Sunday, April 02, 2006

What's Going on with the Florida State MFA program?

I think this is going to be a long post. We received two emails this week regarding some strange (though not completely unheard of) acceptance policies at the Florida State MFA program. Here's what they had to say:

AiA writes...

i've been accepted to the MFA program at Florida State and would like to accept. since this is a new program [i'm guessing that's the cause], i've had a bit of trouble getting my hands on information pertaining to the program. i've emailed several members of the department, getting all the info i can, and i shall likewise ask you if there's anything in particular you have to say about the program. in your book, you profile the MA program, and i suppose i'd like to know how much of that information is relevant to the MFA program. funding, most importantly, is something i'm having trouble getting solid information about.
Florida State has informed me that assistantships will not be offered until after the April 15th decision deadline. this seems odd to me--and contradictory to information in your book--because i don't know how i'm supposed to decide before i know what my funding situation will be. in the handbook you clearly describe scenarios where people are making decisions on schools based on funding. this happens to be how i'd like to make my decision as well. however, as i attempted to initiate a "bargaining" process with Florida State, a faculty member advised me that, if i got an assitantship at another school but wanted to go to Florida State, i should accept the offers at both schools, and then see if Florida State offers me an assistantship after April 15th. i was under the impression that accepting an offer to a school carried a little more obligation than that, but honestly, i just don't know.

and IiI writes...

I have MFA fiction offers from George Mason and
Florida State. While Mason has offered me full
funding, FSU, ranked much below Mason, has offered me
none. I felt somehow insulted, especially cos each of
the four schools who accepted me so far have offered
me full coverage. I contacted FSU, and I was told that
they can let me know only after April 15 if they will
be able to fund me.

FSU has only just started their MFA (they used to
offer only an MA), but they have Robert Olen Butler...
George Mason is ranked #20, FSU is #37, but the
rankings are old... I am inclined towards FSU, because
of their faculty, esp. Butler, Bob Shacochis, etc. But
FSU has been comparatively indifferent towards me.
Apart from the acceptance letter, there has been no
contact from the faculty. On the other hand, Mason has
been sort of "courting" me, the director has contacted
me a few times.

Well, first of all, the FSU Ph.D. and M.A. programs have very good reputations, and their funding is above average. That said, I don't at all like the advice the first writer received about accepting more than one offer. Of course there's nothing illegal about this, but I find it unethical. A deadline is a deadline, and programs should offer as much information to students about funding etc. before that deadline. Students should stick to their word about their acceptances, just as programs should. Otherwise, it works in the disfavor of other students on waitlists or who are "on the bubble."

It's not completely unusual that a program won't know the funding situation before students accept. It may be that the program is waiting on word about funding from the English Department or the University's administration. That said, it's really not a smart policy for programs. If they want certain students, they should be clear about funding, and if there is not funding for other students, then students should be told that.

These are only two emails, and we don't know how other prospective students have been treated by the Florida State program. But the lack of help in this initial stage does not, to my mind, bode well for student support in later stages of the program. It's a definite red flag as far as I'm concerned. If I were one of these students, I'd contact the program again this week, ask, politely, where I stood in the funding situation, and if I didn't receive a clear answer, I'd take one of the other offers.

There was a strange interview with Mark Winegardner, the head of the program, in a Florida paper last year. He was enthusiastic, to understate it, about FSU becoming the best program in the nation in the next rankings. That article is down now, but here's a link to a paragraph from it.

Good luck with your decisions, IiI and AiA. I'd appreciate any comments, from any reader, on this post.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow... the program director of FSU sounds downright delusional. I don't think FSU is really on many people's radar, much less as a top 10 (or #1) school.

The only faculty names I even recognize are Suarez and Robert Owen Butler.

chris said...

I read that article and remember being pretty excited about the FSU mfa program. Since then I haven't heard much news about it, positive or negative. Does anyone know if there will ever be new rankings by US NEWS?

Michelle said...

I'm glad you've stressed the funding issue, Tom. Considering the job market post-MFA, funding is so important. To the reader who is concerned about school rankings, however, I'd say--don't be! What matters aside from funding is WHO you want to study with and WHERE you want to live, not how a program is ranked. My program (U of Miami) was brand new when I transferred there from U of Arkansas mid-MFA. No one knew anything about the program, but I admired the work of John Balaban (then director) and I knew I could get a lot of writing done down there, living on the beach with full funding--and I did finish my first book there, which was published a couple of years after I graduated. Really, what's important is the writing, not the name of the program.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, delusional after writing the “Godfather” sequal, the worst book I’ve read. Maybe he is dreaming about becoming the Godfather of the MFA programs. This guy is a joke, and the FSU program should be ranked below 37th next time.

Anonymous said...

Robert Owen Butler only teaches like one graduate workshop in two years and there're hundreds of CW students there, so you might not even have a chance to study with him...

Anonymous said...

FSU faculty seem to be hiding in the clouds... I've been admitted into their program, but none of them are responsive, none of them have been accessible so far... Deplorable administrative standards... I am overseas and didn't receive my admission letter, and it was like pulling teeth to get them to email it to me... And the funding thing, as described, is a joke...

V said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I got my B.A. from the creative writing program at FSU and I was just accepted back for the M.F.A. program. Even as a recent graduate, I find it a little disheartening that I haven't heard anything in terms of financial aid either. For those wondering about faculty and FSU in general- the program is great, Tallahassee isn't a great college/work town, and I had the opportunity to work with every teacher that I wanted to work with. Some of the best teachers are the ones that aren't shoved in every article because of the weight that their name may carry. Robert Olan Butler and Mark Winegardner don't teach too many sections and their work styles are geared toward one side/style of writing. one of them pretty much stifled my creativity and unneccessarily crushed his students' voice to make room for his own ego in the class. it's a mixed bag of reviews for the other, which I think you can find in any program.so I wouldn't fixate on them. I have friends in the TA program and I've seen how it works as an undergrad. my friends LOVE the classes they teach, and I really admired the wide scope of classes you can teach/ take for freshman english(writing about the matrix or tupac, anyone?). They have an extensive reading/lecture series and opportunities for grad students to present their own work. it is amazing that I can talk about how great the program is, and yet I am still a little pissed off about their inability to give potential students any financial aid information before the deadline. I know why I would go back to the program based on my in-state undergraduate work, but I can't see how this could weigh heavily enough for me to come back as an out of state student (their residency rules are pretty fishy, too)with no financial aid security. yet, maybe i'll see some of you in the fall.

Anonymous said...

Oh, also, Winegardner is no longer the director of the Creative Writing program, it's Jimmy Kimbrell.

Anonymous said...

I too got my B.A. from the creative writing program at FSU. It's strange that my friends said the opposite about the TA program. They hated it. They said to me, even if I am offered a teaching assistantship, don’t accept it. You teach two classes each semester for something like ten grand a year, and the director of the TA program treat you like shit…

Anonymous said...

STAY AWAY from the florida State program. I was there for one yr and left b/c faculty were so unhelpful, funding was pathetic in comparison as to what it takes to actually live in tallahassee where rent is mucho expensive! those so called big guys (and gals) are never around for office hours and everyone ends up stroking their ego in workshop anyway. i applied to PItt, INdiana, and Michigan and notre dame and picked Michigan and i couldn't have been happier. students AND faculty work fabulous together and compared to FSU's TOTAL LACK OF ORGANIZATION, Michigan rocked!

V said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Yeah, I had nothing but good experiences like you when I visited there. I hope you feel the same way after three years. Sure with $400 you can rent an apt in the Tallahassee ghetto. It’s a good sign you already talk like the delusional Godfather wannabe…

Sharon said...

As far as the financials are concerned : "TAships have not been decided due to budgetary restraints."

Coincidentlly I haven't been as lucky as everyone else with multiple acceptances, I was wait-listed at Montana, Emerson, and New Mexico.

And New Mexico has been just as harring an experience, considering they are unable to even have a deadline for when the wait-listed will be notified of their final status.

But, it does sound like this situation may be fiction based.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently going into my senior year as an English major at FSU. I've taken numerous Creative Writing courses and have always had pleasant and helpful experiences with the faculty and within the department. I have a very high level of respect for my professors. They are always available to meet with me outside of class and have been very helpful over the years. I have friends in the MFA program and they feel the same way. I don't know what's going on with the funding, but the program is top-notch. I believe they can't make decisions about funding until they know for sure how many students to expect, but it's pretty widely offered. Even if you didn't get any funding at all, the program is cheap in comparison to private schools. Personally, I'm probably moving on to one of those expensive private schools because I've been here for three years now and I'm ready for a change of pace. Tallahassee is mainly a university and legislature town, but it's very affordable. I live in a pretty nice 1/1 apartment 2 blocks from campus and I'm only paying a little over $500/month. It's in a great part of town, right next to the law school, and just bordering the pretty downtown area. Whoever said that rent is expensive here is crazy, because I can't even find an apartment the size of my current one for under $1500/month in NYC. I might end up staying here because I love both the program and my apartment.

Anonymous said...

His name is Robert OLEN Butler. If you're going to be insulting about his program and its FORMER director, you ought to at least get Butler's name right.

Mark Winegardner is no longer the director of the writing program, so your insulting is ill-founded and shows that you perhaps are the ones putting little into getting to know the program which has accepted you. You might also know that "delusional" Mark Winegarnder is a graduate of George Mason, and whether or not a school "courts" you has little to do with your WRITING, and how it will be affected anyway.

Kimbrell's office phone is available on the website: (850) 644-0887. You're certainly not going to find out what you need if you're sitting here moaning about him on this blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information contributed by everyone. I am the one who asked the question originally. So I feel the need to set the record straight:

I have posted only once, the original question only, and I have written politely of my situation. I'd add that posts from students stating they were accepted into FSU do seem to be polite as well. Insulting comments have come from others, including the one in which Butler's name is misspelled.

In fact, I have been in contact with Julianna Baggott, and I have nothing but great things to say about her. She has not only been helpful, but has been a delight to talk with, and I believe she is another gem in the FSU masthead, which includes stalwarts such as Butler, Winegardner, Shacochis, and many others.

Anonymous said...

I have an MA from FSU. It was a better program when Janet Burroway still taught. Now the writing program looks like going down the toilet by hiring chick lit writers like Julianna Baggott…and that Godfather joke…

anon said...

I have PhD in Creative Writing from FSU, and while I agree that Winegardner's comments about FSU's program are a little over-the-top, personally I thought he was an excellent teacher, possibly the best writing teacher I have ever had (MFA and PhD). He showed me a lot about my own work (things no one had ever pointed out during my MFA). He does tend to be a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy (lots of ideas and generalizations about the way stories work), which may not be to everyone's taste, but personally, after having a lot of profs who act more like a member of the workshop than the teacher (vague, loosey-goosey, anything goes aesthetic), I found Mark's approach a welcomed change of pace. I don't necessarily follow or agree with all of his ideas about fiction, but I definitely consider them when I write. His approach may not appeal to everyone, but he had a big effect on my writing. Also, I had no problem getting classes with any of the teachers I wanted; I took 2 classes with Mark (though he's been busier the last couple of years).
On the whole, when I compare FSU with my MFA program, I think FSU is a pretty good program - strong in many ways, but also with a few weaknesses. As for teaching assistantships, I believe it's a 2/2 load (though that may have changed for first semester MFA grad students), and the pay is on the low end of the spectrum ($10,000, whereas some programs are more like $12,000). I was offered 3 or 4 other T.A.-ships, all of which were somewhat better than FSU's (1/1 or 2/1 load, and/or a bit more $), but I thought it was better to base my decision on the program. One thing FSU does have going for it is a 6 week summer teacher training program, which is excellent. I think this is fairly rare; my MFA threw me in a classroom after 2-3 days of useless training...Also, you are pretty much guaranteed the opportunity to teach a summer class if you wish (which isn't always the case at other schools).
Back to the teacher thing; I've had close to 10 different writers as teachers, and I have to say that the "best" (or more famous) writers are not necessarily the best teachers. I've had some great teachers that I'd never heard of before. One or two well-known writers were great, but some were lame/unimpressive/just phoning it in. You just never know. Sometimes you get a teacher who you've never heard of, whose work is totally unlike your own, yet they're perfect for you.

Tallahassee is a reasonably cheap place to live - seems about average to me. I had a $425 one- bedroom apt. about a block from campus - an okay apt., but worth it to me because trying to park on campus is a disaster. If you don't care about being withing walking distant, you can get something a little cheaper (or just nicer for the same $).
No matter where you go, unless they give a lot of $, or it's a VERY cheap place to live, it's very hard to get by on $10,000-$12,000. Unless you're very frugal, you need loans or a part-time job.

noname said...

The FSU MFA is terrible. All of the teachers sleep with students. The director (Kimbrell) just got an undergraduate pregnant & married her so you won't hear from him. The others are even worse. They should all be fired. It makes other students uncomfortable when half the professors are screwing the students. This program is a sham.

NoCalJoe said...

I am applying to FSU's MFA program. Given noname's comments that "[a]ll of the teachers sleep with students," I was wondering if anyone can tell me how long the waiting list is for Julianna Baggott's classes?

'Cause I'd like to go ahead and get signed up now...

Perplexed said...

It’s nice to see so many passionate comments concerning Florida States MFA program, especially since I am in the process of narrowing down my search for the "perfect" grad-school. When making an important decision such as this I always make a point to have open ears when it comes to people’s experiences and opinions BUT in the end the decision must be made by ME and ME alone. I am the one who is most familiar with my writing styles and what I expect out of my future grad-school. Opinions are great but they are just that, opinions. Quite frankly I'm glad that some of you feel so passionately against Florida State, that's one less person I have to compete with. Oh, and as an undergrad I understand having mixed feelings about the school and department your attending but I would hope that people whose life it is to create art with words would be able to find a better, more poetic way to voice their dislikes.

b said...

I know this is an old post, but I figured, why not put a more updated version up here.

I currently am in my last year in the FSU fiction MFA program. I have been nothing but impressed my the program. I have taken over six different writing faculty (fiction and non-fiction) by choice. Each of the professors has a completely different way of going about things, which is great for anyone going into a program where they don't really know the faculty. Even if you've thoroughly research faculty on paper, you have no idea what their teaching style and abilities will be. As is the case here. The most famous are rarely the best teachers. With such a wide variety though, I think every one of my friends here has found a professor that really speaks to their learning style. Personally, I prefer Winegardner's method of breaking general fiction down into nuts and bolts, as opposed to the more flighty workshop by workshop discussions. There is almost never a time when I'm revising a story that I don't think about something Mark has said about fiction as a whole. But, for everyone that doesn't like Mark, there's another professor that really speaks to them. Although I have a favorite, I have learned some different aspect of fiction from every professor.

Also, if you connect with a professor, pretty much all of them will go head over heels effort to help you succeed, whether that's putting you in touch with agents, editors, or taking a really close look at work outside of class.

One of the best things as an MFA student in a program that also has a creative writing PhD, you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least one peer (if not seven) that's a better writer than you are. In some programs, this can turn into a negative environment, but here, instead of being competitive, it just ends up being inspiring.

Anyway, all that's just to say, I love the program.

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