Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Large Programs or Small Programs?



While there are many great small programs (Cornell, JHU, etc.) and many great small programs (Iowa, Columbia, etc.), it seems to me that there is a significant difference between the experiences you will have one or the other. I thought I would make a post here to open discussion on the pros and cons of program sizes. Do you prefer a close-nit and small group of students and faculty to bond with? Or a large diverse body of students and professors to sample and stretch you? Something in-between?

I don't know about anyone else, but when I applied for programs this wasn't something I factored in. In retrospect, I wish I had, as my application list would have been a bit different.

For what it's worth, I chose to come to a very large program and I am very happy with that decision. In my experience, it is rare to find a reader who is a great fit for you, but a large number of students makes the possibility of finding multiple good readers to share work with much higher. I find the same to be true of professors. A reader or teacher might be great, but that doesn't mean they will be great for you, especially if your writing is atypical. Most of all, I love the diversity of voices, styles and aesthetics I am presented with.

Anyway, that is what I think, but I'm sure a strong case could be made for small programs as well. Let's hear it.

12 comments:

Lincoln said...

Now with raw picture flavor.

EdwardK said...

Lincoln,

I agree. I think a small program can probably be amazing if you get the right group of people, but it’s also more of a crapshoot. If there are eight people in your genre and you only like the work (or personality) of, say, two, then you’re in for a long two or three years. If you go to a large program, however, there’s a very good chance you’ll find a wide range of readers and friends, regardless of when you happen to be there. In addition, in a large program you’ll be exposed to new writers each semester in workshop (you may even have a completely new group each term, whereas in a small program you’re likely to be reading the same group of writers each semester. As for faculty-to student ratio, I don’t think that’s really much of a factor. Personally, I don’t know of any program that’s so large that the students can’t get to know the faculty.

Conor said...

I've heard of horrible experiences on both ends and in the middle. The key is reading the writing coming from the professors and students and seeing the craft involved. That's first. I know a bunch of people who abhor Iowa's output, yet they teach there part of the year. Says something for the consistency of writers who become professors. But really, it's about the work. Students and professors are secondary to what writing they refer to as 'good'. Some programs would never think of having you check out a poetry class if you were a novelist, or a short fiction or prose class if a poet. These are also things to consider with larger programs. Are they gonna teach you one area, or are they gonna teach you to write. I've talked with poets who admitted they'd never read Ray Carver, subsequently novelists who never picked up Bishop or Keats. What the hell are these people thinking? Anyway. It's too late to be making decisions, but I'd recommend reading a lot of the work coming from the smaller programs and checking the philosophy behind the larger ones. But I'm at a really small hidden one. (hidden, and they're proud of it)

Vincent said...

Does size really matter in any graduate school program? Everyone comes to a M.F.A. program to work on writing. Aren’t the other variables secondary? I made the mistake of only applying to three programs last year. I’m not going to make that same mistake this year. Programs are already tough enough to get into. I’ll take the positives of either size program. I’m attracted to Columbia’s program because it does give me the opportunity to meet many people and feel camaraderie with them. I’m attracted to small programs because I will probably form long-lasting friendships with two or more people in my genre.

M. said...

hmmm... i think it probably all comes out in the wash. i have days when i think i maybe should have gone to a bigger program, especially when one of my colleagues is being annoying and i can't get away. then i think about the funding and my troubles go away. a small group means you get really close to people, which is great when you want to be close to them and awful if you don't. there are people i don't like here at cornell but there are also people i absolutely adore and wouldn't trade for the world.

Lincoln said...

Edwardk:

Yes, it does seem like it could be a crapshoot. Perhaps it just depends on one's personality. Some people will get along with everyone and some people need to be very selective with their friends.

As for faculty-to student ratio, I don’t think that’s really much of a factor. Personally, I don’t know of any program that’s so large that the students can’t get to know the faculty.

This is true, but what I meant was that I think at some small programs you have a very small number of faculty and you end up taking classes by those teachers every semester. OTOH, at a large program, although class sizes are normally still small, you could end up never repeating a faculty member.

Again, pros and cons. Working with the same teachers for two years has obvious pros, but having a different workshop teacher and a new set of eyes each time is beneficial to your work as well.

Lincoln said...

conor:

I’m attracted to Columbia’s program because it does give me the opportunity to meet many people and feel camaraderie with them. I’m attracted to small programs because I will probably form long-lasting friendships with two or more people in my genre.

I don't think being in a large program precludes having long-lasting friendships by any means. You just have a larger group of people to find freinds in. Once you have though, no reason why you wouldn't socialize with them as much as you would in a small program.

Lincoln said...

Blah. I messed up my last comment. Should be addressed to Vincent, not Conor.

Conor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M. said...

re lincoln's comment about genres, just to note that cornell isn't as great for people who work in both poetry and fiction because workshops meet at the same time, which keeps us a bit separate institutionally. however, i continue to write poetry and have equal numbers of poet and fictioneer friends.

dll said...

I'm the type who loves a dash of spice in me life; my heart finds solace in the masses, maybe that's strange, but still...
I've known a couple folk who came out of Iowa, one of them said that they spent most of their time alone, writing. This was by choice. I also know someone who came out of Virginia who sometimes felt more pressure from peers to hang out. Based on what these accounts, I get the idea that not only do you have more freedom in a large program, but so do your classmates. It's not just what you might want, more time alone to write, but what the people around you might want, more time for bar hopping. Of course that’s not going to be everyone’s experience and really your experience will be what you make of it, but still, for sake of argument…
At a school with more of everything, it stands to reason that there will be fewer demands on each individual. The school I'm at now, well, the two fiction faculty team is stretched to the point of serious and persistent nerve damage.
{once again, I'm an undergrad here, applying for MFA's in the fall}
When the faculty feel the need to openly complain to their students about the stress...anyways...too many people seem unhappy and few are satisfied.
Maybe I shouldn't use my undergrad experience as a barometer for possible future MFA emotional satisfaction, but it's the only hard evidence I have to work with.
But it's a learning experience just the same since I see first hand how some small MFA programs work-the program here has an MFA and PhD thingy.
I will probably be applying to a couple smallish programs, but mostly I'm leaning to the larger end. As Emerson says, "know thyself," etc, etc. I know myself, I'll do better with the big.
{my god, was that a ramble or what?}

Conor said...

M.
I'm just a little bitter about some of the confinement programs make when a writer needs to 'fit'. Shouldn't be so separated.