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Some Classmates Are Toxic
By M. Alouette
You've probably heard before that you will get as much out of an M.F.A. as you put in. If you don't take it seriously, you could end up with a whole lot of debt (or at least a couple years of decreased income), a piece of paper with your name on it, and not much more. If you do take it seriously, you could end up with a transformed way of thinking and new approach to writing or art-making. You might also come away with publications, exhibitions, productions, awards, fellowships, internships, and professional opportunities. If you're really lucky, you'll get lifelong mentors, friends, and collaborators, too. But you have to give in order to get—and if all you give is trash, don't expect to get treasure in return.
In almost every M.F.A. program, there's at least one toxic classmate—someone who doles out trash like it's their job. What "toxic" looks like will vary, but there's no doubt that this person presents mainly negative qualities and habits in an environment where most students are excited to grow. This toxic classmate may be habitually late to class, unprepared for discussions and critiques, and unwilling to participate in department events. This person may also be bitter, rude, and just generally unkind and unproductive in formal and informal interactions with faculty and students. This person may also be ruthlessly cutthroat and hyper-competitive to the point where they think they are the only one deserving of anything. More often than not, they feel entitled to awards and other department honors and privileges. This person makes their classmates feel bad about themselves, their creative work, and their honest efforts as students. Well, that is if their classmates aren't proactive in dealing with this toxic person.
I had a toxic classmate in my M.F.A. program. He never made the rest of us feel supported or inspired. He fit the "guy in your M.F.A. stereotype," too: white, straight, comfortably middle class, and the child of parents who still greatly contributed to his material well-being. He thought he knew everything and was a sore loser when anyone outshone him. He thought nothing of being late, cutting class, not doing the readings, and not showing up with quality work. He thought of himself as a revolutionary, when really, he was just a lazy, privileged grump. And guess who was by far the most uncharitable out of anyone when it came to workshops and critiques? Yep. Of course. He didn't seem to believe in constructive criticism, only tearing people down. In short, this classmate was a nightmare. My problem was that I took him way too seriously from the start. My happiness, self-esteem, and work ethic vastly improved once I saw him for the toxic person he was.
Here are my five suggestions for dealing with a toxic classmate in your M.F.A. program:
1. Always come prepared. Do your best in grad school no matter what. Check your syllabus and don't come to class with nothing to show for it. Just remember: Your best is not the same as the best. This means being realistic. You won't be able to read every assignment on time or write the perfect draft. There's too much to do. But you should honor your responsibilities as a student. You're dedicating two or three years to your craft. Develop discipline and commit yourself to learning, experimenting, and producing. You probably won't have as much time for friends, dating, or hobbies as you did before you started grad school. That's to be expected. Yet you'll miss a lot if you goof off all the time. Your toxic classmate might be "too smart" or "too talented" to do the hard work; but you came to grad school to challenge and develop the intelligence and talent you already have.
2. Avoid routine vent sessions. Your toxic classmate probably loves to complain. All. The. Time. While it's normal to get frustrated (grad school is hard), whining all the time misses the point. That time could be better spent reading, discussing theory and content, working on your craft, learning relevant skills, and going to department events. When you hear your toxic classmate revving up, come up with an excuse to scram. You honestly have more important, or at least interesting, things to do!
3. Limit your time with them. Even when your toxic classmate isn't actively complaining, you'll probably be happier when they're not around. Do you really want to hear their monologues about how brilliant they are and what bullshit your program is? Nah. Go to the library or the student union or your studio or literally anywhere this person is not, whenever you have the choice. You have work to do and you will feel so darn satisfied when you make progress and reach new milestones. Revel in that satisfaction! Spend time with classmates who lift your spirits and help you do your best work. You can celebrate your milestones together.
4. Redirect conversations. Obviously you have to see Mr./Ms./Mx. Toxic once in a while, or maybe more often than that. You're in the same program. Train yourself to challenge them and ask questions that encourage self-reflection. Like, what if they keep pooping on a classmate's piece and offer zero useful feedback? Push them for it. "What about the piece do you think works?" "What would you like to see more of in the next draft?" "What in today's assigned reading might so-and-so want to consider for the next draft?" You should also offer constructive criticism when the toxic classmate starts attacking someone. Your opinion is just as valid! Be a model classmate: courteous and engaged.
5. Soar, baby! Chances are good that your toxic classmate thinks they're a superstar out of arrogance, but with nothing to back it up. Why can't you be the superstar they think they are? While they're busying complaining and avoiding real effort, you should apply yourself. Go for that scholarship or travel stipend. Sign up for your professor's office hours. Claim the free tickets your department is giving out. This isn't to compete with your toxic classmate; this is to compete with yourself. Again, do your best. Your toxic classmate is barely trying. Meanwhile, you're rocking it.
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