Robb Lightfoot: Creative Writing MFA Programs – A Hurried and Half-Witted Review

Last week, I spend a good part of an evening beating a deadline to apply for financial aid. In my immediate family, almost everyone is either in college or thinking about it. My adult children range from my oldest daughter-“done and don’t want to go back anytime soon”- to my son “maybe I’ll take some classes later in the year.”

In between I have another daughter about to finish her BA and her younger sibling who is finishing up community college and looking to transfer to a CSU. My wife is in the early stages of her PhD work, and I am the one who tries to fill out the endless paperwork that goes with all of this.

Since I was doing it for everyone else, and had the numbers at my fingertips, I thought “why not,” and filled out a FAFSA for myself.

This begs the question: “If I got another degree, what would it be?”

I’ve had my master’s degree in communications now for something like 23 years, and I love my discipline. But I’m not sure that I’d want to do a PhD in it. I’ve long thought about getting another advanced degree in the performing arts, directing or playwrighting, but those are hard degrees to pursue and still work.

We live in the age of online degrees, and my life-long passion, since grade school, really, has been to write “The Great American Novel.” So I browsed around for suitable degrees in writing.

There are a staggering number of choices in this area, and I realized immediately that I needed some sort of rubric to evaluate the programs. Fortunately, there are a number of websites that have reviews of these institutions. One of the first things that comes up on a Google search, at least for me, is the Atlantic’s review of top MFA programs.

In my case it has to be a “low residency” program, one that requires a limited number of days each year on campus. These are typically in the summer, or between terms. It looks like they design these programs with teachers in mind. The only caveat is that this article is from 2007. So, you have to know that the faculty and programs may well have changed in the interim.

Here’s their top 10

Ten Top Graduate Programs in Creative Writing
(in alphabetical order)
Boston University
University of California at Irvine
Cornell University
Florida State University
University of Iowa
Johns Hopkins University
University of Michigan
New York University
University of Texas, Michener Center
University of Virginia

Of particular interest was this list:

Five Top Low-Residency M.F.A. Programs
Antioch University
Bennington College
Pacific University
Vermont College
Warren Wilson College

So, what I did, when it came to my own FAFSA, was to plug these five into the list of colleges that would get my request for financial aid. If nothing else, I thought it would get me on their mailing list. The FAFSA allows you to submit up to 10 colleges, and I decided to add a few more in, “just for fun,” as Mom used to say when she was doing something nuts.

Here’s where things got interesting. Google searches of “low residency MFA creative writing” yield zillions of hits. I began to think that every new Starbucks must have an MFA program on the menu. And once I strayed away from the vetted institutions, I was on my own as to how to evaluate these.

I’m going to be posting some of my efforts to do my own review, as I have my own unique criteria. But for now, I’ll just mention the five I added, more at less at random. I can’t say I’m proud of my weird criteria that I used to just grab five more names out of a hat. But in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you how I did it.

The first one that caught my eye was the University of Nebraska. They have a playwrighting option, which intrigues me. Yes, I still would rather do a novel, but the performance arts have long been a passion, and closely related to what I do is speech/debate/literature in performance. Besides, all the people I’ve met from Nebraska seem nice. I think the total number I know is three, and that has to be half the state, right?

Another one on my list was picked just the name sounded cool. This is my inner teenager talking, OK? It’s the University of New Orleans. My thinking was that the residencies would be fun. Think of summers on Bourbon Street-jazz, wild parties and Cajun food. So, on the list it went. Later, when I did some follow-up research, I realized that the joke is on me. UNO does its summer residencies in Edinburgh.  While that’s OK, it was a bit of a letdown. I mean, how much Cajun food is there in Scotland? And as my wife can tell you, I will gnaw my arm off rather than listen to bagpipes. So, I have to admit right off the top, that hasty choices can have a downside.

As I continued to fill in the blanks of potential colleges, and as my family in the next room urged me to finish up so we could go and get some dinner–I saved my FAFSA for last–I began to worry a bit about the travel costs. I looked to the Pacific Northwest. I thought staying closer to Northern California, home, would save me some money. So I looked at Northwestern University. I was impressed with the faculty and offerings, and had added it before I realized that “Northwest,” in this case, meant Evanston Illinois.

Before I get hooted out of the room on this one, I have to say in my own defense that I don’t follow football or basketball. And for those of you who KNOW where Northwestern is, and didn’t go there, would you have know if you didn’t follow sports and know it was a big-ten school? Really? Anyway, I left it on the list and made sure the next school was from Washington State.

I can’t say that this program is the best in the Northwest, but I can at least assure you that it IS in Washington State. It’s the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, the MFA in Creative Writing. It looked interesting in that the residency is on Whidbey Island. Now, I couldn’t tell you where Whidbey Island is to save my life, but I’m willing to bet that I don’t have to change my greenbacks to Euros and listen to bagpipes while working in my residency. So, for now, it’s still on the list.

My last choice, numero ten,  was pure whimsy. I was thinking “north,” and I noticed that the University of Alaska had just opened a low-residency program. How much father “north” can you go? I plugged in their code into my FAFSA. Of course, when I returned to do some further research, I realized that I have already blown all their normal deadlines. I also looked at their faculty, and none of them seemed like they’d walked off the set of “Northern Exposure.” This was a bit disappointing; I was hoping for more quirk. I’ll post more on this as I continue to research them.

So there it is, a list of 10 possible choices for an MFA. Now whether or not it makes any sense at all to get an MFA is another matter. But given that the first “F” in FAFSA is free, it’s at least a cheap fantasy at this point. It will get pricey when I start sending off the applications, if I decide to do that. We’ll see how I’m courted, to the degree that I am. The New Orleans people and the Vermont folks have already sent me some stuff. It gave me a warm feeling, to be wanted. It also surprised me a bit. I didn’t think anything moved fast in Vermont in early March. So, I’m already learning.

Robb Lightfoot began teaching communications classes at Shasta College before there was such a thing as the Internet, and was selected as teacher of the year for 2010. He’s done stand-up comedy at The Knitting Factory in Reno and was recently published in The Funny Times. Robb lives in Shasta County with his wife, Karin, and her many irrepressible pets. Visit him at www.robblightfoot.com.

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