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.
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.