How to Start an MFA Program from Scratch (Part 2 of 3): Why Do You Need an MFA Program, Anyway?
Christopher Coake | November 2015
In my last post, I recounted how my colleagues and I in the English department at the University of Nevada, Reno, proposed and saw through to approval our brand-new MFA program in creative writing. In this post I want to break down the ways we justified the creation of the new program, to ourselves and to others.
It seems silly, in a certain light, to talk about justifying an enterprise that most readers of this website surely believe to be culturally valuable. As a writer who found his voice, his community, and his career via his MFA program, I admit to struggling to justify the creation of a new one in administrator-speak. Learning how was necessary, however. While our administration and regents were never hostile to the idea of a new program, our state’s recessionary fiscal crisis meant that a request for new program would have to be accompanied by a lot of justification—not least because UNR’s sister institution, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has had a successful MFA program in place for many years. We’d have to answer: why did our state need another one? And, more broadly: why did the world need another one?
The latter question was a matter of research. We could—and did—make impassioned arguments in our proposal about the value of creative writing education, but we also buttressed those arguments with facts our administration required. We contacted a number of MFA programs and asked for their application numbers, for our internal use only; we added those numbers to those we took from the MFA programs that have chosen to make theirs public. We were able to show our administration that well-established programs tended to draw at least 100 applications a year, and oftentimes many more than that. Via Seth Abramson’s number-crunching, we learned that roughly 3500 people apply to MFA programs yearly. Our program would definitely serve a need.
Other new programs have been called to make similar arguments. Julia Johnson, an associate professor and director of the new MFA degree at the University of Kentucky, recalls not only having to convince administrators of the necessity of the degree, but also having to educate them about how the degree should be taught. “Our biggest challenge was convincing the administration we had to hire fiction writers,” she told me; some members of her administration did not initially understand why the poets on the faculty couldn’t teach fiction or nonfiction workshops.
At UNR, the first question—why did the state of Nevada require a second program?—proved to be trickiest. Answering it required my colleagues and me to make, in our program proposal, two somewhat contradictory arguments at the same time: 1) that MFA programs are common across the country, are relatively standardized, and are frequently hallmarks of successful English departments at top-notch institutions; and 2) that that our MFA program would be—somehow—different from other, extant programs (and especially the one at UNLV).
I was initially resistant to making that second argument (not least because UNR and UNLV are nearly 450 miles apart—when we discuss how our institution serves our region, we tend to consider much of northern California ahead of southern Nevada). Residential MFA programs differ in reputation and popularity, but—at least in terms of curriculum—most are very similar. Successful studio-research programs are supposed to be, after all: the curriculum should be based on a series of intensive workshops, and buttressed by creative-writing specific seminars, and elective seminars in other English emphases. We wanted our program to be as much like established good ones as possible!
Our department has excellent poets on its faculty in Steve Gehrke, Ann Keniston, and Gailmarie Pahmeier, and we were happy to say so; students who studied poetry at UNR would be served well. A big difference between our creative writing faculty and that of other schools’, however, was in the output and interests of our fiction writers. Susan Palwick is a terrific, literary, award-winning fiction writer who has primarily published speculative fiction; and, while I’m primarily considered a writer of realist, “literary” fiction, I’ve also published work that has been anthologized in mystery collections, and published a novel that concerns the possible existence of a ghost. Our faculty have always seen little use in distinguishing between “literary” and “genre” writing in our pedagogy and in our reading. We’ve also been frustrated by a publishing world that tends to separate writing (and audiences) into those camps, as well as with the perception, anyway, that many MFA programs don’t value applications from writers working overtly in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and—more and more—young adult.
We looked and looked, and—while we saw that a number of low-residency MFA programs are happy to welcome promising genre/commercial writers, and while we found several programs that teach genre-specific classes—we found no other residential program that was aggressively advertising to genre writers.
(An aside: This is a complex issue, and I’m being reductive here out of necessity. Clearly some of our finest contemporary literary writers—Karen Russell, Victor LaValle, Kevin Brockmeier, Benjamin Percy, and Kelly Link, to name a very few—produce fiction influenced by genre writing, and are the products of MFA programs. Nevertheless, writers with a slightly more commercial bent frequently report frustration with their reception by residential MFA programs.)
That, then, was our solution: we’d propose a studio-research program, emulating in its curriculum those successful programs with which we were familiar, and which we hoped would attract many of the same applicants. In addition, we proposed trying to attract fiction writers who might be underserved by extant MFA programs. In the process we grew more and more excited about the prospect of teaching workshops in which genre and nongenre fiction writers could converse with, and learn from, one another.
Kelly Magee, an associate professor at Western Washington University (which recently converted an MA in creative writing to an MFA), tells me that she and her colleagues also decided to find ways for the new MFA distinguish itself from a crowded field of extant programs. While their MFA would be similar structurally to many others, the faculty at WWU decided to make a point of emphasizing creative writing pedagogy, as well as their faculty’s interest in writing that “combines, blurs, and otherwise crosses” the boundaries between fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. “We were then able to attract students who were interested in a variety of teaching and writing positions, and who were interested in developing their craft intensively for two years in a program that allowed for and encouraged experimentation,” she told me.
The faculty at Butler University also sought to find ways to distinguish their MFA program. When crafting it, director Susan Neville told me, she and her colleagues built on the university’s well-established (and well-funded) Visiting Writers Series, but also specified that the new program would have a strong public service component: “Students volunteer hours working in the local schools, helping to edit Booth (the literary magazine we began with the program) or other community writing programs, and now working with an occupational therapist at a local hospital.”
All our work spent justifying our new program paid off; our proposal made its way through the various layers of our administration with (relatively) little difficulty, finally earning our regents’ approval in the summer of 2014. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the practical issues and problems UNR faced once we received that approval, but before our students arrived on campus. Planning and proposing our new program was one thing; attracting, admitting, and welcoming students was quite another.
Christopher Coake is the author of the novel You Came Back (2012) and the story collection We’re in Trouble (2005), which won the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for a first work of fiction. In 2007 he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. His short fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2004 and The Best American Noir of the Century, and published in journals such as Granta, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Five Points, and The Journal. A native of Indiana, Coake received an MA from Miami University of Ohio and an MFA from Ohio State University. He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he directs the new MFA program in creative writing.