Lessons from Hitting the Road

It’s hard to believe it’s been over a month since my last post! This is what happens once the semester gets going in earnest, and this semester I’ve been even busier. Besides working on various proposal documents for our MFA in Creative Writing (see recent posts), I’ve been hitting the road to promote the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. The nice thing about this has been the chance to meet with so many alumni of Mississippi University for Women in Jackson, Meridian, Memphis, and this coming week, Columbus. The only downside has been the hours spent in a car driving from place to place, but at least on one of these drives, I got to go along with author Deborah Johnson, and we had good conversations about writing and teaching.

One of the things I’ve learned from seeing former students is that they do go out into the world, get good jobs (even if it sometimes takes awhile). We can’t always envision what they will end up doing for work (anymore than they can when they are in college), but we have to trust them to find their way. And they do that very well.

On some of the creative writing lists I belong to, there has been a fair amount of hand-wringing lately about whether to encourage students to go on to graduate school for writing. I sympathize, and I agree that students today need more debt counseling than we did when i was just getting out of my undergraduate program. An education has become more expensive and the rewards can be more elusive. But I also am reminded that our good students will find their way. The jobs they end up in may not be the ones they expected, but they will find fulfilling careers, and they will make use of the skills their education taught them.

It’s nice to get outside the university atmosphere now and then, both to connect with the ‘real world’ and also to be reminded that the ‘real world’ and the ‘ivory tower’ aren’t as disconnected as we sometimes are led to believe.

New Graduate Program Proposal: Nuts and Bolts

I’ve been writing the past few days about our new MFA proposal for a Low-Residency program in creative writing. You might think that sounds nice, and it is exciting to consider and put together a brand new academic program from the ground up. You get to rethink how you want to structure a program, what your goals might be, what the practical realities of implementing it might be. That’s been the fun work of the past several years — daydreaming or planning the program, depending on how close to reality you are. Even writing the initial Proposal to Plan was a lot of fun and fairly easy, since it was the big picture.

But now, even though the big picture is still on my mind, it’s a lot more work to get down to the details. I’ve been working on writing new course proposals: there will be almost 30 initially, including Special Topics, Internship, and the Thesis. It’s a wide variety, and I wouldn’t have to propose them all at once (and we likely will add some more later), but I want to show the range of courses we plan to offer, and I want to include a few ‘hooks’ to other programs. For instance, MUW has a new MA in Women’s Leadership, so I have included some courses already that focus on women writers. I’d like there to be a small concentration for the Women’s Leadership students who want to take literature as part of their degree. Our Education Masters programs may also be served by some of our literature classes. The writing classes will likely be reserved for our MFA students, but I wanted to make them open to other students who have the qualifications, so the prerequisite was permission of the director.

Each course proposal needs a rudimentary course outline and course objectives. I’m not being incredibly detailed in these (and was told this would be okay — I hope they remember that!) because I’m writing so many and I won’t teach all of these classes, but still it is both fun and very demanding to think about what could be taught in each of the areas I’m proposing.

Of course, all of this would be easier if I were proposing an MFA program where there was an existing MA in literature. But we don’t have that here, and we aren’t likely to get it unless we were to propose a Comparative Literature degree (I don’t believe there is one of those in the state, and we still have to worry about duplication of programs). Many of my course proposals include an international focus, both with that in mind and because I want our program to have a global vision both because I want our program to stand out, and I think American writers need to be less provincial.

I like thinking about the types of courses we could teach (workshops, residencies, and forms and literature classes) and the choices students might make. I like thinking about the writers who think they want to teach and the writers who want to enter the publishing business and what their needs are. And I like thinking about what I want to communicate to prospective students about our program by putting the program in place. But it does mean writing pages and pages of proposal documents and researching some of the classes I probably will never teach. Heck, I’ve had to look up some names of authors I might want to use in the classes I will teach. After writing this many course proposals, I feel lucky I can remember my own name some of the time!

I’m reminded of the wealth of great literature that’s out there, and it’s exciting to steer a course for a new program to study the things I would want to have in a program if I were a grad student today. Of course, the program will grow and change as we hire new faculty, and especially as we start teaching students and begin to assess their needs and expectations. For now, I’m suspended somewhere between the idea stages that I lived with for so long (our initial proposal didn’t get off the ground before the economy crashed in 2008, so I’ve been waiting until the time was right to try again) and the even trickier nuts and bolts that I’ll start dealing with when the proposal becomes a reality.

Creative Writing as Economic Development

Why get a degree in creative writing? Or for that matter, why take a class?

Recently when writing grant proposals and proposing our new Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing, I’ve argued for creative writing as a form of economic development. In those contexts, I trot out statistics that show the creative economy is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, and that writing skills are valued highly by employers. Those figures are real, and they suggest that a degree in creative writing can lead to a good job, even a career, though the path may not be quite as straightforward as it is with a medical degree or an engineering degree.

But that is not what I am thinking about this morning. The job you could get with a certain degree is only one part of the value of an education, and only one part of economic development. The part I’m thinking of is a little ess tangible.

Yesterday, our local newspaper, The Commercial Dispatch ran an article on poverty in our area. Though I know that poverty is widespread, I was still struck by the statistics: that most of the census tracts in our area have more than 20% of their population below the poverty line or that over 45% of kids in our city live in poverty. Unemployment is high, but according to the article another part of the problem is “poverty of spirit,” a lack of hope or the inability of some who have grown up in poverty to imagine anything different.

It seems to me that this is one area where the study of creative writing can help. I’m not suggesting every poor person should enroll in a writing workshop, but I am thinking about the intangible effect it can have for those who do. In other words, we teach certain skills in writing. We teach how to communicate effectively, and we teach about form and conventions. But perhaps more importantly, in creative writing we teach self-expression.

It’s typically not one of the goals on my syllabi, since it can’t be measured. It’s like the unintended yet positive side-effects of an experiment. I can’t guarantee self-expression, but I can provide the opportunity for it to happen. In creative writing classes, students learn to write from themselves. They learn to revise this writing and to give it structure. They negotiate form and tradition to find their own way to express their most intimate thoughts. So even if students in my class never go on to write another poem or story in their lives, I believe they have gained an invaluable lesson, a lesson they have taught themselves about who they are.

A writing class trains us to imagine a world that exceeds our own, yet that also is inextricably tied to our core selves. Creative writing helps us see beyond our immediate circumstances and imagine a world we could inhabit. Creative writing attacks that “poverty of spirit” that can keep people in poverty even if economic conditions improve. If you don’t believe me,read the thoughts of poet Randall Horton on how a poetry reading changed his life.

Of course, this is not the kind of thing you’d say in a grant proposal, yet it is what I think of when I consider the economic impact of creative writing. Are there other fields that might have a similar effect? Undoubtedly. Any of the arts or any field that really grabs students’ attention can help them realize themselves, yet creative writing is uniquely situated at the crossroads of art and language to allow students the creative vision to realize themselves and the language with which to express it.

Low-Residency MFA — What is it?

I’ve been working on our proposal for a new Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women, and it occurred to me that it might be worth blogging about what one is. So let’s start with the most obvious question.

What is an MFA?

To non-academics, the acronyms we use can sometimes be confusing. An MFA is a Master of Fine Arts degree. In Creative Writing, this is seen as the terminal degree (the highest degree you need to teach), though there are some Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing now. It is different from an MA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing because the emphasis tends to be more on writing classes and less on literary scholarship, though some literature classes are usually part of an MFA program. MFA programs are also typically longer than MA programs by a year or more, and they usually involve more classes or credits.

So in our MFA program, we will have three main types of classes: Writing workshops in specific genres (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama), literature classes, and forms classes. Literature classes emphasize literary scholarship, reading for interpretation in other words. Forms classes emphasize craft, reading to learn how a genre has developed or to learn the nuts and bolts of writing. Literature classes involve reading primary texts and scholarly essays or books about those texts. Forms classes involve reading primary texts and essays or books about the genre, which may be essays by working writers about their craft. Students will be required to take at least 4 Workshop classes and 4 Literature or Forms classes, along with 4 electives that can be Workshops, Literature, or Forms classes. This gives the student flexibility in creating their curriculum. We also plan to offer independent studies, seminars, and internships, which may count as electives.

After all, students have different goals in mind when entering an MFA program in Creative Writing. All want to become better writers, but some also want to teach and others also want to enter the world of publishing or find other writing careers. Those who want to teach at the university level should take at least 6 literature courses (though some may already have a Master’s in English). Those who want to go on in publishing or a related field may find the Forms classes better suit their needs. Since our program is low-residency, most of our classes will be conducted online.

So what does Low-Residency mean?

Traditional MFA programs are full residency programs. In other words, students move to the university town, attend classes on campus, hang out together after class, and have an intensely creative experience. This is a good model, especially for young students who are fresh out of undergrad (or have worked a few years), and who don’t have career or family responsibilities that limit them geographically. I recommend to my students that they look for this kind of experience while they can. But it isn’t always convenient for those who have started a career or a family or have other obligations that won’t allow them to move to where their grad program is.

That’s the need that Low-Residency programs were designed to fill. They’ve been around for decades, though the means of teaching them has changed as distance learning technologies have developed. The idea is that creative writers need a sense of community and that face-to-face discussion of student work can be more productive than fully online or correspondence work. Creative writing programs often feature a reading series. They often have social or community involvement as part of their program. In a fully online or distance learning program, these elements are limited if not lacking, but in the low-residency model, students are required to come to campus periodically for intense workshop experiences.

In our program, if it’s approved, we plan to have two types of residency classes: a short residency where the time together is about a week (and work is done before and after the residency online), and a full residency, which will last about two weeks and work is mostly completed while on campus. The short residencies will be optional to allow more flexible scheduling; one full residency and one short residency will be required in the first year. During these times, besides additional workshopping of student writing, we will have hands-on experiences in different art forms or subjects (music, pottery, painting, theater, environmental writing, history, etc.) and sessions on writing as a profession. The full residency will be scheduled in late May or early June. Short residencies will be scheduled throughout the year at times that we hope will be convenient for our students, though one will likely be scheduled to coincide with the annual Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium.

Though all programs are a little different, I think this overview of the one we’re planning should give you an idea of what they are. You will spend 2-3 years (or more) in intense conversation with other writers about your writing (our program could be finished in two years, but we recommend 3 or more, especially since most low-residency students are also working, so they will take classes part-time). You will also develop your ideas about literature through literature and forms classes, and you’ll learn about the profession of being a writer and/or teacher of writing.

Master of My Domain

Well, I just made the leap, folks. You can now access this blog at kendalldunkelberg.com — of course the old address of kendalldunkelberg.wordpress.com will also work. I’ve been thinking about making this change for quite awhile, but have finally done it for a few reasons.

A) the blog is getting more and more hits, largely due to my technology posts. When I exceeded 250 posts in one day, I figured it was time to do something about it. Actually, when I consistently started having over 100 hits a day, I was pretty darned pleased. That told me this is more than just a hobby or an experiment in blogging, and I should celebrate with a more defined web presence.

B) This blog started as an author blog, and having my own domain name will help readers find me. I’m working on a couple of poetry book projects and a textbook, so the increased visibility ought to come in handy one day soon.

C) Mississippi University for Women, where I teach is proposing a low-residency MFA program. I should say, I am writing up the proposal and will be the director of the program, assuming everything gets approved. We cleared the first hurdle, and so we’re optimistic about the rest of the journey. Again, having a website that’s easier to find can’t hurt.

When I first started writing a blog, I did it primarily to learn how it works and as a place to put my occasional writings. I’d still like to make the blog more of a regular part of my writing routine, but it’s become a bigger part of my online identity. Now it has an address to match.

The Jumper: Book Review

The JumperThe Jumper by Tim Parrish

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tim Parrish‘s first novel is gripping from the first chapter to the last. More than just a good read, The Jumper broaches important themes for our day. The portrayal of the main character, Jimmy, is spot-on. His means of coping with being illiterate dovetail nicely with his biological father J. T.’s gambling addictions. If you’re familiar with Tim Parrish’s previous collection of short stories, Red Stick Men, or his memoir, Fear and What Follows, then you won’t be surprised to find a troubled father-son relationship at the center of the novel. In fact, Jimmy, an orphan, has several surrogate parents in the novel and none are completely faultless, though Parrish also finds a way to get us to sympathize, at least at moments, with all of his characters. Race is an undercurrent of both the main narrative (J.T., on the run from his creditors, now lives in a shotgun shack in a poor Black neighborhood of Baton Rouge) and in the flashback scenes of J.T.’s life before Jimmy was born. While the suspenseful plot keeps you turning pages like a thriller, the book also contains deep insights into a cross-section of American life that we don’t often encounter in fiction. Parrish’s portrayal of this Southern industrial city is both loving and disturbing, and at every moment it feels absolutely real. This book ought to be required reading for any lover of Southern fiction or indeed any lover of twenty-first century realism.

View all my reviews

Surprise Lilies

Surprise LiliesWe’ve been doing yard work this week, and one thing that has made it more bearable has been the appearance of surprise lilies, or as Felder Rushing called them this week on The Gestalt Gardener, Naked Ladies. I’ve also seen that they can be called Resurrection Lilies, which may be my favorite name for them. They pop up in our yard every year in late July or early August, and we see a few around our neighborhood. If we can remember where to dig, we may move a few bulbs this fall and separate them. Over the years, they’ve multiplied quite a bit, and since ours are all in the back yard, it would be nice to move a few to the front. It’s always nice to see these rise from the ground in the hottest months of the year. (By the way, the green around this clump is monkey grass. The lilies themselves have no foliage this time of year, though they do have fairly big leaves in wintertime, after the flowers are gone. The time to move them is when there is no flower and no foliage, which is why you either have to mark where they are now or have a good memory. Maybe this picture will help me in the fall!

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