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MA vs MFA Smackdown
Posted By jswann On August 29, 2011 @ 5:21 pm In From The Print Edition,Subfeature | No Comments
“We are all artists and scholars,” proclaims a recent SAIC advertising campaign. When asked how she feels about her place at SAIC, Art History graduate student Hanna Yoo points to that phrase, urging everyone to remember that “artists and scholars basically share the same goal.”
If the strain of insistence seems odd, it isn’t unusual when compared to other responses from MA students. According to Mia DiMeo, a recent graduate from the New Arts Journalism program, the school needs to work harder to promote awareness of her program, “so we’re not looked at like total aliens by faculty and peers.”
It should come as no surprise that, at an art school, students seeking a degree in a field that can’t be qualified as studio arts might feel precarious about their place. But how far does this feeling go? Does it verge into factual territory? When it comes to resources like funding and opportunities, are MFA students actually being favored over their MA brethren?
Such an immense question will obviously draw a variety of responses, depending upon a student’s position and program. However, student testimony quickly coalesced around two main issues: the allocations of opportunities and of space.
Too Few TA-ships?
“In my two years at SAIC, I was constantly seeking TA-ships, travel grants, and other funding that I saw go to MFA students, as well as more recognizable and established MA programs, like Art History, Theory, & Criticism,” claims DiMeo. “I was told time and time again that awards and jobs are given by merit and experience, but that’s simply not always the case.”
Anna Wolak, Mia’s classmate, concurs: “Many of my friends in MFA programs across the U.S. receive either stipends or graduate assistantships. Since New Arts Journalism does not have a corresponding undergraduate program, TA-ships are limited to other departments.” According to Wolak, this exacerbates the difficulty of simple activities, like buying supplies — a difficulty that, according to her logic, would weigh less upon the students of more well-funded departments.
However, Mary Jane Villamor, a recent graduate with an MFA in Writing, casts doubt upon such claims. “All TA positions are posted on Launch and are open to all eligible students to apply,” she points out. “It is is never listed in ‘minimum requirements’ that a student should be an MFA student versus MA. The MFAW department, for example, has no ‘promised’ TA positions.” While she concedes that certain departments do try to arrange TA positions for their students, she believes that the specificity of the courses and the high skill-level demanded from their instructors necessitates a TA from within the department. In her opinion, the distinction has more to do with talent than it does with earning a certain type of degree.
Of the departments surveyed in this article, Painting and Drawing and Photography were the only two that admitted to arranging TA-ships for its students. “Generally, a grad who wishes to TA will be awarded a TA-ship at some point during their MFA, sometimes more than once,” says Eric Lebofsky, Administrative Director of the Painting and Drawing department.
Kathleen McGrath, Senior Administrative Director of the Photography department, outlines a similar policy: “Most of our Photography graduate students that would like a TA job get one, and there are times when more than one TA is offered.” However, she is quick to add, “We also have a lot of applicants from outside the department that are also assigned TA jobs.”
The Art History department stands in contrast. “For the TA-ships in Art History, it’s an open call,” says Shay DeGrandis, Senior Administrative Director of Art History, Liberal Arts, and Visual and Critical Studies. “Anyone can apply for those TA-ships, and our faculty review every application that comes in. We don’t have any TA-ships in Art History that are solely for Art History students.”
While four students within the department are offered guaranteed TA positions, these posts are structured as part of their financial aid package. “Every year, upon admissions we select one student to receive a ‘merit’-based tuition scholarship,” says Nora Taylor, Alsdorf Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art.
“This award is based on their application materials and the ranking they received in the selection process by the graduate committee. The next four students who ranked highest on our list are offered TA-ships. These TA-ships are guaranteed for the two years that they attend SAIC.” The 40 Art History students left over are welcome to submit their applications alongside those of students belonging to other departments.
For students like DiMeo and Wolak, who belong to a still-nascent department, the matter is complicated further. “A program like NAJ — they aren’t going to have TAs for those classes, because those classes are specifically for the graduate students in that program,” says DeGrandis.
Not Enough Space?
One could argue that these differences have more to do with department size, age and resources than it does the MFA/MA distinction. However, it does give students belonging to the Photography and Painting and Drawing departments a palpable advantage over students whose departments are unable to go to such lengths for them. Among other things, a guaranteed TA position ensures that these graduates will go out into the working world with a more impressive resume than someone who was unable to secure such a position.
But Villamor doesn’t consider this an injustice. “MFA is a terminal degree and an MA is not,” she says. “The expectation — or maybe assumption is more accurate — is that if you opt for the MA degree within a program, rather than an MFA, you want to pursue a PhD. If one were to prioritize, wouldn’t one give a higher priority to people receiving an MFA degree, who are not continuing school and are about to go out in the job market?”
While the administration might frame their decision according to the demands of the job market, they do seem to regard the distinguishing characteristic of the MA program as being an essentially scholarly pursuit. According to Carrie Gundersdorf, Assistant Director of the Graduate Division, “The school spends less on classroom resources for the MFA student, but more on studio space.” She claims that “the MFA experience is more similar to an artist residency, with less class time and more emphasis on individual practice.” On the other hand, “within the MA programs, the students get first choice with classes at school, mainly in the academic area.”
MFA students concur, and worry about their ability to find jobs compared to their more academic-minded counterparts. “I don’t really feel that MA students are slighted at all in terms of resources,” says Leif Sandburg, a second year MFA student. “Some of them will have a definite advantage over MFA students finding jobs after school.”
However, there are some MA students who feel that the importance of their scholarly pursuits go unacknowledged. “Despite the fact that writing a thesis is a degree requirement for all MA students, none of us are given carrels in which to work during the year that we must complete this thesis,” says Kelsey Nelson, a graduate student in the Art Education department. “When I wrote a thesis at the undergraduate level, I was guaranteed a desk in a library carrel suite. Frankly, I interpret this inequality as a statement that the practice and scholarship of MA students is not valued as much as that of MFA students, and I know that many of my fellow MA students would agree.”
Anna Wolak also encountered difficulties when it came to finding study space. “The point of a studio is to have a place to create. I certainly wanted that,” she says. “The areas designated for MA students to create, like the grad lounge, were not quiet or reclusive enough for writing or photo editing. I ended up haunting the photo cage and the library. It would have been nice to have a private, individual space, especially when doing interviews or transcribing them.”
Hanna Yoo, a graduate student in the Art History department, agrees. “I wouldn’t insist on my own studio, since I don’t really need one,” she says. “But the school should extend the library hours. Since I work on weekdays and Saturdays, Monday is basically the only day I can use the library.” As she points out, Art History students often require ready access to specific books and journals. The Flaxman’s limited hours add an unnecessary difficulty to her studies. While she admits that “we have a nice museum, their library has even more limited hours than the Flaxman.”
Claire Eike, Director of Flaxman Library, says that the library staff cares “passionately about the work we do for the SAIC community and we’re eager to make any improvements that we can.” Yoo’s complaint comes as no surprise to her; she says that she “noticed the MA students’ plea for more hours in the F ‘summer picks’ supplement a couple of months back.” Accordingly, Flaxman’s hours have been changed. It will now stay open until 10:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday, upon the start of the Fall 2011 semester. By way of comparison, both Columbia College Chicago’s and DePaul’s Loop library are also open until 10:00 p.m.
In regards to study space, Eike says that “The Library staff and the school administration recognize that we have inadequate individual study space in Flaxman Library, and almost no group study space.” According to her, “SAIC is developing a Campus Master Plan that will include a long-range vision for the library, but we also want to find interim steps that better address the needs of the students who are here today.”
She urges students with suggestions about how to better meet the needs of MA programs to talk to the Library Committee (a Faculty Senate committee co-chaired by Eike and Mark Booth, Writing faculty), the MA Program Heads (a Faculty Senate committee co-chaired by Candida Alvarez, Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor of Painting and Drawing) or the Strategic Planning Action Group charged with developing a Campus Master Plan (co-chaired by Paul Ashley, Associate Professor of Liberal Arts, and Ed McNulty, Senior Vice President of Planning and Chief Operating Officer of SAIC).
Eike points out that the school has had to evolve as it expanded to include MA programs, and therefore might still be lagging in a few areas. However, she believes that SAIC is making strides to meet all the needs of its students.
Nevertheless, there are still those who believe that these interim steps are not enough. A longstanding point of contention amongst MA students has been the fact that oftentimes three or four different departments will be forced to share one lounge. For example, the Art History department, the Visual and Critical Studies department, and the New Arts Journalism department share one lounge and three computers on the seventh floor of the MacLean Building.
“I’ve actually just gotten the MA students another space to use because we have so many students packed into such a small space,” says Shay DeGrandis. “I’ve complained to the administration about that numerous times. I’m like, ‘You keep adding new programs to the MA academics here at SAIC, but you don’t give them any more space.’ And that’s really unfair.”
By way of comparison, Sound students — in addition to partaking in the Studio lottery — have “access to several graduate-only workstations, which we configure, budget permitting, in response to student requests,” says Nicolas Collins, head of the Sound department. “They also have pretty open access to all our other studios. And this summer we underwent a facilities expansion that includes a communal graduate studio/lounge and a new modular analog system designed by the grad students.”
For Painting and Drawing students, “studio space is paramount,” says Erik Lebofsky. “Therefore, we make sure to provide ample studios with adequate ventilation and naturally lit critique spaces. In terms of artificial lighting in critique spaces, we are in the process of installing daylight fluorescent fixtures in place of the incandescent track light that was previously employed.”
This stands in stark contrast to the case of the VCS department, for instance, according to DeGrandis.
“We have a lot of trouble with those students,” she states, “because they actually make things but they’re considered an MA, so we can’t really get them studio spaces. They have to share this sort of lounge-y space with other programs, but it doesn’t really fit what they do.” Despite SAIC’s inter-disciplinary philosophy, accommodating the interdisciplinary nature of the VCS department has proven troublesome.
“They added this extra MA[NAJ] program and they were just like, ‘Well, since Shay — that department — is taking care of them, they can just use the same space as everyone else,’” she says. “Which is totally unfair and completely, as far as I’m concerned, irresponsible.”
According to DeGrandis, she has “always complained about [space], and the answer is always that because they’re academics, that because they don’t need a massive amount of space to actually work on something and everybody has a laptop, so they can go anywhere with it. That’s always the excuse I get from administration about not having a larger common space than what I have.”
But Paul Coffey, Vice Provost, points out that the communal computers are installed with a reader to track how often they are being used.
If use isn’t particularly high, the administration will interpret that as evidence that there’s no need for a space expansion. To support his claim, he points to the communal lounge on the seventh floor of Sharp, shared between the Art Education department, the Art Therapy department, the Art Administration department, and the Writing department; according to the readers, usage of those computers is actually fairly low.
In Coffey’s opinion, the administration is receptive to the needs of expanding departments, and collaborates closely with department heads to meet the most pressing priorities. This oftentimes includes space, since “we are on an urban campus, and space is at a premium.” However, the school does attempt to meet this need whenever possible. As proof, he points to the Writing Department’s new Book Lab, which will be opening on the second floor of the Legacy extension; he also made mention of the new space for Art History students that DeGrandis requested.
Coffey believes it is important that students realize that funding is dispersed in different ways and according to different needs. “The education of an MFA student is structured around a different paradigm than an MA student,” he says, and the paradigm of the MFA is rather dependent upon space: space to create, space to critique, space to be critiqued. “The education of an MA student is course-based, centered around smaller classes and more interaction with more faculty.”
Coffey claims funding is balanced accordingly; but, consequently, the funding allocated to MFA students is much more visible than that of MA students. “MA students look at studios and ask, ‘Why don’t I have that?’ and they can actually point to that, a white cube, and they say, ‘I don’t have that, and yet my tuition is the same.’” Coffey says he is sympathetic to their frustration, but he believes that once all the details are unpacked, all the nuances of the situation become apparent.
When asked if she regrets her decision to attend SAIC, Hanna Yoo is quick to point out all the benefits that scholars and artists derive from being near one another. “I’ll ultimately work with artists throughout my entire career,” she says. “Similarly, I believe that artists also learn how scholars or art journalists see their work and integrate their feedback into their practice.” Since both are integral parts of the art world, “it’s beneficial to be surrounded by both and get prepared for the real world.”
Leif Sandburg, however, believes that such contact is unfortunately rare. “I have not met too many people in the MA department,” he says. He admits that “part of that is my own studio practice, but part of it is the school is not quite as cross-disciplinary as it seems.”
According to Sandburg, professor Daniel Quiles in the Art History, Theory and Criticism department tried to bridge that gap, and deeply impressed him. “He organized studio visits/critiques for MFA students and had people in the MA programs come in and talk about our work.” While such a project works perfectly in keeping with SAIC’s interdisciplinary mission, Sandburg is left wishing that “there were more ventures like that.”
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