Posts Tagged ‘low-residency MFA’

Up Periscope: Testing the Waters of Social Video

Last week, I took the plunge into Periscope, Twitter’s live streaming video app. I’ve been thinking about trying this technology for a while now, but frankly, I felt a little daunted. I shouldn’t have. Live streaming video using Periscope couldn’t be much easier. I downloaded the app, tested it with a couple of very short videos (the weather at my house and at my office — each 30 seconds to a minute), glanced at the help files to learn about features like tweeting out, and then launched into my first real half-hour video, which I would count as a success — I didn’t feel completely stupid, and 18 people watched (2 more watched on replay).

So my first lessons: don’t expect to go unnoticed and don’t expect to be an overnight sensation.

Maybe the hardest part of doing a video like this is to have some content worth watching. Look around on Periscope, and you’ll see a variety of topics — some like mine are going to be mostly people talking; others are likely to be of people doing things, maybe even sleeping. You don’t have to be scintillating to get people to watch, at least for a little while anyway. So don’t be too worried about content, especially your first time.

I wanted to use Periscope to promote my university’s new low-residency MFA program in creative writing, and as I’ve done on this blog, I figured a good way to do that would be to offer to answer people’s questions about MFAs in general. I talked a fair amount about our  own program, but tried to compare it to others. Sure, I mentioned our strengths (the flexible schedule, low tuition, personal approach, etc.), but I also tried to acknowledge the differences in other programs that might be valuable to some students. Low-res programs that work on a mentorship model are great for those who want that one-on-one experience, whereas a program like ours that has online workshops during the semester might be better for students who want more interaction with other students.

Lesson Two: Have Props

This is a lesson I learned while doing the video. When I was talking about the #1 ranking we received from Nonprofit Colleges Online, I showed my computer screen with their website on it and scrolled down to the picture of our campus. I don’t expect anyone could read this, but it might help them find it later and it certainly gave them a break from looking at me for a few seconds. Similarly, when I was talking about how to learn more about MFA programs, I realized I had a copy of Tom Kealy’s The Creative Writing MFA Handbook on my desk, so I flipped to the rear camera on my iPad and showed the cover. Next time, I may try to have a few more props on hand that I can use, even if that’s a print-out of titles or web addresses (in large print).

Lesson Three: Expect the Unexpected

I wasn’t too surprised by this, since I had invited questions. Someone wanted to know what an MFA is and how do you join one — I talked about how to apply. Someone wanted to know what I thought about Harper Lee — I gave a quick answer and then got back on topic. Next time I might ignore off topic comments, as I eventually did with a few that seemed to be people checking in to see if they could get me to respond to their comment. You can block a user from your video by tapping on their comment, and I might have to get better about that in the future. Once one person commented with a specious comment, several others showed up briefly to do the same, probably because I hadn’t blocked right away. That’s hard to do while you’re talking, though, so if you can, you may want to have one person operate the phone or tablet while you talk. Then they can do the blocking and you can do the talking.

This strategy would work great for literary videos like a reading. However, you could also read a brief passage on your own and turn off commenting for your video in advance if you don’t want to be bothered with comments (or just ignore the off-topic ones if do you want some comments). The hearts Periscope uses for likes were also a little distracting, but I don’t think there’s a way to turn them off.

Lesson Four: Build an Audience

I’m planning to do a video again every Friday for the next several weeks. As I did this time, I will advertise on Twitter and Facebook in advance, and I’ll post the topics I’m planning to discuss. Next week, the goal is to talk about student debt and how to avoid it. If I get better suggestions of questions to answer, I may go with one of those and save student debt for later. But I found it’s good to plan at least one topic in advance and then see where the comments take you.

When you start your Periscope session, make sure to turn on the feature to Tweet Out your broadcast. This will send a tweet to your twitter account that has your title and a link to the video. This might help drive people to your video. People can also find you on the Periscope global map, and they will see you’re live if they follow you. Now that I have some followers, my audience might grow.

The other thing you can do is write about your experience after the fact. I posted on Facebook and tweeted about it right afterwards, and now I’m writing this on my blog. Check me out at noon CST on Fridays in January and February, if you want to see what I talk about next. I’m using our program’s account, which is @TheW_MFACW on both Twitter and Periscope (good advice is to keep the same name if you like your twitter handle).

Lesson five: choose your app

I chose Periscope because it has one feature I really wanted — it will archive your video for 24 hours. That way, if someone misses the live broadcast, they can still see it. You can also save your video to your device and then upload it to YouTube, Vimeo, or any other service like that. Meerkat, which I like because it came before Periscope and wasn’t bought out by Twitter (but still works well with it, from what I’ve read), didn’t have the archive feature. I didn’t want my video to live online forever, but I did think it would help to grow my audience if some people could watch it later. If you like Meerkat, though, I’ve read it does some things better than Periscope. Archiving was the feature that made up my mind, but you may have other criteria that are more important to you.

A few final notes:

As I was signing off my video, one person said it had been helpful and they learned something. That made me feel it was worth it, despite the trolls who wrote specious comments. Ezra Pound said a professor is someone who can talk for an hour. I figured I could talk on video for at least half that long, and proved myself right. But your video could be shorter. For future broadcasts (once I’m done talking about MFAs for awhile), I’d like to do a short reading to promote my book Barrier Island Suite when it comes out, and I’d like to video student readings or other events at our residency period (with permission of course), and I’d like to give a tour of our campus or building (if I can stay within range of wifi and not use data). I’ll definitely be looking for more interesting backgrounds and other visual elements, and an interview with another writer might be nice to try. So check back later and see how it goes!

Grad Student Admissions!

This week, now that final exams are over and end-of-year meetings have been held, I’ve been able to turn my attention back to admitting students to our Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing. I’ve actually admitted one student, and I have two more forms ready to turn in today. There are several other applications that are nearly complete, waiting only on one or two pieces of information before I can finish the process. I knew it would probably be complicated, but never really guessed just how convoluted that could get. The sheer number of details that have to be tracked down can be a little overwhelming. Not that I’m complaining! But I want to explain that it takes more than reviewing the documents and making a decision.

Several of our students have come in with multiple transcripts from their undergraduate careers. That’s fine, but it means tracking them all down on their end (sometimes students forget about those first two classes taken at community college, for instance), and  on my end it means making sure they’ve all come in, since they come from different sources and get sent to different offices on campus. Most come either to me or to our graduate studies office, but some end up in undergraduate admissions and some seem to disappear into the ether, but I’ve managed to locate most of the ones I should have by now. One young woman had briefly gone to school that is no longer in business, so I had to help her figure out how to order her transcript, which she was able to do by contacting Mississippi’s Institutes of Higher Learning office.

Immunization forms and letters of recommendation are two other fun pieces of the puzzle, both in terms of tracking them down and in terms of reading and evaluating the letters of recommendation. Each application has a rubric, which needs to be updated for each new piece of information. Fortunately, I created the rubric, so it at least makes sense and measures things we actually care about in admitting students to the program. There are several criteria for the writing sample and letter of intent that I’ve already filled out before I invite an application, and then there are criteria to rate the transcript and letters of recommendation. The weighting, of course, is heaviest on the writing sample, and I have left room for comments, where I can remind myself of what I was thinking or add any notes about the student’s file for future reference.

Since I’ve been doing most of this while also giving final exams, calculating final grades, and tying up all the loose ends of a semester, while also trying to get a head start on next semester and communicating with the visiting writers who will be part of our faculty in the fall, I have to reinvent the wheel every time I come back to a person’s file. Fortunately, this week, I’ve been able to put forth a more concentrated effort and make better notes about what I’m still missing, so that when I return to those files, I won’t have to start over from scratch.

All of this makes me very relieved that next week we begin our planning for an automated admissions system. I’m sure that we’ll still have to assist some people with things like tracking down their transcripts or other details, but keeping up with what is here and what is still missing will be easier both for me and for the student.

But mostly, it is very exciting and gratifying that the program we’ve worked so hard to put into place is finally coming to fruition. The prospective students who have applies are for the most part a very impressive group. I’ve had to turn down a couple — or encourage them to wait and give them advice on how they can develop as a writer before they are ready to take this step on their career paths — but by and large I’ve been at the wealth of talent that is out there in our state and the surrounding region. We will have an exciting and dynamic group of students in our inaugural class, students who could vie for a place in any program in the country. There is room for a few more good applicants, but we already have enough of a critical mass to get this program off the ground in style.

Another thought on Grad School Funding: Ask Your Boss!

This past week, I spent at #AWP15, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual convention. There, I got lots of valuable information and had a great time running into writers I know from the Welty Symposium or from AWPs past. More on that in a later post, I hope! What I wanted to mention before I get to any of the fun stuff, was a bit of advice I gleaned about paying for grad school.

This came from a panel on Low-Residency MFA programs like our new one, where the directors were lamenting the fact that most low-res programs can’t offer the levels of financial aid that full residency programs offer. They don’t have as many scholarships, as a general rule, and the practicalities of having distance-learning students work as teaching assistants makes this less common (though we’re hoping to do this with at least one or two people next year).

One advantage that Low-Residency students have, though, is that they usually are employed! This means they can pay more towards their education right away, and it means that they have a resource most typical students don’t have: an employer!

Several low-residency directors noted that their students receive financial aid from their employers, and that these employers are not always in writing-related fields. One director told of a young woman who worked in a warehouse (if I remember correctly), and who got a scholarship simply because the company wanted to promote education. It’s one fringe benefit that many companies have, either out of altruism or because the company wants to keep employees who are driven to improve themselves, regardless of whether the skills have an immediate application to their current jobs.

As an aside, I had an interesting, somewhat related conversation with one of our alums yesterday. She gave up a career in teaching English (after deciding teaching 8th graders wasn’t her calling!) and went into business. Her skills as an English major were invaluable to her throughout a distinguished career in marketing and management. I’m reminded of this because a company might be able to use your skills developed in grad work in English, writing, or another field, in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. More bosses understand this than you might imagine (and some may have been in your shoes at one point in their lives).

So, when looking for financial aid, if you are employed and especially if you can stay with the company while you’re in school, don’t overlook the closest source of funding you may have: your boss! Ask politely whether there is a policy about continuing education for employees. The company may not fund your full degree (though it might), but it could make it a little easier for you with a partial scholarship. Be open with your employer about your plans and your needs in a low-residency program (or in a nearby full residency program, if that is your plan). At the very least, your boss may be able to work with you with flex-time or other options that can make it more manageable to juggle graduate school and a job.

And don’t think your employer has to be in a related field or that your job in the company has to be a high-end position in order for you to be eligible. It doesn’t hurt to ask! I would suggest having a plan to combine work and study, so that if there is any resistance to the idea, you can show how your educational goals will not get in the way of you doing your job. Most employers will be supportive, and some, maybe more than you think, will actively support your goals with some funding.

Letters of Recommendation for MFA in Creative Writing

Recently, after posting on this blog about the Letter of Intent and the Writing Sample, I received a question about who should write letters of recommendation for a program in creative writing. I thought it might make sense to elaborate on that answer here. Let me preface my comments by saying that I can only discuss how I will view letters of recommendation, so what someone else might think about it could be different!

Prospective students applying to The W’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing may face a bit of a challenge in this regard. I assume that many will have been out of college for awhile, so they may not be in touch with their undergraduate professors. Of course, my first advice is to get back in touch with them! Don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve been happy to write letters for students who I haven’t taught in as many as eight years! And I’ve had a pretty good track record writing letters for them. I always ask the former student to catch me up on his or her life after graduation, and I always ask to see a statement of purpose, so I can help them with that difficult task (see my previous post), and so I have a better idea of their plans. So be prepared to answer some questions from your former professors, but don’t be shy about asking us for our recommendations. That’s part of our jobs!

Still, it is good to include one or more letters from people who are familiar with your recent writing. So if your former professors can’t speak to your creative writing (or can’t do that effectively), what can you do? Choose people to write your letters who will be able to speak to your potential as a writer, a teacher, and a scholar. Having at least one recommender from an educational program you’ve been in does seem like a good idea because that person can discuss your strengths as a student and as a scholar, and can probably assess your potential as a teacher, which is especially important if you are interested in teaching as a graduate assistant. Also choose recommenders who can speak to your creative writing strengths (why not let your former professors read your recent writing if they’re unfamiliar with it) and/or who can discuss your potential as a scholar.

You are looking for people to recommend you who are well-known enough to pull some weight in the admissions decision, so choose someone who has academic credentials, if possible. Balance that against choosing recommenders who know you well and can represent you well in their letters. A famous writer who doesn’t really know you will write a worse letter than someone who isn’t well-known (but has some credentials like publication or teaching) who knows you and your writing/teaching well. Also, try to pick recommenders who write this type of recommendation frequently. They will know what to say and what tone to take. Again, someone in academics who knows your work is the best choice. If you can get one or two who are (also) creative writers with some publications to their name, even better. If you’ve been to any weekend or summer workshops or if you are part of a writing group, then maybe a published writer from one of those experiences would be willing to write a letter for you. Or if you’ve been published in a literary magazine and have developed a working relationship with one of the editors, then he or she might be willing to write for you. But don’t imagine a relationship where there is none. Your recommenders should know you fairly well.

However, I would recommend against getting letters of recommendation from family members, bosses, or friends, unless they can write impartially and unless they are involved in either education or writing as a profession. If you work for a school or newspaper, then your boss might be a good recommender; if you work at a pizza place, then probably not (unless your boss is also a published writer). Similarly, if you work at an independent bookstore or at a publishing company, then your boss might write a good letter about your writing and your work ethic, but do include at least one letter from someone in education, if at all possible.

Yes, a letter of recommendation should speak to your character, but more importantly, it should speak to your ability to succeed in a creative writing MFA program. Someone who has experienced you in a classroom or workshop setting will be better able to write that letter. And someone who has written other letters of recommendation for similar programs, or who has read similar letters for the program they teach in, will be in a position to write for you.

Will I throw out your application if your mother writes one of your letters? Probably not. But I may not take it as seriously as if you have more appropriate letters, and that isn’t because I don’t believe or trust your mother, but because I won’t have as much to go on, when making my decision.

Follow Up: Not to GRE

This is just a quick follow-up post to my previous one “To GRE or Not to GRE” — that was the question. And the answer is…

NOT!

Yesterday our Graduate Council voted to allow our new low-residency MFA in Creative Writing to remove the GRE as a requirement for admission. This was not without some gnashing of teeth, but the proposal was successful.

For our program, this moviemaker sense. We expect our applicants to have been out of college for awhile and to be out of a testing environment. The cost and the anxiety of taking a standardized test ($195 for the GRE now) might stop many in their tracks. The scores could have kept some applicants from being accepted into the program, though we weren’t planning to consider the scores in our decision (unless it was really necessary). Even other programs admitted that low GRE scores usually didn’t mean anything because other indicators were usually low as well. At best, the GRE might confirm what we already knew, but they rarely if ever helped a student whose GPA was already low. So why force applicants to take a difficult and expensive test that we wouldn’t use?

Of course, some programs are required to have an entrance exam like the GRE for accreditation. In creative writing, that isn’t the case. Some rely on the Analytical Writing section of the test. In creative writing, the writing sample is the main indicator of success. That combined with transcripts and letters of recommendation, plus the applicant’s letter of intent, all give more valuable information than the test. So I’m glad we’ve been allowed an exemption from the standard application requirements. And who knows, maybe more programs at The W will reconsider the test. I’ve talked to a couple that are considering it.

To GRE or Not to GRE

Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the creative writing program, was recently approved to offer a low-residency MFA in creative writing. As part of the approval process, I had to bring the proposal to our graduate council. Most of our programs require the GRE with the application, so when there was some initial resistance to doing without that score for creative writing, I said okay, let’s revisit that issue later (after the program was approved). That time appears to be now. We’re about to begin accepting applications, and I’m learning there are other programs that might want to do without the GRE requirement or make it optional. Of course, there will be some programs who want to require it, either because they believe it is a good predictor of success in their fields or because they want an additional measure to use in making a decision. I respect that, but I also have some issues with GRE. First, the test is expensive. That’s fine, if you’re planning to enter a field where the earning potential is secure. For a writing degree, it’s unclear how much the investment will pay out in added income (though it might pay off in less income in a more enjoyable profession for some of us!). If students are applying to a number of schools, then the cost of the test is spread out to more applications, though after the initial four schools (which must be named when you take the test), additional reports cost extra. So taking the GRE is a potential roadblock for some applicants, many of whom may not have the extra cash to cover the cost of the test and reporting to several schools, so they may either choose programs without the requirement or choose not to apply to graduate school in the first place. The test is expensive and intimidating, so why bother. This is especially true for low-income applicants, women and minorities, who also are less likely to do well on the test. If the test were a good predictor of success in the graduate school (for creative writing), then it might be justified. But it isn’t. The GRE doesn’t test for the skills our students need. The closest thing on the test that might apply would be the analytical writing section and the verbal reasoning section, but even these seem to have little to do with creativity. They might test student’s writing abilities, but I can judge that better from the writing sample and the student’s letter of intent. I can judge from letters of recommendation and transcripts whether an applicant has the potential to succeed in the program. There is no minimum required score for the GRE in our programs, so essentially we’re saying you have to pay ETS a fee to take a test, spend half a day taking a test, and we might not (probably won’t) care what score you make! Now for the programs it who do care, it might make sense to require this, but for our program it does not. I asked colleagues on the Creative Writing Pedagogy group (on Facebook) to see if I was missing something. The overwhelming consensus so far is that there’s no reason to use the test for creative writing, and that it’s dubious for other areas as well. The main issue is that it acts as a gateway, keeping women and minority groups out. Since these are audiences our program especially wants to target (we are Mississippi University for Women, after all), it would see counter-intuitive to put roadblocks in their way. I’ve heard rumblings from other areas that there’s discontent with the GRE, and the graduate programs are reevaluating our admissions process and policies, so now is an opportune moment to push for the removal of this requirement, which I’ve asked to be put on our agenda for next week. Wish me luck! And if anyone’s curious about how it goes, you can watch our admissions process on our website here. I will update it as soon as possible, if I get approval to do without the GRE.

Low-Residency MFA Steps Closer To Reality

I’ve written a few posts about my ideas on a low-residency MFA in creative writing. Last week, those ideas became a lot closer to reality. You might say they’ve been realized at Mississippi University for Women, when our governing board voted to approve our proposal. But I’ll really believe it’s real when we have students.

What is real is that there is lots of work to be done to put into practice the program that looked good on paper. And that work has begun in earnest. I’ve written a press release and put up our website http://www.muw.edu/mfacreativewriting with a description of the program and a list of the courses that have been approved. Still to come are admissions procedures, a breakdown of costs, and a list of faculty.

On the last front, I have contacted a number of writer friends about our new program, and the response has been phenomenal. I am very thankful for all the congratulations I’ve received, along with offers to end students our way and offers to teach for us. I will be taking people up on these offers, esp. for teaching, either as core faculty or as visiting writers. One of the best things about directing the new program will be the opportunity to work closely with so many other creative professionals — I want to bring in artists, musicians, chefs, historians, producers, publishers, museum directors grant writers, and many other members of he the creative economy in addition to writers.

I’ve already had some great conversations with people, and I’m well on the way to lining up some exciting new colleagues to work with as we take the. Program from the idea stage to the start of classes. And of course, the support of my department, my chair, dean, provost, and president has been and will continue to be vital to our success. Check our website for updates! I hope to have more announcements soon and often in the coming months.