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R.I.P. MPW

By Aram Saroyan

Nonfiction

university-of-southern-california-15

In an email during Thanksgiving week 2013, I learned that USC’s Master of Professional Writing program (MPW) would no longer accept new students and would suspend operations entirely by spring 2016.  I was a teacher in the program for 15 years, and in the fall of 1996, when I began there, it was exhilarating.  My wife Gailyn and I had moved to Santa Monica over the past summer and I’d met with the director of the program, the poet James Ragan, who offered me a job teaching that fall.

A nice extra was that it was a nationally known program with a distinguished roster of teachers that included Richard Yates, William Goyen, John Rechy and Hubert Selby, Jr., the latter two current faculty members and writers I’d admired since high school.  In fact what was unique about MPW was its faculty, many of whom were well-known writers who lacked the usual academic pedigrees.  Hubert “Cubby” Selby, for instance, one of the best known and among the program’s most revered teachers, hadn’t graduated from high school.

I learned that Ragan was a tireless MPW salesman, selling it to students on reading tours and at academic conventions and cultivating an international network of contacts.  A burly enthusiast from Pennsylvania and one of the few faculty members with a Ph.D., Ragan was star-struck and loved to drop names.  One of his stories was about the time Selby cold-called him out of nowhere to ask for a job, and when he established that the voice on the other end of the receiver was the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, he hired him on the spot.  As I learned over the next year or two, being on the faculty was like being adopted into a large, boisterous family with holiday celebrations at the Ragans’—Jim’s wife Deborah made superb stuffed cabbage—as well as public readings at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters, in essence showcases for MPW and its faculty.

Each fall we had a single annual faculty meeting with wine and snacks which involved little business but was the official kick-off for the new school year.  Most of us appeared around the big meeting room table, including our show business star Shelly Berman, who taught comedy writing.  The one consistent exception was John Rechy, who never attended the Ragan holiday parties either.  Rechy, who had been with the program since it began in the late seventies, also had a unique arrangement whereby he selected his students from an applicant pool specifically for his class and conducted the class off-campus at his Los Angeles home.  Nor did he ever appear at the faculty readings.

Existing independently of USC’s regular English department with Ragan its director and our sole liaison figure with the university’s administration, the program had special appeal to all of us who weren’t academic professionals.  No real faculty meetings, no academic politics—we signed contracts at the beginning of each semester and taught a class once a week for two-hours-and-forty-minutes for semesters that usually went fourteen weeks.

What we didn’t discuss or quibble about except privately was how little we were paid.  With ten or more students in a class, we received a salary not much more than a single student paid to take the class.  There was no health plan or retirement plan or 401K benefits.  For its faculty if not for its students, it was an extension program by another name, the idea being that as professional writers the main source of our income lay elsewhere.  For most independent writers this is an iffy supposition.  But on the other hand, we were employed, the work was generally engaging, and we received our checks on time.

Eventually I learned that as MPW’s director Ragan had a different arrangement that included a health plan and retirement benefits as well as a salary commensurate with his work as a university employee.  And his three children could attend the university free of charge, an enormous perk.  During my first semester, Ragan was under attack and I was recruited to write a letter in support of his position as director.  Since I was newly hired, I didn’t dig deep before following through, or rather didn’t dig at all, taking him at his word that it was only academic politics as usual.  As time went on there were more or less continuous rumblings about Ragan.  The support of faculty members who would insure media attention may have weighed in the balance—in any case, no complaint went public.

When I stepped into the office once a week before my class, I would often encounter Jim genially seeing to the details of his job.  A couple of times I had a problem or complaint registered about my own class and needed to call on him as an intermediary.  When a disgruntled student disputed what I considered a generous grade of A-, for instance, the grade was quickly upped to an A.  The message was to avoid a situation that would generate attention outside our own office.

* * *

In late August of 2005 when Gailyn and I got back from a house exchange in London, I opened my contract letter from USC for the fall semester and was stunned to discover that my salary had been doubled.  My first thought was that it must have been a clerical error since I’d had no word about it from Jim.  My second impulse was to call and thank him, but I held back knowing I’d be seeing him soon at the faculty meeting.

In the flurry before the meeting began, I greeted Jim, thanked him, he smiled, and we all sat down.  Quickly, the focus at the table shifted from Jim to John Rechy, who for the first time was sitting with us.  Rechy, whom I knew slightly, was the soul of politeness, and while he spoke, with due deference to Jim as the head of our program, Jim was barely able to contain himself.  With a smiling demeanor that also emanated resolve, Rechy reviewed a two-year struggle he had undertaken to improve our circumstance as teachers.  At the end of his summary, which lasted perhaps ten minutes, he stood up and walked to the door.  As he left I said, “Thank you, John,” surprised not to hear more voices.

Before he stood to leave, Rechy offered to share his USC correspondence with any faculty member who requested it, and after the meeting I followed up with him and received by email a chronological file comprising approximately 200 pages of correspondence, including both snail mail and email exchanges, in which Rechy with remarkable patience and stamina lobbied university administrators for a better deal for the faculty.  The university response, which persisted for two years, was routine legalistic sand bagging.  It only began to break, finally, when Rechy isolated a policy that victimized students and hence, were it to go public, would discredit the program to those who paid the tuition.

It was standard procedure to pay our faculty $200 or less to advise students on their final projects, on which the awarding of their degrees depended.  Since the pay was so little for work that routinely involved multiple meetings over the course of a semester, many of us as a practical matter would claim that we were already over-committed or otherwise couldn’t spare the time.  Paying more than $20,000 a year to attend the program, students were routinely obliged to pursue more than one faculty member to find one who would accept the assignment.

This administrative detail effectively broke through the boundary between the Master of Professional Writing Program and USC’s larger offices, and brought on two major changes.  The faculty pay scale went up, including advisory fees, and the possibility of health and retirement benefits.  And Jim Ragan was deposed from his autonomous seat of power.  He had ruled the program as a kind of medieval fiefdom, all his own, and now was obliged to share the office with Associate Dean Susan Kamei from the university’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.  The program moved to larger quarters that included an office for her, and these days when I came in, Jim’s office door was closed.

One night he invited me to dinner across the street from the campus and talked non-stop about how unfair things were.  To be clear: he hadn’t been fired, he remained, and the university wanted him to remain director of the program, and the salaries of all faculty members had been doubled.  He was upset that I thanked John as he left the meeting.

Susan Kamei confessed to being uncomfortable at functions where both she and Jim were obliged to be present.  Not an expert on the larger literary scene, she was a professional academic and tried to do a job that was poorly defined, a stop-gap measure by an administration no doubt uneasy with the variables in a volatile mix.  Remaining outraged and prone to angry outbursts, Ragan was eventually fired and escorted off the campus by security officers.  When Dean Kamei took over, a search was initiated for a literary professional who could replace him as director. The faculty was then invited to a series of lunches, each of which featured a candidate for the job.

The odds-on favorite was the writer Tom Lutz, who was also a tenured professor.  Well-connected in both literary and academic circles, at the lunch I attended he was fluent and cordial and charmed the table, beginning with John Rechy.  However, the university would need to match or better his salary as a tenured professor and he also asked that an assistant be hired to support his workload.  It wasn’t an unreasonable request since his standing as a writer would be a plus for the program.  That he was turned down in favor of Brighde (pronounced Bridget) Mullins, then the director of the writing program at Cal Arts, was the first glimmer I had that the university might have a different idea about the program than was generally assumed.

* * *

The English department had recently instituted its own doctorate program and because we offered a Masters that meant a certain discontinuity that may have weighed in favor of keeping options open about our future.  Brighde Mullins had academic credentials but only a modest profile as a writer.  More to the point, she lacked Lutz’s social esprit which made him the obvious choice if one wanted MPW’s visibility to increase.

This was understood to be the goal by each candidate, who would address various enrollment strategies at the lunches.  When Mullins was chosen instead of Lutz, the explanation circulated that Lutz wanted more money than USC wanted to pay.  Since USC is one of the best endowed private universities in America, this had an odd ring to it—and yet I wonder whether Mullins herself was any clearer about what was going on than the rest of us.

At our first lunch with our newly inaugurated director, she was gracious in a pro forma sort of way, and in fact this was her manner throughout the three years I remained on the faculty.  By the time I left, a dozen or more of my colleagues, mostly men, had preceded me, and while I made periodic overtures to Brighde about having lunch or otherwise meeting to share or exchange ideas about the program, it never happened.  New people were brought in but generally without the knowledge of the faculty at large.  Jim Ragan’s strong suit had been his ritualized celebrations of our camaraderie, and these were now gone and I daresay missed by those of us still around to remember them.

More problematic was the difficulty of communicating with Brighde about course details, goals, and strategies. A tall attractive presence, she was a practiced speaker given to an academic style I sometimes found hard to follow.  In a team-taught course I’d helped to inaugurate, it wasn’t possible to build on what had been learned in previous semesters.  My former teaching partners were gone and new people were assigned to the course without the benefit of even a cursory review and so jumped in with neither the structure nor the rapport that would have made things easier for us and our students.

And so it eventually devolved into a job, pure and simple, rather than the practice that teaching at its best can sometimes be.  What was going on was that a delicate dimension of rapport and friendship among the teachers, years in the making, was being shut down in a drastic but perhaps, on Mullins’s part, all but unconscious way.  Her academic resume comprised appointments at which she was employed for only two or three years before moving on, and what was lost may not have registered with her at all.

I began to dread the beginning of each new semester.  Then if I happened to discover that I had a good class I would re-engage.  I’d come up with a class called Real Stories: the Nonfiction Narrative that worked, I thought, as well as any I’d taught and was popular with students, but I was repeatedly assigned to other courses, and then, after the fall semester of 2010, Brighde phoned to tell me that no one had signed up for a poetry course I was assigned for the spring.  It was a long time before the course would begin, but I wasn’t inclined to argue, and, truth be told, was relieved that I would need to move on now.

Most of my colleagues in the program were gone.  John Rechy in his seventies had worked out an arrangement that allowed him a dignified retirement but the majority of us fared not nearly so well.  Several years earlier, Cubby Selby had become ill and died not long after he’d stopped appearing on campus to teach.

“My one regret,” Rechy confided to me of Selby, his colleague and closest contemporary, “is that Cubby died before any of the improvements happened that could have helped him.”

In the end, I wonder if there is a lesson to be drawn from this long and winding history, which ends ignominiously with one of my colleagues, the novelist Gina Nahai, a dedicated and highly-regarded teacher, suing USC and Mullins for pushing her out, and includes the allegation that Mullins made anti-Semitic and racist comments to her face? An MPW teacher for eleven years, Nahai was also a graduate of the program.

At its best, MPW pioneered and formalized in higher education something like a literary apprenticeship program, hiring writers on the basis of their work rather than academic qualifications.  An aspiring writer, in turn, could enroll specifically to learn from a master like Yates or Rechy or Selby—and this remains, I think, an under-utilized paradigm.  On the other hand, at its worst, the situation brings to mind the old joke, also born in this part of the world, about the aspiring Hollywood starlet who was so dumb that to get ahead she slept with the writer.

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Aram Saroyan ARAM SAROYAN is an internationally known poet, novelist, biographer, memoirist and playwright. His poetry has been widely anthologized and appears in many textbooks. Among the collections of his poetry are ARAM SAROYAN and PAGES (both Random House). His largest collection, DAY AND NIGHT:BOLINAS POEMS, was published by Black Sparrow Press in 1999.

Saroyan's prose books include GENESIS ANGELS: THE SAGA OF LEW WELCH AND THE BEAT GENERATION; LAST RITES, a book about the death of his father, the playwright and short story writer William Saroyan; TRIO: PORTRAIT OF AN INTIMATE FRIENDSHIP; THE ROMANTIC, a novel that was a Los Angeles Times Book Review Critics' Choice selection; a memoir, FRIENDS IN THE WORLD: THE EDUCATION OF A WRITER; and the true crime Literary Guild selection RANCHO MIRAGE: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY OF MANNERS, MADNESS AND MURDER. Selected essays, STARTING OUT IN THE SIXTIES, appeared in 2001, and ARTISTS IN TROUBLE: NEW STORIES in early 2002.

The recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts poetry awards (one of them for his controversial one-word poem "lighght"). Saroyan is a past president of PEN USA West and was a faculty member of the Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC from 1996 to 2011. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the painter Gailyn Saroyan.

9 Responses to “R.I.P. MPW”

  1. Aram, it was a joy to be your colleague and, for three semesters, a co-faculty member with you in one of the core courses. Your lectures and comments fascinated me as much as the students. “First thought, best thought” still stays with me.

    The zenith of the program is perhaps when Dean Susan Kamei oversaw the program. Her faculty meetings were both informative and fun. The new, larger offices made it easy to meet students and other faculty members, and there was such energy in those two years.

    The program to work well needed probably a minimum of 120 students to serve the genres of drama, TV writing, screenwriting, play writing, fiction, and poetry. Eighty students weren’t enough, and I was sad to see the One-Act Play Festival die, which I ran for eight years, after which Lee Wochner took it over and raised it to an even higher level.

    Mullins meant well, many say, but her strength wasn’t in keeping the enrollment up or keeping all the faculty engaged and happy. As John Rechy said in an LA Weekly article, the program died years ago–perhaps 2008–and the newer incarnation is not worth mourning.

  2. Gerard Malanga says:

    Hi Aram,
    THANKS for keeping me in the loop on all that you write, and all that you write I love & savor. Looking forward of more to come. The students need you. Onwards, Gerard.

  3. M. G. Stephens says:

    This is a beautifully stated essay about the state of writing in America today, i.e., the state of writing in MFA and other master programs. I had similar experiences at a handful of places I taught in the East and then abroad in London. I think it has to do with the corporatizing of the university, in which this god-awful corporate model – lacking ideals, intellectual vigor, and colleagiality – has been foisted on every component of higher education. The last person these programs now want is a real writer like Aram Saroyan or John Rechy or my old friend and mentor Hubert Selby. Aram certainly did not deserve to be treated this way. Instead of giving writers a gold watch, universities kick them in the ass and escort them off campus with armed guards.

  4. Former student says:

    And add in the naive students, heavily saddled with debt, a meaningless degree and a lifelong lesson about weighing risk versus benefits. In Ragan’s final semester, I was a student in his class. He was absent 50% of the time and when he did attend, he often cut the class short. I regret not demanding a refund. On the upside, the program offered wonderful faculty and some lifelong friends. Live and learn.

  5. Whitney Bratton, Class of 2012 says:

    Though it’s difficult to say how much of this thought-provoking expose on the program’s history is relevant to the current Dean’s announcement, it does seem to do a good job of reflecting how complicated things are in academia, and how (if John Rechy’s lobbying is any indication) persistence and a will to stand up to the powers that be can make things better for all. Now that we’ve looked back, perhaps it is time to look forward and consider what makes MPW so unique from other programs: it’s cross-genre focus. The writing of the future isn’t limited to just poetry or just fiction, it’s also blogs and viral videos and micropoetry on Twitter. If we can get the administration on board, this could be our chance to set a model for writing programs of the future.

  6. Rio Hernandez says:

    Dear Aram,

    I had the pleasure and the immense privelege of studying with you, “Cubby”, the brilliant and elegant Mr. Rechy and James Ragan during my time in the MPW. There was such a sense of intimacy and camaraderie during that time. I miss our social nights across the street where professors and students mingled and let down their hair. The program changed my writing and my life. It is sad to hear of its demise and frustrating – as you so expertly highlight in your article – that there wasn’t some way to fix the problems without losing what worked. Thank you for such an Illuminating and thoughtful piece.

    Warmest regards,

    Rio Hernandez

  7. Paul Leaf says:

    Aram, you write only of the faculty. I taught a course, “adaptations”, in the professional program. I found the students not only unprofessional, but without any talent. The
    school must have accepted anyone who’d pay.

  8. Excellent essay, Aram. We were there, it was a good time for a while, some wonderful writers as our colleagues. Think of them: Rechy, Cubby Selby, Jerry Lawerence, Bill Goyen, Dick Yates, Ben Massalink. Good folk, knowledgeable and strong. Associating with them got the blood flowing… We’re here to write and we’ll keep going on….

  9. Milo Martin says:

    Dearest Aram,

    Thank you for weighing in on this strange conundrum of that which is the demise of the MPW program. It seems there is a part of this equation that is egregiously missing that no one (including the investigative journalist Gene Maddaus of the LA Weekly) is able to put their finger on.

    As an alumnus of the graduate writing program and Poetry Editor of the Southern California Anthology (the literary review published by MPW), I can honestly say that yes, I was privy to severe human dysfunction and erratic politics within the walls of said grad program. Sometimes to the point of throwing my arms up in the air, wondering why the hell I was cow-towing to this sociopathic Program Director. And now the wicked truth concerning the insidious underpayment of its all-star literary faculty frosts me to no end. Especially when the program was booming. I mean, that is why we were all enraptured to begin with—the literary names who might rub their literary fairy dust off on us–that’s why we all signed up, running in step to the Literary Emerald City, right behind the poetic Pied Piper.

    It actually seemed too good to be true to be brushing elbows with and studying with the greats–Saroyan, Selby, Shavelson, Stebel, Prado, Rechy, Lowenkopf, Field, Berman, Zindel, Wasserman, et al., not to mention all the great visiting writers and special guests at panels. In utter sincerity, I could not fantasize a finer faculty with which to study. The program itself was exemplary whereas the administration was questionable. We were all forced to be prolific within those walls and schooled harshly yet fairly to lift our work to a higher level (in my case, by you, Aram, for “resorting to pyrotechnics when you’re a good enough writer to go direct” and the late Mel Shavelson, who admonished me publicly for “being all micro and no macro and not injecting enough story in your goddamn story”). Sometimes it was mere osmosis that made us better writers but most of the time, it was a massive and perpetual workload handed down by and nourished by the stellar faculty.

    I know there was an appreciable number of writers who perhaps should not have been accepted readily into the program but all of those candidates were recent undergraduates who simply did not have the worldly experience to be seasoned writers. The majority of them were still at least proficient with potential.

    Am I a better writer now after MPW? Absolutely. In retrospect, could I imagine a better setting and a better faculty? Absolutely not. Was there murkiness with the front office? Yes. Do I regret still paying my student loan in terms of the MPW program not being scholastically-worthy? NO WAY. I am proud beyond belief to have been a part of that literary zeitgeist with so many gifted writers, faculty and student body alike.

    Brad Listi is but one fine example of a student who went through the program at the same time as I, who went on to write a best-selling novel as well as founding, engineering and editing the cutting-edge internationally respected literary force, thenervousbreakdown.com, where incidentally, we are currently sharing this dialogue.

    Thanks again, Aram, you’re beautiful.

    Long live the legacy of the MPW…
    Fight on, write on!

    Truly,
    Milo Martin ‘04

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