How to Write the Next Great American Novel … Without Going Into Debt

How to Write the Next Great American Novel … Without Going Into Debt
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Why you should care

Because education should be accessible for everyone, even artists. 

A few years ago, Isauro Huizar, one of Mexico City’s up-and-coming young artists, was ready for a change. When he looked for a stepping stone that would help him transition from a career in architecture and interior design to the field of contemporary art, Huizar weighed a couple of options. He could get a Master of Fine Arts in art history or critical research and graduate $100,000 in debt with little hope for a tenure-track professorship or museum job. Or he could drop $1,850 at SOMA, a two-year educational program in the Mexican capital created by artists for artists. “I wasn’t interested in learning how to paint and draw, like in a traditional master’s program,” Huizar says, so he went with SOMA and hasn’t looked back. He’s now a working artist and part-time educator who just finished leading a two-week workshop for children at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros in Mexico City.

Huizar joins a growing number of creatives — writers, actors, artists, photographers and others — who find the promise of an advanced degree ever less appealing. The way Sean Patrick Carney, an artist and educator with New York’s BHQFU collective, sees it, traditional MFA programs are “cash cows” with little overhead, while the promise of professionalization is “disingenuous and, frankly, predatory.”

On the flip side, with small groups of 10 to 15 students, these alternative programs offer more individualized attention than often is available in typical educational settings. No accreditation can also translate into the flexibility to reinvent the program from class to class, notes SOMA summer director Carla Herrera-Prats. And, in contrast to many traditional postgrad instruction models, teachers in these programs are working artists, writers or researchers, according to Herrera-Prats, who herself is one-half of Camel Collective, a mixed-media collaboration based in Mexico City.

We reject teaching and education carried out along the lines of a business model.

Anne-Marie Oliver and Barry Sanders, Oregon Institute for Creative Research

These unaccredited schools draw from a rich history of educational experiments. Projects such as Black Mountain College (1933–57) in North Carolina and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which was founded in 1974 in Boulder, Colorado, by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, paved the way for today’s new pedagogy. Nevertheless, BHQFU, which has provided free educational programs to thousands of artists since 2009, illustrates the precarious nature of experimental alternatives to advanced degrees. In September BHQFU “is on hiatus from regular semester class offerings,” says Carney, who will be out of a job come the end of summer. These programs will never be sustainable, agrees SOMA’s Herrera-Prats.

But their impermanence also means that they have the opportunity to remain fresh and relevant to their evolving communities, as opposed to colleges and universities where, according to education critics, bureaucracy rules and budgets are balanced by hiring armies of underpaid adjunct professors, even while tuition skyrockets. In an email to OZY that reads like a manifesto, Anne-Marie Oliver and Barry Sanders, founding executive directors at the Oregon Institute for Creative Research, write “we reject teaching and education carried out along the lines of a business model.” Oliver and Sanders created their research institution to focus on ecology, ethics and activism, partnering with private and public institutions. As the OICR prepares to welcome its second cohort, tuition has been set at $5,500 for the yearlong intensive program, with scholarships available.

And so it goes, as money continues to dominate the conversation about post-undergrad planning. That’s not surprising, considering that outstanding federal student loan debt in the U.S. is $1.4 trillion, with a default rate of 10.7 percent, according to the Student Loan Report. In Mexico City, SOMA costs about 10 percent of what a traditional MFA would, says Herrera-Prats, with the intention of encouraging young Mexican artists to stick around and contribute to the burgeoning art scene, rather than leaving to study in the United States or Europe — the “flight of minds” from Mexico.

Out-of-pocket cost for students in these unaccredited programs ranges from free to about $15,000 for a two-year intensive program (offset by scholarships), compared with $46,949 to $48,949 for an academic year at the Yale School of Drama, according to the school bulletin. “Rich folks will always have access to advanced studies in the arts, so funding cuts to higher education and the National Endowment for the Arts are really just a way to rob poor and working-class people of opportunities to participate in cultural production,” says Stephen Slappe, founder of Portland, Oregon–based Future Forum, which is designed for media artists and makers interested in the social impact of their work. The organization’s new 10-month training program costs $3,000, and participants collaborate with partner organizations to provide media education to marginalized populations.

So, can creatives hope to compete without a Master’s or Ph.D.? These programs certainly aren’t going to slow the flow of MFA grads flooding the job market in hopes of earning enough to dig themselves out from under a mountain of debt. As Huizar learned, though, the SOMAs of the world aren’t going to hold your hand, so it came down to the commitment and motivation of every student there to forge a career without a flashy degree on their résumé. And those lessons in persistence, resilience and flinty self-reliance may be as valuable as any when students emerge from these progressive programs and enter the art-world fray.

* Correction: The original version of this article mistook the National Education Association for the National Endowment for the Arts.

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