Thursday, January 31, 2008

MFA defense

Perversely, even though I hate it here in Scary City, I know that one of the things that makes it easier for me than it is for R is the fact that I am not there, in the house, where Mr. K and his movements and reactions were conditioned into my muscle memory. So that after he passed on, every time the doorbell rang, I would stiffen, waiting for him to bark. Coming in the door from outside, I would be waiting for the sounds of him coming over the greet me. Or I would be lying in bed and find myself turning over to look down and see him in his little bed. These were all rather awful bodily reactions in the aftermath of his death, as they only drove home his absence. I am sad that R has to deal with that alone.


Anyway, let me try to actually use this space to focus on something else for a little bit. It is probably good. Like the fact that tonight I am going to a movie. Juno.

I was called in as the university examiner for a thesis defense. The defense was postponed because I was away in Home City for Mr. Kasper. It is coming up, now. It is an MFA defense, not an MA. I don't work in the Fine Arts, obviously. I am an examiner because the theory that informs the candidate's work is the kind I work with, broadly speaking. There is an exhibition - the thesis exhibition - and then there is the written work, about two thirds of which is a theoretical meditation.

I am confused about how to evaluate/examine this piece of work. I am confused about the criteria. I presume they are different from the criteria used to evaluate an MA thesis, since for an MFA, the actual artistic work is the most important thing. So I assume that I am to tread lighter with the written work than I would if it were an MA? This becomes an issue because I don't think the written work is very strong - I would have serious reservations about it, were it an MA thesis.* But I suppose I am just to let it go, to ask the candidate some good, challenging questions that push their thinking - and leave it at that? Nobody seems to be able to answer this question. It's a little disconcerting.

* I feel like a little bit of an ass for even writing this, as this is the first time I've been involved in any kind of defense and I guess I'm still having impostor syndrome as a new tenure-track faculty member - who the hell am I to be a gatekeeper for grad students??


Belle said...

I think you are right to wonder; can you ask the others if the written part is really adequate?

Give R my sympathy. I still wait for that missing bark, that cold loving nose. And G's been gone 20 years. But gawd I miss her.

squadratomagico said...

I think you are right on target with your speculation about the MFA exam: If I were you, I'd ask some hard questions at the oral exam (I assume there is one?) to try to stimulate the candidate's thinking, get him/her to re-think and sharpen the theoretical underpinning of the visual work. If, on the other hand, you feel that the written work is so flawed as to not be worth a pass, then you should discuss this in advance with the main advisor of the student.

Otherwise, you can be pretty aggressive as an examiner, BUT (and this is key) you still should go along with the judgement of the visual arts people in terms of the ultimate evaluation. As an outsider, your role is to challenge the student, then subordinate yourself to the decision of the main people on the committee.

Earnest English said...

Hi Hilaire. Hang in there.

Squadro seems pretty on-target about your role as the outside person who asks challenging and thought-provoking questions, but ultimately you defer decision-making responsibilities to the people in the student's field.

My understanding about MFA programs (and this is painting with a broad brush, though I do have an MFA and know a lot of people with them) is that the major coursework focus is hands-on. So the written work may actually be *much* less important. This person may or may not have a solid grounding in theory -- likely that hasn't been the focus of the student's coursework. The student may have just spent the last two or three years honing her craft, not grappling with theory. I know that in my MFA program (a bit different from the visual arts, but still similar) theory was given a backseat. Our classes consisted mostly of craft and critique. My experiences in art classes too bears this out. No theory. And certainly no outside theory. In fact, most artists and writers I know are fairly hostile to theory. So to my mind, this student may be trying to go against the grain. Though of course the culture of the program has so much to do with theory-phobia.

My two cents.

Hilaire said...

Thanks folks, for the input. It does help me feel better about the defense on Monday.

EE, that helps a lot, since you've done an MFA. The tricky thing here, of course, is that it is actually an Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies program in which you can get either an MA or an MFA...You build your own program (don't even get me started on the state of grad studies here...I'm chomping at the bit to rant about it...)So she has done some theory coursework with my colleague who does work that is related to mine. I get the sense she's really grappling seriously with this. But I think I need to ultimately defer to the fact that it's an MFA, even though she's made it more theory-heavy than most such degrees would be...

medieval woman said...

I second all that's come before on the outside examiner front. I just wanted to give you a virtual hug ((Hilaire)) and ask how the movie was??

Hilaire said...

I really liked the movie a lot - she's a pretty compelling character and actor...!

Expect an email from me this weekend...