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.

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