Monday, January 16, 2006

A Low-Residency Student Offers Insight

Sumac writes in with some insight for Low-Residency students...

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Hi Tom,
I really enjoy your MFA blog. I'm two years out of the MFA in fiction program at Vermont College and though I have no questions, I have noticed people asking about low-residency programs on your blog. Thought I might contribute my two cents as someone who graduated from such a program. (Of course, disregard this email entirely if you've already covered this, and just consider it a thanks-for-putting-out-a-good-blog email.)

I had an amazing experience at Vermont. Working one-on-one with an advisor for six months (instead of relying on workshops) was a very intensive way to learn the craft. I liked it much better than my past workshop experiences. Since I graduated two years ago, my mentors have continued to support me and assist me in publishing my own work, and they've helped me network with other writers, editors and agents.

Also difficult-but-great was the fact that I went to a day job and came home, tired and cross-eyed and had to sit in front of my computer and start writing. This is what writing is like in real life. Few writers can support themselves just by writing, and getting in the habit of writing every day after work prepared me for when I graduated from Vermont and was suddenly out alone in the cold, dark world. Also, I happen to like my day job, and I was able to continue to advance at that job while completing my MFA.

Some potential drawbacks and things to consider are these: If your primary reason for getting an MFA is to teach, then you should go to a traditional program. There are no chances to TA at a low-res school (at least, not for any meaningful length of time--most residencies are about two weeks long). And because there are no chances to teach, there is limited funding available. Vermont gave out a lot of small scholarships but mostly you're on your own to pay tuition.

It's not impossible to get a teaching job out of a low-res school. Most of my classmates who were already teachers found jobs teaching writing. But it's certainly more difficult.

Also, because you don't sit in on traditional classes in a low-res program, a lot of them require a critical thesis as well as the typical creative thesis.

Finally, for whatever reason, the low-res programs tend to be very hard on marriages and relationships. Maybe because of the bacchanalian/summer campish aspect to the residencies--everything is very intense and people develop intimate and close friendships very quickly. Then the residency is over and it's back to real life. This sudden switcheroo makes for some melodramatic couplings and partings at residencies. I personally know at least three people who blame the ruination of their marriages on Vermont, and a lot of other people whose long-term relationships came to an end or almost-end while they were students at Vermont. I mean, it was pretty weird.

Okay, thanks. Hope it's useful. I haven't read your entire blog yet, so perhaps it's completely redundant. Sorry to clog your inbox, if so. Keep up the good work!

Best,
Sumac

12 comments:

Bennington Boy said...

A few comments not to refute but to amplify the excellent post above.

It's true that low-residency programs, by and large, do not provide teaching experience. Keep in mind, though, that when it comes to full-time teaching jobs in creative writing at four-year colleges and universities, teaching experience is a relatively minor consideration compared with a candidate's publishing record. Having published at least one book, a low-residency grad will be competitive with a similarly published grad from a traditional MFA program. Without a book on the shelf, MFA grads are limited mostly to part-time, community college or composition teaching jobs. These are the positions in which teaching experience counts more and an MFA holder from a residential program would probably have an edge.

Prospective MFA students should go in with the clear understanding that any teaching experience they gain will come at the expense of time and space to write. I've met too many writers who arrived in residential MFA programs only to discover they'd landed a full-time teaching job for $10,000 a year. If you go the residential MFA route, be sure the teaching load is low enough and the remuneration is high enough to make the experience writing-friendly. That's not the case in many programs. Low-residency programs are admitting increasing numbers of refugees from full-residency MFA programs and this is one reason why.

As I come down the home stretch in Bennington's low-residency program, I couldn't be happier about having gone this route. While no MFA is perfect, I'm getting more as a writer out of the mentorship-based low-residency model than I would have in two or three years of workshops in which I was "up" once or twice a term. And my aid package - i.e. the regular job I was able to keep - gives me something almost no traditional MFA program offers: a living wage. Even after subtracting my tuition I'm doing a lot better financially than a TA getting "full support" in a residential program.

Unless you're desperate for a couple of years away from a dreary, low-paying, writing-unfriendly day job, you'll probably do better and be happier in an established low-residency program than a traditional MFA program. Ask anyone, teacher or student, who's experienced both. Or browse the contributors' notes in the lit mags and witness the outsized number of low-residency MFA students and grads therein. A good low-residency program offers increased attention and respect from faculty, minimal competition between students, no wrenching transitions back and forth from the real world, and more practice every month than some residential students get in a year. It's not a two-year vacation or a writers' fantasy camp. It's demanding. And it won't necessarily make you into a writer. But it'll help make you the best writer you can be.

Anonymous said...

So how, exactly, is the teaching experience at a traditional MFA program any more taxing than the "regular job" you were able to keep? As a TA in a "traditional" program, I'm earning teaching experience, being paid a sizable stipend, and committing roughly 10 hours a week to teaching.

And how do you know that you're getting more out of your mentorship? Many traditional MFAs offer two or three workshops a term and mentorship with a faculty member. Not to mention the feeling of community you get being in a time-intensive residential program with a group of other writers.

Have you ever been in one of the "traditional" programs you so malign? If you had, you'd know that most of what you say about them is patently false -- for instance, your laughable assertions that an "outsized" number of published authors are low-residency grads, and that your low-res program offers more practice in a month than normal MFAers get in a year.

A good "traditional" MFA can offer everything a low-res program does, plus funding and a more definite sense of community.

Bennington Boy said...

If you're spending only 10 hours a week teaching (including class prep and grading) and you're getting a decent, living-wage stipend, that's an awesome deal. If you're writing 3, 4, 5 new stories or a passel of new poems a term and workshopping them all, terrific! All I'm saying is, if you go the residential MFA route, make sure that's the kind of deal you're getting before you go in. Because there are people out there - some who have ended up in low-residency programs - who haven't gotten that kind of deal in their traditional MFA programs.

I do know what I'm talking about. My MFA application process was ridiculously researched because I dithered about it for, like, a decade. I looked at a lot of residential programs and talked to their students and grads. I've been a regular for years in the online MFA forum run by P&W and have typed back and forth with scores of MFA students and alums there. I also enrolled in the spring workshop at Iowa that blends MFA students with outsiders and saw that program up close for a month. And don't forget that at Bennington we have faculty and visitors who teach in residential programs as well. Their take can be quite illuminating.

I'd say the satisfaction rate of the students I talked to in residential MFA programs during my research process, overall, was 50 to 60 percent, as opposed to 80 or 90 in low-res. Some people in residential programs were getting a great period of shelter, lots of time and guidance for writing, and were dreading the end. Others were borrowing heavily to backfill their "full ride" TAships, teaching rhetoric and composition courses that required hours of preparation and grading in addition to class time, getting workshopped once or twice a term, and receiving little feedback or mentorship from faculty.

MFA students who see what we get at Bennington from faculty each month in terms of markups and commentaries and such are usually pretty impressed. We fiction students turn in 25-50 pages each month, 10 months a year, and I generally receive 6-8 single-spaced pages of feedback each month in addition to line edits and marginalia. And we get workshopped on top of that at the residencies. If you're doing that amount of work with that amount of feedback in a residential program, hey, great! But from what I was able to find out looking at programs and talking with students, that isn't always the case. I talked to one student from Pitt who used to get poems back from faculty with "good!" at the top. (She transferred to Bennington.)

As for the outsized publishing record, well, forgive my bragging. But keep in mind there are only three or four low-res programs out there that have been around more than five years or so. I'm talking about places like Warren Wilson, Bennington, Vermont. For such a small grouping those names pop up a lot out there. Vermont College can produce a list of student accomplishments as long as your arm - the alumni achievements section of their newsletter is jaw-dropping. One factor, though, is that these are large programs in numbers of students. I recognize that the Cornells and Browns of the world don't have nearly as many students or grads to boast about. And it's also important to note that due to their growing popularity low-res programs are popping up now on every corner and some of them are rumored to be little more than cash machines for their colleges. Buyer beware.

I don't want to paint all low-res programs as perfect or all residential programs as bad. But my sense - and it's a fairly well-informed sense - is that low-res students, as a group, are more satisfied. Too many people who enroll in residential programs get rude surprises in terms of workload and support once they arrive. Not all, but too many. So all I'm saying is, beware of the pitfalls. Talk to current students and recent grads. Know what you're getting before you go. And if you're in a decent life situation already as far as employment and time to write, consider low-res very carefully. MFA programs call $10,000 a year "full support." Governments call it "poverty."

Anonymous said...

I completely agree that a prospective student should know what she's getting into before attending a residential MFA, but that goes for any graduate program.

I also see and hear a lot of "traditional" MFAers complaining about the same issues: lack of or overly competitive funding, faculty apathy, teaching workloads. If they'd done their homework, they'd have known about the funding and workload ahead of time (I imagine the MFA book will be invaluable for these purposes).

As far as the apathy, I think a lot of the apathy students see in MFA faculty is the result of their own. My experience has been that most residential MFA faculty won't actively seek out mentorships with students, but they are almost always willing (if not always eager) to do one-on-one work with students when asked. In my program, you could have a faculty mentor each semester, but it's only required in your last.

I also think the unsatisfied MFAers tend to make their voices heard more often. Almost everybody I've talked to who got a traditional MFA, both here and elsewhere, had some complaints. But the overwhelming majority said they were happy with their overall experience.

I don't think low-res alumni, of which there are few, compare all that favorably to alumni from the best traditional MFAs, of which there are a comparative amount.

And once again, I think your comments underestimate the value of a full-time community of writers. That has been perhaps the most favorable aspect of my MFA experience.

People tend to think their choice would be better for most people, simply because it was better for them. I think my posts reflect that, and I think yours do, too. But I also think that, objectively, the better traditional MFA programs have a few clear advantages over low-res programs: teaching experience, a sense of community, and funding. Low-res programs also have their advantages, which you're enumerated. Each will suit a certain kind of applicant, which is why both exist. I do think that traditional MFAs will suit more prospective students than low-res programs will.

Sumac said...

Bennington Boy, great amplification. Thanks.

Sometimes I think we low-res folks get defensive about our programs because there seems to be a bit of buzz in the writing community (or maybe it's just a low, pervasive hum), that low-residency programs are synonymous with low-rent. They're rumored to be easier to get into, not as selective, and employ small-name professors.

And there's the notion that in low-res, you're not getting the full experience of being a "real" writing student. If you don't struggle financially for two years somewhere in rural Indiana. If you and your classmates don't disembowel each other in the classroom, day after day.

There's also the issue of age. Low-res students tend to be much more age diverse than traditionals, and I get the sense that this somehow lowers our stock--as if someone who is 60 can't possibly be as serious about writing as someone who is 26.

Part of this is probably my own paranoia, but traditional MFA grads have talked down to me about Vermont in the past. It doesn't help that, as BB says, there are new low-res programs popping up every week with little to recommend them.

All this is too bad because, like BB, I also feel there can be huge advantages to the low-res MFA over the traditional program, depending on what you're looking for.

I also know that (traditional MFA) people have been upset in the past when I've suggested that a low-residency program may actually be a fundamentally good program. This sometimes feels like a case of protesting too much.

If you're wondering about what a low-res program is actually like, go and visit one. But make sure you do so during an actual residency, of course.

sumac said...

Oh...I forgot to address your comment about a full-time community of writers, Anonymous. I think that's a very important and good point to bring up.

At Vermont, I always felt part of a community. After my first residency I had a lot of new friends I kept in touch with via email and the phone, or weekend visits. I had 5 or 6 more Vermont friends who lived nearby and we got together throughout the semester. I'm still in touch with all of my friends from Vermont and have formed a post-grad writers group with the people in my area.

I don't felt I missed out on a sense of community at all.

Anonymous said...

I am currently in my last semester of a low rez program and I found myself nodding as I read many of the comments. What I like most about my program is the connections I have made with both faculty and co-advisees. I get so much support from all of my advisors and each has published work I find meaningful and amazing. Most of my advisor's past advisees have gone on to publish their work and my advisor has championed them along the way. I think my MFA program has been rigorous and also practical. While I didn't have the benefit of a traditional teaching assigment, I was able to create my own teaching assignment and work intensively in a women's prison. As much as I love my program I realize it does take a certain kind of student to be successful. I didn't like traditional college because I'm very independent and wanted my education to reflect all my interests. I like the idea that I can balance both writing and my "life". I like what a previous person said about working a full day and then coming home to right. It seems no accident that we both attended colleges in Vermont! Though aren't most of the low res programs in VT? or does it just seem that way?

Anyway, I am slightly worried about finding a teaching job for the reasons mentioned but I don't know that I would be disappointed about teaching at a community college. When I decided to return to school some of my biggest supporters were my teachers at community college. I would love to teach at a community college. I was lucky that I went to CC because I wanted to and not because I had to. Some people don't have that choice and why shouldn't they have cool, passionate writing teachers?

Thanks for your site!

Anonymous said...

To add one more thing:

I don't agree that you always need the "big" names. I am working with the writers that I love. I chose my program because of my advisor, whose work I have enjoyed for years! I got to meet and work with many of my lit heroes who while not being big names are edgy and exciting and pushed me to be a better writer.

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