Tuesday, August 01, 2006

This Is How Cynical I've Become

In conversation a couple of days ago, a friend mentioned that her younger sister planned to get an MFA in creative writing.

“No offense to your sister, but what’s the point of that?” I wondered aloud. “No one thinks someone is a good writer because they have a Masters degree in writing.”

“Yeah, I don’t really get it, either,” my friend said. “It’s much better to just read an actual writing sample.”

Then another friend pointed out that a creative writing program might actually – get this – help you learn to write better. It gives the participant an ongoing incentive to write, along with regular feedback from peers and teachers.

And that’s when I realized how fully I had bought into the signaling model of education, which says that education doesn’t actually increase productivity, but merely identifies people who had high productivity to begin with. Somehow it didn’t even occur to me that someone might seek a Masters degree for any purpose other than sending a message to future employers.

The reality, of course, is that education involves both signaling and skill-building, as well as pure consumption for people who just like school (or fear the workplace), with the precise mix differing from discipline to discipline. Intellectually, I know this to be true. But my first instinct was to assume near-100% signaling – which is odd, given the substantial amount I learned during my own graduate education. I’m not sure what this says about me.


Jeff Brown said...

How do you think your belief re. models of education bears on your teaching style?

Glen Whitman said...

Jeff -- It doesn't have much effect. I still want my students to understand economics, regardless of their reasons for being there. And since economics is relatively difficult (compared to many other disciplines), teaching econ is as good a way as any to make low-productivity students face a higher cost to obtain a degree -- which is a necessary feature of the signaling model. So even if education's sole purpose were signaling, it would be sensible for me to teach economics and expect my students to learn it.

Glen Whitman said...

Addendum to that. One effect my support for the signaling model might have is to make me less concerned about teaching economic concepts that will assist them in, say, their business careers. I still teach those concepts because students seem to appreciate it, but my belief in the signaling model might affect the mix of useful vs. interesting economic concepts.

Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

There is a big networking advantage to an MFA creating writing program as well, especially the elite ones such as the Iowa Writer's Workshop. You might not think that networking would matter that much in creative writing, but it does. Being taught by people who know how to make a living in the field will help *you* make a living in the field.