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In Defense of the Low-Residency MFA by Guest Blogger Emilie Haertsch

August 24, 2011

Two weeks ago I blogged about my daughter’s graduation from Goucher with an MFA degree in nonfiction writing.  Now it’s her turn.  Emilie is currently living and writing near Boston.  Gretchen Haertsch

On August 7th I graduated from Goucher College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction, celebrating two years of intensive craft study and the completion of a book-length thesis. Reflecting on my experience in the program, I realized how lucky I was to benefit from its unique features. For one thing, the entire program centers on the single genre of creative nonfiction, giving it a hyper-focus. But in addition, this is a low-residency program, meaning that much of the classes are conducted through distance learning with intensive on-campus residencies twice a year.

Much has been said about low-residency programs, especially on the MFA blogs. The general consensus is that full-residency programs are preferable, but here is what I have to say: the low-residency style worked for me, and I believe gave me a significant advantage as a writer. Here’s why:

  • Writers do not exist in a bubble. Full-residency programs create an atmosphere where all the students have to do is write and they live in an environment where everyone is supportive of that. That does not prepare writers for the real world. I completed my MFA while working a full-time job and planning a wedding, and I learned that I was the only one who could prioritize my writing and motivate myself. This is how most writers exist – juggling – and I have learned how to keep all the balls in the air. I believe that only writers who learn this skill can succeed.
  • A wide range of students make the best colleagues. The students in my program at Goucher literally live all across the country, with some even from Europe or Australia. They have been cattle ranchers, journalists, and soldiers. Would I have had the opportunity to rub shoulders with all these amazing writers in a full-residency program? Likely not. In addition, at 25 I was the youngest person graduating from the MFA program. I had the benefit of other students in the program who were older and much further along in their writing careers. Older students often have other life obligations and cannot relocate for graduate school, but because of the convenience of the low-residency program I was able to learn from them in the classroom.
  • Online courses require more serious participation. I’m sure any college undergraduate would attest to this – online courses are in fact more difficult, because you can’t skate by just by showing up and rattling off a bland comment now and then. Any contribution that you make to the class you have to write out and publish online, to live on in infamy if it is poorly done. I have participated in my share of traditional writing workshops, but I always got more out of the online workshops. The other students – and the faculty – were essentially writing papers on your submission. This considered feedback was very important to my revisions.
  • True mentorship is invaluable to a writer. The structure of Goucher’s progam is different than other MFA programs because it is mentor-based. Rather than taking a number of classes with different faculty, each semester you are mentored by one faculty member. I received a ridiculous amount of personal attention from my mentors, because a large part of my classes involved one-on-one conversations directly pertaining to my writing. I don’t know of any traditional class where I was able to work as closely with the professor. What’s more – since I developed personal relationships with faculty members I am able to continue those relationships now as colleagues, and as friends.

 The low-residency program may not be for everyone, but I graduated with a book in the works, impressive colleagues throughout the country, and the confidence and drive to continue on my own. I am prepared for the life of a writer, and in my mind that is what MFA programs should do.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2011 8:27 AM

    Interesting observations, Emilie. It sounds like you found exactly the right program for you and, perhaps even more important, you went into the program with an open and receptive mind. I especially love the beginning of your last sentence: “I am prepared for the life of a writer…” With an attitude like that that, you can’t miss. I’m eager to read that book “in the works” when the time comes.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. April 2, 2013 9:59 AM

    Hi Emilie. I really appreciated your post. Being two decades older than you (!), I also found tremendous value in the diversity of the Goucher program. Everyone brought a rather unique perspective and focus, and as you noted, the mentor-student relationship was exceptional. I actually graduated the program with a finished book! And I couldn’t have done so without the structure, peer relationships and mentorship of the program.

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