18 February 2005

getting more from an MFA

Three months away from receiving an MFA from the Queens University of Charlotte low-residency MFA program, I think about what I would do differently if I had the opportunity to do it again. At the top of my list is this. Every month, I would post the feedback I received from my faculty advisor in a place where my fellow students could read it, and I would convince my fellow students to do the same. Here's why.

In this two year program, I will have submitted 24 pieces of work, an average of 1 per month, to faculty. I have studied with 4 faculty advisors, so each advisor read and gave me feedback on 6 pieces. Every advisor gave me excellent help. Each had a unique teaching style. I go back and study their responses. I make lists of ideas and post them. My writing has changed, and I hope it's better.

However, the Queens program has many faculty who teach in the fiction genre, namely:

Jane Alison
Pinckney Benedict
Jonathan Dee
Daniel Jones
Helen Elaine Lee
Fred Leebron
Daniel Mueller
Naeem Murr
Jenny Offill
David Payne
Susan Perabo
Patricia Powell
Steven Rinehart
Elissa Schappell
Elizabeth Strout
Abigail Thomas
Ashley Warlick

[wow. look at the shape of that list; pregnant belly; brimmed hat]

I only studied with 4 of them. I chose 2 more as thesis advisor and thesis reader, and a second thesis reader from the CNF genre. Still, look who I missed. Now imagine doubling or tripling that list if I'd also been able to read the feedback remarks from the CNF and poetry faculty. Should I list them? Go to the Queens website and find out who they are.

I would have been so embarrassed back at the beginning. I was embarrassed anyway, to know that 2-3 other students heard about my gaffes every semester. But if I had been less fragile, more willing, and if everyone else in my class had done the same, we would all have heard from all the faculty, and even when the faculty were not reading our work, we still would have learned things we didn't learn.

Less ego. More ideas. And Monday morning quarterbacking, too.

Note that many Queens faculty also teach workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is a splendid place to spend time.


  1. This is a great idea, Carol. Have you considered sharing it with the faculty and staff?

    I wonder if coming to this realization--'less ego, more ideas'--isn't part of the process? And as you suggest, wouldn't it be better all around to help students get there more quickly.

    p.s. three months away!

  2. I'm not sure I agree that this would be so great, Carol. I DO wish I'd been able to work with more of the faculty, but 4 plus the thesis and craft people is a goodly number. [In large measure because I wanted to work with Pinckney Benedict and couldn't at Queens, I'm going to Fred and Pinckney's new Tinker Mountain workshop in June.] But I'm not sure that many people could really absorb much more information than they're already getting. It's damn useful to see the critiques by and of your small groups, but to see the critques of 80 other people, by 20 faculty? There's barely enough time as it is. Now maybe a limited version of your idea might be practicable--sort of like the Large Group/Small Group splits during the Residencies. What if you got the benefit of seeing the critiques of the other faculty person from Large Group (along with the option of seeing the submissions of the writers in the other group), but didn't have to do the critiquing yourself. Some additional resources, but not an overwhelming amount?

  3. I see an MFA program as a concentrated time to write and read and learn. If all feedback were available, people would read what they wanted to read. Omnivores would read everything. Others might read less. I'm suggesting that the students offer to share more of what the faculty offers.