Monday, October 09, 2006

Your MFA Peers

Is a well known program more likely to have better academically prepared students? Or is it safe to assume that graduate study on a whole requires students to be strong readers and able to give intelligent critique, even in lesser known state school programs? (I understand that strong programs with tiered funding are more internally competitive, and therefore not always constructive or supportive of fellow students either.) On a whole, how much do the abilities of the other students (academically and creatively) affect an individual's MFA experience?

Brooklyn Overachiever

I don't think it's safe to assume anything, BO. But as far as your first two questions go: There's no way to measure these things without calling up six students at each of your potential programs and asking them about the atmosphere and the level of student work. And that's a huge investment of time, and a huge annoyance for those students. Stick to what is measureable, apply to as many programs as you can afford, and then talk to students once you start getting acceptances.

The last question is a great one, and I'd have to say that your fellow students probably have the biggest impact of any factor in your MFA experience. You will hopefully make lifelong readers and friends. The whole small-program vs. big-program argument is related to this. Do you want a small, intimate setting, or do you want a lot of fellow students from which you might find a high number of simpatico people and writers? There's no clear answer, though I think the larger programs offer you more options.

You can't predict the level of writer/people for your incoming class, but you can talk with current/former students about the atmosphere of the writing community. Supportive? Competitive? A mix of both? There's obviously something to be said for both. I know I had the likes of Nick Montemarano, Susan Steinberg, and David Roderick who were constantly like "Here, read this book," or "Let's talk about this story," or "Don't listen to what those idiots said. Listen to your own voice," or "Hey, maybe you should listen to what those idiots said, because right now you seem really lost."

It's important to have and build that community around you.

Anyone who'd like to talk about the community (other writers and students) at their particular program, past or present, and how important that was (very much or not at all), please feel free to add your voice to the comments section. Rock on.


Meredith said...

i'm a first-year mfa fiction student at cornell and i absolutely love it here. i have an amazing peer group and i've gotten personal feedback on my stories from three professors outside of workshop, two of whom asked me to send them work before i initiated. i know that there have been at least one famous class of people who haven't gotten along, but i feel like our class is quite cohesive. also, people stick around for two more years after their degree because we have guaranteed two-year lectureships afterward, so there's peer support outside of class as well. and the funding is pretty amazing; i believe our stipdend is one of the highest if not the highest in the country, in an area with a pretty low cost of living.

another thing that isn't often brought up is that among all the mfa programs, cornell has the highest-ranked english ph.d. program. this is not to be overlooked, as i have a number of good friends here who are brilliant ph.d. students, and have read tons more fiction than me. so whenever i talk about what i'm working on, i usually get amazing feedback from a different point of view, as well as lots of suggestions for relevant things to read. i've heard of programs where the mfa and ph.d. sides don't get along; this is totally the opposite at cornell.

i can see the program being cloying for some since there are only eight people in each genre total, first and second years, but i feel incredibly lucky that i happen to like everyone in my class both as critiquers and as friends. also, we only have one workshop choice per semester, but i'm learning an incredible amount from alison lurie right now, and my perspective on fiction has already been permanently changed for the better by j. robert lennon. just a function of happenstance, i guess, but i'm not fighting it since it's working. :)

Sara said...

I have about a year left in my program (the relatively new NEOMFA) and cannot say enough good things about it. For those of you who haven't heard of this program, it is a consortium of northeast Ohio's four state universities (the University of Akron, Kent State, Youngstown State, and Cleveland State). I believe (but don't quote me) that this is the first program of its kind. The program has only been around for about three years (our first class is graduating this spring) so we probably don't have much of a reputation yet, but I do know that the selection process is competitive and the faculty is amazing. Students take classes at all four universities but have a "home" school where most full-time students have assistantships.

The great thing about having to travel between universities is the huge faculty. I've already worked with four different poets and two fiction writers, plus a slew of great comp and lit professors on every campus. From what I've seen, there's not usually so many profs to choose/learn from. Also, since the program touches so many communities, we have tons of readings, visiting writers, and other literary events to attend on an almost weekly basis (which we wouldn't have, say, if the program were only in Akron).

As for community, I absolutely adore the people that I am taking classes with and find the atmosphere to be very supportive. We're all trying to do different things and targeting different lit mags, contests, and publishers, so there isn't a whole lot of competition in that regard. That's not to say we don't push each other, though.

The only downside I've found to this program so far is that because it is so new, a lot of things are still being figured out- things like thesis committees, course requirements, etc. Also, because we haven't had a class graduate yet, we don't know how potential employers are going to react to us and to our degrees. We can't bank on the reputation of our program to make us look good, which I suppose pushes us to work even harder.

You can check out the website ( get a more "offical" description of the program, but like I said before, I can't say enough good things about the program and would recommend that everyone (especially poets) check it out.

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