I first realized that we would likely need to have virtual residencies this summer while I was at AWP 2020 in San Antonio. Those of us who went had many conversations about COVID-19 and what it might mean, though at that point in early March everything was uncertain. At the Low-Residency Caucus panel, several directors were worried about what they would do if they couldn’t hold their on-campus residencies. It’s a vital part of a low-residency program, and for many programs it is required every semester and part of their classes. Our program at Mississippi University for Women is set up so that the residencies are separate classes. I knew I could have students active in the program without making them come to campus, which was a huge advantage, but I also knew that I had students in the program who needed a residency to graduate in August, so I would need to offer one. We actually had 28 students who needed residency and had already planned to offer two at different times, so that we could accommodate everyone’s schedules. We can’t do that all the time, but it made sense this year.
With that in mind and as soon as we learned Spring semester classes would all be moved online, I began planning to have our first Full Residency in May as a virtual residency, still holding out hope that in July we could be on campus. Soon enough, we learned that all on-campus summer classes would have to be online. This week, we’ve been doing the residency with 20 students and 5 faculty, all in Zoom. We’re trying to do the same things we normally would do, and finding there’s a few things we can’t do as well and a few things we can do better.
Every morning, our groups meet for 2 hours to discuss student writing. Each workshop has 5 students, so each day 2 or 3 students’ works are discussed. The workshop groups are formed with a mixture of people from different genres and classes, so the feedback students get isn’t the same as they would have gotten during the semester. We hope there’s been some revision since the semester class, and we don’t expect revision (for the class) after this workshop, which frees us up to have a different kind of discussion: not just ‘what needs to be fixed in this piece,’ but also ‘what kind of writing might this writer want to try next’ or ‘what could be different in the next piece they write.’ We use Zoom a lot in our program, so everyone is used to it. Though we can’t meet in the same room and we can’t all share coffee from the same pot, we can have the same kinds of discussions.
In the afternoon, we have an hour and a half for seminars by faculty or roundtable discussions with students. These are on professinal topics like issues in the writing life or craft discussions. We had one on teaching a community college, one about book publishing, and one on nonlinear narrative structures, for instance. These are very much like our usual seminars, the only difference is that we probably have more of a prepared talk and a little less discussion, though discussion on Zoom, even with 25 people, has gone pretty well. One thing we’re able to do that we haven’t always been able to do in the past is to bring in more alumni. Yesterday, we held a roundtable discussion with a group of alumns on the Post-MFA experience. Alumni and other students in the program have also been invited to other seminars, and though not too many have taken us up on that (maybe due to the time of day), it’s nice to open up part of our residency to those who aren’t in the class.
Thanks to advice from Andrew, one of our students who works at another college, we were able to figure out how to stream from Zoom to Facebook. Before learning about that, I had thought about subscribing to StreamYard to do the same thing. (It has some advantages, like allowing you to stream 2 places at once and allowing up to 6 people to be on screen at a time, but also some disadvantages, like only allowing 10 people at a time to be online together — everyone else would have to watch on the live stream). We’re able to have alumni and far-flung faculty and students participate in the readings, and we’ve grown a pretty big audience (compared to live in-person events). Family and friends of the students who are reading can participate, as can alumni, prospective students, and current students who are not at the residency. We’ve had to learn about lighting and such, but we’re not trying to look super-professional, so we make do with what we have.
As always, we hold our thesis defenses at residencies. Since these are all virtual, we’re able to bring in committee members who live far away, and we’re able to be a little more flexible with scheduling. A couple of theses might be done outside of a residency this summer. The conversations we havve about theses have been every bit as good as they would be face to face. The only real issue is signing the signature page: we’re mailing that around to the committees, which shouldn’t be a problem.
This is the biggest sacrifice of going online. We don’t eat meals together and we don’t just hang out. No one but me had to sweat in an un-air-conditioned academic building over Memorial Day weekend (when they almost always turn down the A/C). No one got to see the campus groundhog (not a mascot, just a critter that we’ve sometimes seen lurking around the building and which I saw one night this year while walking the dog across campus). No one did early morning yoga on the lawn or got up to go exploring at the wildlife refuge, and no one went to Waffle House or out to the bars late at night. At least not together in our little college town.
Instead, we reserved a couple of nights as Socials (instead of readings), and we invited alumni and others to join us for one of those nights. Another night, we had a practice reading to try out streaming to Facebook, and we took a break on Memorial Day night as we often do. I’ve encouraged the students to have their own Zoom or other video get-togethers, so they can meet in smaller groups the way they normally would without my planning it or even knowing about it. I hope they’ve done that, but if they haven’t, I’ll also understand. We all know about Zoom fatigue, and when most of our days (for over a week straight) consist of at least 6 hours on Zoom — I’m glad we have meal breaks so we’re not constantly online — I know most of us are exhausted and ready for the residency to be over, which is just like an in-person residency when on the last day we’re all utterly exhausted, energized, sad to be leaving, and still happy to be going home.
Last night, after our final reading, I invited students to stick around in Zoom for awhile to chat. Not everyone did, and I get why they may have wanted to spend time with family or just be done with Zoom. But those who stayed had a good time talking for another half hour or so just amongst ourselves. The general consensus was that the virtual residency had gone surprisingly well. Some even preferred it to the on-campus residency, though most would have preferred to come to campus if they could. Still, they felt the level of social interaction was as much or more. Some of the workshops kept their Zoom meetings open for informal discussions long after the workshop had ended each day. Everyone was involved in our gatherings, and no one just rushed off to dinner or to their rooms. Though they couldn’t hang out late at night downtown, they also said they were probably more focused in their workshop discussions.
Would I do a virtual residency if we didn’t have to? I don’t know. It might be an option to consider at least for the part of our group for whom travel to Mississippi is an economic or scheduling challenge. One of our group this time had a medical emergency in her family, and being in a virtual residency allowed her to be near her family member in a trying time, while still keeping up with the residency — she probably would have had to go home if she’d been on campus. I expect we’ll need to continue to use some of the strategies we’ve developed this year under COVID-19, and we’ll also be very glad when we can be together in person. For some students, though, the virtual option may be the best.