I Got an M.F.A And Now I Teach English in the Middle East

In the summer of 2011, I was offered a job in Doha, Qatar, teaching English at Doha’s first and only American-style community college. I took it without hesitation because I was broke. I took it because I was straight up terrified of my mother’s spare futon. I took it because I was suffering from M.F.A. Syndrome.

Pocket

I’d spent three years of my life getting an M.F.A. I’d sacrificed both money and the potential to make money in the name of scholarship and art. (After all, how do you get people to do something without fair remuneration? You feed them ideals. Educated people are as vulnerable to this as anyone else. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.) I left the city I love—New York—to go write and teach in a city I knew I could never love in the same way or as intensely—Houston. I did it because, other than write, this is what writers seem to do now: go to writing programs. I did it without thinking. It was as natural and inevitable as an aspiring doctor going to med school.

The University of Houston was was an obvious choice. The faculty and reputation were good and the funding, though shit, was still better than the other packages I’d been offered at some East Coast programs, so in mid-August 2008 I drove south with my clothes and books and began life in Texas, where I wrote as much as I could while saddled with a full course schedule and an exploitative composition teaching load.

Three years later, I graduated. After two manuscript-size abortions, I had finally written what I thought, and still think, is a worthy novel: imperfect, in need of care. That’s pretty much all I took with me as the academic-industrial complex spit me out into the hot Texas sun: a novel that needed work and a mild sense of artistic accomplishment. But no job.

I’d been rejected, over the course of the spring semester, by six Ph.D. writing programs and seven Ph.D lit programs. By mid-July, I’d been rejected from about seven dozen academic jobs. I started to apply to office jobs in academic offices and elsewhere, jobs that pay twenty-five thousand a year or worse. I got almost no call-backs. I also learned that a graduate degree could actually be a bad thing when you wanted entry-level work. Everyone assumes you’ll hate the work, as if anyone out there loves administrative work.

I took a lot of bitterness with me too. Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” This explains a lot about why so many bitter people come out of graduate programs in the humanities. There’s no shortage of articles about the broken academic system, how unethical it is for schools to pump out masters of fine arts and doctors of philosophy when there isn’t nearly enough full-time work for all of them. I had to stop reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed for a while because it was so depressing.

A few years ago, people considered the M.F.A. to be a terminal degree, which means that within the discipline, it is the highest degree one obtains and you can teach at a university with it. (These days it’s more akin to terminal illness.) But now if you’re going to get an M.F.A., you’d better be prepared to re-up for a Ph.D. after—that or get a book or two published. There are hundreds of creative writing programs granting master’s degrees to thousands of graduates every year. There just aren’t enough jobs out there. If the graduates decide to stay in the academy, they’ll generally become adjuncts or, if they’re lucky, get a fellowship that’ll buy them another year or two. Many will get out of academia, perhaps stay peripherally involved at literary journals or nonprofits. This is the reality of trying to teach as a creative writer, and this doesn’t even really account for a down economy.

Of course I didn’t know about any of this at the time. I thought the M.F.A. was all it was cracked up to be—is still cracked up to be a lot, judging from the ever-increasing numbers of applicants to writing programs.

After graduation, my money was drying up and it looked like I had two choices: move back home to New Jersey to live with my mother and her boyfriend in Asbury Park, or stay to adjunct in Houston. Either choice involved shoving my face deep into a fresh, steaming pan of humble pie and coming up with scalding lips and a proper sense of shame.

Home looked bleak. At my mother’s place there is an office and in the office there is a futon, and this is where I’d be sleeping. There’s no door to the room—it’s more of an enclave than a room—and every morning I would be waking to new copies of The Coast Star or The Asbury Park Press open to the classifieds on the kitchen table. My mother would have circled the waitstaff and receptionist jobs before leaving to teach elementary school in my old school district of Wall Township.

In Houston I would do the adjunct circuit, cranking out overload teaching hours for $1,800 a course, before taxes, though I’d have to do this at multiple institutions, since no one will hire you for more than two or three sections, lest they have to pay you health insurance.

While making my decisions, I would spend hours in coffee shops, reading because it beat reading at home. At home, it was just an avoidance mechanism. If I was out, the reading at least looked scholarly, like I was doing it for reasons other than to ignore the piles of dirty dishes, dirty laundry, and dirty self-loathing piling up around the apartment. I should have been writing, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I would start typing and lose my train of thought thinking of my friends who were starting to filter out of town, off to whatever lives they were going to try to make for themselves elsewhere as adjuncts and fellows and waiters and bookstore clerks.

Mostly what I remember, though, was the numbing, quiet despair that characterized every tired action from turning the ignition in the car to scratching my ass. It felt as if the world had a referendum on me and had decided I was worthless. It was a maudlin thought, sure, but try joining some of your fellow countrymen in Unemployment Land and you’ll see the ludicrous, self-pitying thoughts you come up with. And while the melancholy was certainly about money, it was also about rejection.

But despite the material realities of trying to break into a suffering and unstable professional system, despite my imminent decision between the futon in New Jersey and cobbling together a life in Houston, I still believed I was entitled to my dreams, even if no one else was entitled to theirs. It’s this mentality that keeps fresh, able bodies in humanities graduate programs. While I imagine most of us on the shit-end of higher ed are aware of the blasted dust bowl of the academic job market, we think that won’t be us; we’ll break through. In this way it’s not unlike Hollywood—only it’s not as sexy and the rewards for “making it” are far less lucrative.

But that doesn’t make the tenured position at a major research university or at an idyllic liberal arts college any less of a pipe-dream in 2013.

As it turned out, I could still be a writer while teaching for a respectable salary. But I had to move to the Middle East.

I applied to the job at the Community College of Qatar on a whim. I saw it posted through Houston Community College. They needed English instructors. Lots of them. I only vaguely remembered applying—there were so many applications that spring, somewhere around eighty. But late in July, after two interviews, they offered me a position.

I’d leave in three and a half weeks. I waited until they made a hard monetary offer before I accepted. Adventures are nice, but paid adventures are nicer, and if I was going to leave behind family, friends, the adjunct jobs I did have lined up, I wanted to make sure I could get myself back on my feet financially.

Doha is the capital and largest city in the small nation of Qatar, a monarchy that in the past couple decades has come into a bit of cash, mainly from natural gas and some oil. The country is now the second-richest per capita in the world. To the Emir’s credit, he has started an aggressive campaign of modernization meant to transition the country to a knowledge and service economy by the time the goods run out.

A part of me is bitter that not only did I have to go abroad to get a full-time faculty gig, but also that I had to go abroad to be paid something approaching a fair wage. A friend took a faculty job at a smaller state school in Texas. After two graduate degrees, an M.F.A. and a Ph.D., he is teaching a five-five comp load and getting woefully underpaid for it—something in the realm of $40,000/year to work in a field that requires a masters and doctorate. And he is not alone.

This is not to say I moved to Doha only so I can get paid. The money is nice, but it hasn’t changed my life. I paid off my credit cards and have almost covered my car note and have put a dent in my student loans, but it isn’t fuck-you money.

As soon as I announced to everyone that I was leaving for Qatar, a lot of people I knew suddenly became experts on this place they’d never been to, couldn’t pronounce, and barely knew existed. I heard lectures on Islam and natural gas and what they think of teachers over there. I got reassurances about how much fun it would be, how someone knew someone who was related to someone who’d slept with someone once who spent a few days in Doha on business. “Oh, wait, nevermind,” they’d then say. “I was thinking of Dubai.”

As I sat on the plane on a direct flight from Houston to Doha, I still really didn’t know how I’d wound up in the seat. It all just sort of happened quickly and I went along with it because there was nothing else for me in America. I just needed something new, anything other than what I was doing. In a way, I left the States because I needed something to hope for.

In the ensuing couple of years I’ve learned that different isn’t always necessarily better, that life here has, like life everywhere, been complicated—politically, emotionally, professionally, and otherwise. But then, on the plane, all I knew then, MFA in hand, all I knew was that it would be different. And that that anything different was welcome.

I don’t regret my M.F.A. I would still tell anyone applying to a creative writing program is to do it. With a few conditions, though. Don’t do it if you’re just looking for that elusive Time To Write. If you can’t find it now, you won’t find it in a writing program.

Do the M.F.A. because you want to be around people who will bring out something better in you. In my retrospective opinion, that’s really the only reason to do it. I learned a lot of things it would have taken me a long, long time to figure out for myself. I was around people who inspired me to expect more of myself and my writing. I was a around a lot of pretentious, self-obsessed shitheads too, but you take the good with the bad.

If, like I did, you also want to get the M.F.A. for professional reasons, that’s fine too. For all my resultant angst, I would still tell someone to go for it, but just to be prepared for the reality. Be prepared to hustle. Hustle for fellowships and part-time teaching gigs and office work and whatever else you have to do to make a decent living so you can eat and drink and write. Personally, I wasn’t prepared for that, but I’ve seen people flourish in that environment. They make it work.

For me, well, instead of being invigorated by uncertainty, it scares the shit out of me. It scares me every morning when I sit down to write. I’m scared I’ll never finish my novel. I’m scared I’ll never write anything truly worthwhile. And that summer after I graduated, I was just straight terrified of my mother’s futon. For me, there was Qatar.

 

Dane Wisher lives in Qatar.

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31 Comments / Post A Comment

ennaenirehtac (#199)

Good post, but are we going to get a follow-up on what teaching community college is like in Qatar??

olivia (#1,618)

Yeah, and I really want to know how much it pays to teach community college in Qatar!

Heckyes (#1,162)

@olivia I can tell you how much I was paid to be a TA in Qatar if you’d like? It was an entirely exorbitant amount, but I’m not sure how it compares to a professor’s salary at a different school.

ThatJenn (#916)

@Heckyes I’d like to know!

Heckyes (#1,162)

@ThatJenn I got paid $39,000/year (US dollars), prorated to the amount of time that I was actually there (so, for the 9 month school year, I got ~$30,000). BUT! The school also paid for all of my expenses – rent, internet, cell phone, car, transport to/from Qatar at the beginning and end of my contract, all paperwork/permits/licenses/whatever. So really, my only expenses were food, gas, student loans, and vacations.
For most Western expat workers, that sort of deal pretty standard, I think. I was actually on the very low range of salaried employees at the school – I know that the professors at the school where I worked made in the $150,000-$200,000/year range – but it was definitely a sweet deal right after undergrad.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@Heckyes Whooooooa. So how does one do this?

Heckyes (#1,162)

@bgprincipessa Just apply! I heard about my job through friends, but that’s not necessary. If you are interested in working at a school, most (all?) of the American university-affiliated ones are in a part of town called “Education City” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_City), so check the HR website of whatever school you like best and apply! Lots of other Western companies have offices in Doha where they also pay an exorbitant amount to westerners – oil/gas companies, law firms, consulting firms, etc.
It’s a sweet deal if you can handle living in Doha, which, admittedly, is not for everyone.

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

Yes, discuss more your reality living and teaching in Qatar! I have friends teaching (some ESL, some just teaching in English) in various countries in the Middle East, almost all at the primary and secondry level, and they have lots of interesting and diverse experiences, both positive and (horribly, horribly) negative.

I loved working in UAE….don’t think I could deal with the inequality I saw on a long-term basis, but it was amazing to be in the Middle East, get to see beyond the hype and headlines, and meeting so many different types of people (and almost no Emiratis…I imagine in Qatar, and teaching, you’d actually get to know locals!)

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

Yes, this was all really, really good and definitely spoke to me. Fortunately I did not have to go to Qatar to find a job that I enjoy that puts my humanities masters to good use, but everything about unemployment, bitterness, rejection…all those thoughts rang so true, I could have written that part of your post.

Nak (#3,507)

Seriously, the terms ‘creative writing’ and ‘M.F.A.’ could have been substituted with law and J.D., and I’d swear this article has already been posted a million times in Above The Law or New York Times. I guess the U.S. secondary/tertiary education system in general is more about putting Americans into debt than preparing them to be contributing members of society, who can afford to care for themselves.

limepies (#3,484)

i’m a little confused. you keep putting MFA which, as a BFA, i take to mean masters of fine arts. then you go on about “creative writing” which, last time i checked is arts, not fine arts. so…

eagerber (#1,958)

@limepies Creative writing is an art form, though academically speaking it’s usually housed in the English Department, not the studio art or music departments. Many undergraduate programs now offer BFAs in creative writing; MFA programs are graduate level creative writing programs. There are 700+ in the US alone: https://www.awpwriter.org/programs_conferences/guide_writing_programs

Heckyes (#1,162)

I also moved to Qatar after graduation to teach! In my case, I moved there after undergrad to be a TA for an undergrad course in one of the American schools that has campuses there, but for a similar reason: not many jobs in the US and jobs for Americans in Qatar pay very, very, well.
It was a great experience for me, but I left after my year-long contract was over in 2009.
Mostly I am just commenting because I’m excited to see Qatar mentioned on the internet :)

BananaPeel (#1,555)

“I also learned that a graduate degree could actually be a bad thing when you wanted entry-level work. Everyone assumes you’ll hate the work, as if anyone out there loves administrative work.”

Hmm…thinking out loud here, but what are the ethics of leaving post-grad work off an entry-level/retail application if you think it might hurt you?

sockhopbop (#764)

@BananaPeel Ethically I’m not sure (moral relativist right here, seems fine to me!) but practically I think it would leave a hole in your resume that would need some explaining.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@sockhopbop My thoughts as well – there’d be a time gap that’d be hard to explain off.

@BananaPeel I don’t see an ethical problem with it. It’s pretty standard to leave off positions/certifications/whatever that don’t have anything to do with the position you’re applying for. But yeah, unless you were working during that time you may have to explain the time gap.

@BananaPeel No ethical dilemma there. Resumes should be edited to cater to the job posting; withholding information that isn’t relevant to the job isn’t lying, and can get you a foot in the door.

questingbeast (#2,409)

I was quite interested to learn about teaching in Qatar. And then it was the same ‘graduate study is pointless and apparently you can’t earn much from writing, who knew’ article I’ve read 10 times this month. Will there be a follow up? With more Qatar?
(liked the writing a lot though. Particularly ‘more of an enclave’).

kellyography (#250)

I concur with wanting to know what teaching in Qatar is like, along with what it pays, what living expenses are, what daily life is like, etc. Very interested.

I’ll be in Qatar in April for work!

Sounds like it’s the new Korea, as far as the unemployable flocking there to teach English.

I still propose that instead of getting an MFA, most aspiring writers would benefit from simply reading a lot and hanging around a university while doing whatever crazy things they feel like doing until they’ve racked up ~$50k in credit card debt, then writing about it all.

Or you know, better yet, go work in a cannery or a circus or learn to fly helicopters or hide out in a cabin in the woods or teach community college in Qatar. One of the reasons there’s no market for the writing of MFA-holders is that writing about what it’s like to be an MFA holder is… well, kinda boring at this point, no matter how skillfully executed.

j-i-a (#746)

This isn’t a comment on this essay in particular, but I must say, just in general: if I’ve learned anything over the past nine months it’s that the MFA definition of “hustle” seems to be different (let’s say, less intense) than any definition I have ever seen in the past. But also it’s crazy the teaching loads that some programs will give you for a $9,000 stipend, etc. HELL to the no to that sort of labor abuse

Echoing everyone else to say, please write the next part, about your actual experience teaching in Qatar! :)

salutin' (#3,490)

Love a follow-up article on what it’s like teaching in the Middle East! It sounds fascinating.

Charlotte (#1,900)

I have a Phd in fiction writing and a novel published by a major publisher — there weren’t any jobs 13 years ago when I finished grad school (and it’s been so long between books that I couldn’t get one now if I tried), so I got a straight job in high tech. Of course, there were jobs then, but I’ve been laid off and rehired a couple of times now. I don’t know — I was never one of those people who only ever wanted to stay in academia, so its been fine for me. But yeah, it was a lot of money to borrow to write a novel that made about half of what I’d borrowed. And now? With so many programs? I’d probably discourage anyone I loved from doing it unless they got a huge free ride.

chic noir (#713)

This was incredibly well written. I would really like to read more from the author. I’d also like to know just how much the average salary is for ESL teachers in Qutar.

novembertea (#2,203)

@chic noir They get paid very well. See above comments. This is a trend throughout virtually the entire Middle East. You can also find well-paid teaching gigs in Asia, though the M.E. seems to be where the most money can be made these days.

novembertea (#2,203)

I am utterly fascinated by the prospect of picking up and moving to another country to teach English. I gobble up testimonies and articles on the subject. However, does this mean that I should do it? I have no idea. The truth is that while it would be very enriching and no doubt character-building, it wouldn’t do much at all to advance my career by way of actual experience (I’m looking to get an MFA in Voice Performance OR Vocal Pedagogy and eventually teach voice at the university level.) I honestly don’t think I could pick up and move to another country for a year or two. I’m not that badass… I’d be so lonely!!

Tripleoxer (#5,676)

Yeah, echoing the sentiment: follow-up story, please!

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