Solving 'The English Student's Dilemma'?

“Mom, Dad, I want an M.F.A.”

“That’s nice dear. What about a law degree?”

January 18, 2008

“Mom, Dad, I want an M.F.A.”

“That’s nice dear. What about a law degree?”

Starting this fall, students in Hamline University’s planned juris doctor/master of fine arts in creative writing program won’t have to make that choice. “In a sense, what Hamline has done is solve the English student’s dilemma,” said Seth Abramson, a first-year poetry student in the University of Iowa’s Writers' Workshop and formerly a practicing lawyer in New Hampshire who has blogged extensively about M.F.A.. “You have an entire cadre of English majors in the U.S. who both love writing and want to see if they can make it as a writer -- but want to hedge their bets so they have an employable skill at the same time.”

Hamline is now accepting its first cohort of students into the five-year J.D./M.F.A. program, one of several joint degree programs involving the J.D. at the St. Paul university. Students, who have to satisfy the admissions requirements for both programs, will start by taking the traditional first year of law school before they begin integrating the two programs in their second year. M.F.A. programs often offer fellowships and teaching assistantships to students, while J.D. programs often don’t – and as of now, Hamline won’t have any specific funding opportunities for the five to 10 J.D./M.F.A. students program leaders are hoping to attract each year. (Although some teaching opportunities are available more generally to M.F.A. students who take a training class, and students do have the option of completing the law degree first so they can enter the professional workforce while finishing the M.F.A.) Students can apply law courses toward their elective requirements for creative writing and vice versa, meaning they can shave off about one year of class time compared to students who might complete the two Hamline programs separately.

Hamline is billing the joint creative writing/law program as the first of its kind -- although not the first J.D./M.F.A. more generally. Columbia University, for instance, offers one in theater. And, on another note, New York University is launching a new M.B.A./M.F.A. program for would-be film producers this fall. But in both New York City programs, the universities are aiming to provide broader skills to those who will work in arts administration. At Hamline, faculty are focused on creating lawyers who really know how to write -- and creative writers who really know law.

"At the end of the day, lawyers are story-tellers. We make compelling stories for juries, we make compelling stories for courts, for legislators," said Jon Garon, dean of Hamline's School of Law. He added that forums for public discourse are shifting and lawyers are increasingly interested in impacting public policy by writing for lay audiences.

“We hear from a lot of students that the first year of law school, in particular, tends to be fairly sterile and very fact-specific,” Garon said. “The creative aspects of the [J.D./M.F.A.] program really create a certain right-brain, left-brain opportunity. Our students continue to be more whole people as they go through the law school model.”

“They get to flex their creative muscles at the same time they’re flexing their analytical ones.”

Abramson, the Iowa poetry student and a Harvard Law School grad, stressed however how challenging it would be to tackle an art school degree (the M.F.A.) and a professional degree (the J.D.), with their very different cultures, at the same time. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t work,” he said (adding that no doubt Hamline will get applicants). But, “I think anyone who goes through those programs would feel like they were in two different tracks pedagogically at once.”

Furthermore, in legal writing, students learn to write to achieve specific, practical goals (advancing an argument, protecting a client), however dull or full of jargon their final products might be. "Whereas with fiction, it's an art form, so individual creativity, individual expression, having your own technique and your own tone, your own style -- it's at a premium," Abramson said. It would be interesting, he said, "to be told simultaneously in the legal writing program you can't write like that."

“It’s like that old commercial for Doublemint gum: Double your pleasure, double your fun. This sounds to me like you’re doubling your anxiety and stress,” said Kurt Heinzelman, director of creative writing programs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Many creative writing students already go on to get professional degrees, Heinzelman said. He pointed out that a student could complete a two-year writing program before entering law school and still spend the same amount of time in school as a J.D./M.F.A. student would at Hamline.

“I just don’t see the advantage of doing them together,” Heinzelman said. “If you were saving time, say, in your life by doing it, that would make sense. If there were some palatable advantage to doing these two things together whether you’re going to pursue a career in law or pursue a career in something else [that would make sense] -- but I’m not seeing it on the surface here.”

Mary F. Rockcastle, dean of Hamline's Graduate School of Liberal Studies (which houses the M.F.A. program), acknowledged that some students might grow frustrated at constantly switching between analytical and creative writing. She said faculty will be working together to address that issue and create bridges between the two programs in the fall.

"The bottom line for me is I just think it’s a perfect marriage of two disciplines. In my life as a writer, I have met so many writers who are also lawyers, and we have students in our regular M.F.A. program who are lawyers. The program is 13 years old. We have focused on being very flexible for adult learners. We have students going part-time and full-time and a good number of them are working lawyers who never took the time when they were younger to go to school and focus on creative writing," Rockcastle said.

“The reality is that most students who graduate with B.F.A.s or M.F.A.s who are going to pursue their passion to write and now have the background and the craft and the education behind them to succeed in that are going to have to make money in alternative careers."

Looked at from that point of view, will completing a creative writing program seem like a bonus for employers looking to hire newly minted lawyers? Heike Spahn, a senior consultant focused on law schools for the Virginia-based AdmissionsConsultants company, said that while some of the proliferating joint degree programs have clear professional benefits (the J.D./M.B.A., for example, a joint degree program that Hamline is also planning to offer in the future), others attract students who are deeply passionate about a topic and don’t want to leave it behind.

“If you’re willing to go an extra year or two because you have a particular passion for a subject, that’s great,” said Spahn. “On the flip side, from a career services perspective, you can’t always say that getting that additional degree is necessarily going to help in the job search.”


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