by Sena Naslund, Program Director and Co-Founder
Spalding University Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing
From its beginning in 2001, the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing Program has tried to create a unique program, one both rigorous and comfortable. Yes, comfortable. I don’t mean for lazy folks, but for serious people of a wide range of ages* and backgrounds who really want to become better writers. However, because we are serious about writing, some of the major requirements for earning an MFA can generate a good bit of tension. This blog entry is meant to be re-assuring: to draw your attention to how the very design of the program helps you to be prepared to meet the challenge of some of the major requirements for graduation. Before I tell you, reassuringly, about how all things fit together for the good, for those who would earn MFAs with us, I want to say a bit more about our philosophy.
We consciously avoid a cut-throat, highly competitive atmosphere; we believe we’re here to help each other become better writers. I ask all faculty and students to pledge allegiance to the idea of being both intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive to one another. At the beginning session of the convocation of each residency, I stand before you to say “Welcome home!” I want you to feel at home, feel comfortable, supported, and cared about. And it need not end with graduation.
Among other activities leading to the awarding of the MFA degree, many programs include these graduation requirements: (1) that a student give a lecture on some aspect of craft in their area of writing, (2) that students write an extended critical paper (3) that students give a public reading from their work. Each of these exercises can be nerve-wracking, but each of these activities is a customary and valuable requirement for the MFA.
In designing the low-residency MFA at Spalding University, we’ve tried to take some of the sting out of each of these three requirements by devising preliminary exercises to be performed along the way, under much less pressure.
To help students get used to public discussion of critical ideas (the graduation lecture), we ask each student during the third semester to conduct a Small Group Discussion among peers focusing on a short, single work, with no faculty member present. The student chooses a short story or essay, or five poems by the same author, or a short work intended for children or young adults, or a short script—a text that the student especially enjoys and admires. Because the work is short, the student has plenty of time to analyze in depth and to identify the features that lead to the success and uniqueness of the work. The other student members of the group read the work in advance, but the leader is the expert who guides the discussion. Besides careful analytic reading, the leader may also do some research about the life of the author or review published critical commentary on the selected text. Without supervision, the small peer group gets together and enjoys discussion of the work, and the leader is one step closer to feeling confident about his or her ability to handle the larger requirement of a lecture. Nearly all students report that they enjoy the Small Group Discussion exercise, and the participants give the leader written but private feedback about what went well in the discussion and what could be improved.
Writing an extended critical or research paper during the independent study portion of a student’s third semester is also a challenging assignment. Here again the design of the Spalding MFA program helps the student to be successful. In the first and second semesters, students write short critical essay, 2-4 pages usually, and get feedback from their mentors about how to focus a topic, make use of a critical vocabulary, and generate greater understanding about how a literary text works. In addition to these short essays supervised by the mentor, all students write an essay on a program book/script in common in preparation to participating in an Expository Writing Class, which occurs during the residency at the beginning of the student’s second semester in the program. Students who need additional help with expository writing are identified by the faculty leader and offered additional help through an expository writing coach. With practice in writing short essays and by participating in the Expository Writing Class, Spalding students are well-prepared to write the Extended Critical Essays. A number of students go on to publish such essays in professional journals such as The Writer’s Chronicle.
The required graduation reading is surely something that students proudly present (but often with a bit of trepidation). Here again the Spalding curriculum offers students some preliminary activities that make one feel more comfortable about publicly reading one’s work. Before any workshop discussion begins of student work, the author is asked to read a small portion of the work aloud. Here are five small practice moments, one for each of the five residencies of the program. In addition, the program schedules Student Readings in which students from any semester may volunteer to participate each residency. The student readings are short, five minutes, and the audience is one of peers and faculty. The longer graduation reading then is less tense—one has been behind the podium before and enjoyed looking into the eyes of people who are attentive and supportive.
In discussing these major graduation requirements and how the Spalding curriculum offers preparation for them throughout our curriculum, I have not mentioned the Creative Thesis itself, though we would all agree it is the major focus of the entire effort. I would like to claim that all our MFA activities tend toward producing a high quality, extended piece of original creative writing. Certainly the requirement of five packets of work each semester under the direction of four mentors (or at least three, if a student chooses to repeat one mentor) is the backbone of the program, just as workshop discussion by peers and faculty is the backbone of the residency curriculum.
In addition, the Spalding program is unique in developing a writer’s sensibility and range by emphasizing that the various forms of writing overlap and enrich each other. We are writers, not just poets or screenwriters, or whatever. We also believe that the writing arts exist in the context of the sister arts (we go to concerts, theatre, museums). We aspire to be artists, not just writers. And the writer’s sensibility can also be enhanced by residency opportunities in foreign countries: we are not confined to American/English writing and culture but are informed by a global awareness of other literatures and cultures. We become better artists by expanding our sense of humanness. You see, it all fits together.
* About ages (see my first paragraph above): Even the staff of the MFA represents a wide span—half a century—of ages. It delights me that the five of us represent persons in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies! I’d like to make something further of this fact, but nothing, besides wonder, comes to me at the moment.