The Real Story Behind Low-Residency MFAs

If you think low-res writing programs are second-rate, think again. Here’s why they might just be the best way to become a better writer.
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If you think low-res writing programs are second-rate, think again. Here’s why they might just be the best way to become a better writer.

—by David Jauss

For nearly 20 years I thought I had received the best graduate education a creative writer could possibly have.

Boy, was I wrong.

I earned master’s and doctoral degrees in creative writing from two of the most revered programs in America—Syracuse University and the University of Iowa, respectively—and I was thrilled with my education at both schools. (While it’s fashionable in some quarters to denigrate the Iowa program—it’s the New York Yankees of the Quality Lit Biz, after all—I loved my time there.) When I finished my graduate degrees, even though I still had a long way to go to become the kind of writer I wanted to be—and I still do, of course—I believed I had received the best possible preparation for a writing life.

Today, I still value those experiences enormously, but if I could do it all over again, I would enroll in a low-residency Master of Fine Arts program.

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If you’re anything like I used to be, you’re wondering why on earth someone would choose a low-residency program over two of the top traditional programs in the country. Before I began teaching in one, I thought a low-res program was a low-rent program. I believed it was an inherently inferior form of writing education, an alternative that was valuable only for those students who, for one reason or another, were unable to uproot their lives and move to another city to enroll in a traditional program. I confess I even thought that low-residency programs—which require students to spend only 10 or so days in residence per semester, and then work through correspondence with a faculty mentor—were merely gussied-up, legit versions of the correspondence courses offered by the infamous Famous Writers School of the 1960s. So when I agreed, 12 years ago, to teach for a semester in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was more than a little skeptical about what I was getting myself into.

It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that I couldn’t have been more wrong about low-residency programs. Even before my first residency was over, I was convinced that the low-residency model is the ideal way to learn to write, and that it can offer an education vastly superior to that of traditional programs.

I am far from being the only writing teacher to hold these views. I’ve heard them expressed repeatedly over the past dozen years, not only by my colleagues at VCFA, but also by writers who teach elsewhere in the format. There are numerous reasons so many of us believe low-residency programs are superior. Here are some of them.

One-on-One Mentoring

One all-important advantage of the low-residency model is that it allows for much more individualized attention. Whereas a teacher in a traditional program typically has 30–45 students per semester, a teacher in a low-residency program usually has only five, and works one-on-one with each of them. Because the teachers work with so few students, they’re able to critique considerably more work by each one, and to provide considerably more extensive and intensive critiques as well. During the course of a semester, low-residency instructors typically critique five monthly packets of work by each student.

In a recent interview, the poet Major Jackson explained why he would enroll in a low-residency program if he could do his education over again: During his two years in a traditional MFA program, he said, he had a total of 12 poems critiqued, while students in a low-residency program can have as many as 100 poems critiqued in the same period of time. I can testify that these numbers aren’t exaggerated. When I was a fiction-writing student at Syracuse and Iowa, I never had more than two short stories discussed in a semester. That’s the number of stories my students at VCFA submit in a typical month.

In a traditional program, there is little, if any, one-on-one mentoring. The education is by necessity group-oriented; all of the students are assigned the same texts. In a low-residency program, however, students collaborate with their mentors in designing semester plans that will help them achieve their individual goals, and the mentors recommend specific creative and critical readings for each student in order to address individual craft issues.

Also, because low-residency faculty members can read more work by each student, they’re able to work on revisions with their students to a far greater extent than faculty in traditional programs. As a result, low-residency students have a better opportunity to learn the art of revision, which is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of a writing education.

Diverse Instruction

Another important advantage low-residency programs offer is the sheer number of teachers with whom you can study. In the traditional format, a student rarely, if ever, has more than four different teachers during a typical two-year enrollment, and usually has fewer. (I had a total of four teachers at two universities over the course of five years and two graduate degrees.) In the more established low-residency programs, you can have as many as 14 teachers—four mentors who work with you one-on-one for a semester each, and two workshop leaders for each of the five required residencies. In addition, at every residency, the faculty members give hour-long craft lectures, so by the time you graduate, you can have learned from as many as 30 instructors. You also have the opportunity to learn from another 30 or so visiting writers and writers-in-residence, all of whom give lectures or informal talks as well as readings.

In my traditional graduate programs, I never heard a single faculty member give a lecture. I witnessed many brilliant spontaneous riffs on craft issues, sure, but not one carefully thought-out and presented lecture. Without question, I’ve learned far more from my low-residency colleagues’ wide-ranging and incisive lectures than I learned in my many traditional workshops.

The flexibility of the low-residency model also allows for more cross-genre work—and therefore more aesthetic cross-fertilization—than traditional programs. Many low-residency programs encourage (and some require) cross-genre study and practice, and a few even offer a dual-genre degree. In addition to fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, low-residency programs offer students the chance to work in, and learn from, such genres as playwriting, screenwriting, popular fiction, translation, and literature for children and young adults.

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Superior Education

I could go on listing the advantages of low-residency programs, but I’m running out of space. Suffice it to say that that not only writers but universities have begun to recognize the superiority of the model. When I began teaching at VCFA 12 years ago, there were only five low-residency programs in the United States, and today there are 43. Low-residency programs aren’t just the wave of the future, they’re the tsunami of the future.

If you’re interested in learning as much as you possibly can about writing in two years, the low-residency model offers you the best chance of achieving your goal. I urge you to compare what low-residency and traditional programs have to offer, and make the decision that is right for you.

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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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