Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Choice: Deciding on a Low Residency MFA in Writing Program

First of all, my apologies for the tardiness of this post, which was promised weeks ago. Choosing which low residency MFA in Writing program to attend has been an arduous and brain-freezing task--a decision that lately rivaled the one to have children. But, it's been made (can you hear the cheering and yahooing in the distance? That's the sound of my husband and friends, celebrating the end of the madness).

I will be attending Vermont College of Fine Arts. My first residency is this coming winter.

If you're reading this post, chances are you're a family member or friend of mine, or--and here's what I'm hoping--you are, like I was, attempting to choose a low residency MFA in Writing program.

There's quite a bit of information out there in the universe--some useful, some not--about how to go about this process. In this post I'll describe my process, in hopes that it may aid others. I'll address elements of the decision that I did not see covered in the many books, articles, and blogs already published on the subject, I'll share my research materials, and I'll talk about my interactions with each program.

Please note that deciding on a graduate program is an intensely personal process: when it comes down to it, and the research has been exhausted, you just have to "go with your gut." Annoying as hell to hear, right? But it's true.

Off we go:

* For a bit of background information about my thoughts on the decision to return to graduate school, see "Once More Into the Breach," posted on April 4, 2011.

First, I decided on low residency programs, instead of traditional. This was easy: I've a husband, daughter, dog, and mortgage, among other things, that keep me rooted. Second, I chose seven programs to which I'd apply: (these are in no particular order)

1. Pacific University
2. University of New Orleans
3. Lesley University
4. Goddard College
5. Queens University of Charlotte
6. Vermont College of Fine Arts
7. Spalding University

The reasoning behind this initial culling (there are over 100 low residency programs in the U.S. at this time) was simple:

1. Pacific: I'd always wanted to spend time in the Pacific Northwest, I think they have the most aesthetically pleasing website and program information, and Pam Houston--a long-time favorite of mine--teaches there.

2. University of New Orleans: The study abroad aspects of the program (you must spend a month abroad each summer to complete the low residency degree) were enticing.

3. Lesley University: Reputation was a big factor; also, the idea of being in such a literary epicenter like Cambridge was appealing.

4. Goddard College: Reputation, certainly. A chance to be in Vermont.

5. Queens University: Living in N.C., I'd recently become familiar with this newer program, which had been gaining favor and hiring some authors I admire, like Elizabeth Strout.

6. Vermont College of Fine Arts: First and foremost: reputation. And, the chance to study either in Vermont (a state I'd fallen in love with during a writer's residency a few years ago) or abroad, with top faculty and writers... many who'd earned their MFAs from Iowa. Also: alumni publishing success.

7. Spalding University: Only 6 hours from where I live, with an innovative "flexible scheduling" that allowed for mixing 6-month and 9-month long semsters, study abroad options, a chance to study cross-genre (my areas of interest: fiction and creative nonfiction). Also liked the fact that the program director, Sena Jeter Naslund, published successful historical fiction--my own genre.

**Though I know one has to take ranking with a "grain of salt," six of the seven programs were included in Atlantic Monthly's "Best of the Best" and in Poet's and Writers "Top Ten Low Residency Programs." Most had been in the top ten in any sort of rankings taken over the past ten years, especially Vermont College (#1 or tied for first each year).

So, in the Fall of 2010 I worked on my writing samples, garnered my recommendations, ordered transcripts, and applied. By March 2011, I'd heard from most schools. I was rejected by Queens and Lesley, and accepted by Pacific, Vermont College (VCFA), Goddard, UNO (University of New Orleans), and Spalding.

I heard from UNO and Spalding first, then Pacific, VCFA, and Goddard. Queens and Lesley came in so much later than the others--I'd had to contact both to check in--that by that point I'd already culled the group, in my mind at least, to Pacific, VCFA, and Spalding. (Note: Goddard did come back onto my radar after a great conversation with the interim program director, Elena Georgiou, who took special note of my love of writing historical fiction, and steered me to the writings of a similar faculty member.)

When I'd initially started thinking about heading back to graduate school, it was the summer of 2008. Though my application process was cut short by the unexpected news that I was pregnant, I had already done quite a bit of thinking about where I'd like to go. For some reason--mainly the idea of traveling to the Pacific Northwest and studying with Pam Houston, Pacific became my #1. When, last year, I started and completed the application process, I still felt the same way.

After being accepted to programs, I did everything possible in order to narrow down my choices: talked to faculty, alumni, current students, administrators; looked at rankings and placement; studied each school's literature (especially faculty bios and mentoring philosophies); considered all costs, including possible scholarship and assistantship options; hounded my friends and family (some of whom are professors); spent late nights with my husband just hashing it all out ("it's your choice," was his oft-repeated reply); looked at study abroad options and whether it'd actually be feasible for me to factor this in (what with the daughter, husband, and dog); and researched websites, blogs, and books about the MFA in Writing.

In the end, I even resorted to coin tossing.

The resources I consulted:

The Low-Residency MFA Handbook by Lori A. May
The Creative Writing MFA Handbook by Tom Kealey
Poets & Writers magazine (in addition to perusing years of articles on the MFA in Writing, I spent quite a bit of time at the Speakeasy, their forum)
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs
The Writer's Chronicle magazine (from the AWP)
The Atlantic Monthly magazine
Assorted essays by Linda Formichelli, Erika Dreifus, Seth Abramson, etc.
Blogs "Seth Abramson" "The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog" "The Creative Writing MFA Blog" "Practicing Writing"
Any blog by any graduate of the programs I was considering.

One thing that made my decision different: I am already an adjunct instructor of English at 4-year and community colleges. A specific reason for me to earn a terminal degree in writing is to have the necessary degree to be competitive for a full-time, tenure track position at a college or university. (I know that a MFA is not a job quarantee, but the sad fact is that if you haven't published a book or books yet, and you want a full-time position in higher ed teaching writing, this degree is necessary.)

So, my search changed. I began to consider: which programs graduated alumni who garnered full-time teaching jobs? Which program would make me the most competitive in the higher ed workforce?

What I learned, from conversations with several folks in higher ed (including, but not limited to, graduate school MA in English professors, undergraduate writing professors, administrators, and my current boss, who is head of the humanities division at a small, liberal arts college) is that "pedigree" matters. The reputation of the school from which you will have earned your MFA degree matters... a lot. After publications, of course.

While many of these people did profess that rankings are a crap-shoot, and that I should go where my "gut" tells me, several did admit that when it comes to larger state universities (the sort of places I'd like to work), English departments aren't as hip to writing programs--so, they look at the more (dare I say) superficial qualities of a candidate, like where the degree was earned.

I had to take into consideration the fact that when I do complete my MFA in Writing and am searching for a full-time position, I will be competing (in an already saturated market) with other candidates who've earned their MFAs from traditional, residential programs. And though low residency programs are gaining ground and beginning to be respected by highering committees, there are still many programs that refuse to give them as much credit as the traditional degree. (Consider the faculty member at the University of Georgia, who revealed in an email that going for a low residency MFA "just wasn't worth it." Ouch.)

The main bit of advice from each higher ed type: It's your publications that get you the job. Then, your credentials. One former professor of mine said, "When it comes to getting a job teaching writing, it's all about your publications and who you know."

But not a single publication I'd consulted weighed, in any manner, which low residency program would most aid a writer-teacher in finding a job. Here, I was on my own. And though it's easy to argue with rankings, the fact that VCFA had been #1 in placement for the past several years means something to me. This is not the case for everyone, of course: many, if not most, people considering or currently working towards their low residency degree in writing already have full-time jobs and don't plan on quitting them. Most simply want to develop their craft, to become better writers.

Becoming a better writer is, of course, the ultimate goal of a MFA in Writing. It's imperative that a potential MFA student look into which programs provide the best teacher-writers--those writers commited to his or her students' work and progress. Like the "which program will help me get a job" category, this one, too, is mostly unquantifiable. What's left to us here are teaching philosophies and faculty bios. Those can and should be studied as closely as possible. I searched each faculty member of the programs I was considering, researched their websites and publications, looked into the English departments at the schools where they teach, and at where they earned their own writing degrees. But again, it's a crap-shoot.

* In addition, I looked at the faculty of several small-to-large universities in my area, in order to discover where they had earned their terminal degrees. I considered faculty at places like Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Western Carolina Univeristy, the University of North Carolina (at Chapel Hill, Asheville, Wilmington), N.C. State, the College of Charleston, Winthrop University, Converse College, Presbyterian College, Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina University, etc. Most had earned their degrees from traditional MFA in Writing programs, or earned PhDs in English.

When my husband and I began talking finances, I was forced to give up on my initial dream of attending Pacific. The cost here, mainly for travel (I live on the East Coast), would be too high. There aren't as many options for cross-genre study there, something in which I'm interested. I'd been accepted only in Fiction (as choosing one genre is the only option) at Pacific, while at Spalding and VCFA I'd been accepted in both Fiction and Creative Nonfiction.

Now it was down to two: Spalding and VCFA.

Spalding has so many things going for it: a study abroad option, cross-genre study, flexible scheduling, very, very happy and satisfied alumni, and a great spokeperson in Associate Program Director Kathleen Driskell. Kathleen was (and is) knowledgeable, genuinely friendly, easy to talk with, and willing to go out of her way to answer questions and to try to get the potential student the help she needs. Another item in the Spalding "yes" column: a small merit scholarship, and an assistantship working as a student editor and reader for The Louisville Review for as many semesters as I'd like. (Spalding is the rare low residency program that offers financial assistance.) In addition, Kathleen made it clear that Spalding really wanted me to come there--that they were excited and happy about me being part of their program. (This enthusiasm was the exception to the rule with other programs.) Spalding was rapidly becoming a program I'd have a hard time turning down.

VCFA also has a great spokesperson in Louise Crowley, who answered all my questions, spoke honestly and often with me about the rigors of the program and the small possibilities for financial assistance (outside of student loans, of course). The program at VCFA is long and lauded, and Louise is experienced and friendly. She immediately sent me a packet of information that included a sample residency schedule and course offerings, which were varied and exciting. The study abroad option at VFCA is unique in that it is ten days, and takes place in lieu of (and at the same time as) the Vermont residency, so a student can choose which to attend. This was quite appealing to me, as I'm a travel junkie with a family--the least disruptive the travel is to my family calendar, the better. And though the Vermont website does not supply nearly the amount of information the Spalding site does, it does provide faculty teaching philosophies, and these I found enlightening and helpful.

Both programs--Spalding's and VCFA's--provided information on alumni successes (i.e. books published). Both are impressive, but VCFA, being around for longer, seemed to have a great number of alumni publishing books.

I tortured myself (and my husband) with the decision. In an unethical move I'm not proud of, I resorted to telling both schools "yes" so I'd have longer to make my decision... a decision I quite literally could not make. One week, I'd be sure of one school, and the next I'd change my mind to the other. I went on long hikes with my dog, prayed about it, meditated about it, and drove my friends and family crazy asking the same questions over and over again.

I'd applied to the two schools for different reasons: Spalding, because it was new and innovative and I'd heard good things, and VCFA, because I knew its stellar reputation and was sure I wouldn't have a chance of getting in. When Spalding rose to the top for a variety of reasons, and I was actually accepted to VCFA, I was stumped. Hornswoggled. Flummoxed, discombobulated and foxed.

In the end, I just couldn't let the idea of VCFA go. I tried, but I couldn't. And I was utterly exhausted by the process. It doesn't hurt to add that my husband really wanted me to go to VCFA. And so the choice was made.

I'm thrilled about the decision, anxious about the affects on my family, but excited to begin. I'm ready to move ahead with my craft and my career.

Note: This is just my process, and everyone does it differently. If you are considering a MFA in Writing, or are trying to decide between programs, I wish you the best of luck. Because I've been in the trenches, so to speak, I'm more than happy to answer any questions.


SC Payne said...

Thank you for the brilliant post! I am in the process of choosing schools, and your post really helped me see that I am not the only person schlepping through the bog of resources to try to balance it all and find what fits. Even deciding where to apply is a huge challenge! Thank you for your insight.

Katherine S. Crawford said...

@SC Payne,

You are welcome! Deciding on a program was so much more difficult than I ever thought it would be. In the end, I really had intensely specifize of what I wanted most from one, and then trust my gut. (And sometimes I still wonder....) Let me know if I can be of any help, and good luck finding one that's just right for you!

My best,


SC Payne said...

You offered help, so I’ll just keep writing you like you are my BFF. I am less interested in teaching and much more interested in improving my craft. I am in the same position as you, with a husband and kids to consider. He is concerned about the financial commitment and I am most worried about being rejected of all things (both from the schools themselves as well as inside the program when I share my writing). How far are you into the program? I am also worried that I am not much of an academic-snob and I feel like I might not fit into a program full of the smart white people who love the literary upper crust. OK, I’m white too, who am I kidding? But I’m more into Epic fantasy and Geeky sci-fi than the classics (gasp!) For now, my top picks are Seton Hill (because it has a Fantasy-specific genre focus), Spalding (because it seems really diverse), West Connecticut State University (because the focus there is professional and creative writing and they force you to choose both a creative genre and a practical one), University of Tampa (because it’s close and new and I really can’t put my finger on what draws me there), and Naropa (because who doesn’t want to go to the “Jack Kerouac School” founded by real Beats). Is that enough schools to apply? Should I look for more? Is it true that some people get rejected by all schools? How good do I really need to be to get in? Thanks for humoring me by interacting and helping me. I have been researching like crazy and still feel at a loss.

Katherine S. Crawford said...

@SC Payne,

I totally understand how you feel, and it's overwhelming, isn't it? My husband and I really went back and forth over the financial aspects of me earning my MFA in Writing; what it essentially came down to, for me, was that if I'm ever going to garner a full-time teaching position in higher ed, I have to have a terminal degree (and with the economy the way it is, it's still no guarantee WITH one--but without, I'm not competitive). So that's different, I know, from your situation.

That being said, my first goal in getting an MFA is to better my craft--get better at writing, essentially. The teaching thing was secondary, but still important to me. To be honest, I still worry about the monetary commitment (we are so not rolling in the dough)--and I hope it'll be worth it.

I've only just completed my first residency at VCFA, and I'm into the second month of my first semester. So I may not be the best person to talk to yet. But, I can certainly relate to being a non-literary snob and wondering if such an academic degree is right for you: that was one of my greatest concerns, even though I do teach college and have an MA in English. Though I love "literature," my own writing sort of toes the line between commercial and literary, sometimes falling into more commercial.

I think the way you're looking at the programs is smart: Seton Hill sounds great, and I had only wonderful experiences talking with Spalding folks: it ended up being one of my two top choices. I don't know anything about the other two you mentioned, though I was very interested in UC-Riverside; I just missed the deadline to apply and was so overwhelmed that I didn't put forth the effort to later. You may want to check them out.

As for how many to apply to, I know that the MFA Handbook might suggest up to 10, but I applied to seven. I was accepted by five and rejected by two. I don't have a hard stance on how many, but I'd suggest at least five?

I don't want to sway you too much, though, because like I said, I'm just in my first semester, and I'm still figuring it out all out. The first residency was interesting... good, but interesting. I definitely ran into a bit of the issues I'd been concerned about before going. I'd be happy to talk to you about it more in more depth (and more candidly) over email, if you want. You are welcome to email me at thewritingscott at gmail dot com!

Hope this helps,


Jamie Zvirzdin said...

Hey, thanks for the post! Very helpful even a couple years after you wrote it!

Katherine S. Crawford said...

Hi, Jamie. I'm so glad it helped! Choosing can be such a frustrating process at times, but I really think talking to folks in the program (and also alums) is a must. Good luck to you, and let me know if I can be of more help. You're welcome to email me at thewriting scott at gmail dot com any time.



Katherine S. Crawford said...

P.S. Thewritingscott should be one word!