Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Evaluating New MFA programs

Tamiko writes: I wonder how to evaluate brand new programs.

Good question, Tamiko. I've been wondering that myself, as one place I'd like to apply to (for location reasons) is the new MFA program at UMass Boston.

Any ideas out there about how you can evaluate programs that are brand new? (And in the case of Rutgers and UMass Boston, I mean brand spanking new... as in, the first class is entering this fall.)

Also, if anyone knows anything specifically about the new programs at Rutgers-Newark or UMass Boston, that knowledge would be much appreciated.

12 comments:

Conor said...

Impressive faculty line up at UMASS. You could ask yourself how they'd hold up compared to a program with good playwriting, or access to great electives at an art school. They mention specialization, which I'd be wary of if you're planning on stretching yourself as a writer. Being labeled a poet, novelist, or whatever, is kind of obsolete now that most good writers with the exception of the old heads are branching out from their successful writing to pursue other types. Sedaris seems to have taken a shine to radio. Dunno, even Samuel Beckett had his heart in novels but had to settle for playwriting. So, just consider that maybe a fledgling program might be a little confining. Small is good, though small and old is different from small and new. Small and old programs will have a ton of professors and visiting professors, whereas small and new may have a few great professors, but only that.

Bolivia Red said...

I imagine that a new program does not mean the faculty are new to teaching in an MFA program or university setting, nor are they new to the design and curriculum of an MFA program. Look at where they've taught before and see if you like what's been happening those programs

One of the perks of a brand new program may be that it will try to do something new and fresh, offer a particular focus, or some other innovative aspect. Starting a new program and getting to define it is kind of exciting and invigorating to the professors and they'll probably focus more on the program and teaching and students at the beginning than they will in a few years when they're tired of teaching and bureaucracy and anxious to get some of their own work done; it may be a great place to be to benefit from that focused attention for the next few years. Just a thought.

L. said...

I corresponded with some of the faculty at Rutgers this past spring, and they are definitely very enthusiastic and raring to go. My feeling is that this program will make its mark pretty quickly. It's in a great area for people who are interested in writing about urban and political issues. If you're interested in writing about jazz or the history of American pop music, Newark is a fantastic place to be. Newark is also experiencing a cultural and political renaissance, so it's a good time to be there.

My feeling is that the nonfiction side of this program is going to be the one to contend with. They've got some strong faculty and, from my personal impressions of at least one of them, we're talking about not just solid writers, but good teachers, too.

Phoebe said...

I'm a resident of New Jersey, but decided not to apply to Rutgers for several reasons, none of them related to prestige or faculty. Although their web page tries to make Newark seem like a hip place to be, it's less than a totally desirable location. Though this means that you'll be paying slightly lower rent than you would in other places in New Jersey, you've still got a fairly high cost of living. And even in-state tuition is much higher in New Jersey than it is in other states (if you add campus housing, expect to add a pretty penny to the tuition costs). It does seem to have a decent community, and the faculty sounds good, but I just couldn't get over the price tag and the competitive funding.

L. said...

Phoebe,

Those were ultimately my own reasons for not applying to Rutgers - Newark. New Jersey is an EXPENSIVE place to live. I would've had to keep my full-time job. Plus Rutgers IS kind of pricy for a state school, and the program doesn't offer good funding for first years.

I disagree that Newark is not completely desirable. It is a city that's had a lot of problems for a long time, but so much is changing. It's definitely not for people who want a serene, pristine environment to work in. It's got its flaws. But it's also more interesting than your average city, and it seems to be working really hard at eradicating past problems.

Phoebe said...

There are positive things about Newark: I love the art museum down town; it's certainly a diverse place to be; its vicinity to NY means that one will never be lacking in cultural events. However, improvements to the city are uneven. Poverty is still a problem in a lot of areas and it has one of the highest murder rates in the country. I just think these are important, even integral factors for those considering the program, particularly for those who might be unfamiliar to the area. The description on the program's website makes it sound more like the hip, gentrified paradise of Hoboken than the Newark I know as a lifelong Jerseyan.

Unfortunately, tuition is bad at all the New Jersey state schools and doesn't seem to be improving. I graduated in 2006 from William Paterson, another state university, only to see loads of classes canceled during my senior year due to statewide budget cuts. For those looking at Newark for the next several years, I'd keep in mind that, not only are tuitions high, but that they've been steadily increasing and probably will continue to do so.

L. said...

Phoebe,

I'm a lifelong Jerseyite, too, but I wouldn't call the gentrification that's happened in Hoboken and is in progress in JC "paradise." In fact, a lot of my friends who grew up in the urban belt in NJ find this extreme gentrification horrifying.

On the other hand, you're right to bring up the fact that Newark can sometimes be a dangerous place.

L. said...

So can San Francisco be dangerous. So can bloody Anchorage, Alaska, the rape capital of the U.S. So can a lot of places.

I suppose since I grew up in an area that a lot of suburban types would probably shudder at having to pass through, the urban problems of Newark don't daunt me as much as they do others. Real life is real life, you know, poverty and all. It is possible to live and thrive in places that aren't yet "gentrified paradises." God knows the opportunists do come through sooner or later to snap up those urban "bargains" and drive the poor folks out. But for now Newark remains a city on an upswing, as best as I can tell, and still livable for those among us who don't wish to see it go the way of Hoboken.

Erika Dreifus said...

As someone else with New Jersey ties (I grew up there, in Essex County [Newark is the county seat], from ages 9-18), I'm very interested in the discussion about Newark. In my view, Newark's greatest strength right now is its extraordinary mayor, Cory Booker. If anyone can make the city work, he can.

This weekend I caught a relevant editorial about Newark in the New Jersey section of the Sunday New York Times. Check it out here.

As for the new program issue, I was a member of an inaugural MFA class. I advise proceeding with caution, especially if you're accustomed to high-functioning educational environments from your past experience. Make sure the program has really thought out its curriculum/requirements, workshop philosophy/policies, and anything else that matters to you.

Do your best to ascertain how committed the faculty are to teaching (if a new program has amassed "big names" who aren't necessarily going to be generous teachers, that's so wonderful--I was impressed by the point I read in the new Atlantic MFA coverage about how generous truly committed teachers have to be with their time--they really have to be willing to sacrifice their own work, to a certain extent--in order to work with MFA students.

It's a gamble, no question. There's no way you can predict the quality of your fellow students. And for a workshop-based program, that's very tricky.

polly said...

Erika is making some important points about the amount of time big name professors can give individual students, and the quality of fellow students. I would add that the number of students in a workshop makes a big difference: the more there are, the fewer submission opportunities and the shorter the spot of class critique time any one of you will have, and the greater the weekly critiquing workload (some of which, especially if the high student volume also means less effective hands-on direction and mentoring, may be very poor quality).

The program director can give you some insights about the level of involvement. If you do get a chance at a meaningful interview or exchange of e-mails with a program director, see if that person really has a handle on the student demographic and who's being admitted across some variables: age, gender, ethnicity, programs or schools they are coming from (including those with degrees, training or experience outside the usual English BA). You won't necessarily be looking primarily for the information per se, but how well the director can run it down. If he or she can't convincingly answer, or runs into gushing generalizations, it might mean the applications and writing samples were farmed out individually to various faculty for admissions recommendations, and the director will never really know who you are or offer much advisement.

In that case, you need to find out pronto where the students who are about to graduate are (try the editorial staff of the publications, if any, the program puts out) and try to get one of them to come out for a drink (you buy), because they are the best advisement you are likely to get.

Polly

Erika Dreifus said...

Thanks for the kind words, Polly. But I just noticed a typo in my comments. As in a missing "not." Anyway....

Workshop size is definitely something to think about. And Polly makes a good point in saying that if the workshop is too large, you may not get all the "attention" you are looking for. On the other hand, my experience has been that larger workshops, in the simplest sense, offer more opportunities to find those sometimes elusive "good" readers who will stick with you and your work well past the workshop's last meeting. And if a workshop is too small, even one or two "bad apples" can really have a detrimental effect on the whole experience. Especially if the instructor just isn't very invested in making the whole thing work. Hence the importance (again) of the faculty's commitment.

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