I'm one of those whose general reaction was--shall we say--less than enthusiastic. He lost me in the first paragraph with "The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it." (I've never met anyone who had "nothing interesting to express"; I think people are inherently interesting. They may be weird, they may be annoying, they may be a lot of things, but people--boring? No.)
Of course I can't discount all of Boudinot's observations out of hand. I may not teach in an MFA program, but I do teach undergraduate-level creative nonfiction every year, and until I recently moved into mid-level admin, I've typically taught two freshman comp courses per semester in addition to coordinating first-year writing. (Contrary to what many believe, I don't see a huge distinction between "composition" and "creative writing"; all writing requires creativity and linguistic fluency.)
I sort of know what he's talking about. Whether we slog in the lower-level trenches as I do, or soar with the literary giants as he does, we've all been there. We've all had students who say silly things like "I prefer to read books that 'don't make me work so hard to understand the words'" (cringe, especially when the person saying that claims to want to become a writer). We've all had students who "blow deadlines and whine about how complicated their lives are." (Caveat: While we all encounter whiners who are just whiny, some of our students do have extremely complicated lives, and it would be arrogant of me to assume I know more about their lives than they do.)
We've all had poorly performing students, and we've all have bad days (or weeks, or months, or semesters, or years). We've all seen our share of student laziness, narcissism, delusion, and entitlement. Those of us who teach memoir have all read pieces that beg people "to feel sorry for them" while being "riddled with errors." (I even tell my students that few genres are more dull to read than "Once upon a time, somebody was mean to me.") So I can't disagree with Boudinot entirely. Teaching is not an easy endeavor in general, and I'd posit that few things are harder to teach than writing.
Well, maybe that's the issue here: Boudinot isn't simply acknowledging that teaching writing is difficult. It is. There are thousands of us doing so across the country who, arguably, are dealing with far more challenging student populations than he faced. (Griping about student incompetence in a well-known MFA program? Come and teach developmental writing at an institution few people have ever heard of!)
But Boudinot suggests that teaching creative writing isn't even possible. Most people, he says, have "nothing interesting to express." (With sentiment like that floating around the academy, no wonder so much public opinion isn't on our side). Writers, he says, are born that way, and usually manifest this innate gift by the teenage years. (Never mind mountains of evidence-based cognitive research to demonstrate that writing, like any other complex neurological task, improves through thousands of hours of deliberate practice. I've published on this myself, by the way, in peer-reviewed scholarly journals.) Most people, the piece implies, are dull enough that they really ought not even to try.
This raises an ethical issue: Is it right for MFA programs (or indeed, even an undergraduate English program) to accept tuition money from students in exchange for the promise that they will be taught something, if some of the teachers themselves believe what they teach cannot be taught? Are there too many such programs across the country, accepting too many students, charging too much money, making too many empty promises? Such questions require further exploration. I wouldn't feel right about an auto mechanic who had no qualms about pocketing my money with the promise of a fix, who then blasted the news on the internet that my car isn't fixable and I'm silly for thinking so. Yet with teaching writing, something akin to this often seems to happen.
Perhaps the issue is whether the people hired to teach in such programs are actually teachers--or simply writers. Now, there is nothing wrong with "simply" being a writer. Writing is a noble occupation, and a difficult one. It's enough by itself. And teaching--while it's oxygen for many of us--is not for everybody. Teaching calls for us to believe, for starters, that our students are teachable. It calls for us to consider obstacles like student laziness and narcissism not as impossible dead-ends but as challenges to be overcome (and frankly, we don't win them all, so teaching also requires a high degree of tolerance for frustration). It calls for us to realize and accept that student growth isn't always instant or visible, and doesn't always occur in ways that we would have prescribed. Basically, teaching calls for us to have deep long-term patience as well as faith in humanity (which can be challenging at this historical/cultural moment, when all the loonies seem to be coming out of the woodwork).
Writing, meanwhile, makes its own demands. Not everyone is necessarily inclined toward both. And--at the risk of sounding like Stuart Smalley--that's okay. Some of the world's greatest writers would not have been fantastic teachers. They didn't need to be. And if they weren't--or aren't--they shouldn't teach.
Teaching and writing are different arts. Some people--though not all--are good at both.
Perhaps one of the issues with MFA programs is that too often their status stems from their ability to attract big-name writers, rather than teachers. If institutions with MFA programs are going to accept money from fledgling writers, perhaps an ethical stance demands that they connect students with people who believe that learning to write more effectively is possible; that narcissistic early drafts can be transformed, through revision, into powerful memoirs that connect individual suffering to a larger context; that minor annoyances like verb tense shifts can be corrected.
Would-be students should also do their homework and, when looking for a program, seek quality of teaching rather than simply big-name status. For when students pay money and walk through the classroom door, they deserve--for starters--teachers who believe their students have something potentially interesting to express, and that their job as writing teachers is to help each student find and express that "something," whatever it may be.