eat a lot of peanut butter. And love what we do. And are glad we're here.

  5. Check it out...

  6. The truth is Slouka wanted tenure at Columbia and felt slapped in the face when he didn't get it. Chicago offered him double money, instant tenure and the power of being chair of the program. But it wasn't what Slouka wanted. If he had wanted it, he wouldn't have asked students to go to bat for him and he wouldn't have appealed the initial refusal.
    What is sad is that he is kicking the very students who supported him.
    He's made enemies when he didn't have to.
    And sadly Slouka was not a model teacher. He missed many classes, lost student's papers and failed to show up for office hours. He also failed to show up for the thesis readings of most of his students. He was there only one night.


  8. I am a recent alumni of the CU MFA Fiction program, and the entire time I was a student there, Mark was a teacher. What I would like to know is this: what was Mark doing to improve the situation? And if it was such a mediocre place, why did he appeal his tenure rejection? Note that he does not have much to say about how he tried to institute change, but instead admits that he wanted tenure and finds it arbitrary that he was not awarded it.

    Furthermore, I feel sorry for the students at University of Chicago. Mark was one of the people who chose those who were admitted to CU, and he still thought we were bad writers. What will he say about the students there?

  9. My hands are tied here in terms of commenting: I've got no direct knowledge of the program (nor of Slouka), and yet I'm a Columbia faculty member & feel it's inappropriate to make public statements that imply any kind of superior insight!

    I agree, though, that the article features a kind of rhetorical failure, by which I mean to say that its author fails to persuade me that his critique isn't related to the denial of tenure. And it's hard not to feel that he would have turned a blind eye to the offenses he implies, had he received it; which is not a very appealing thought.

    I hope this isn't inappropriate--I didn't want to leave the impression that I'd cited his article as something I clearly supported, and yet I do feel I'm in an awkward position because of the combination of my job & the public nature of the forum. Any Columbia affiliate who wants to know more of my thoughts is welcome to e-mail me privately with questions or comments, in any case.

  10. I too am a second year student in the writing division, and I can say this is something we are all talking about. As a former student of Mark's I can say that in class he was fairly inspirational, but horrible in all other ways.

    He had his two or three favorite students in each class, and if you were lucky enough to be one of them, he really went to bat for you as a writer. For everyone else he was, developmentally, a negative force. I was in one class where, after only ten minutes of discussion about a very funny piece writing (that was later published in one of the big literary journals, if 'big' and 'literary' can coexist in the same sentence) he interrupted the student who was speaking, saying, "there's really not much that can be said about comedy though. Let's move on." He then proceeded to spend an hour and a half going over a very rough draft from one of his favorite students about a son who starts screwing his mom after college then kills her. It wasn't a terrible story, but hearing Mark wax poetic with an over-abundance of reverence about the 'danger' of the author's choices was difficult to bear.

    I am embarassed to say that I too started turning in pieces that Slouka liked as well. Incest, boring conversations about nothing, and characters with great potential that achieve nothing were his favorite parts of literature. After the class was over, I felt dirty for trying to please him. Dirtier still because he counted me as one of the good ones (which he freely told me in conference at the same time as he bashed the work of some of my peers). After that, I was one of the students trying to help get his tenure rejection reviewed. So many people supported him in that process. Alan Ziegler, who is the chair that gets skewered in Mark's letter, was the one who put him up for tenure review in the first place. Then the maligned School of the Arts seconded Alan's nomination and supported Mark fully in the process. Then there were all of his students. We wrote letters to the president, we lied on our student evaluation forms about how great he was as a reader and teacher of writing; ultimately it was the University--not the writing division that gave Mark the boot.

    Looking back, I can say the tenure board at Columbia University made the exact right decision. If there is a "culture of mediocrity" in the writing division, as he says in his letter, getting rid of Mark Slouka was a great first step toward rectifying that problem.

  11. At Columbia, Slouka was renowned for ignoring students, standing up students, losing student papers, failing to grade papers, etc. He served on few committees and barely bothered with meetings unless there was something at stake for him.

    He is repeating all of that again at Chicago.

    At Columbia, Slouka was on the admissions committee -- so if students weren't up to par, Slouka had a hand in that.

    At Columbia, Slouka had a policy of not reading drafts, which is probably why his student theses were unreadable.

    Slouka blasts the credentials of Columbia faculty, then turns around and hires three lecturers at Chicago who have one book published between them (two if you count the self-published one).

    He blasts nepotism than hires a colleague's wife as one of the three lecturers.

    He is very charming, handsome and talks a good game. But he is also self-serving, self-absorbed and incredibly bitter.

  12. a quick note for those of you who write in with such gems as "only the affluent can afford..." etc. etc. "homogeneous student body".... i was accepted to the program and i intend to go...affluent? i think not. i work a $10/hour job and the balance in my savings account can approximately pay for a dinner for three. i'm just tired of people weighing in on the "columbia mfa debate" without bothering to look at the facts. many students opt to go into considerable debt hoping this program will provide an environment in which to develop as a writer...though we all know the record of that development occurs privately, in the act of writing...........