Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Transcripts for the MFA Application

I’ve reached Day 8 in Kenzie Allen’s 10-day course on applying for the MFA in creative writing, and she’s talking about the CV, transcripts, and the GRE. She has a lot of good advice, so if you haven’t taken her free course, you should. She even links to my blog a few times, so she must have done her research!

I agree with Allen about the CV — it should highlight your education and other experience, it should be professional and easy to read, and you’ll probably elaborate on most of those things in your letter or statement of purpose, but the CV brings them all together and is a place where you can list all of your publications (if you have them) without bogging down your SOP. At our program, it’s optional, so don’t stress about it, but do send one if it helps you make your case.

I also agree that the GRE has become less and less important. See if the schools you’re applying to require it, and don’t take it if you don’t need to. If you do need to report a score, remember that most MFA programs don’t care what your score is, but they may be required by their graduate school to use a minimum score as a requirement for admission. They may not publicize what that score is, and they may have some leeway in how they set that score (that will vary by university), but you’ll need to report it if they require it. Then the committee will likely ignore the score once they see you have met the minimum standard.

However, I realized that, though I agree with most of what Allen says regarding transcripts, I hadn’t written about those and there are a few things I can add from a program director’s perspective. For one, Allen says that in her experience it doesn’t matter if you have studied English as an undergraduate. While that’s true for many programs, I also know of some that require a certain number of prerequisite English or creative writing undergraduate courses. Usually, they don’t ask for specific ones, but a certain number of hours of literature. You might be admitted without these, but required to take them in addition to your regular degree requirements.

Our program doesn’t require any prerequisite English courses, and I’m happy with that. We’ve admitted a dancer and an accountant, among others. I’ve probably forgotten more of our students’ undergraduate majors than I remember, since once you’re in the program, it won’t really matter. But your transcript will still make a difference: it tells me things I want or need to know.

1) What you’ve studied

Naturally, we like to see that you’ve studied English, whether or not your major was in English. Many of my best creative writing students over the years have not been majors, so I’m open any major. If you never took an English class as an undergrad, that can be an issue (in terms of your preparedness for our degree), so I’ll want to see evidence elsewhere of your active reading life and of your sophistication as a scholar. After all, some of our classes demand that you do literary research, so you want to show you’re prepared. We also like to see undergraduate creative writing classes in the mix, but if you haven’t had that opportunity, we understand. Things like summer workshops or activity in local writing groups can help your application if you don’t have creative writing classes. So if your transcript has holes, you want to address them in your SOP by talking about what you’ve done since graduation. Most of the applicants to our low-res program have been out of school for many years, so their experience since undergrad should weigh much more heavily than their undergrade, except it does tell about your academic record.

2) How well you’ve performed in school

The one thing you can’t change is your undergraduate GPA, and that can be very important for admissions. Actually, you can change it by going back and taking some undergraduate classes or by enrolling in another graduate program. If your GPA is deficient and you’ve gained a lot of experience and motivation, you may be well-served by taking a semester or two, even part-time, to show that you can now do better than you did the first time.

For our program, you need a minimum overall GPA of 2.75 or a GPA of 3.0 in the last 60 hours of work in order to be fully admitted to our program. If you don’t have that, then taking additional credits might help you bring up those last 60 hours. We consider every semester in its entirety, so if your the 60th hour is in a semester with several other hours, I would have to consider the whole semester. Taking additional classes might even affect which semesters would be considered in your  last hours, which might help as much as earning higher grades.

(These requirements will likely be different for each university on your list.)

3) How you can be admitted

GPA makes a big difference in how we admit students. The choice of whether to admit someone hinges more on their overall academic record and what they’ve done since graduation. I’ve admitted students who were marginal at best during their undergraduate years, yet who had gone on to achieve remarkable things. I want to look at the whole picture, in other words, but I also have to consider your potential as a student and I have to live within the rules of my institution’s admissions policies. Check these out for any school you’re interested in, esp. if you’re worried about your previous record.

I can fully admit someone to our program if they meet our admissions standards or I can conditionally admit anyone to our program if I feel there are mitigating circumstances.

Conditional admission means that you are limited to taking two classes in your first semester (or three if you come to our 1-hour residency), and you must earn a B or higher in those classes to show you can handle graduate school. (You’re only allowed two Cs in your program, so to get one in your first semester would be a very bad sign. Why should we keep taking your money if you’re not going to succeed in our program?) Conditional students are also not eligible for federal loans, so you would need to pay for your first semester out of pocket or with private loans. But once you’ve proven yourself, you are then fully admitted and can study full-time and qualify for loans. I’ve had plenty of people do this and do very well in our program.

So, if you’ve had a rough patch in your academic career, know that we’ll understand. It’s probably something you want to address or even get your recommenders to address in their letters, but it shouldn’t be something that will stop you from earning your degree. You can tell us why you hit that rough patch, if you want to — sometimes it may now be exactly what inspires you to write — or you can simply acknowledge it and talk about the things you’ve done since then that show you can succeed.

If you’ve been a great student but in areas other than Engish, then acknowledge that as well and show us how you combine your other interests with your writing or tell how your journey took you to a love of writing.

Your transcripts are important documents that show your preparedness and your aptitude for scholarly work. They are not the end-all-be-all of your application, but they provide a unique window into who you are that is complemented by your writing sample, statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.

We do need to see official transcripts from every post-secondary academic institution you have attended, whether you received your degree from there or not. (Some schools make exceptions for transcripts with fewer than a given number of hours, but many do not.) Go back over your transcripts (as I will) and look to see if you transferred any credits from another school. Make sure we have the transcript from that math class you took at community college, etc. Doing that on the front end will make things easier when it comes time for us to make our decision.

Revisiting the Statement of Purpose for the MFA

This week, I’ve been learning how to apply to MFA programs in creative writing: I decided to take a free course, even though I direct an MFA program. I’m taking the course to see what Kenzie Allen has to say about the process and to review what I think about it, since I’ve written a number of advice articles and our program’s Guide for Applicants. This morning’s ‘class’ (each morning for 10 days you get an email with advice on applying) was on the Statement of Purpose. It got me thinking about the importance of this part the application, which I’ve written about previously.

Allen has some good advice, and she links through to several articles by others about how to write a statement of purpose. They all pretty much agree, though each gives a slightly different take. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for this, or the statement wouldnt’ be personal. Incidentally at my program, we call it a Letter of Intent. We do that in part to make it seem less daunting, in part to make it paradoxically seem more personal, and in part to emphasize your goals. You’re not selling me on who you are; you’re selling me on what you want to do in our program (and that you are the person who can do those things).

What I was struck by in my reading this morning is just how important this letter is. Everyone says the writing sample is the most important, and that can be true, but the statement of purpose or letter of intent is just as big a deal, and it’s probably harder to write.

I’ve seen letters of intent that definitely got an applicant into our program. Their writing sample was competent, but not terribly exciting, but their letter was moving and read like very good creative nonfiction. I could see the potential in this writer from their letter, even though I could tell from their writing sample that they were still struggling to find that voice in their fiction or poetry. The letter showed me that I had someone who was ready to make that leap in their creative writing.

I’ve also seen letters that swayed me the other way. I’ve seen many that used the clichés every advice article warns against: all the permutations of “I was born to write,” for instance.  A few have been accompanied by writing samples that made me overlook the naiveté of a poor letter (yes, I know how hard they are to write!) and others that led me to believe the writer simply wasn’t ready for an MFA program yet.

I’ve even turned down one applicant, who wrote back an impassioned response defending themselves and arguing why they were ready and didn’t want to wait another year to reapply. I told them that this should have been their letter in the first place, and I allowed them to send me more writing. Eventually they were admitted to our program and are doing quite well. However, I don’t recommend that strategy!

We’re a small, young program, and so far we’re not overrun with applications. I can take more time with every applicant than the programs whose admissions committees see hundreds of applicants each admission cycle. We can give more personal attention, and so far, we can accept nearly everyone who seems to be ready for an MFA and who seems like a good fit for our program. That may change, and we may be faced with more difficult decisions. Yet even now, the statement of purpose/letter of intent is a very important part of your application, along with your writing sample. Those are the first two things we’ll see, and they form the basis of our initial decision whether or not to encourage you to complete your application and pay the application fee, send transcripts, and get letters of recommendation.

We want to know who you are and how you got to where you are, and we want to know where you think you’re going and why our program is a place that can help you get there. We want you to be as specific and detailed as possible, and we want your letter to be well-written, somewhere between a personal letter and a creative nonfiction essay. If you can do that, and if you send us writing that you’re passionate about that shows your promise as a writer, then the odds are in your favor.

The rest of your application confirms that you are who you say you are. It’s important, don’t get me wrong. But your letter and writing sample will literally give the first impression, and therefore, they carry the most weight.

Remembering a Mentor

This weekend, I drove from Mississippi to western Illinois for the memorial gathering of one of my main college mentors, Robin Metz. The many hours by myself in the car on the the way there and back gave me lots of time to reflect, and seeing so many people come out for the memorial was gratifying. Robin taught for over 50 years and was still on the faculty of Knox when he died. Only in his final semester did he take medical leave and not teach a class. Until then, despite treatments for pancreatic cancer, he continued teaching until the end.

Many of us made it back, and many more sent their condolences and greetings. Former colleagues of his were there, as well as family and people from the community. I went to school with both of his daughters, so I was glad I could make it and have a chance to reconnect with them. I’d seen Robin and his wife, Liz, several times in recent years, but hadn’t seen Lisa and Ronnah in quite awhile.

Friends who gathered after the memorial to talk, eat, and yes, even dance to the one eighties song we could get the DJ to play (Prince), have gone on to do many things. Some of us are educators, some work in different fields. Most of us are writers, but we talked about the many English majors we knew who ended up in different fields. When we take a class or when those of us who are educators teach a class, we never know where the people around us will travel in their life’s journey. What made Robin Metz such a great mentor for so many people is that you always had the feeling that he cared. He was detailed in his comments on every story he ever critiqued for fiction workshop, but he also cared about you as a person, about your life and about the bigger questions in life. Robin never let you off the hook, and though sometimes we probably wished he would, it was also the part of him that made the most lasting impression.

I first met Robin when I hitch-hiked from St. Olaf College to Galesburg in what turned out to be a snowstorm. I had had come to check out the school I would transfer to. Meeting him, learning about the program he had started, meeting students, and seeing their active writing community sealed the deal. He was a huge presence in my remaining three years of college, and then when I moved to Chicago, he taught in the Urban Studies program, so we kept up our relationship for another semester. He was always there when I went back to visit, and he encouraged me to apply for a fellowship for grad school, which helped me to continue my work with translation. Then he asked me to come work at Knox for a couple of terms as his teaching assistant before I went to grad school. Over the years, he invited me back to Knox other times, and whenever I could, I would stop by and visit. I didn’t make that happen often enough.

For Robin, a class was never just about the class. It was an opportunity for meaningful discussion and was part of a conversation that had been ongoing all of his life and that you were invited into not just for the time you were in his class, but for the rest of his life and beyond. That is why so many of us made the journey back for his memorial celebration, and it is why all of us could share so many stories of the impact he made and is still making on our lives.

Spring Break

Sweet AlmondIt’s spring in Mississippi, and at The W, we’re just coming off of Spring Break. Students may have been to the coast for spring break revelries or may have gone home to visit families. Some faculty may have done that, too, but many of us have been using our break from teaching class to catch up on grading or get ahead on projects that are hard to get to while classes are in session.

I’ve been working through my 38 faculty evaluations and am nearly finished — I didn’t quite reach my goal, but have only a couple more regular faculty to look at and then the dual-enrollment faculty, so the end is in sight.

For those who wonder what this is like: each faculty member sends me their self-evaluation of what they’ve done in teaching, scholarship, and university service for the past calendar year, then I review their course evaluations, syllabi, etc. and write a narrative on all three areas. For adjunct and part-time faculty this is primarily focused on teaching, but for tenure-track faculty scholarship and service are also important. This will be the basis of our conferences, where we discuss the past year and each faculty’s plans and goals for the future.

I’ve also been working on the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, and now have a theme — “But Here I am, and Here I’ll Stay”: Claiming Our Place in the South” from “Why I Live at the P.O.” — and five confirmed authors with more invitations out and the start of contract talks for our keynote. I can’t name names until all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, but the five who’ve committed so far are Mary Miller, Cary Holladay, Ann Fisher-Wirth, T. J. Anderson III, and Ashely M. Jones.

I’ve also been able to spend a little time outside working in the yard or just doing schoolwork on the back porch, so have been able to enjoy our sweet almond, quince, and other plants that are in bloom. And of course I cuaght up a little on my grading, though there’s always more of that to do! And I started my advising calendar for grad students. Advising will keep me busy for the next several weeks, and in the meantime, our son Aidan comes home on his spring break, and I’ll be getting ready for #AWP19. More on that soon…

2018 Milestones

c7ed24d8-1b1b-4364-9f31-7d483de36f04-1211-000001348bf41cf6_fileThe year is winding down, so I thought it would be fun to post a few highlights of 2018. Some I’ve written about, and some I’ve let pass without posting on the blog until now.

Personal Milestones

Kim and I have reached that big milestone of graduating our son, Aidan from high school at the Mississippi School for Math and Sciences, where he got one of the top educations in the country, and sending him off to Williams College for more of the same. He’s had a great first semester, becoming involved in campus life, making great friends, performing with the Berkshire Symphony, and even keeping up his grades. We’re very proud of him in so many ways.

img_2284Between his high school and college, we had a chance to take a family trip (with W honors students) to Peru. The picture is by the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. We also spent time in Lima, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Thanks to our friends at Perú Vivo for being our guides and taking us to two villages on Lake Titicaca and to the people we met there who were so welcoming!

Back stateside, our travels have taken us to see family in Alabama and Iowa, including a chance to meet my mother’s newest great-grandchild, Ira Hillman. We’ve also been to Williams twice: once to move Aidan in, and once for Family Days.

Writing Milestones

The biggest milestone this year for me has been finishing my fourth collection of poems. “Finishing” may need to be in quotes, as I keep tinkering with it, but I’ve been sending it out to publishers and had a copy printed for my mother. By finished, I mean that I have enough poems for a collection, and they work together well as a book, even though I’ve done dome rearranging and even added a poem or two since I printed the manuscript. Maybe next year, I’ll be able to announce a publisher, but don’t hold your breath—it can be a long process!

I’ve also published poems in Haiku Page, Asahi Haikuist Network, Tar Rive Poetry, and Ekphrastic Review. Naturally, many other publications have sent poems back to me, and I’m nearly as proud of the places I’ve submitted that didn’t accept my work as those that did. As I tell my students, you have to keep at it until the right poem reaches the right reader at the right time. There are so many variables and so much competition for space in journals that “rejection” (a word I prefer not to use) can’t be taken personally. I’ve had some good comments come back on my poems recently, even when they haven’t been selected, and that keeps you going.

Professional Milestones

The biggest change in my teaching career this year had been moving into a more administrative role. For the past 3 years, I’ve been directing our low-residency MFA program in creative writing. This year, I added department chair to my titles. I’ve taken on the role of chair for the Department of Languages, Literature, and Philosophy, scheduling classes and managing the budget for our English, Spanish, Women’s Studies majors and Philosophy and Religious Studies minors. It also involves more committee meetings and mentoring more faculty. In the transition to this new role, we were also given permission to hire two new tenure-track faculty who will teach in both our MFA and undergraduate English programs. We’ve also started a search for a new Spanish professor, and I hired adjuncts in Latin and English and worked with dual-enrollment instructors in English and Spanish at three high schools. As a result of these changes in duties, I’ve passed the main responsibilities for Ponder Review on to my new colleague Brandy Wilson and for The Dilettanti on to Kris Lee, and I’m trying to cut back some on my advising and other duties wherever I can.

I was also happy to teach a couple of new graduate courses this year. In the spring, I developed the Translation Workshop, which was a lot of fun. We read some translations together and read essays on translation theory and practice. Students translated from German, Polish, Latin, and Spanish. This fall, I taught a new course on Feminist Poetry, starting with H.D. and Muriel Rukeyser (among other Modernist feminists) and covering second-wave and third-wave feminist poets. Response from students on both of these classes was good, and I hope to be able to teach them again soon.

I also led another successful Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium and Short Residency classs for our MFA program. This was the symposium’s 30th year and my 25th (as participant; 11th as director). It was great to bring Steve Yarbrough to campus again after several years and to work with many new and returning writers. Discussing their works with our students in the days leading up to the symposium adds a lot to the experience. Making connections with Southern writers and introducing our students to them is one way I combine the two sides of my professional life — teaching and writing.

All in All

2018 has been a great year in every way, and I’m looking forward to how all the things that have gotten started this year will play out in 2019.

In Memoriam: Robin Metz

I first met Robin Metz when I hitch-hiked to Knox College in the midst of a November blizzard. In typical Robin fashion, he took it all in stride, found me a place to stay on campus, and proceeded to sell me on transferring. It would have been hard to do anything else after being exposed to Robin’s charisma and the incredibly vital environment for writing that he and Sam Moon had created. They will remain two of the most influential educators and writers in my life.

I have many fond memories of long discussions in fiction workshops with Robin that went long beyond the official end of class, especially on the nights (at least once per term) when Robin would have us all come out to his house on Broad Street. A five-hour class was not uncommon—the fact that we were allowed to drink and smoke in these night classes (maybe not the wisest policy and one that he would change in later years) may have contributed, but so did his wide-ranging discussions. Critiquing a story was never just about ‘fixing’ issues of form or style; for Robin it was always an opportunity to discuss the deeper meanings of life.

No one I knew worked harder or gave more of himself to his students than he. We joked that he sometimes didn’t pay his bills, not because he didn’t have the money but because he couldn’t find the time to write out the check. But he always had time for coffee in the Gizmo and the conference that would often last at least twice as long as scheduled. And his friendship and devotion lasted long after we graduated.

I got to spend time with Robin in Chicago when he was leading the ACM Urban Studies program. He invited to help with a workshop and then invited me back to Knox a couple years later to help with the Alumni Catch and be his assistant for two terms when I was between a job and grad school. He welcomed me into his home until I found a place to stay in an apartment across the street. And he invited me back twice mores to read on campus when I had a new book out. I also saw him many times at AWP or when I passed through Galesburg, which wasn’t as often as I wish now. But every time I saw him, it was like no time had passed.

And of course, we had our differences, and even a run-in or two, but we also had an enormous amount of mutual respect. I don’t know of anyone more curious about life and more dedicated to his craft and to his students, who he alwasy treated as fellow writers. I learned more from working with him than I have from any of my other mentors.

Robin Metz died today, after teaching at Knox for 51 years. I am in the middle of my 25th year of teaching at Mississippi University for Women. To imagine doubling that is nearly unthinkable, yet Robin never stopped. Despite pancreatic cancer, he always wanted to be teaching and inspiring new students and colleagues. He built a creative writing program at Knox that is unrivaled by any udergraduate college, and he inspired an army of writers who have all gone on to do great things, whether as writers, as educators, or in other creative fields. He was fortunate to be able to celebrate the program’s 50th year by traveling around the country visiting alumns (though for part of that year he was undergoing treatments).

I don’t know that I will try to match him in longevity, but I do know that he inspires me every day to create a legacy. For Robin, it never seemed to be about his own ego, but always was about helping others to achieve their potential. Yes, he had books and awards to his name, but I believe he was most proud when someone he taught had their successes. And whenever we meet up at AWP or in any other context, I know the talk will always turn to Robin Metx and how much we will all miss him.

Eudora Welty Symposium at 30

The big day has finally arrived. The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium will begin its 30th iteration with the kickoff in Poindexter Hall tonight at 7:30pm. Steve Yarbrough wil read from his fabulous novel The Unmade World as we explore the place of Southern writing in the world through our theme “As if the Ear of the World Listened,” a line from Delta Wedding.

weltyposter2018aIt’s always great to bring a dozen writers to campus, spend time with them, our students, and our community. My nerves usually start to settle down once everyone is in town and I pick them up from the hotel in a W van. This year, we’ll be without one writer: Silas House is down in his back and in some serious pain, so we’re talking about rescheduling for a later date. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 11 years of directing the symposium, it’s that you have to go with the flow. You can redirect it somewhat and try to keep everyone happy and moving in roughly the same direction (good food and great writing helps), but there are some things you just can’t do anything about, and you just have to let the momentum of the weekend develop as it will.

It helps that there are so many gracious writers out there, who will come and give us their all. Every year we think ‘this was the best group ever,’ and by and large that is pretty true. All years have been great, and ‘best’ is a relative term of course, but the group of writers usually gels. I expect no less in 2018, given that many of our writers are returning to the symposium and we have some wonderful new folks as well. In a few days, the blur that is the Welty Symposium will be over, and we will all be better for it, with new friends, new ideas, and more than likely with a bag full of new books.