Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Commentary from Robert Schwoch: Low-Residency MFAs

1.

A good blog idea and long overdue.

I would like to take respectful exception to the idea of low-residency programs merely as a convenience for people who can't move away to a residential program. An increasing number of writers - me, for example - are choosing low-res programs on their own merit over traditional programs. It's more than a matter of one-on-one attention. Students write a lot more in a low-res program, turning in 30 pages of original work and criticism each month, as opposed to being "up" once or twice a term in workshop. The low-res routine is similar to the life of a writer and doesn't require as difficult an adjustment after graduation. Strong bonds do form between and among students and teachers, absent the competition for attention and aid that is common in residential programs. And the residencies still provide for two high-quality workshop experiences per year.

The best reason to choose a residential program is the shelter it provides a writer who needs several years to focus on craft. A low-residency program doesn't offer that refuge from the real world. It's worth noting, though, that the high workload for TAs in residential programs can intrude significantly upon that refuge, and the low pay can result in a post-graduate debt equal or even greater than that of low-residency grads, who usually receive no aid but keep their day jobs. It's important to choose a residential program where the teaching load and financial aid allow the time and space a writer is seeking.


2.
People don't look closely enough at funding when choosing MFA programs.
People say, "Oh, those low-res programs are so expensive, and they have
no aid." True. But if you subtract the tuition from my regular pay I'm
still doing a lot better than a TA, and I reduced my work schedule to
accommodate the MFA. MFA programs call $12K a year "full support." The
government calls it "poverty."

As for the communal bonds, that was a pleasant surprise. Students in
low-res programs will talk about it but it's hard to understand until
you experience it. The residencies are a literary boot-camp experience
and that speaks to the camaraderie - you're in the trenches together
and friendships form hard and fast. I'm on e-mail and the phone every
day with my Bennington pals. You ought to see the hugging that goes on
when the residencies convene. It's like a college reunion every six
months. This is conjecture, but I bet there's not much hugging at Iowa.

The important thing, though, is growth as a writer. I have a story
hitting print soon that I'm excited about, a nice credit. But I was
reading that story the other day and thinking how much better I'm doing
now after less than a year at Bennington.

A residential MFA is the way to go for plenty of writers, and a place
like Bennington isn't for everyone. But the low-res MFA has advantages
that have nothing to do with residency, and people ought to know that.
It's not a second option or last resort for the home-bound. It was
definitely the right choice for me, even though I could've gone the
residential route.

6 comments:

Frances said...

As a graduate of Vermont College's low-res MFA, I heartily agree. By taking the emphasis off of group workshops and putting pressure on the mentor-student relationship, the program helped me grow much faster. Instead of stamping work with generic workshoppy comments, I got a sense of where my work was at the moment, and where it could go if I kept working hard. Far beyond just an assessment of the strenghts and weaknesses of an individual piece, I got full exchanges about who I am as a writer, what it means to write, and the long literary tradition before me. As for the residencies, the friendships I made at Vermont are not only close and intense, but lasting.

Windiciti said...

Please, please... someone write more about low res. prgrams.
Really need to know!
Thanks,
Windiciti

Rachel said...

As someone who just began the low-res program at Queens University of Charlotte, I can whole-heartedly say that every MFA candidate owes it to themselves to explore this route. The residency periods are intense and inspiring; the rest of the semester allows tons of time to write...and write...and write. Because that's pretty much your only reqirement, until residency time rolls around again and you've got a list of books to tackle. But for the most part, you aren't bogged down with teaching loads or homework for supplement classes. I recently met a young woman in her 2nd year at Texas State (a residential program) and she said she was completely overwhelmed and stressed with her TA responsibilities to the point where her writing has begun to suffer imensely. When I told her about the program I'm in, she seemed genuinely jealous, and noted that it seemed like the low-res format really mimics the life of a writer, something we all must begin to adjust to sooner than later. I for one LOVE being a low-res student and Queens is an excellent program with excellent teachers. Another added bonus that most people doesn't realize is that the professors at low-res programs come from colleges all over the country. They too have other full-time lives and many of them teach at top-tier universities during the year. The professor I'm working with now is a published author who just left Harvard for a job at Stanford. My point in mentioning this is to emphasize the diversity of the program. None of the professors have any affiliation with Queens other than this program. Therefore, they are able to bring their unique philosophies and schools of thought to their teaching. Queens has the added benefit of online workshop groups, which is helpful and keeps you feeling connected during the semester between residencies.

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