The most intellectually diverse classroom in the department
MFA students are often required to take literature courses as part of their degree requirements. Rhetoric and composition students also may take literature courses if, for example, they are interested in the rhetoric of science and there is a lit course on nature writing, ecocriticism, et cetera. There is not, however, a similar requirement for literature students to take creative writing classes and rarely do they take rhetoric classes.
As a result, the graduate literature classroom is the most intellectually diverse place in the English department, with fiction writers, poets, memoirists, rhetoricians, and literature students sitting together around the same table. In such an environment, if the semester is going to be positive and productive, professors must be flexible in their expectations and pedagogy.
Not everyone knows critical theory
When a rhet comp PhD student takes a literature class, they may have done their undergraduate studies in rhetoric, communications, political science, history, et cetera. They may never have taken a literature class as an undergraduate and haven’t read a novel for school since Slaughterhouse Five in the eleventh grade. They don’t know all the -isms of critical theory (Marxism, Feminism, New Historicism, et cetera). They don’t know the methods and techniques of literary scholarship. It is as alien to them as if they were an undergraduate sophomore taking their first Introduction to American Literature course.
Professors who expect such a student to produce graduate-level scholarship on par with actual literature PhD students are unrealistic and unfair. Both they and the student will be frustrated and unhappy with each other.
Similarly, MFA students may come from any imaginable background: they might be twenty-three and fresh out of undergrad, but just as likely they could be a thirty-something-year real estate salesman, a retired chemist, a lawyer, et cetera. Certainly they have read a lot of novels, but they are in the habit of looking at a text from the point of an author. Why did the author choose third person instead of first? Why that word instead of its synonym? Why a fragmented, nonlinear structure instead of a chronological one? These are not the kinds of questions literature scholars ask.
The only people in a graduate literature classroom who have been trained to think and ask questions about a text like the professor are the literature students — but there may be as many non-lit students as lit students. Literature students might even be in the minority! Any attempt to get the rhet-comp and MFAers up to speed on literary scholarship’s methods in a few weeks will be disappointing for everyone.
The solution is openness and flexibility
Literature professors, I'm asking you to be flexible. Let the rhet comp students talk about rhetoric. Let MFA students talk about craft and authorial intent. Build flexibility into assignments and papers, and embrace the differences between your students rather than force them to conform to the literature mold.
Some of you have learned this over time through experience, but there are literature PhD programs out there whose schools do have MFA or rhet-comp programs. If they get a job at a university with all three programs, they find themselves teaching in classrooms that look nothing like the classrooms they were in as graduate students.
Am I contradicting myself?
In a previous post I argued that undergraduates should be required to submit a portfolio and be accepted before enrolling in creative writing classes. Why? Because unprepared students drag down the rest of the class. So isn't my argument here hypocritical? Don't unprepared MFAers and rhet-compers drag down the class?
Yeah, absolutely. But only if the expectation is for them to become literature scholars overnight. Expect an MFA student to debate critical theory and that debate will be lousy for everyone. Embrace and invite your students' different approaches and judge each one based on their discipline and expertise, and the experience will be positive for everyone.
For example, I was once an MFA student in a literature class and one day during a discussion I drew the three-act structure on the board and graphed the novel under consideration. To my surprise, while my literature classmates had heard of the three act structure they weren't familiar with it. They didn't know how to identify act breaks and had never heard of the "doorways of no return." They didn't know the novel and its main character's choices followed a predictable pattern. They just didn't think about novels and character arcs in those terms. So they learned something new and saw the novel in a new way.
In turn I learned from them. This to me seems positive and productive. If we were to say, limit literature classes to literature graduate students, that would rob everyone of an opportunity to learn from one another.