As our low-residency MFA program enters its fifth year, it seems like a good time to reflect on where we’ve come and how we’ve evolved, and that includes why we’re committed to the low-res format for the degree.
Our program is different from many low-res MFAs out there because we follow an online class model. AWP, in its Hallmarks for Low-Residency MFA programs, oulines three types of program: ones with mentoring, ones with electronic classrooms, and hybrid. I’ve never met a hybrid program, and most of the well-known low-res MFAs out there seem to use the mentoring model, but I assume there are others using online classes, since the model existed before ours was created. Still, a lot of programs and prospective students seem to expect the mentoring model. Our students are usually glad to have the online class model because it means they have contact with each other outside of the residency periods. But for some, it begs the question: why do I even have to come to campus? Usually, once they’ve been here, they understand.
There are fully online MFA programs, of course, and those can be our competition. But there are things you can’t do online that you can do in a residency: have meals together, have and give readings, talk face-to-face in workshop groups and socially, complain about the air conditioning or the dorm beds (hey, nothing is perfect), get up early (as Kyla is famous for doing when she’s here) to go to the wildlife refuge, or stay up late together hanging out at local restaurants, etc. We have parties, and we bring coffee cake to workshops.
And in our program, we have multi-genre workshops in the summer, where fiction writers sit across from poets and beside playwrites or memoirists. We get out of our comfort zone and learn from each other, and our workshop leaders are not the same people who taught us during the semester and may even write in other genres than we do. This, combined with the afternoon seminars on practical aspects of being a professional writer and evening readings by students, thesis candidates, teachers, and guest writers helps us form a strong sense of community even though we are spread out all across the country (and in Europe). The online class format with regular video conferences helps with this as well, but being together for 10 days cements that feeling, energizes us, and gives us connections that will last a lifetime.
That’s the full-residency experience, but when we put the program together, we realized we also wanted some shorter experiences, too. We wanted to have times when we could recharge our batteries in four or five days and offer unique experiences. So we also instituted short residencies. The most logical one was at our Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, where students come to hear a dozen recently published writers at this annual event that is now in its 31st year. With a great writing event like this on campus, it only made sense to incorporate it into our MFA program, but since it happens in October and is for the community and the undergraduate campus as well, we knew it had to be seperate from any of our online classes.
Other short residency experiences that we’ve developed since then have focused on the business of writing or on another artform. The first summer short residency was led by our drama professor, T. K. Lee, who led a 5-day session in acting for writers. Students wrote their own short scripts adapted from something else they’ve been writing, and then acted in each others’ plays. We’ve also done one on oral storytelling and one on songwriting and music (and we repeated the acting residency once). Each was a great experience: a little intimidating at first for some, but in the end a great bonding experience and an opportunity for growth as an artist.
The other short residency that we offer is in the spring, when we take a group to the AWP conference. This is full immersion into the professional world of the writer, and it is also overwhelming, exciting, and incredibly rewarding. We spend a fair amount of time in our online class before the conference getting prepared: poring over the schedule, talking about what panels and off-site events people want to go to, looking at what bookstores or other local hotspots we definitely want to see when we escape AWP, and plannign what we’ll say about our writing and about our program and literary magazines when we’re walking the book fair or working our table. Then we arrive at AWP and are immersed for the three-day conference, trying to get together as a group a few times, though often we end up coalescing in smaller groups or seeing each other in passing.
When the program was begun, we knew this was the basic format we wanted to go with. We said (and continue to say) that we were flexible and want to work with students so they can have a low-res experience whether they can come to campus every semester or not. And we’ve managed to do that very well. We encourage everyone to come early in their program and to come back whenever they can, and generally that’s been doable, but we’ve had some students go a year or so without coming to a residency, yet they are always glad when they can return.
The other thing that has kept us flexible is adding new classes like the literary magazine production class and the internship class that allow us to give students professional experiences that will help their writing. In response to student requests, we’ve developed classes like Professional Writer, a (primarily) fiction class aimed at helping students revise and submit their work to literary magazines, and we’re planning to do a section of it focused on the long form: novels and full-length memoir. We’ve added special topics classes to address themes that students or faculty are interested in, and we keep exploring ways we can grow.
One of the most exciting developments this year will be collaborating with the theatre department’s new low-res MFA in Theatre Education program. We will have some of their students in our drama classes, and we are looking forward to the ability to offer some of their practical theatre classes (directing, stage design, etc.) to our playwriting students. And we’ve already been collaborating with theatre to produce staged readings of some of our student plays. Now that they’ll have a summer residency, too, we may be able to stage full productions of some of our scripts, and we may be able to offer a theatre residency or a short independent residency class for a resident playwrite.
Our first four years have been fantastic, and I’m looking forward to what the fifth year will bring. As always, our goal will be bringing the most rewarding experiences we can to all of our students and combining the flexibility of online learning with the benefits of face-to-face experiences.