The Creative Precariat, or Why Do People Keep Getting MFAs??

Over the past half century, the number of MFA-granting creative writing programs in the United States has increased rapidly, from 15 in 1975, to 31 by 1984, 64 by 1994, 109 by 2004, and then an astonishing 244 by 2016 (according to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), and graduate programs are proliferating internationally as well across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And yet the utility of the MFA, and the wisdom of pursuing one, remains uncertain. Conferring them is surely profitable for colleges and universities but receiving one does not guarantee success in the field and can frequently leave the recipient in considerable debt. Although the degree is intended to certify competence in creative writing, it actually, and more pragmatically, prepares one to teach creative writing in a field that increasingly relies on contingent labor. Indeed, if one measured the success of any given program by the number of successful writers it produced, even the best would rate poorly. As Kurt Vonnegut once proclaimed, “Virtually everyone’s going to fail.  If you ran a school of pharmacy like that it would be a scandal.”

So why do so many people pursue MFAs, and what do they do with their lives after they receive one? And what is their role, in aggregate, in the contemporary creative economy, where content is king? We hope to answer these questions by creating a database of information about recent MFA recipients large enough to generate valid statistics for quantitative analysis, and from which a selection of individual and representative stories can be extracted for qualitative analysis. The result will be a book-length portrait of a class fragment we’re calling the Creative Precariat.

In order to gather this data, we have constructed an IRB-approved online survey with questions about age, gender, race, region, nationality, and class, alongside educational and professional information about degrees conferred, jobs held, and writing published. This data will be entered into a spreadsheet from which we will generate visualizations to illustrate our quantitative analysis. As we proceed, we will select representative individuals for in-depth follow-up interviews to illustrate our qualitative analysis. The final project will integrate these analyses, starting with a statistical overview and then moving into individual chapters focusing on representative examples.  

Do you have, or have your pursued, an MFA in creative writing? If so, please fill out our survey:  It only takes twenty minutes.




The Kunstlertelenovela, or Autofiction in the Streaming Age

One sign of the persistence of the Program Era into the new millennium is the increasing prominence of creative writers, both as authors and subjects, on streaming television, indicating a socioeconomic and semiotic synergy between MFA programs and streaming content, both of which continue to proliferate despite the precarity of the career opportunities they provide. One of the first prominent instances of this synergy was Lena Dunham’s breakthrough series Girls, which was both by and about a young creative writer unstably suspended between MFA and NYC, striving for success and stature in a gig economy that at best provides only tenuous opportunities and temporary successes.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere (, Girls reflects, and reflects upon, the rise of creative nonfiction as a subdiscipline, and autofiction as a subgenre, of the Program Era, and affirms the apotheosis of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as locus classicus of the affective anxieties and aesthetic protocols of creative writing as a career choice. Less obvious as a site of such reflection is Jane the Virgin, an American remake of the Venezuelan telenovela about a 23-year-old virgin (she’s 17 in the Venezuelan original) who is accidentally artificially inseminated with the sperm of a playboy hotelier (by his lesbian sister doctor) on whom she had a crush in high school. When I began watching this show, on the insistence of my wife, I had no idea it would have anything to do with creative writing, but it does.  

But before we even got to that subplot, I had to contend with a sneaking suspicion that the premise of the show was covertly, or even not so covertly, pro-life. After being deeply moved by her deeply Catholic abuela’s conviction that a girl must maintain her virginity until marriage, Jane Villanueva (played by the thirty-eight-year-old Chicago-born Gina Alexis Rodriguez) has fallen in love with a man she hopes to marry when she is accidentally inseminated. The entire series then turns on her decision not to have an abortion, even though that would seem to be the most sensible thing for her to do, given that she’s planning to marry and lose her virginity to her true love, a detective in the Miami Police Department (played by Canadian actor Brett Jordan Dier). But Jane refuses to have an abortion, throwing the story into motion as her fiancée and the father of her baby, both breathtakingly handsome, vie for her love. Everything that happens afterward—and a lot of things happen afterwards; in true telenovela fashion each episode compresses a lifetime of dilemmas and decisions into fifty minutes—stems from her initial choice. And many of the many plots and subplots turn on each character’s responsibility for the preternaturally cute (but temperamentally tantrum-prone) child, Mateo, who is born in the final episode of the first season and grows up over the course of the rest of the series. If Jane had an abortion none of this would have happened, not so subtly suggesting a parallel between the impetus of the show and the birth of the child, and also strongly implying an underlying moral message that the obligation to care for the child bonds the characters and brings out the best in everyone.

What kept me watching was the revelation in the first episode that Jane wants to be a creative writer!  At the center of this soap operatic narrative—which proliferates the standard plot permutations of mistaken identities, mysterious criminal conspiracies, secret twins, returns from the dead, and serial breakups and reconciliations—sits a kunstlerroman about a young woman, a Latina raised on telenovelas, who wants to get an MFA in creative writing while raising a baby as a (sometimes) single mother. This Program Era plot provides an overlay of metacommentary to the entire series, as Jane struggles to write and publish a romance novel based on her life which is, of course, also the subject of the show we’re watching. On the one hand, this means that the show includes multiple scenes and subplots mapping out the contemporary literary field, including editors and authors, MFA programs and writers’ retreats, readings and reviews, all centered on the literary ambitions of our protagonist. On the other hand, it means that the show itself is “workshopped” in real time, insofar as components of the storyline, such as plot twists or character motivations, serve as loci of creative decision-making and revision. 

Indeed, I have concluded that Jane the Virgin IS a workshop, for writing and for life, and for life-writing. The romance genre from which it springs has always been about vicariously test-driving relationship skills, especially in the days when selecting a mate was a matter of marriage for life. In the contemporary era of serial monogamy these skills remain crucial, and the endless plot permutations of Jane the Virgin can essentially be understood as speculative exercises in the challenges and opportunities presented by emotional and sexual attachments. Since Jane is also a romance writer, the show doubles as a writing workshop, as she works to attain the skill necessary to render these challenges in her writing, educating her readers in turn. By bringing these challenges together the show becomes, in essence, a workshop in contemporary autofiction; it teaches us how to navigate life by writing about it, and vice versa. 

Public Records Part II

Note:  This post follows up on the post of June 28 regarding my ongoing attempts to access the administrative records of the Writers’ Workshop, for which I have had to make a FOIA Public Records Request through the University of Iowa’s Transparency Office:

Public Records Request

Thanks to the generosity of Mark McGurl I have now received a redacted version of the Director’s Files from the Frank Conroy Era currently housed under restriction as part of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Records in the Special Collections and University Archives of the UI Library.  I received 21 pdf files totaling 626 pages.  They are organized and named alphabetically starting with “A_Redacted.”  According to the Transparency Office these files represent about ¾ of the entire series I requested.  The Workshop was provided with the opportunity to withhold materials prior to the Transparency Office’s redactions.

Before I discuss what’s in the redacted records I’d like to summarize what’s in the Workshop records as a whole (their record-keeping has in fact been quite thorough), how the authority over access to these records has shifted since my FOIA request, and the state and federal laws that will determine access in the future.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop Records consist of 13 series of varying sizes and provenance.  Here is the content description from the Library Finding Aid:

Series I: Student Coursework, consists of photocopies of students’ works arranged by semester and class section within each semester. It is the largest series in the collection, dating from Fall 1965 to the present. Note that a few of the semesters are filed out of chronological sequence.

Series II, Award Competitions, consists of writing entries from individuals vying for scholarships and other awards.

Series III, Students and Alumni, consists of files containing correspondence, applications, and other material, arranged alphabetically by name of individual within each accrual. Note that accrual dates cover academic years  e.g., 1986-91 covers the 1986-87 to 1991-92 academic years. Restricted access.

Series IV, Faculty, is arranged alphabetically by name of individual. Restricted access

Series V, Director’s Files, consists of correspondence and other material created and received by the Office of the Director. Restricted access.

Series VI, Administrative Files. Restricted access.

Series VII, Accepted  Not Coming. Restricted access

Series VIII, Rejected Applicants’ Evaluation Sheets. Restricted access

Series IX, Applicants’ Letters of Recommendation. Restricted access.

Series X, Ephemera, includes posters and other printed matter, dating from 1982 to present.

Series XI, Stephen Wilbers Project, consists of correspondence and interview notes prepared by an alumnus of the Workshop who prepared a history of the program in 1980.

Series XII, Jean Wylder Project, consists of survey responses obtained from numerous alumni during the early 1970’s as part of a history project. The responses are arranged by era of attendance/graduation.

Series XIII, Newsletters, consists of newsletters released once or twice yearly since 1970 chronicling the publishing activity of Workshop alumni and students, as well as Workshop programs and events.

The original restrictions consisted in consulting with the University Archivist and the Workshop.  Since my request, access to Series I-IX of these records comes under the authority of the Transparency Office. This includes the 380 boxes of student coursework running from 1965-2011, which prior to my request were under no restriction at all.  Anyone wishing access to these records must now file a FOIA request with the UI Transparency Office and pay for its processing (as an example, the charge for reviewing the Director’s Files was $1080; the estimate for processing the remainder of the administrative records is $12,000).

Two laws are used by the University of Iowa Transparency Office in redacting requested records, one federal and one state:

  • The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99), that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.


  • Chapter 22.7 of the Iowa Code concerning the Examination of Public Records.

I anticipate that these laws, and others like them, will restrict access to educational records for future researchers into the history of the Program Era.


So what’s in the records that I received and what was redacted?

Selectively and roughly alphabetically here are some examples:

A redacted copy of the AWP’s 1992 Survey of Creative Writing Programs filled out by Conroy.  The redactions are interesting, and indicate some of the difficulties researchers will face in determining the demographic composition of creative writing cohorts.  Since the law apparently dictates that any statistical measure of 6 or fewer risks exposing individual identities (I say apparently because I couldn’t find this specified in either law), we can know that in 1992 the Workshop had 55 men and 45 women enrolled, but we can’t know how many (if any) of them were American Indian, Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, or “Other.”  Nor are we allowed to know the gender or ethnic background of the faculty (though we do know that 7 are Full Professors and 5 are Adjuncts).

A_Excerpts 30

Extensive discussion with the upper administration concerning the awarding of Teaching-Writing Fellowships (TWiFs as they were colloquially known) and their importance in competing with other programs for students.  All student names in these discussions are redacted.

Much discussion with a series of English Department Chairs regarding the administrative autonomy of the Workshop.  Indeed, the process whereby the Workshop achieved this autonomy, ultimately resulting in their move to Dey House, is documented in some detail in these pages.

An itinerary for, though no results from, the External Review conducted of the Workshop by Nicholas Delbanco and Stephen Tatum in 1992.

A series of increasingly testy exchanges about violations of the smoking policy in the English-Philosophy Building (EPB).  Though the violator is never named, it is well-known that Conroy was a chain smoker.

Correspondence with or about Frederick Barthelme, Saul Bellow, Annie Dillard (about the possibility of adding a Literary Nonfiction Track to the WW), Gail Godwin, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Tom McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, and Roger Strauss.

A Graduate Writing Faculty Assistance Survey issued by the University of Houston and filled out by Conroy which confirms that faculty meet with graduate students a “fair amount” in “bookstores, local bar and local restaurant (Foxhead, The Mill),” in a “miraculously open” climate, and affirms that the criterion for acceptance includes “the pressure of the soul behind the language.”

C 15

Extensive correspondence, internal and external, some redacted, involving funding, for TAships, visiting writers, copy machines (they made 100,000 copies a month), and more.

Numerous redacted nominations for prizes and awards.

A letter to all Workshop Faculty discouraging them from conducting workshops in their homes.


This is only a selection; there is more in these records, far more than I have any use for (and none of it violating any privacy or confidentiality laws). Unfortunately, I’m not sure where the funding will come from to redact the remaining administrative records, nor where they would be housed if the funding is secured.  At this point, what I’ve received is housed in a folder in my Dropbox account.  Do let me know if you’d like access.


Public Records Request

For folks who are interested in the backstory behind the article recently published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, this blog post will fill you in.

After lengthy deliberation and extensive work in the University Archives, I’ve decided to write a literary history of Iowa City to be called City of Literature.  I have already repeatedly consulted the papers of Paul Engle, George Starbuck, and John Leggett, but material from the Conroy era was under restriction.  According to the online finding aid, this material was accessible with permission from the Writers’ Workshop. In March, I decided to request permission for access to these records.

To my surprise, I was instructed to make a request through the Transparency Office. When I wrote them to confirm they agreed that this was highly unusual; indeed they later confirmed that they had never received a comparable request and have never worked with the University Archives. Here is their portal:

After some deliberation, I decided to go ahead and submit the request. A few months later I received this cost estimate:

Professor Glass,

Below are descriptions of Series IV-VI, the approximate number of pages to be reviewed in each series, and the estimated staff time involved with reviewing each page for confidential information or other information exempt from disclosure.

This estimate includes only the time it will take to review all of the records and to identify which ones are subject to disclosure (in full, or with redactions) under the state open records law. If you decide to proceed with this request, we will send you an invoice and begin the process of reviewing the records after we receive your payment. Once the initial review has been completed, we will send you a second estimate for the time it will take to then copy or scan the records which may be disclosed and to make any necessary redactions. At this time, we are not able to provide you with the second estimate because we won’t know how many records will need to be copied/scanned or redacted until the initial review is complete.

As we have previously informed you, and as the descriptions below indicate, many of these records are likely to contain information exempt from disclosure under Iowa Code Chapter 22, such as confidential personnel information or student/FERPA records. Although we are estimating that a considerable amount of time will be required to review all of these records, please be aware that many records may still end up being withheld.

The review times below were calculated based on an average rate of 8 seconds per sheet for Series IV, and 10 seconds for each sheet for Series V and VI (due to greater complexity among the records in the latter two series).

Series IV (Faculty series)

Description: Letters of recommendation, evaluations, criticisms of submissions, applications, appointment sheets (which contain hire and separation dates, position description, date of birth, salary, SSN). Arranged alpha by name.

1 box containing approximately 3,240 sheets

Time estimate for review: 7.2 hours

Series V (Director’s files series)

Description: Administrative correspondence of Workshop director Frank Conroy, which includes correspondence regarding faculty and staff appointments, internal funding, external fundraising, personal professional development activities, and letters of recommendation

1 box containing approximately 3,240 sheets

Time estimate for review: 9 hours

Series VI (Administrative series)

Description: A wide range of records, such as financial aid records, Ida Beam Professorship files (including applications, evaluations of candidates), gift acknowledgments, correspondence including letters of recommendation, award competitions, self-studies.

21 boxes containing approximately 63,720 sheets

Time estimate for review: 177 hours

Total time estimate for initial review: 193.2 hours (billed at a rate of $30/hour, with the first hour free of charge)

Please let us know if you would like to proceed with all or part of this request, and we will send you the first invoice. We will begin reviewing the records once we receive your payment.



As you can see, this adds up to at least $6,000, and that doesn’t include the cost of acquiring the records I need for my project. I am currently looking into funding possibilities. In the meantime, I will be posting my progress, since this entire process is now a matter of public record and public concern. Feel free to post comments and suggestions.

More to follow!

Year One

updated snip[1]

Here’s a mockup of one visualization we’re considering to access MFA cohorts by year. As you can see, 1932 conveniently emerges as Year One of the program era insofar as the first two directors of the Workshop, Paul Engle and Wilbur Schramm, both received MAs, alongside Wallace Stegner, who would go on to launch the program at Stanford. Together, they cover the three main genres–poetry, fiction, and nonfiction–that would come to dominate creative writing programs. Norman Foerster, founder of the College of Letters and persistent advocate of the creative thesis, directed Schramm’s thesis. We’ve still haven’t identified the directors for Engle and Stegner, but Foerster is a pretty likely candidate.

Welcome to the Program Era Project!

Welcome to the Program Era Project Blog, where my team and I will be updating you on the latest developments in our efforts to create a comprehensive and flexible research tool for both critics and creative writers.

Our inspiration, of course, is Mark McGurl’s groundbreaking book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard 2009), and especially his call to colleagues in the opening chapter: “We need to start documenting this phenomenon, moving out from the illustrious cases of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford University to grasp the reality of an enterprise that now numbers some 350 institutional participants and continues to grow. This enterprise is our literary history.”

In response to McGurl’s call we intend to create a digital database along with a visualization tool that can be used to map the professional itineraries and social networks of everyone who ever studied or taught creative writing at Iowa since the Workshop’s inception to the present date. Ultimately, we intend to collaborate with Stanford and other “early adopters” of creative writing to map the Program Era as a whole.

We want to emphasize from the outset that we will only be using publicly available information and we will not provide digital access to any textual material currently in copyright. We intend to respect both privacy and confidentiality and we welcome any questions or concerns you may have regarding these matters.

We also have no specific research agenda. Rather, our goal is to provide access to an archive for anyone doing research on the Program Era. We see our project as a supplement to, as opposed to replacement for, conventional research. That said, I do have my own research questions that I will be sharing from time to time, and the team will also use this site as a venue to highlight some of the more interesting information, surprising trends, and unexpected anomalies we encounter.

At this point, we are working on getting everyone in our database so that cohorts and mentoring relations can be easily visualized. We hope that patterns of influence, both individual and institutional, can be traced using this information. We also are including information about hometowns and employment, so that geographical patterns can be mapped. Eventually, we hope to add information about publications and prizes.

More Soon!