Home Team or Away? The Low-Residency vs. Traditional M.F.A.

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By Jim Walke (jaywalke)

Thinking about an M.F.A.? For the uninitiated, that is a Master of Fine Arts, which is one of the terminal (although hopefully not fatal) graduate degrees available in creative writing. There are a lot of things to consider: faculty, funding, football team, etc. Before you buy a new black turtleneck and a hundred reams of printer paper, you have a decision to make about location. Will you be moving away to submerge yourself in academia at a traditional university or staying put while enrolling in a low-residency program? Both require a book-length creative thesis and bestow the same degree, but that is where the similarity ends.

Background Image: CC-by-sa Joe Lewis/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by-sa Joe Lewis/Flickr

The Traditional M.F.A.

The first traditional M.F.A. program was started at the University of Iowa in 1936, and it remains one of the most prestigious. However, the entire concept of graduate studies in creative writing grew slowly for many years before a recent flowering. In 1975 the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, a national, nonprofit literary organization for teachers and writers, listed 15 programs that conferred the M.F.A. degree. As of 2004, there were 109 and the boom shows no signs of slowing.

The programs vary in length from 24–48 credit hours (8–16 classes/workshops) spread out over two to three years. The traditional program is built around the writing workshop—one per semester. Most require an equal amount of literature classes, with the balance of the structured classwork in the “nuts and bolts” of writing craft and pedagogical practices. Nearly all traditional programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE (the grad school equivalent of the SAT), and a small percentage also require proficiency in a foreign language.

Traditional programs are what most people envision if you mention graduate school: small classes, literary criticism papers with fun terms like “deconstructionist,” college bars, sports, cheap apartments and cheaper beer. Although there are under-funded exceptions, most universities accept only enough students for whom they can provide a tuition waiver and some form of living stipend. Graduate students at traditional programs earn their keep and gain valuable experience while working on literary journals, acting as teaching assistants for large classes or solo teaching a section or two of Freshman Composition. These jobs are expected to take 20 hours per week, but may require more or less than that. It also might be in your best interests to note that it is called a “living” stipend, because that is all it allows. Stipends for liberal arts students are much lower than those in the hard sciences and are very often scraping the poverty line, although most do include some type of health insurance.

The attraction of the traditional program is uninterrupted time. The student gains a minimum of two years of complete immersion in a community dedicated to writing and literature, without the distractions of the real world outside the ivory tower. For those who have tried to balance a nine-to-five job with writing, grad school offers a welcome retreat. The teaching experience gained can also prove invaluable for those who plan to become professors. The workshop format gives experience in giving and receiving criticism, and also helps a writer identify and create a community of like-minded individuals who will provide useful feedback and support outside of class, and often long past graduation.

There are drawbacks. The workshop system, while tried and tested, ensures that a given student’s work will be critiqued only a few times per semester, thus more time is spent giving feedback than receiving. The aforementioned stipends are a sticking point, but for many it is the investment of time that is more difficult than a loss of salary. Mortgages, school-age children, aging parents, and spousal careers make it difficult to simply pull up roots and move to a college town for two years. For those people, the proper route may be a…

Low-Residency M.F.A.

The first low-residency program was created at Goddard College, a progressive liberal arts school in rural Vermont, in the 1970s. Today there are more than thirty programs, and new ones seem to open with each passing year. They are based at traditional, smaller colleges and universities, but the students spend the vast majority of the time at their home addresses.

Low-residency programs consist of four semesters, each of which is six months long. The semesters begin with a 7–10 day residency at the college, with a packed schedule of lectures, readings and workshops, and meeting face-to-face with a single faculty mentor. The faculty in low-residency programs may also teach in a traditional program elsewhere, as the low-residency model gives them as much freedom as the students. After the residency everyone returns home, and the real work begins. Rather than classes, low-residency students follow an individualized course of study with their faculty mentor for the remainder of the six months, corresponding by post, email and perhaps phone. The student and mentor agree on a reading list and short critical assignments, but the largest part of the work is very simple: large packets of writing due to the mentor at set intervals throughout the semester. A typical expectation might be five packets of 35–45 pages each, delivered at four week intervals. The mentor responds to each with direct feedback, and subsequent packets will contain a mixture of new and revised work.

The typical low-residency program suggests that 25 hours per week will be required to complete the semester. The attraction, obviously, is the ability to remain at home and perhaps continue working at least part-time in another career. For many, this model more closely parallels the life of a working writer than does the seclusion of a traditional program. The direct feedback and individualized attention of a single mentor are also powerful selling points.

The drawbacks to low-residency programs are mostly related to cost and experience. The tuition averages $6,000–$7,000 per semester with additional costs for residency travel and lodging, and there is virtually no grant or scholarship money available. Since most low-res students are a part of the workforce, however, the effects are comparable to traditional programs. In other words, if a real salary minus the cost of a low-residency program is greater than a small stipend at a traditional program, the student may still come out ahead. Low-residency programs also have no way of offering teaching experience, so those who wish to teach college in the future will be at a disadvantage. Finally, although there are intense periods working with other students at the residencies, without a workshop system and months of shared classes the formation of a supportive writing community may not be as strong or immediate as in a traditional program.

Home team or away?

So, what’s it going to be? Are you joining the bohemian neighborhood or staying home? Will you spend a few years in the ivory tower, or a few hours a night locked in your own basement? No matter which you choose it will be a strenuous trip, from which you will emerge with a new sheepskin and a book of your own. Whether you choose to play for the home team or climb onto the bus for the away game, two years to focus on your writing is a fine game to play.


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