Nov 15, 2006, 8:54 AM
Post #1360 of 2683
I’ve just spent some time evaluating low-residency programs. Here’s what I found, in case someone else might think it useful. Please note: I learned what I learned from Web sites, the odd book, gossip, and Google. The best way to get information about these programs would be to e-mail current students. I didn’t do that but maybe you should. So: grain of salt, just my opinion, etc. I may be confused — check for yourself. Also, and this is very important: I was looking only at fiction and creative nonfiction, not at poetry.
What helps me keep all the low-res programs out there sort of straight is to divide them into three categories based on the faculty setup. 1. Regional Powerhouses are programs with faculty that represent the depth of creative writing talent in a particular geographical region; the teachers may be affiliated with the local universities as adjuncts or emeritus retirees, but they aren’t full-time professors, and some of the teachers are “just” self-supporting writers who live in the area. 2. All-Star Teams collect full-time creative writing professors from MFA programs or undergrad English departments across the country; the summer/winter residency schedule allows these teachers to keep their regular jobs but still work in the low-res program. 3. Hybrids combine the attributes of each of the previous two; these are programs that seem to be evolving toward becoming All-Star Teams. I focus so much on faculty because, well, we all know we're going to be paying between about $22,000 and $30,000, staying where we live, and working with mentors, so faculty quality becomes that much more important than it would be in a res program. Another way to distinguish low-res programs is around whether you get mentor feedback only, and you don’t have a responsibility for critiquing other students’ work, or mentor feedback plus peer feedback via online workshops (e.g., instant-messaging chat), and you do spend a lot of time critiquing other students’ work. Then there are too many other factors and distinguishing differences to get into except in your own private calculus of things to consider . . .
Here are the programs that have caught my attention so far. Spalding is I'm sure worth a look, too, but I haven't gotten there yet:
Queens University of Charlotte: So many kinds of blindness prevented me from checking into this program until recently (the idea of spending time in Charlotte doesn’t appeal to me, for one; sorry about that) that I almost missed what I now see as perhaps the best program for me and my bizarre compendium of strange MFA needs. An All-Star Team type of faculty that is extraordinarily accomplished at the New Yorker and Paris Review level; yes, I was floored by the quality of the faculty (and when I speak of the quality of the faculty, I’m just talking about what they’ve published, not how well they teach, because I don’t know). Rumor says that the program director is unusually helpful to prospective students; we know he’s a brilliant writer. Queens claims to focus strongly on craft, less on literary criticism that isn’t from a craft standpoint. Combines the mentor and peer feedback models. Has unusually short residencies at 7 days. A bit more affordable than some others. So if you’re looking for a program with strong faculty, short residencies, a consuming focus on craft, and peer feedback, and at a decent price as low-res programs go, well, I guess Queens could be it.
Pacific University: Pretty much a new program. With Rick Bass, William Kittredge, David James Duncan, and Pete Fromm all teaching there at the same time (or so it appears from the Web site), Pacific was an unbelievably powerful Regional Powerhouse in recent times. It looks like several of these folks aren’t there anymore; however, Pacific still has a dream of a faculty for anyone for whom the word “Montana” is among the language’s most resonant. Looking at the faculty, it’s like they outsourced the teaching duties to the University of Montana MFA program and threw in a famous Iowa Writers Workshop veteran for good measure. I started drooling even more when I noticed that one of the residencies takes place on the Oregon coast. It would get to be expensive (close to $30,000) if you needed to buy plane tickets and rent a car for five residencies. The students have published a lot, mostly poetry. I’m going to watch this one to see whether everyone else leaves, too.
Warren Wilson: Its venerability, as low-res programs go — it’s been around for a couple decades or more, depending on how you figure it — lends WW an aura that other programs don’t have. So I think of it as kind of the Iowa of low-res. This would be silly of me if it weren’t for the remarkable publication record of its graduates (several novels with major houses that I could find); it appears that there is a basis for that aura. WW is the epitome of the All-Star Team approach, with big-name writers (to me Charles Baxter is among the biggest of big names) from some of the better schools around the country. Studying there must be like jumping from one outstanding MFA program to another without leaving your basement. No creative nonfiction. The Web site is subpar, but maybe you can do that when you have an aura and everyone wants to be your best friend. Very surprisingly, it isn’t grotesquely expensive.
Lesley University: Another fairly new program. This is the Regional Powerhouse for Boston and environs; when the region itself is unusually powerful in terms of sheer writing talent, that makes for an intriguing program. Many of the teachers appear to be emerging writers with well-reviewed first novels. So: a younger-skewing program than most, although they have some big names who are venerable enough to have retired from college teaching. In my opinion, not as strong a faculty as, say, Warren Wilson, Bennington, or Queens (again, I’m just talking about what they’ve published, not how they teach), but maybe I’m deeply confused. There’s a Harvard flavor here because some of the teachers are Harvard adjuncts or graduates of Harvard. When it comes to creative writing, I don’t know how important the Harvardness of Lesley is, but it at least means that these people probably are conscientious mentors. You get much more than just fiction and poetry here; cross-training appears to be gospel at Lesley. Not too expensive. Rumor has it that the program staff is very welcoming and nice.
Goddard College: A well-known brand name, although it seems that the original Goddard low-res moved to Warren Wilson. Appears to be very, very strong right now in playwriting and screenwriting and in writing from lesbian/gay perspectives, but it’s unclear that it has other tremendous strengths. Then you see that Darcey Steinke teaches there and you get even more confused. I wonder about the publishing success of students. The faculty seems to be bohemian to the nth degree and highly dedicated to teaching. Is the program rigorous enough? Are other programs too academic?
Stonecoast: If the Web site is any indication, Stonecoast puts a lot of energy into thinking about teaching and into teaching well. You just get the sense that these folks care about individual students. It’s a Hybrid program, with a former poet laureate of Maine (Regional Powerhouse) and teachers from universities in Minnesota and elsewhere (All-Star Team) on the faculty. Now, the faculty doesn’t seem tremendously impressive to this casual evaluator, at least in fiction and creative nonfiction, except that they’ve published plenty and THEY REALLY SEEM TO CARE ABOUT TEACHING. I guess I just don’t know enough to judge. Anyway, the location is certainly attractive (right on the ocean) and the cost is the lowest that I can find (just under $5,000/semester). My suspicion is that it’s easier to get into than several other programs, and I’m thinking of it as a “safety” program that I would be glad to attend, but this kind of not-so-veiled denigration of Stonecoast will probably ensure, via instant karma, the rejection letter with my name on it.
Bennington: Another All-Star Team low-res program with an aura. This would be the Warren Wilson of the north, although Vermont College might bridle at that. The Bennington creative nonfiction faculty consists of what are to my mind four huge names and one highly regarded emerging writer — unless you hit visiting writer paydirt at Goucher, you can’t beat Bennington’s creative nonfiction faculty for reputation. Can you imagine having Phillip Lopate as your one-on-one mentor in the art of the personal essay? Yikes. By the way, does anyone know if the “gender composition” of the faculty matters one whit? The fiction faculty at Bennington consists of many other huge names, virtually all of them supremely talented novelists who happen to be women, and, in that, it’s kind of the opposite of Pacific, which has mostly men on the fiction faculty. Bennington seems to be keen on having students write a lot of criticism. So it’s got that academic bent. I get a strong whiff of big-league New York publishing world from Bennington; probably a good place to make connections. Residencies take place in a beautiful spot. Tuition is at the more expensive end, which shows you what programs with an aura can do.
Vermont: Just didn’t get a good sense of this program for some reason. An All-Star Team program that can point to tremendous publishing successes by students. The level of faculty publication appears to be excellent but maybe not mind-bogglingly superlative. Still, this looks like another Warren Wilson of the north: an All-Star Team laden with mentor talent. At the expensive end.
Goucher: Creative nonfiction only. This is mostly an All-Star Team. Unique in that, because of the single-genre focus, some of the all-stars work for newspapers and magazines; not everyone is a professor of creative writing. The Washington, DC/Baltimore Regional Powerhouse aspect means that some of the teachers are from the Washington Post and Preservation magazine (headquartered in DC). Also has interesting connections to the noted Pittsburgh creative nonfiction scene. Appears to emphasize literary journalism/narrative nonfiction as opposed to the personal essay/memoir, although there are a couple of accomplished mentors available in the latter. Joseph Mitchell, you bet; Joseph Epstein, probably not quite so much. Small price to pay when you see who’s part of the resident and visiting faculty, and especially small when you see who’s on the advisory committee. Gay Talese? Jane Kramer? Tracy Kidder? What??? Not sure what roles these celebrity advisors play. The program has a “vocational” feel. May be the only MFA program that is a good career move: you’d learn how to write stuff that major magazines and newspapers pay for. Relatively affordable. One residency per year instead of two, but it’s a long one at 2 weeks. Bottom line: this program has all the appearance of an unbelievably generous gift to creative nonfiction types everywhere.