Interviews

An Intellectual Crucible for Writers: UChicago’s MAPH

Instead of an MFA, UChicago offers a graduate track in Creative Writing through their innovative, accelerated, intellectually challenging MAPH (Master of Arts Program in the Humanities).

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The former Harper Library (now “Cathey Learning Center”) at the University of Chicago.

Chicago is home to three MFA in Creative Writing programs—Roosevelt, Columbia College, and Northwestern—where writers can take the time to focus solely on their craft. But writers who want to combine their creative work with another discipline have options in the city as well. Last month, for instance, we spoke with DePaul University about their MA in Writing and Publishing, which blends the workshop aspects of an MFA with publishing industry expertise.

This week, we chatted with John Wilkinson, Chair for Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Chicago. Instead of an MFA, UChicago offers a graduate student track in Creative Writing through their innovative MAPH (Master of Arts Program in the Humanities). In addition to focusing on their creative work, the MAPH trains writers for one year to become successful scholars before they tackle a PhD, MFA, or some other academic pursuit.

* * *

Adam Morgan: What sets UChicago’s MAPH program apart from the other writing programs in Chicago?

John Wilkinson: The MAPH is a distinctive—even legendary—UChicago program that offers one year of intensive training in critical theory and research skills as a basis for a scholarly career.  Students who opt for Creative Writing workshops and a creative (rather than scholarly) capstone project also take the core theory classes and a range of graduate seminars. From the start, this mix proved attractive to poets, since the poet­-scholar profile is increasingly desirable to university departments. But more fiction and non­fiction writers are now attracted to the MAPH as English departments become further orientated towards Creative Writing. It is an advantage to be able to teach not only fiction workshops but courses on narrative theory or the history of the novel.

The MAPH is not an MFA. Some MAPH students will go on to an MFA at a high-ranked school, and others to a PhD in Creative Writing. Some will continue literary studies to PhD at graduate school while continuing to write. We have a remarkable number of well­-published writers in our PhD program in English, so even without an MFA program we have a very strong graduate Creative Writing community from which MAPH students benefit. Some also become involved with Chicago Review—the best graduate student-edited literary magazine in the nation.

Adam Morgan: How do you respond to Anis Shivani’s infamous claim that MFAs and other university writing programs are “a closed, undemocratic medieval guild system that represses good writing”?

John Wilkinson: It simply isn’t a guild system, since admission is not by birth or social station. Empirically there is much evidence to counter the suggestion that the MFA represses good writing—in extraordinary novels, poems and memoirs. There are risks in the MFA system, but it’s easy to attack a caricature of the workshop that cannot critique a work beyond suggesting a comma be moved. I don’t know any teacher who would countenance this in reality. While I recognize certain MFA-approved styles of poetry (often rewarded by prizes) that bore or irritate me, there are numerous counter­-examples of adventurous writing coming out of MFA programs.

For poetry a real problem is of reception, linked to a meager and pusillanimous critical culture and overwhelming levels of production. On one side are reviews which are little more than extended publisher’s puffs, and on the other (especially on­line) a culture of ad hominem attack whether from right or left, based on inferences about a poet’s political position. It was quite a shock to stumble the other day across John Wheelwright’s reviews in Poetry from the late thirties—so decisive in judgments about poetry!

I do believe in the exercise of judgment, although it’s absurd to judge for an imaginary unified culture. There are many kinds of poetry, and judgment within kinds is desirable and should be risked. Teachers of Creative Writing need to be straightforward in their judgments, or they can mislead students into wasting time better spent in other pursuits. Teachers can be wrong of course, but their wrongness will not thwart a determined writer. I know!

Adam Morgan: What do you look for in the writing of potential students?

John Wilkinson: I can’t answer for all of my colleagues, but what I look for is the pressure of necessity to write, rather than polish. There are many talented students who can produce skillful poems or short stories just as they produce excellent scholarly papers. But to read through a stack of applications is to become disaffected by mere competence. I suppose all teachers long for an unfamiliar note, a different sensibility.

Additionally MAPH applicants need to be able to cope with an intellectually demanding course—there is no point in admitting someone who will feel inadequate. I should note the student­-reported levels of satisfaction with MAPH are extremely high.

Adam Morgan: What kinds of projects are your candidates currently working on?

John Wilkinson:

  • A graphic memoir in the writing style of WG Sebald.
  • A memoir of playing football in the infamous­-for­-football town of Steubenville, OH.
  • An interactive essay/web site about Otherkin, people who claim to be Other: to be black, Asian, Hobbit, dragon, even though they’re not.
  • A personal history of drug use within the Mormon Church.
  • A reported piece about a Burmese migrant community in a conservative Chicago suburb.
  • A Southern Gothic novel/coming of age story about a preacher’s son who loses his father (the preacher) to suicide, then grows up to marry a woman who resembles his mother.
  • A novella about a man searching for his individual identity within the framework of fraternity culture on an American college campus.
  • A novel about a woman who flees a suffocating family life and escapes to California to follow the advice of a psychic who has given her a (clearly flawed) tarot card reading.
  • A collection of short stories about urban alienation, starring a woman who arrives in an unnamed city and sets about trying to make sense of her first job and independence.

Adam Morgan: What drew you to UChicago?

John Wilkinson: Among the attractions: location in a major and affordable city (I’m British so I judge affordability against London); a preference for an urban university rather than a protected campus space; UChicago’s justified reputation for intellectual seriousness of purpose and its recent significant shift of emphasis towards the creative arts; and Chicago’s expanding, ambitious, scrappy, exciting literary scene.

Involvement in shaping arts development at the University, both in Creative Writing and more broadly, continues to offer great opportunities both on campus and through external partnerships. For example, right now I’m organizing a centennial conference on Gwendolyn Brooks involving the Logan Center (the university’s main arts resource), the Arts Incubator in Washington Park, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and the Poetry Foundation.

Adam Morgan: What do you hope candidates leave the program equipped with?

John Wilkinson: With a piece of writing of publication quality and of a quality which will facilitate entry to a top Creative Writing program with full scholarship; with some sense of the direction in which their writing might develop; and with the intellectual confidence to advocate for their own work, and to discuss literary texts in the most demanding company.

Adam Morgan: What do you see in the future of the MAPH program?

John Wilkinson: This is hard to answer since Creative Writing is only one tributary of the MAPH. For our small part of it, I feel we should promote it much more strongly, given the shifts in patterns of employment, and think about how it might feed into a graduate program in future (possibly PhD). There are few jobs for MFA graduates, and the MAPH shows a student has the intellectual druthers to think and write both creatively and critically. There is no person or organization that cannot benefit from such skills.

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