January means application deadline season for most MFA in writing programs, and I know what that means for thousands of people in the country: the beginning of 3 or 4 months of anxiety. If you number among them, I hope you get into the program you want to. But I also hope you take this time to consider what it is you’re looking for in an MFA program, and how you know that the programs you’ve applied to are going to treat you well.
What’s “well” mean? Well, after ten years of teaching in MFA programs, I’ve come to understand some of what leads to graduate success—and I’m defining “success” here to mean graduates feel that (a) they’ve grown as writers and are equipped to continue growing even after we stop giving them homework and deadlines, (b) they understand the current literary and publishing landscape and are ready to be a writer in the world, (c) they’ve been taken care of these last few years and that whatever money or labor they paid for their degree with was well spent.
In grad school, Rita Mae Brown once asked my class if, in our careers, we’d rather be Britney Spears or an opera singer, and while I remember being charmed, in 2007, by this quaint comparison, I’ve taken it to heart: a quality education prepares a writer for a lifelong career, not an instant success. So success to me doesn’t mean a book deal, or NYC publishing connections, or a job teaching creative writing. Success to me doesn’t feel like students have “won” the Best MFA Grad competition. (It may look different to you.)
I direct an MFA program.[*] We all make lots of claims and promises about what makes our specific programs great. I believe we’re all telling the truth, there’s no reason to distrust people, but in the spirit of helping applicants find the programs they know will treat them well, I’ve come up with this list of questions you might think to ask the programs that accept you, should you find yourself this spring in the enviable position of getting to choose among them.
This list is not exhaustive, but I’ve tried to split them up in 3 categories corresponding to my definition of success, above:
Your Aesthetic/Academic Growth
If you’re into genre, or formalism, or “the very personal essay” as found on websites, it’s no good for a program to “correct” this interest toward what it deems literary. An MFA program should be designed to not only help you develop the kind of writing you’re into now, but also expose you to other kinds of writing that are out there. That exposure is how growth happens; programs should be your partner in where you need to be, not where they’ve decided Every Writer Needs to Be. So:
- How regularly will you be able to enroll in the classes you want to? What method(s) does the program use to place students in classes each term?
- What openings are possible for you to take classes in a different genre than what you applied in?
- What guidelines, suggestions, or restrictions does the program give instructors in designing their course reading lists?
- Are directed-study courses possible, and how often do full-time faculty members agree to teach them?
- In what ways does the program teach students about the writing process, and not just their writing products? How will you be taught not just what a good book looks like, but actively how to go about writing one from scratch?
Your Education on Today’s Writing Landscape
Assume that everyone teaching in an MFA program knows and can teach how literature was put together in the 20th century, but a lot has changed in literature, publishing, and the teaching of creative writing over the last twenty years. Much of these changes have come from queer and BIPOC voices (slowly) being better represented in publishing and academia (to say nothing of the very different means by which writing finds readers in 2021). By now, MFA programs should have already incorporated anti-racist representation, global literatures, and digital publishing into their curriculum. If they haven’t, you should try to get a clear understanding of their commitments and timeline for doing so. So:
- What training do instructors get in how to manage issues of bias and representation in the workshop? What programming or coursework has the program committed to to fight racism and bias in writing?
- What specific courses are offered in publishing, or do instructors take care of this on their own time in workshop courses? What kind of programming is in place to prepare students to publish their work successfully in the 2020s?
- How often do senior/tenured faculty have their teaching observed or otherwise get feedback on their methods? Who reviews faculty teaching evaluations, and how often? What programming does the program or the university put in place to help faculty continually update their teaching?
- What kind of contact does the program maintain with its alumni, and how readily can current students be in touch with alumni to learn about their lives and careers after getting their degrees?
Your Care and Management
Nobody likes to feel they need to be managed, like some problem, but if you think about it the way Hollywood types do, it’s a useful model: you need a manager-advocate (or two) who’s invested in your growth, and you need to make sure you’ll have as much as voice and presence in the program as you want. So:
- Will you get an adviser to guide you through the program, helping you choose the best courses for you? Will you work with the same adviser throughout your time there, or new ones periodically? Are all advisers full-time faculty in the MFA program?
- What kind of support is there for planning your thesis project before your final semester/year?
- How many students, on average, should you expect in your workshop courses?[†]
- Have the MFA students created an organization of their own, which they govern, and which works to develop community or build advocacy for students (or both)? If not, does the university provide resources for such student organizations?
There are hundreds of other questions to ask programs I didn’t address here. You may have concerns about its labor practices vis-a-vis its part-time faculty. You may want to know how trans students have fared in the past (and whether the program has enrolled any). You may want assurance that you won’t be silo’d onto a campus and want to know how the program connects with the greater community. The point here is that you should always feel you have the right to ask these questions, and you should assume any program will be happy to answer them for you.
Remember: you’ve been accepted, so they now need you just as much as you need them. The only way you’ll succeed (in grad school, that is; grad school itself isn’t required for success) is by enrolling in a program that’ll work for you, in both senses of the term. So I urge you to take the time to learn the most you can about what your time as a student there will be like.
And yes, prepare for your classrooms to look like the photo above. It’s not all old wood and staring out leaded glass windows onto centuries-old oaks, folks.
- I’ll note that I’m writing this post as a person who’s gone through grad school and still carries ideas and opinions; I’m not speaking in my professional role as director of an MFA program, though I try every day to practice the things I preach.↵
- Opinions, and university resources, differ here, but if you ask me, more than 12 is worrisome and more than 15 deserves an explanation.↵