Thursday, March 06, 2008

Campus Visits

grams asks:
If you are going in for an interview/campus visit, what questions should you be sure to ask?

Everyone else jump in on this, I didn't get to do campus visits when I applied so I'm only going on comments that my colleagues made about their visits and some guess work. A lot of questions are going to be the same ones you asked on the phone or via email--you'll just get a much better sense of the truth to the questions and you'll be able to get a feel for the place and a realistic sense of cost of living and such. All these questions really boil down to what you want and need out of a program.

Whatever else you do on the visit, steal a phone book! That way you'll be able to get a good idea of the kinds of restaurants/beauty parlours/yoga/whatevers are available, and to call apartments and utilities from afar if you decide to go that school.

If at all possible, schedule a visit when you can (in order of importance):
1--attend a workshop
2--talk to profs and students
3--see a reading or event
4--attend a lit class that

Ask students:
How often do you write? Do you get to write as often as you thought? About how many hours per week? Is it enough? (Pay attention to how harried the current students seem to feel about their writing versus work for teaching and taking other classes. Are you going to have enough time to write?)

How much time do your teaching/TA responsibilities take during a typical week? Do they take up more time than you expected? Do they get easier/harder as one goes through the program?

Where are the cool places to live? What is the reality of the cost of living? Where are the good bars?

What kind of community do the students have? Do students hang out with each other or go their separate ways?

What kinds of writing do the students do? Does it seem like they'll be able to help you and vice versa?

Ask professors:
How much face time inside and outside of workshop will you get with each prof? Do they work with people even when they aren't leading the workshop? Will anyone be on sabbatical or MIA while you'll be there?

What kind of professional development does the program do beyond just learning to write and producing a thesis? What kinds of support does the program/profs give after the MFA or to get you into jobs? What kinds of things are available besides teaching frosh comp--working on the lit journal, teaching in the prisons, teaching in public schools?

Things to look for:
Walk through all the different offices of the English/Program department that you will deal with directly and get a sense of how the staff feels about students and how the English department feels about the Creative Writing program (if CW is housed in English). (Look for how easy it will be to navigate the bureaucracy of getting registered and such, and also how nice/mean the staff is--that's often indicative of how easy it will be to do the bureaucratic polka and also a way to take in the general atmosphere of the people you'll be working with. If the admin assistants hate all students or roll their eyes when you say Creative Writing, something's wrong.)

How do all the profs treat you and anyone you bring along (if you're married or fianced or just dragging mom along for moral support)? Do they seem genuinely interested in you both as a writer and as a person? Do they give suggestions of things to do, places to go, people to see?

How involved do profs seem to be with their current students? Do they hang around after class for a minute? Do they keep decent office hours and/or spend at least part of the week on campus when they aren't teaching? (or do they run to their cars and flee immediately after class?) If you go to a reading, are all the profs there? Do they talk to students? What's their involvement level both human and professional?

How much access do students get with all the professors?

Do the students seem to get along? Is there a community feel or do they all go their separate ways after workshop?

If you are a non-trad in some way, what is the makeup of the current student body? Will there be a few students like you or at least a few students you can hang out with? Are you going to feel comfortable hanging out with these people? Do you feel that they will respect you and your work, and vice versa? (it's one thing for an old fart to say "working with young people will keep me young" and another to be the only old fart in a class of younguns who ignore you because you're, well, old.)

And hey, be yourself on the campus visits--you aren't interviewing to get the job, you're interviewing them for the privilege of having you come to their campus next fall!


Ed Bremson said...

I am dismayed when, in your blog, Warnborough College and National University are mentioned in the same breath. First, Warnborough is not accredited anywhere, and is basically a diploma mill run out some office in Ireland. National University is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the same body that accredits such universities as UCLA, etc.

I am currently enrolled at National. I find it to be a challenging program. We certainly do a lot of writing and critiquing in our seminars. In addition, for my Comp Lit Seminar we read Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and Crime and Punishment, all in four weeks. Hardly something trivial. In my last Lit Seminar, we read most of the poetry by Garcia Lorca, and The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. And we wrote papers on duende and other topics related to those two authors.

I realize the MFA from National may not be as prestigious as one from Iowa, but I do think the trend in many corners of education is toward online teaching and online degrees. National University is a lot like University of Phoenix: admission is not competitive, but people who persevere and study hard end up with degrees that help them advance in their jobs. Oh, and some people actually end up honing their artistic skills and become better writers.

Lizzy said...

Absolutely fantastic post, DL! Right in line with how I would advise anyone going on a campus visit.

To ed bremson above: First-person accounts are what this blog's all about--share a little, read a little. Many MFA applicants are hungry to hear about just those kinds of real, first-person experiences. When we first consider going for an MFA, we may know it's what we want without knowing fully what's involved in it, exactly. In the past, information has been hard to come by.

Many people pass through here in hopes of finding the testimonials of others like them--current applicants or people already enrolled in programs. The blog comments are not heavily edited precisely because there is such a variety of information out there. Somehow it seems to work well for us to talk about what we know and to let everyone take what wisdom applies to them and leave the rest.

Thanks for leaving your own feedback and first-person testimony. It's appreciated.

Ed Bremson said...

Thanks for your comments. For those who are interested, here is the link for the online MFA program at National University. Tuition currently is about $1377 per course, and there are some other, incidental fees.

traffic jam said...

do most people visit before deciding on a program, or after? who do i speak to about arranging a visit?


grams said...

Thank, Bolivia Red, for such a thorough answer to my question! I really appreciate it!

Bolivia Red said...

traffic jam--

If you have the time and funds, it would be nice to visit your top choices to be sure that's the place for you. Sometimes what looks good on paper or even email doesn't always end up to be your perfect fit. (Someone said elsewhere on the blog that most schools are going to have you speak to the current students who say only nice things and sometimes don't talk about or accurately represent some of the challenges you might face.) You will have the chance to scope out the town and figure out the places to live and such too.

It may also help you make that final choice between your top choices if you're having trouble deciding. And, you'd be able to get your hands on a phone book--I can't tell you how valuable that is when you move.

Visiting isn't a necessity if you don't have the time or funds. Just make sure you talk to lots of students and the faculty to get a good feel for the program. Also think really hard about the kinds of things that are important to you and try to target your questions around those things.

If you do want to visit, talk to the director of the program or the person who contacted you directly if someone did. I can't imagine the program that wouldn't be willing to have you visit.

Often, current students of the program will put you up on the couch and hang out with you.

traffic jam said...

thanks, bolivia red! that was extremely helpful.

Sarah Perrault said...

A couple of middle-of-the-night thoughts:

1) Ask profs how many MFA theses they are directing. This will you if the student:faculty ratio reflects the real distribution, or if as many students as possible are all trying to work with the same person or couple of people.

2) If you plan or hope to teach after the MFA, ask about pedagogy courses -- not only the course usually required of new TAs, but also other options, and whether you'll have electives free to take them. (Some programs' courses of study are so tightly scripted it's nearly impossible.)

3) Find out if graduating students do an exit interview or survey, and if so, how you can access the data.

climacus said...

Those are all REALLY good questions to ask. I wish I would've asked about job placement and preparation. I visited one program I was very excited about and it seemed tired. Offices were on different floors of the building and there seemed to be no sense of community. Two more questions I wished I would have asked current students:

1) Is there anything that surprised you (good ro bad) about the program.

2) Will professors read your work when you're not in their workshop.