Monday, June 05, 2006

Programs that Support Diversity

Lucky Brown writes in...

Diversity, specifically race/gender issues and style. I am a black woman, and most of my characters share that background. I worry about going to a program where who I am and who my characters are pose problems to getting the most out of an MFA program. It's tricky, navigating what's a problem of cultural/gendered impasse, and what's a legitimate writing problem. I think I have a good handle on the difference, but the best case scenario would be to to be in an environment where my work--which, by involving marginalized people, does involve touchy issues to varying degrees-- is supported and critiqued. (As opposed to people making knee-jerk reactions to uncomfortable subjects or feeling that they cannot comment because the characters are too far out the realm of their experience.) Any program suggestions and any information about minority experiences in MFA programs (anecdotal or personal) would be appreciated!

Thanks for the question, Lucky. I think a lot of programs pay lip service to the diversity issue, but I'm unsure of how many actually do something about it. One program that puts their money where their mouth is: Indiana University. They have at least three fellowships specifically for minority writers. Consequently, they have diverse workshops in writing style and background. Check out more at their Fellowship Site.

Both Lucky and I would really appreciate other opinions on programs that make diversity a priority. Thanks in advance.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

It’s good that a program like Indiana supports diversity, but as a minority myself I am not keen to move to a city like Bloomington, IN. I’d rather choose a program in large cities that make minorities feel good about themselves. It’s really important where you live for two or three years while you’re in the program, really important for minority artists. If a program like NYU can offer you the same financial package as Indiana, I think you should definitely stay in NYC. You won’t be happy if you see on the street every third car with a confederate flag…

Anonymous said...

I don't have any particular information to add, but I agree that the Indiana program looks to be the most interested by far in supporting students of color, and trying to have a student body that at least sort of reflects the real world. If I were able to travel away from NYC, Indiana's definitely where I'd want to go. Here in NYC, I'm hoping to get into Brooklyn College. I'm white, but I have no interest in any program that doesn't work to bring in a diverse group of writers.

Anonymous said...

I'm also a minority, and I will be applying in to programs in the Fall. Do you schools actually look at the a students nationality, and are they concerned with inclusion of minorities? Obviously, we all know about Indiana, but I would also be interested in a few other programs that value diversity.

Anonymous said...

Another program that says it supports diversity is probably Oregon, but I am not sure whether it has minority fellowships like Indiana.

Anonymous said...

If you have to stay in NYC, I'd choose Brooklyn College over Columibia, NYU, Sarah Lawrence or The New School--I mean if you don't get any financial aid. City college is also OK.

Anonymous said...

I would second the Brooklyn College recommendation. Michael Cunningham has both expressed and demonstrated a strong commitment to having a diverse MFA class.

Old Scribe said...

Well, this is going to be a tricky sale, but I took my B.A. at the University of Arkansas and I can tell you that both the university AND the English Department are trying very hard to recruit minority students. They want to shed that "good ole boy" image that is so often associated with the South. Perhaps the best way to do this is to have minority students apply, enroll, graduate, and then move on to enjoy successful careers.

Due to the state's history and its reputation, the University of Arkansas has problems getting minority students onboard--remember a place called Little Rock? To be very honest, I don't think they have one black student in their MFA program right now. There are female students, of course, but black or Hispanic students are in HIGH DEMAND. The university has started a Diversity Task Force to address the situation, so perhaps this shows that they aren't ignoring the problem.

Personally, I would welcome you with open arms and so would many other students. I intentionally seek out people of all types (i.e. age, sex, ethnicity, race, etc.) to critique my work. Plus, I love reading work from a diverse body of writers. I just stumbled upon Sherman Alexie while flipping through the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and WOW can that guy write!

I'm sure you'd be admitted and would receive a full complement of financial aid benefits, including an assistantship. Plus, I hope other minority students would follow the trail you'd blaze. And Arkansas has a top 20 MFA program, believe it or not.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Michigan offers a very healthy minority fellowship to at least one in-coming minority student each year. (Everyone gets $18,000 at UM now for the first year, and about $15,000 the second, but the minority fellowship is a little better moneywise, I think). They've also had a good track record with diversity (after all, this is the university that defended affirmative action before the supreme court, and, as for the program itself, one of the New Yorker's debut fiction writers last summer was a Michigan MFA who is also a Nigerian priest).
I would also caution all the east-coasters here of being over-wary of the interior's race-relations. I seriously doubt that the people of Bloomington are on a mission to make minorities feel bad about themselves. Even as there are still some race problems in small towns here in the interior (as well as in many NYC neighborhoods and suburbs, I'm sure), any program you end up at is going to be in a university town, places which even in arch-conservative states are typically liberal bastions.
Oh, and I'm from the south, and even there you didn't see confederate flags on every third car. Only like every fifth.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone recommed good schools that don't section off one, two, five valuable seats just for minorities? I'm not looking drop $1000 on applications to schools which misrepresent acceptance rates, or collect minorities like glass figurines...

Anonymous said...

I'm a minority but I believe that all the good schools take the best applicants regardless of race. However, I also think that many schools want to make things more diverse and interesting, because, let's be honest, the stories of certain minorities are very interesting and they need to be told. You sound a little bitter, but it's not just minorities; schools wants a diverse group up people anyway. My advice to you: Great writing sample.

Anonymous said...

hellow disgruntled white boy, there are MFA programs for people like you in the deep South or Midwest. You'll see any minorities and so will be happy.

Anonymous said...

You'll not see any minorities and so will be happy.

-sorry

Anonymous said...

You bet. The disgruntled white boy will not be a minority in the South. He'll meet like-minded people in good MFA programs there!

Anonymous said...

Yeah. I guess in your world, skin color = diversity and souther = racist. The world's problems are so easily solved!

Many schools arrive at "diversity" naturally, whether you choose to define this as a set of philosophical beliefs, or by skin color. All I'm saying is that certain schools, like Indiana, operate under an old-school affirmative action mentality, where there's a chair for whites, a chair for blacks, not so much concern for Asians, etc. etc. If they only accept six students a year, then, as a poor, non-gay white girl, say, you are really competing for one spot among other white girls.

Ooh, and I guess I'm a racist for wanting to be in a group of the best writers, not the most rainbow-y ones. It's racist to assume that a fair model would only include whites, so it looks like YOU are the most racist! Take that!

Anonymous said...

As for Michigan's minority fellowship--from what I understand, there's no special "minority application pile." They simply accept the writers they like best, then hand out the fellowship to someone who qualifies for it (the fellowship itself comes from the grad school, and is also given to minority students in English, Economics, etc.). So, UM in general encourages diversity, but does not rely on quotas. I imagine most programs are this way.
I have to say, too, as a southerner that all this south-bashing is disgusting (assuming its unironic--I guess posts are often hard to read for irony); it reveals the same kind of small-mindedness you seem to assume exists all across the southern states.

Anonymous said...

Yo, whining white boy, you hear that? Apply to Mchigan and see if you can get in. Stop playing that race card bullshit! There’s a program for everyone in the United States of America!

Anonymous said...

This is unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

People tend to forget there's a quota for southerners in most of the top MFA programs. They get privileges for being a southerner and they always try to defend their Southern values.

Anonymous said...

You know, I did think it was kind of strange that my program kept trying to make me wear a seersucker suit... And they kept asking me if I liked mint juleps... And if my cousins needed shoes...
(little joke)

Anonymous said...

Whou would recommend a seersucker suit? Hmmm...the man in the seersucker suit!

Dan said...

If you have something to say, put your name to it. Enough anonymous bashing and childish name-calling. Legitimate opinions warrant legitimate names. Perhaps then we can focus on the substance of people's opinions.

I think it's reasonable to worry that seats might be sectioned off for minorities, southerners, etc. Why? Because it means that, instead of applying for four spots at -- random example -- Cornell, you're applying for three.

I'm white. I'm male. My immigrant Latina fiance thinks I should look at these things too. (Shoot, we've debated not filing marriage papers w/ the US government later this year -- we're getting married in her hometown in S. America -- so she can continue to take advantage of all the $$ programs available to single Latina mothers. This is how America works.)

We're talking practicalities here. Few of us have an unlimited supply of cash. There's no way I can afford to apply for a dozen programs, as Tom Kealey recommends, so I have to maximize my chances at the schools I apply to.

Just like it's a practical question to ask which schools are looking for diversity or southerners, it's also practical to ask, not which ones aren't, but which ones set aside slots for which white males or northerners need not apply, only give lip service to diversity, or have only about 3 minorities living in the whole town.

Talk truth with courtesy as best you can. We all have the same goal here: Finding a program that's right for us and that we can gain admission to.

This is Tom Kealey's bus. Don't screw things up so that we need a bus monitor to control our speech. Grow up. And sign a name or tag when you post.

--Dan

Anonymous said...

On the one hand, I think, writing is about people - humans. Whatever they're up to, that's what you're really writing about -- so whether you place your characters in a regatta or a high school in the south bronx is, in that sense, moot. And if you're surrounded by good writers who have essentially the same aims -- to communicate human truths -- you'll be fine.

But. To be honest, although I'd planned to apply to a bunch of programs in the middle of the country, I dropped those apps at the last minute. Don't get me wrong - there are great programs out thtere. I just didn't think I'd feel comfortable in Montana, or even Wisconsin, or Michigan, or Minnesota as a female Jew from New York. I didn't think that other people would "get it." That's my own choice, and by extension, my own limitation. But I was honest with myself about what of an environment I need to be creative and successful.

Anonymous said...

Hey, come to Iowa. I am often confused to think I am sitting in a writing class in a Yeshiva school. So many Jews here.

Anonymous said...

"I just didn't think I'd feel comfortable in Montana, or even Wisconsin, or Michigan, or Minnesota as a female Jew from New York. I didn't think that other people would "get it.""
Er, Michigan has the highest student Jewish population in the country. And a third of Michigan's student body is out-of-state, mostly from New York.
If you can't think outside the coasts, you're only limiting yourself, relying purely on stereotype.

Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

Come to CU Boulder. Despite being one of the oldest Creative Writing Programs in the country for serious writers, we just received our MFA; it's brand new this year. The long delay had to do with state university red tape in that Fort Collins (CSU) already offered one and we could not replicate programs within the university system. That policy has changed now, so we're free to go. We, too, operated under the assumption expressed here in this forum by some which, as my esteemed former colleague, Ed Dorn, once put it in a meeting in which I was pushing for a PhD if we couldn't offer an MFA -- "What writer --that you respect -- has a PhD in Creative Writing?"

But that was then, and we live (and work) in this millennium.

I don't think anyone has addressed the original concern: style and race/gender issues. And this: "It's tricky, navigating what's a problem of cultural/gendered impasse, and what's a legitimate writing problem."

I've seen too many students break down in tears with frustration over this. Students of color, that is, or, the term I prefer: People of Experience; racism, sexism, homophobia are all experiences which only rarely translates to the page. But they are locked and layered within language as language is embedded history -- and, most importantly, these experiences are the consequences of historical facts and acts: The Asian Exclusion Act, slavery, The Bear Flag War, The Treaty of Guadalupe, the Jim Crow act, Amer-Indian genocide, the American Eugenics Society which sponsored generations of federally funded abortions and involuntary sterilization of "negroid", "mongoloid", and indigenous American Women, including tens of thousands of Puerto Rican women. Euthanasia was carried out in Guam and the Soloman Islands and supported by a congressional hearing. All facts and acts which would take, at least,, a 4-year program to uncover, to study, to understand -- too much to explain to ourselves, sometimes, much less to people who have *no idea* as they are beyond the horizons of the direct experience of the, shall we say, consequences of these acts and actions. For example, I knew about the forced sterilization of American Indian women which went on for decades because it affected me directly: while my hippie friends could live the lives they imagined and carved for themselves, I couldn't go off and join them (in the "Bear Tribe", for example, a local commune I was interested in joining) I couldn't because once I graduated from high school, if I were out of work or "vagrant" or otherwise apparently destitute or "derelict" (there were other, legal terms I can't remember now) as a Native person, I would be sterilized -- even before the "Free Love" issue, which would have been grounds for forced sterilization on its own. (Bet you never had to think about that when imagining your futures as a new grad, huh?)

And, hey, I'm a poet -- who has time for all that? Well, some people have the luxury of not having to think about it. Or, write about it. I could tell you anecdotes for months about students in workshops telling other students: "Well, this doesn't seem like the way Black people act" and "I wouldn't have guessed that this poem was about a Chicano, he's too debonaire" (I know this will make her cry if she reads it and remembers the workshopping of her father poem) and never having the freedom to write about anyone but your own race (if you're raced) and if you do (and why not?), never having anyone actually read the words you wrote on the page, what for all that other stuff "you represent" and all the, mostly harrowingly destructive, stereotypes "you people" provoke. I tell you, it gets dang exhausting. And MFA programs are no worse or better -- my own experiences as a PhD student included having my own mentor, in class, say (about anthropology and American Indian history) "Who cares! Who wants to hear about the losers?" and (concerning feminist theories and Lacan) "What can you say about a vagina? There's nothing there!" Sometimes you just gotta laugh, ya know? Oy ve, indeed. Can you say holocaust? And, do it with style?

But when it comes to your own writing, it gets personal. And for me, a poet who has always said that "Poetry is an exercise in freedom", it's simply limiting -- limits being the death of any creative act, from choosing to give birth to birthing that "Great American Novel" -- and wouldn't ya know it, just when some of us, POEs, are just getting close, The Great American Novel is declared dead and someone else has rediscovered African masks, for example, and it's all postmodernity from there.

Here's a real example: one of my students was the recent Pulitzer finalist, Luis Urrea. He writes it all: novels, poetry, essays, songs, feature articles, literary nonfiction, and is a brilliant cartoonist and collage artist besides beng a musician (he sat in with the original Remainders). He came to our program from Harvard where he taught comp and rhetoric, and he was teacher in the Writing and Rhetoric program while at CU. Once, when the chair was addressing a large gathering of grad students in the department on pedagogy, he went around the room suggesting examples of what students could teach, when he got to Luis he hesitated, too long, sputtered a bit, then declared, "And you," (had he forgotten or even know the name as he addressed the others by name?) "you can teach the corrido!" Now, Luis may be a lot of things, including fluently bilingual, but he is no expert on the "corrido" -- it's kinda like telling a Shakespearean scholar who "happens to be" white (as Lucille Clifton once said before reading a poem: I don't "happen to be black: my mother's black, my father's black, my grandmother's black ..."), after a long hesitation, "and you, you can teach Hank Williams songs!" Now, see, he may have nothing against Hank Williams songs, but you get my point. As we say, and said, shaking our heads when I was told what occurred: Como siempre! Same old Same old. Problem is, it robs you of your differentiality. It robs you of your choice. It robs you of your change.

Too long for a blog, or even, perhaps the written word.

Try trying to come and break bread and morphemes with us. We have a new and developing fiction program which includes the Jamaican born poet and novelist, Marcia Douglas. We have a replenished and enriched poetry component which will include a new tenured poet, Ruth Ellen Kocher. I can't promise more of the same, or not, or anything truly new. Perhaps that's up to you to produce. To synthesize from the grit.

When it comes to this question (thanks for this great blog I just discovered today!) of choice of Creative Writing Programs, I always answer como siempre: "That's the wrong question. You should be asking yourself, 'Who blows the top of your head off and where do they teach?'" Second question I ask is: "Can you live there?" Not, "can you write there?" As this, for everyone and in different times in our lives is different. For some are like wolves and only if they are demarcating and dwelling within their territories does the Muse speak (Hey, I can say that, I'm a just a poet) to them. For others, they can never home a language until they are away from it, and dwelling within it in their memories and the imaginaire of it. Third question: Is this person accessible? Nothing worse than going to a place far away to study with someone who won't have anything to do with you. Or, worse yet, when they do, uh, all they want to do is do you. This experience not exclusive to younger female POEs. (sigh) That pesky history again.

And, to the last. We have various resources to support POEs (all quite murky dunking to attain) and use them whenever we find "The Best.") I, for one, never look at GREs unless it's a borderline and questionable in quality manuscript or if it's a great manuscript but the app is getting bad reviews due to low GRE scores. I, for one, only consider the manuscript. It's either excellent or it's not -- successful or not on its own terms. The sample manuscript is everything. To me. And,, even if it's not excellent, "promising" might get you in as well, no matter who you are, what ya got or who you know. (I save reading letters of rec until the last.) And anyone applying to MFA programs, if you have published works, send them, too, unless the app specifically says not to -- I read those too, especially carefully -- along with new work.

And, if you're a POE, especially from my block, you better be The Best. Sample of The Best? Sherman Alexie. I tried to recruit him as an undergraduate by simply, when I travel around the country, asking CW profs and instructors: "Who's the best?" If I were going to select a fellow native person to "represent" than she or he better be not just "any Brown face" as I am so often placed, but The Best. Unfortunately, for us -- he never made the move as he never finished his BA having walked out of required courses: US History 1A and B. Hahaha! Having advised a President, now, he could endow his own Chair. Hahaha. Ha!

Anyone interested, just contact me at Lorna dot Cervantes (at no-bot) colorado (you know) edu if you're a serious poet. Contact the Director, Jeffrey DeShell, if you're a fiction writer or "other" (a discussion topic in itself) and please say that I directed you to him. If, you're a serious poe-POE (haha) and want to get down to it, and correspond, you can try me at "home", my blog site at lornadice.blogspot.com where you can find my home email address or just shoot me a query, to me, LornaDee, at my full name domain, LornaDeeCervantes. And remember, we don't hold our students to any one particular genre. And, we must adhere to graduate school standards under the English Department. And, of course, you must take literature courses.

But, as I always say on the first day of class: "Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. And the rest will, pretty much, work out for itself." And, "Writers don't work in a vacuum."

Sorry for the length. Thanks, again, Tom. (I think you have one of The Best right now in Alison Stine, I believe she's there on a Phelan.) This is a valuable site. I hope it's okay if I plug my own program here. As a writer of "diversity" and an 18-year faculty member of a CWP, I thought I should respond from that point of view.

Maybe CU -- Write In The Rockies?
(just a little slogan I invented when I was directing)

Hope that helps.

C(h)ristine said...

Seriously try Mills College in Oakland, California. The faculty (at least in prose) is diverse (Elmaz Abinader (Arab American), Yiyun Li (Asian), Cristina Garcia (Cuban American), Daniel Alarcon (Peruvian American), Micheline Marcom (Armenian American)).

Big support for writers of color at Mills (I'm speaking for prose, not poetry as I never took any poetry classes).

Cornflake Girl said...

Virginia Tech's MFA program has 3 or 4 black faculty members in their program, including a black female co-director. I am a black female as well, and really concerned with the same issues that were posed in this post. As much as I would love to consider some of the stronger programs in Minnesota and Colorado, and other places, I really feel like it would be a stretch to live there as a 20-something black woman for three years.

Also, the hard part about MFAs period for folks who come from an underrepresented racial perspective is that your cohort of fellow students is always going to be majority white, which means there will always be the well-meaning folks that are trying so hard to "get it" that it becomes more about them than it is about your work, as well as the folks who just write your work off because it is outside of what feels familiar and comfortable to their realm of knowledge and ability to relate.

it sucks. just make sure that where ever you go, you find a strong support system outside of the program with other black grad students, and/or with folks outside of the university.

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