A good blog idea and long overdue.
I would like to take respectful exception to the idea of low-residency programs merely as a convenience for people who can't move away to a residential program. An increasing number of writers - me, for example - are choosing low-res programs on their own merit over traditional programs. It's more than a matter of one-on-one attention. Students write a lot more in a low-res program, turning in 30 pages of original work and criticism each month, as opposed to being "up" once or twice a term in workshop. The low-res routine is similar to the life of a writer and doesn't require as difficult an adjustment after graduation. Strong bonds do form between and among students and teachers, absent the competition for attention and aid that is common in residential programs. And the residencies still provide for two high-quality workshop experiences per year.
The best reason to choose a residential program is the shelter it provides a writer who needs several years to focus on craft. A low-residency program doesn't offer that refuge from the real world. It's worth noting, though, that the high workload for TAs in residential programs can intrude significantly upon that refuge, and the low pay can result in a post-graduate debt equal or even greater than that of low-residency grads, who usually receive no aid but keep their day jobs. It's important to choose a residential program where the teaching load and financial aid allow the time and space a writer is seeking.
People don't look closely enough at funding when choosing MFA programs.
People say, "Oh, those low-res programs are so expensive, and they have
no aid." True. But if you subtract the tuition from my regular pay I'm
still doing a lot better than a TA, and I reduced my work schedule to
accommodate the MFA. MFA programs call $12K a year "full support." The
government calls it "poverty."
As for the communal bonds, that was a pleasant surprise. Students in
low-res programs will talk about it but it's hard to understand until
you experience it. The residencies are a literary boot-camp experience
and that speaks to the camaraderie - you're in the trenches together
and friendships form hard and fast. I'm on e-mail and the phone every
day with my Bennington pals. You ought to see the hugging that goes on
when the residencies convene. It's like a college reunion every six
months. This is conjecture, but I bet there's not much hugging at Iowa.
The important thing, though, is growth as a writer. I have a story
hitting print soon that I'm excited about, a nice credit. But I was
reading that story the other day and thinking how much better I'm doing
now after less than a year at Bennington.
A residential MFA is the way to go for plenty of writers, and a place
like Bennington isn't for everyone. But the low-res MFA has advantages
that have nothing to do with residency, and people ought to know that.
It's not a second option or last resort for the home-bound. It was
definitely the right choice for me, even though I could've gone the