What I Learned In Graduate School
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
I’m not going to lie, when a classmate of mine from the University of Tampa posted about how happy she was for the warm and inviting environment, I was kind of irritated. I admit I might be a little bitter–or cynical. I don’t harbor harsh feelings toward the University of Tampa specifically for this, but I understand the situation that happened to me. This cohort of mine spoke about how encouraged she was to find her voice and to write about the things she wanted to write about. I was happy for her, but as I read things like that, I can’t help but say to myself, “This again? Where was my help? Why do my experiences shoot so differently from everyone else around me?”
The creative writing program at the University of Tampa works like this: You go for 5 terms. It’s a low-residency program which means you’re barely on campus. Each term you go to the University campus for 7-8 days of intensive, all-day-long classes, seminars, workshops, and readings. You’re assigned a mentor and workshop group of people who will also be working 1-on-1 with that mentor through the rest of the semester. After the on-campus residency is over, you spend the next 4 months communicating long-distance with your mentor while writing creative, receiving feedback and direction, reading your custom reading list, and writing annotations the readings.
You’re assigned a different mentor every term. You can request the mentors you want, up to like 3 choices, and the administration tries to match you depending on preference. You only have 4 mentored terms, then your 5th term is just the on-campus residency where you then give a seminar, reading, and graduate (while doing the other normal class stuff). During my time at UT, I had 3 different mentors.
They were all different in background, education, style, story, mentoring style–everything. I appreciated the diversity in story and style. I appreciated different details they paid attention to and the different approaches they had for students.
One thing they didn’t do differently was: they all discouraged me.
I went into this program knowing exactly what I wanted to accomplish. I had a plan, the story I wanted to focus on developing while there. Each mentor I presented this story to took no time in either laughing at the idea or telling me it was impossible. One of the moments I’ll never forget, and I’ll continue to repeat every time I talk about the University of Tampa, was when I met for my first 1-on-1 in my third term. I was with the professor I wanted to work with most because he wrote supposedly dark, creepy stories. I sat down at the table with him and the first thing he said to me was, “How does it feel to be writing a story that will never be published?”
What a line to encourage students, eh?
The novel was not even through its first draft yet, it hadn’t been edited. None of us had any idea how it would turn out, but that didn’t stop someone at every each term pitstop from telling me they didn’t believe in my project. The only reason I can imagine is because it’s unconventional. The book I’m writing was inspired by a board game. Yeah, like Clue-inspired a movie.
Instead of encouraging me to pursue this, to find my voice, and to find what this project was trying to say or do, they just kept saying you shouldn’t, I don’t believe in this project, etc etc. Through the past I’ve heard more than enough artists talk about how not everything they do is meant for the market. Some projects are just there to teach them. In writing this story, why couldn’t any of my mentors even take that as a stance? Instead, they just went on to discourage a story I have been thinking about for more than a decade and had passionately entered the program ready to write.
Note: By the end of the program, the book I did have written and one of the mentors said, “I was made a believer,” but to this day I don’t even know if he was blowing hot air or became a true believer.
So when I hear my cohorts trumpeting praise of the professors at UT, I, unfortunately, can’t really feel the same because I don’t feel like I ever received that same support. I am, however, happy for the people who feel like they grew there and had the support they needed.
What I actually think UT did the most for me was bring out my voice of opposition. Every semester had a book about identity politics in it–at least one, sometimes more than one. The featured poets were almost always black and they always wrote about being black, the oppression, and how unfair life is. The first featured poet I experienced at UT was Carmen Giménez Smith with her book “Milk and Filth.” I had a feeling it would be angry vagina poetry (read: feminist poetry) and it was.
They kept pushing these ideas of race, sex, separation, disparagement. One of the visiting guests went off on a rant of “ObamaCare so great!” in the middle of what should have been a craft seminar. In another, when discussing his book, pre ‘fake-news,’ I mentioned how dangerous it was that he superimposed human feelings and thoughts on animal characters in what he called a ‘nonfiction’ novel. I said this was an attempt to blur the lines between reality and fiction. To superimpose human thoughts and feelings on animals was misleading and fictitious. I was met with argues that it was alright, that you could change small stuff like that and still consider it nonfiction. Someone said, “Because it helps get his point across, it’s okay to do.” There was no argument other than my own about the integrity of the truth…
And this was before the 2016 election.
The closer I got to my graduation, the more I came to accept that I was cheated; discouraged at every corner. There was little attempt from the mentors who didn’t work with me to try and understand or help outside of their classrooms. UT has a small creative writing program: less than 100 people. It was probably around 80-85 on average.
I developed a few relationships while at UT, but I don’t think a majority of the professors knew me as anything other than an embarrassment; for the first two or three semesters I carried around a prompt book and instead of asking authors just or their signature, I asked them to fill out a prompt–to create a sort of creative writer’s yearbook. I thought it was a cool idea, but I dunno if my faculty just thought I was a quirky embarrassment.
In one of my workshops, a girl submitted her alien book which was an allegory to open borders and Trump-hatred. The hypocrisy of it killed me as aliens from a foreign planet went to earth to demand earthlings allow other creatures from other planets in. “Open borders.” But the aliens coming to control the earth border had an ethno-planet of their own where no other aliens could come and live. We didn’t get to talk about that kind of stuff and as a workshop responder, it wasn’t my job to like her story, but to help her write it to the best she could. I didn’t tell her the story was impossible to write. I didn’t tell her it was terrible. I gave her feedback on how it read, what was awkward, and what I understood from the one chapter. If I’d read more, she would have gotten more.
Also worth mentioning, in this same workshop, when working on text, they got into a discussion about Trump, insulting, obviously. There’s a rule in workshops where authors can’t speak when their work is being reviewed. It was a super inappropriate time to discuss politics only made worse when I was silenced because ‘technically’ they were discussing my story, but they weren’t. They were getting sidetrack. Needless to say, I was the only one in the group with a different opinion.
Fast-forward to after graduation. When I didn’t worry about drama being created, I didn’t worry about censoring myself. My voice of opposition came out more. I tried to have discussions with people. The election was coming up. Majority of my social media is liberals because of my industry. I try to converse, it’s attacked or ‘we can do research. Stop talking to us.”
I returned to the University of Tampa in January of 2017 to go to the public readings and support classmates who were graduating that semester. I took notice that the dean of the program wouldn’t look at me. I took notice that she greeted everyone else in the group I was standing with, but at I said, “Hey Erica,” she looked the other way. I get it, I’m 5’5”. She’s over 6’ and wears 6” heels, but please. I was there 6-7 of the nights. I went to the alum party they held and the after-graduation party and not once was there an interaction, a hey, with the dean.
What’s disturbing to me is spending tens of thousands of dollars on an ‘education’ and feeling like I was scammed. Feeling like the people who I was told were there to support and teach me didn’t like what I was doing, so they gave it minimal effort. If I said I was interested in learning to write dark comedy, then why couldn’t you help me develop that voice? I appreciate that one of my mentors took the time in our mentor workshop to go over different styles of comedy, but was that attention really paid to the manuscript itself? Maybe I’m missing something, maybe I’m misinterpreting our interactions and I don’t mean to diminish the attempts given, but, I do recall all three of my professors professing they didn’t believe in my project.
So here comes the newest installment: Trump Derangement Syndrome.
For the following discussion, please note that Mikhail Iossel is a professor at the University of Tampa Creative Writing program, a professor of English and Concordia University, and lives in Montreal, Canada (not sure how that works with 2 US jobs). Niki Lambros, a friend of his who joins in, also works at Concordia University as a professor:
Lol please note his profile is a public forum because it is completely public. If he wanted it private, he’d mark it private. If he wanted a diary, he could keep a blog, mark facebook posts to ‘only me,’ or keep a diary. This was Iossel’s sad attempt to not look like he was fishing for ego strokes. What he does in this post reads as “I need people to reassure me of my reality. Anyone who disagrees breaks my delusional sense of what is real and thus, they must be ejected. Read this post from Peter which came shortly after those posted above:
There are some really disturbing things in all these posts. One is the level of censorship Mikhail and Niki support while being university professors. We already know the universities in America are pretty heavily biased to liberals, Marxists, and those who want complete conformity in ideology. Iossel proves this in his complete refusal to engage with me and then his ejection of Peter later on for also not following the doctrine. Not seen in these images is the number of people who responded agreeing with him who received pleasantries from him. It was literally about receiving strokes to his grand imaginations.
He’s a creative writer after all.
Niki accuses me of attempting censorship when I stated the warning that: you post something on the internet, an open forum, and you will likely hear things you agree and disagree with. If you don’t like to be disagreed with, don’t post things publicly. This, to her, is apparently the same as censorship. Yet shortly after saying, “you trying to censor us?” she goes. Iossel spent all his posts telling me not to speak and what to say, and Niki comes back at ME and says “Facebook is about sharing your own thoughts, not policing others” … while they police me.
The next thing that should be noted between these two is as I state everything isn’t an echo chamber, Niki Lambros accuses me of trying to create an echo chamber and they eject Peter and myself for disagreeing.
Iossel complains about a lack of respect from Peter, but refuses to engage or acknowledge viewpoints different than himself and responds to me with ‘posting lengthy and, in my opinion, content free of text,’ completely dismissing his intellectual opposition.
Note these two are professors… at university… teaching students… and they can’t come up with any arguments other than, “Yes I’m biased!” “Stop posting here!” and “Zzzzz.” Nice. If you go to Concordia University and have either of these people as professors, I’d switch. They don’t seem too intellectually stimulating because they aren’t willing to have discourse. They can’t form arguments. All they can do is send you out of the class.
What bothers me is I can’t have an adult conversation with a professor on a subject he started. What bothers me is I can’t seem to have a discussion with any professor, but they like to post trash talk. They’re like the fat kid on the playground that picks on everyone, but you throw something back at them and they sob they’re being bullied. I remember at the start of the general election, one of my old college professors posted, “If you post anything pro-Trump, I will have to block you,” because she couldn’t handle differences of opinions.
So this is what it comes down to for me, as I write this blog post.
I spent tens of thousands of dollars on a degree I didn’t need to do the job I wanted to do. I just wanted to write better. I just needed a mentor. I think the ‘easy’ way to find a mentor is formal education, but I think the majority of it is a waste of time and money. A year after graduation, I don’t feel like I can return to my graduate school as an alum because I don’t mentally fit what they want. I don’t feel welcomed by the professors. I don’t feel welcomed by the dean. I don’t feel welcomed by the guests. I don’t feel they want my opinion.
After tens of thousands of dollars, the skill sharpened most by creative writing school was my ability to argue against bullshit, made worse by the cynicism I’ve developed mostly through universities taking my money, but offering minimal assistance. I don’t feel like I have a community. I don’t feel like I can reach out to them for experience in teaching or speaking.
At first, attending UT when I was 23, I thought it was different. I thought there was community. It was this open platform looking for discussion, diversity of thought, intellectual play, but the more I get to know the people who run the program, the more I see them when I’m not actively shovelling money into it, the more I recognize they are the same as all the other destructive universities I see pop up in the news. You follow the doctrine or you’re out. They like diversity unless you think differently. The only ‘good’ kind of different, is the same different as everyone else.
I’m disheartened but motivated to succeed. I hope that my impression of the University of Tampa is wrong, but at the moment, I just don’t have the proof. I don’t wear my UT sweatshirt anymore; I don’t know if I can be proud to have gone to this place. The positive memories of mentorship and respect for the professors seem to dwindle daily.
What I learned in graduate school is the same thing I’ve learned all my life. When someone tells me, “No you can’t do that,” when the discouragement, the dismissal of importance or merit comes my way, if I think they’re wrong, then I tell them, then I push through, then I say, “Watch me.” This is what Trump did in the 2016 election as every news station said he couldn’t do it. As every election forecast said he had a <1% chance of winning on November 8th. Everyone said, “You can’t do it,” and he said, “Watch me,” and he did it.
I wonder, how many students or young adults fail out of college or fail at a career because someone says, “You can’t do it” and they don’t have the instinct to say, “Watch me prove you wrong.”? How many people want to push forward, but don’t have the ability to motivate themselves, so they let the naysayers around them decide their destiny?
How many university professors, parents, and mentors are purposefully turning the next generation into a group of failures?
I’m disheartened; I’m disturbed; I will never back down.