Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Under the Radar Programs

Andrew Scott teaches at Ball State University, and he's sharing his research this week about Under the Radar MFA programs. These are programs that are not often mentioned with the Iowas, Michigans, Texases and the like, but perhaps should be.

Andrew's book, Modern Love, was published by Sunnyoutside Press. He has been awarded two individual artist grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, and his essays and articles appear, or are forthcoming, in Glimmer Train, The Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife, the writer Victoria Barrett. His online home is www.andrewscottonline.com

Two disclaimers from my (TK's) point of view: I did my undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and I had no input into Andrew's selection of programs. And, I appreciate the shout-out to the Creative Writing MFA Handbook, but that was, I hope obviously, not a condition to publish Andrew's research here. The other MFA book available is Amy Holman's An Insider's Guide to Creative Writing Programs.

Thanks again for this Andrew.


Sleeper MFA Programs
Andrew Scott

Numerous resources are available for writers who wish to pursue graduate studies in creative writing. Over the years, The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs has helped thousands of applicants learn more about individual programs, and new books, such as Tom Kealey’s The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Students, also offer advice about various aspects of the student-writer experience.

Many undergraduates first seek help from their English professors, current or former, as should be expected. Accordingly, many professors recommend that would-be applicants seek programs staffed by faculty whose work they admire, needling them with questions such as these from the introduction to The AWP Guide: “Which authors do you love to read? With which contemporary authors would you like to study?”

Since delicate choices are never made in a void, students often ask their professors to provide a list of specific schools; usually, when confronted with this request, teachers recommend programs they already know—a school where they recently gave a reading, for instance. And with hundreds of MFA programs, it’s impossible to know them all.

Advertisements help get the word out about smaller programs, but they can only tell us so much. For starters, they tell us that the program has an advertising budget—not all do—which might indicate something about the department’s treatment of the creative writing program. But these ads too rarely focus on the university’s location, the cost of living, and other elements that teachers should consider before playing matchmaker for students.

To help MFA applicants and their taxed creative writing teachers, the following is a profile of six “sleeper” MFA programs that quietly offer excellent opportunities for students. These programs might not dazzle us with full-color ads in Poets & Writers or The Writer’s Chronicle, but students at these programs work closely with stellar faculty, gain valuable teaching and/or editorial experience, and meet top-shelf visiting writers.

These programs are located in cities where graduate students might be able to live comfortably on a stipend. Many of the highly visible, well-known programs are simply too expensive. I also advise writers to think twice before diving into the student loan pool; remember, the MFA offers no one the guarantee of gainful employment.

AWP’s own geographic regions are used as the basis for these choices, with one stellar school profiled in each region. There are other excellent programs in each region, of course. This list just prompts the discussion.

Northeast: University of New Hampshire
Program: http://www.unh.edu/english/MFA/index.htm
Faculty: Charlotte Bacon, Margaret-Love Denman, Jane Harrigan, Sue Hertz,
Andrew Merton, Mekeel McBride, Lisa Miller, Alexander Parsons, Charles
City: Durham, NH (pop. 12,900)

Poet Charles Simic has long been the best-known faculty member in UNH’s program, and Mekeel McBride now has seven books of poetry, but with the new MFA degree and several young faculty members on the rise, UNH is a program to watch.

Alexander Parsons, with two novels under his belt, is poised for greater things. He and Charlotte Bacon have won awards from the NEA, and they each have books from New York houses.

The program is in its infancy, which might be a drawback for some applicants, but the quiet town of Durham won’t offer many distractions, unless renegade squirrels invade your house (see Parsons’ blog: http://alexanderparsons.com/readings_news.htm).

The faculty includes more non-fiction specialists than most programs (4), as well, and the program also offers several assistantships, scholarships, and writing awards to students.


Mid-Atlantic: University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Program: http://www.uncg.edu/eng/mfa/mfa-writers.html
Faculty: Jim Clark, Stuart Dischell, Jennifer Grotz, Craig Nova, Michael Parker, Lee
City: Greensboro, NC (pop. 230,000)

This program is one of the oldest in the country, with a long history of hiring respected writers. Ten to twelve students are admitted each fall, and they all have the opprotunity to read for The Greensboro Review, a literary magazine in its fifth decade of publication. Plus, the library special collection features the papers of Randall Jarrell.

The funding isn’t as strong as it could be: the stipend for teaching assistantships is just under $11,000. On this income, however, most students should be able to live in the city.

Still, the schedule is packed with a vibrant reading series—eight readings in the Fall 2006 semester, for instance—and students work closely with excellent faculty, such as Michael Parker, Lee Zacharias, and Stuart Dischell.

Of the cities on this list, Greensboro is by far the largest, and after 200 years, the city is rich with history. Situated between the Blue Ridge mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, and just down the road from Chapel Hill, the weekends should never be boring, and the humidity in Greensboro isn’t as bad as you might suspect.


Southeast: University of Arkansas
Program: http://www.uark.edu/depts/english/PCWT.html
Faculty: Geoffrey Brock, John DuVal, Ellen Gilchrest, Molly Giles, Donald Hays,
Michael Heffernan, David McCombs
City: Fayetteville, AR (pop. 59,000)

This program’s alumni jump straight off the syllabus for a contemporary literature course: C.D. Wright, Lee K. Abbott, Steve Yarbrough, John Dufresne, Lee Martin, Lex Williford, Susan Perabo, and Barry Hannah.

Two other graduates, John DuVal and Donald Hays, currently teach in the program. Ellen Gilchrist has published eighteen books of fiction. The biggest drawback is the teaching stipend, which is less than $9,000. All MFA students have the opportunity to participate in the Writers in the Schools program, which sends teams of writers into the Arkansas public schools to conduct two-day workshops with students (WITS participants are paid).

If the prospect of living in Arkansas isn’t appealing, you should know that Fayetteville is officially beautiful: it was an America in Bloom Champion for 2005-2006, an award designating its “accomplishments with landscapes, urban forestry, turf and groundcover areas, floral displays, heritage conservation, environmental awareness, tidiness and community involvement.”


Midwest: Purdue University
Program: http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/CreativeWriting/
Faculty: Marianne Boruch, Patricia Henley, Mary Leader, Bich Minh Nguyen,
Donald Platt, Sharon Solwitz, Porter Shreve
City: West Lafayette, IN (pop. 29,000; Greater Lafayette area: 85,000)

Located between Indianapolis and Chicago, Purdue is one of the best examples of a “sleeper” MFA program—it’s hidden away in a small-town university where science, engineering, and technology dominate most of the headlines.

Purdue’s reputation for poetry took off in the 1990’s, as dozens of excellent students flocked to Purdue to study with Marianne Boruch (one year, two Purdue students were awarded The Nation/Discovery Prize). Still, it’s impossible to ignore the fiction writers. Program co-founder Patricia Henley’s novel, Hummingbird House, was a finalist for the National Book Award; Porter Shreve has a new book every few years; Sharon Solwitz has published more than fifty short stories and two books.

A small student to teacher ratio (3.5 to 1) allows for intensive study with mentors, and all students have the chance to work on the staff of Sycamore Review. New hires Mary Leader and Bich Minh Nguyen suggest the program will stay strong for a long time.


Southwest: New Mexico State University
Program: http://nmsu.edu/~english/graduate/mfa.html#
Faculty: Robert Boswell, Kevin McIlvoy, Antonya Nelson, Connie Voisine,
Kathleene West
City: Las Cruces, NM (pop. 82,500)

Before morphing its intense MA program into a (still) rigorous MFA program in 2001, NMSU often attracted applicants who’d already completed an MFA degree elsewhere. The chance to work with the likes of Kevin McIlvoy, Robert Boswell, and Antonya Nelson—who also teach in Warren Wilson’s low-residency program—has always been this program’s appeal. Fiction writers should consider NMSU, for sure, though poets can learn much from the talented Connie Voisine.

Less than an hour from the US-Mexico border, the city offers a diverse culture, and recent years have helped boost the economy. Graduate students can live well for the money. The graduate stipend was $14,200 in 2004-2005 for teaching one course each semester, in addition to other duties, such as editing Puerto del Sol or tutoring students in the department’s writing center.

Las Cruces is packed with writers, and each fall, a benefit reading (this year’s features ZZ Packer and Rus Bradburd) raises nearly $10,000 to feed the hungry. Students can also work as Writers in the Schools.


West: Colorado State University
Program: http://www.colostate.edu/depts/English/programs/mfa.htm
Faculty: Leslee Becker, John Calderazzo, Matthew Cooperman, Judy
Doenges, Deanna Ludwin, David Milofsky, Steven Schwartz, Sasha
Steensen, William Tremblay
City: Fort Collins, CO (pop. 126,500)

The faculty at Colorado State has quietly amassed a solid reputation for teaching, and their publications and awards are respected. More importantly, former students praise the “generous, non-competitive, supportive nature” of this community of writers.

Teaching assistantships are available. The program also offers “a variety of for-credit internships (some paid) in such areas as college teaching, public education, arts administration in literature, and literary editing (including the Center for Literary Publishing, the Colorado Review, the Freestone, and the department's alumni magazine. A paid internship as editor of A, a literary magazine staffed by CSU undergraduates, is also available.”

In 2006, Money magazine ranked Fort Collins as its best place to live. Denver is a quick drive up the Interstate, and the mountains can make for great adventures.


Pacific Northwest: University of Oregon
Program: http://www.uoregon.edu/~crwrweb/mfa.htm
Faculty: David Bradley, Laurie Lynn Drummond, Karen Ford, Ehud Havazlet,
Garrett Hongo, Dorianne Laux
City: Eugene, OR (pop. 146,000)

From the program’s Web site: “The Creative Writing Program attempts to fund all admitted students with Graduate Teaching Fellowships (GTFs). The program awards most first-year MFA students with GTFs teaching in the Kidd Tutorial Program or teaching undergraduate intro courses in fiction or poetry. Students with GTFs receive full tuition waivers, monthly stipends, and health coverage.”

Excellent funding is but one of the program’s strengths. The faculty is well known and respected; the small program (6-7 accepted for each genre; typically 24 total students in the program at any one time) allows for much individual attention.

Eugene offers a quiet place for writing, and the cultural hub of Portland isn’t far away. “Essentially, we offer the opportunity for developing writers to spend two years writing in a stimulating intellectual environment, a supportive community, and a beautiful natural setting.”


Andrew Scott said...

Nelson and Boswell have shared a Chair at the University of Houston for a few years -- they've gone back and forth between the programs. To find out for sure, I'd write them and ask. You can find their e-mail addresses at the NMSU MFA page. Looks like they are both at NMSU this semester.

Also, Tom, I never disclaimed this to you: I attended Purdue as an undergrad, and earned my MFA at NMSU.

Andrew Scott said...

Why not apply, even if you're not sure about Boswell and Nelson's futures at the school? Applying there is cheaper than applying to other schools, from what I remember, and it can't hurt. TK recommends shooting for 10-12 schools as it is.

Anne Haines said...

I would also point out that Purdue is within a couple hours' drive of both Bloomington (home of Indiana University's MFA program, and therefore occasional visiting-writer readings, as well as the annual IU Writers' Conference in the summer, for which one can obtain graduate credit) and Indianapolis (home of Butler University's excellent Visiting Writers Series). It's also close enough to Chicago to make the occasional day trip.

Andrew Scott said...

Anne is right. Robert Pinksy is reading there Thursday. She has to decide between Mary Oliver at Butler and Pinsky at IU on the same day!

The Butler reading series is top-notch. They always have more money to bring in writers -- which is good for the writers -- but the surrounding cities and writing communities also benefit.

Francine Prose will read at Butler in a few weeks. Hot damn.

Anne Haines said...

If I were just a little bit of a crazier driver than I am, I could make both Pinsky and Oliver -- he's reading at 4:30 and she's reading at 7:30, and it's just about a two-hour drive from Bloomington to the north side of Indy, depending on traffic. Alas, I'm going with a group, and we'd made Oliver plans well before I knew that Pinsky was reading. :)

Other poets who've passed through Butler in recent months: Jane Hirshfield, Gerald Stern, Gregory Orr. Also Zadie Smith (not a poet, but certainly notable).

Purdue itself doesn't seem to bring in as many big-name visitors (or if they do the publicity doesn't make it down here to Bloomington), but they do have Sherman Alexie coming in the spring. I may have to make the trip to West Laffalot (er, Lafayette) in order to hear him.

Andrew Scott said...

Well, Purdue always brings in somebody well known for the Literary Awards in the spring. Pulitzer Prize winners and such. But in the last few years, they've had some of the same writers as Butler -- Charles Baxter, Andre Dubus II, Tony Hoagland and more -- and several others that Butler hasn't had, like Stuart Dybek.

I think Purdue and IU are about the same, as far as the reading series goes. Butler trumps them both, but then, few public schools have Butler's kind of money to throw at writers.

Ramona R. said...

Apply to New Mexico State if you are interested. I visited there this fall and not one student had anything but praise for the program.

Also, Kevin McIlvoy teaches at NMSU and was often mentioned by students as being an excellent instructor for fiction writers to work with.

This program has just about all of the perks that, according to Tom, a good MFA program should have, plus it's small--a bonus in my book.

Unknown said...

We have a few college students online from college of Butler-University and we love your blog postings, so well add your rss or news feed for them, Thanks and please post us and leave a comment back and well link to you. Thanks Jen, Blog Manager Butler-University

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Wilson Peter said...

Hi Tom,
I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

Wilson Peter
matchmaker Chicago

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