Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

It’s nice when you’re #1

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 5.08.17 PM As I’ve written before, I’m not the biggest fan of ranking MFA programs, though I do think those rankings have some value. For one, they tell you what programs other applicants are likely to apply to. When they’re despcriptive, they can give you some valuable information as well.

Though I don’t take a lot of stock in these rankings (and fewer places are doing them), it’s still nice when you’re ranked #1, which is true of our MFA program at Mississippi University for Women, which was recently ranked first at Intelligent.com and also at The Best Masters Degrees. What I like about both of these rankings (besides that they picked us) is that they look at more than just cost. Yes, they consider the cost of an MFA, which is a significant issue, especially for low-res or fully online programs that don’t have a lot of scholarship funding, but they also consider quality. This helps our program stand out in a field that is often composed of both MA and MFA degrees. The two aren’t comparable, and to compare a 48 hour degree (ours) with a 36-hour degree (most MA programs) on the basis of tuition alone is highly problematic.

We also like to think that these websites ahve at least looked closely at our website and tried to get a sense of the satisfaction of our students or their productivity in the literary marketplace. I know they didn’t ask the program for information, but I like to think that our program will stand out on its own. And these rankings are evidence that we do.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re the best program for everyone. But if you’re looking for a low-residency or online degree that is affordable and high quality, then I hope these rankings will encourage you to give us a closer look. I think you’ll like what you find.

At the very least, these rankings give us something to feel good about for a little while before we turn back to the much more important work of trying to do our very best for our students and alumni. That’s where the true value is, and if we weren’t listed #1, I’d still be just as proud of all the accomplishments our students and faculty have achieved and the honors we’ve earned.

Writing Digital Literature

untitled20design202My article “Crossing Genres in Digital Writing” is available at the Macmillan International Higher Ed blog. They are my publisher for A Writer’s Craft. I decided to write on digital writing because it’s an area I’ve been exploring recently.

One of the most fun classes I get to teach in The W’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing is a course we call Writing for New Media. We chose that name because we didn’t want to limit ourselves in scope for the future, but the reality is right now most of what we cover is digital literature. This class take students (and me) into the worlds of kinetic poetry, twaiku or twit lit (and other uses of social media for literature), hypertext fiction, mapped stories and poems, and even gaming as a means of storytelling. Our goal is to see what happens when we leave the confines of the page, how forms blend and narrative or lyric structures transform in new media.

ehpiugcxkaap8fbThis fall, after writing this post, I was invited to speak at the Middle Tennessee State Writers’ Conference, and I decided it would make sense to adapt some of what I talk about in the article and teach in the class to a workshop setting. Obviously, everything had to be very compressed for an hour and fifteen minutes, so I decided it would be best to do a little digital writing of my own to demonstrate. Since the conference was right before Halloween, I decided to write “River Hill: A Ghost Story” on Twitter, Google Maps, and Google Sites, which is what I decided to use for the hypertext component of the story.

Follow any of the links above to the story. Start with Twitter, if you want to read it in order, but in true hypertext fiction style, it’s meant to be started anywhere, and there are multiple links back to the other parts of the story to follwo whenever you want. I even left the story unfinished for now, hoping my workshop or other readers might write or suggest their own endings. That hasn’t happened yet, but you’re welcome to try!

Writing literature on Twitter is easy enough, either attempting to write a complete story in 140 (or 280) characters or by linking tweets using hashtags or by replying to successive tweets to create a tweetstorm story. Images or even video can be included with the tweet for a more multimedia effect. Some of my students have experimented with using Instagram instead of Twitter. You can do many of the same things, though it’s a little harder to link posts on Instagram compared to Twitter, though you can use hashtags. Facebook or Tumblr could also be used, I suppose, though each platform has its own culture and its own quirks about how posts are displayed. It might even be fun to aggregate posts across different platforms using Pinterest, for instance, by pinning images from each part of the story to a board.

Google Maps is a little more complicated to set up, but doesn’t take a ton of technical know-how, once you figure out how to get to your My Maps. The most straightforward way I know to do it is to open Google Maps, use the menu to go to Your Places, then click on the Maps tab, then Create A Map. Or you can try going to https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/home, which might take you directly to your maps or you may need to login with Google before you do that.

Using Google Sites for a hypertext story worked well, and any web hosting platform ought to work to build a simple linked story. However, in my class, we get a little more complicated, so working with Twine has been better. Twine allows you to map out your links using in graphical user interface, which can be helpful when links multiply exponentially. It also allows you to do more with the code and even create some fairly sophisticated games. There are lots of examples on the Twinery, and there’s an active user support group that can be searched to learn tricks and techniques. You can download the Twine app or write your story online using either Twine 1 or Twine 2, which each have different features and templates.

The Personal / Universal Paradox in Art

The other day, one of my low-res MFA students, Dani Putney, and I were conferencing a poem and we got into a side discussion of the personal and the universal. Dani’s stance, which I agree with, is that the Universal doesn’t exist. (I’ll use a capital letter here, though Dani didn’t since we were talking by video, not writing out our thoughts. The capital is to indicate Universal in the broadest terms.)

The idea of the Universal is often used in the sense that an artist should make their work accessible to a Universal audience, but Dani’s point was that this often means to make it palatable for an older, white, male audience. This is not new ground, of course, but it was a good discussion to have and to keep having. Universality in this sense is a myth. What gets defined as Universal is far from universal, and what gets defined as too personal or too limited in scope is often just as relevant, but to different, less powerful communities.

Isn’t that hegemony, after all? Those with cultural power define what is good or beautiful or universal and then assume, because they can, that everything else is lesser-than if it is other or different. I get it, and I fully agree that this definition of Universal is wrong. But the question remains, where does that leave the artist—in our cases, where does it leave the poet? Is it, therefore, simply all right to write about your own personal concerns and not pay any concern to universality?

On the one hand, I would probably answer: sure, why not? After all, what feels important or beautiful or moving to you will likely find a group of people who share that feeling. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to a slight reservation: couldn’t this lead to endless navel-gazing?

The question I posed to Dani is: Do we, as artists, look out or look in? The answer may be that we should do both, simultaneously. In other words, to only concern myself with my own concerns and never consider how they might be relevant to others is probably a mistake for an artist. I say probably because there are exceptions to every rule.

When I’m drafting a poem, I am intially only concerned with myself, with what I think or feel or the words that come to me, and I try not to worry about any other audience. As I’m revising a poem and maybe even as I’m thinking about what poem I might write next, I do look outward. I want to know who gives a damn about what I’m writing, and I hope the answer might be ‘someone.’ This is where the universal without a capital letter comes in. Do I write only for my moment or do I write for a future reader? Do I write for myself or even my community, or do I hope to reach others who are vastly different from me?

Writing that is universal is relevant to many readers from many communitites and with many identities. That is its strength. Who those communities are may be up to the writer or may be impossible to predict. It comes from looking in and looking out and finding ways to connect with others. It does not fit any one definition of Universal, though.

The Universal comes from looking in and assuming everyone else should see what you see and value what you value, assuming that your experience is definitive and therefore is Universal by definition.

How personal and how universal to be is every artist’s choice. We know that sometimes the most intensely personal art (at its creation) can become the most universal (as others respond to its intensity). The more intricate and deeply felt a work of art is, the more relevant it can become; the more general and universal it tries to be, the more it loses its power to move us. We want to write about things other people will care about, yet often the things we care most about end up being what finds others who care.

Like a lot of things, there is no one right answer, and everyone must find their own balance. It is an issue we subconscioulsy weigh with every line, every image, every poem. And then we make our peace with it in a final draft (we hope) and send the poem off to make its way and find its readers. No one should tell us what we need to write to be Universal, though. No one can predict the journey a poem will take, who will read it, or how they will respond. To make assumptions about Univerality is to make assumptions about which readers matter, and to be truly universal is to remain open to all readers, regardless of their status, their community, their identity, etc.

I believe this comes first through embracing your own identity and your own community, however you define it, and then through striving to make your art relevant to anyone who cares to listen. True Universality may be a myth, and an oppressive one at that, but the goal of universality, though unattainable, may not be such a bad one if reaching it goes through the personal.

How to Prepare to Apply for an MFA Program, Part 2

So you’ve been writing, revising, reading magazines and books (as I suggested in Part 1 of this series), and you feel like you’re ready to start the application process. How can you navigate the difficult journey to an MFA? Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help you choose a program and figure out how to write the best application possible.

First, how do you know when you’re really ready to apply? Sometimes you just have to take that plunge, but it can help to do some relection before you start the process. My low-residency MFA progam has a Guide for Applicants that can help you make that decision and help you navigate the process, and we hope it’s helpful for any program, not just ours. I’ve also written extensively on this blog about the application process. See the category MFA Application for posts like 15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA that can help you prepare.

AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs also has a series of articles about the MFA application process that can be very helpful in thinking about the process and deciding whether you’re ready to take the plunge. Poets & Writers also publishes an annual MFA issue in Sept./Oct. that can be very informative with articles about the MFA experience and advice on choosing a program.

Another free resource that I highly recommend is Kenzie Allen’s 10-day course at Literistic, “MFA Applications 101.” This series of ten emails will walk you through the application process and provide many links to more resources than I can cover here. If you’re starting the application process or even just thinking about it, you owe it to yourself to sign up. The more you know about the process, the better you’ll be able to do to write your letter and hone your writing sample.

Other great resources include the MFA Years blog and the MFA Draft Facebook group: a new group is started each year, so search for the group if my link doesn’t take you to the right one. You must request membership and show that you’re an applicant, not a program director like me.

Finding a program is a little more complicated. Of course, you want to apply to the best programs you can where you’ll be competitive, but you also want to bear in mind the cost, location, and the culture of the schools you’re looking at. The best places to start your search are the guides at AWP, Poets & Writers, New Pages, and Publisher’s Weekly. You can find out everything you need to know to get started from these sites, and they all list slightly different information, so checking more than one is worth the time. They also link to program websites, which makes it easier to dig down to find out more about the programs you’re most interested in.

The common advice you hear about writing programs is to choose based on the writers who teach in the program. There’s a certain amount of wisdom in that — it they write like you write, then you might have a better experience working with them. That’s if those writers are truly active in their programs and if they are good teachers as well as good writers. But many of the best teaching writers out there are not the most famous writers you’ve heard of. Yes, the reputation of your thesis director could make a difference, but the vast majority of writers will make their way based on their own merits, not on who they worked with in grad school.

Better advice that you hear is to contact students in the program to find out what it’s like. Ask about hidden fees and about the culture of the program. What’s it like to live in the town for a full residency program or how a low-residency program works: do you work with a mentor or take online classes? How do you exchange files? etc.

Another piece of advice for choosing programs that I don’t hear a lot about, but have been thinking about recently, is to read the program’s literary magazine. From the magazine, you’ll learn a lot about the esthetic of the graduate student editors. Sure, the contributors for the magazine won’t be from the program (or if they are, that would be a huge red flag), but students in the program have chosen every piece published, so you learn what kind of writing interests them.

There is no magic bullet for choosing the right program. That’s why you’ll want to apply to more than one program, and you shouldn’t stop researching once you’ve sent in your application. Keep exploring the choices you’ve made, try to make connections or visit campus, write the programs to ask questions or get in touch with current students, so that when you are faced with a decision, you’ll have a better sense of what you want to do.

Learning from My Students

When I first started The W’s MFA in Creative Writing, I wrote in our Student Handbook (which I’ve been editing this summer) that the students are our colleagues, perhaps the teachers are a little further along in their writing careers (though not always older), but the students shouldn’t feel like they are any less because their experience is different. I meant it then, and I mean it today.

Of course, teachers always learn from students, no matter what level you teach, be it kindergarten or graduate school! In class, that’s the sign of a good class, in my book.

But what I’m thinking about today is about how much we learn and how much we appreciate it, when our students go on to do great (or small) things after they graduate. Today is commencement day, and five more MFAs will cross the stage: actually, only two can be there for the ceremony, but the other three will be with us in spirit!

Today, one of our recent graduates (the poet C. T. Salazar from December) announced that he did an interview with Benjamin Niespodziany at NeonPajamas. Reading it brings back memories of many things we dicussed together in the program but also of the great energy for reading and writing poetry that he brought to every class. I can see the influence of other poets in our program as well, and the ways he’s taken those influences, shaped them, and made them his own.

Reading essays by Exodus Brownlow or Katrina Byrd have the same effect. And I could link to something from each of our 15 graduates and most of our current students that would be just as moving. For a more complete list, see our program’s Accomplishments page, a page I desperately need to update, but I just can’t keep up with all the great work everyone is doing! (I’ll be asking for updates again soon!)

Learning in an MFA program doesn’t just happen in the classroom. It happens thanks to the connections we make, the conversations we have, and the brilliant work that we share with one another and with the world.

Today on commencement day for August 2019, I’m proud of the five theses and the work Thomas B. Richardson, Robin Taylor Murphy, Ashley Hewitt, Sally Lyon, and Courtney Clark have done in our program. But I am even more excited to see the work they will do and are doing out in the world. Commencement is a beginning, and we can’t wait to see what it will bring!

Keeping the Res in Low-Residency MFA

DSCN9898As 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.

The Best Little MFA

It’s been four years since we started the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, and in that time, I think we’ve created the best MFA of it’s size around. Of course, I’m biased, and I’m grateful to the students and faculty of our program who have been so great to work with.

We’ve now graduated 15 MFAs (counting the five who’ve defended their these and will get their degrees in August), and we have an enrollment hovering around 40, which is right where we want to be. We started with three faculty, two of whom were part-time, and now have three full-time faculty, one who prefers to teach 2 classes and direct theses and so is still part-time for now, and several regular part-time faculty who teach one class per semester. This allows us to offer a wide variety of classes and serve the varied needs of our current students. And it allows us to have enough faculty to direct theses as students move from taking coursework to the thesis stage. We’ve seen theses in each of the genres we focus on in the program: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and now drama with our first playscript as thesis defended in June.

What makes me think of our program as the best, though, are our students. We have a great, diverse group who work well together. They are writing in different genres (and some writing genre fiction or young adult), yet they provide a supportive environment in our online classes and when they get together at residencies. The energy in the building (despite this year’s headaches with A/C issues) has been fantastic. Every night at a full resicency, we host readings, featuring a faculty member or guest writer, a thesis candidate, and two or three other students at the residency. Our thesis students give great readings, are confident, and show they are ready to move into their professional careers. But the shorter readings by other students are fabulous, too. Here students take risks, sometimes reading for the first time in public, and the work they present is polished and compelling. You’d have to be there to know what I mean — and you could be, since they’re open to the public and we often have guests from town or beyond.

Besides the readings, I know our students are killing it through there publications. Hardly a week goes by without at least one notice of an acceptance from a student or alumn. We’ve had an AWP Intro Journals prize winner and an honorable mention, and our writers are getting into some great publications. We already have one graduate with two books of a three book deal published, and a poet with a micro chapbook and good leads on a full-length collection. And I expect more good news soon, given the strength of the theses I’ve seen.

I try to keep up with the all these accomplishments on our Facebook group, then periodically I ask students and faculty to send me their publications (I’m afraid I will miss some things on Facebook and Twitter) and list them on our accomplishments page.

I know there are more established and more prestigeous programs out there, and many of them do great work by their grad students. But if you measure the value of a program by the dedication of the faculty to teaching and by the cameraderie of the students and the writing (and publications) that this fosters, then we have a lot to be proud of. We’ve accomplished a lot in the first four years, and we’re looking forward to an even better fifth year.

That said, how would we like to improve? For one, I’d love to attract an even more diverse student body. We’ve been fortunate enough to attract African American, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ students (and faculty). We also have students from all over Mississippi, every US time zone except Alaska and Hawaii (so far), and even a student in Italy (for now). We have students from all kinds of backgrounds and religious and political persuasions, yet everyone tends to get along very well because the writing is what really matters. Together, we have formed a great community, and to me, that’s what makes us the best little low-res MFA out there.