In Defense of the Low-Res MFA

March 10, 2015 § 19 Comments

Maggie Messitt

Maggie Messitt

I am an MFA dropout.

I’d been a journalism major by default—rejected from the undergraduate creative writing program—and minored in an interdisciplinary human rights program in which I was given the freedom to use the tools of longform, literary, and immersion journalism to complete my thesis. This program gave me a home. It supported my curiosity, research, and writing in a way no other department would at the time. They listened to me. And they responded with guidance based on my developmental needs and not limited to their preconceived ideas of what I should be doing.

Still, I was convinced that graduate school was my next step. I wanted to tell true stories. After broadcast and newspaper internships, I knew these paths didn’t feel quite right. I could only describe: I want to produce documentaries on paper. I leapt from undergrad to a successful MFA program on the East Coast that had recently added nonfiction. And, yet, I was a fish out of water. I didn’t fit inside the box. And my interactions with professors made this clear. Throughout my first year, I carried the heavy weight of being a disappointment and my writing reflected this. So, I left after that first year.

I had nearly forgotten the intensity of that feeling and how destructive it was, until I read Ryan Boudinot’s “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” in The Stranger. Boudinot’s diatribe struck me as an I-just-quit-my-job-let-me-tell-you-how-terrible-it-was letter to his former captors—his students. It was arrogant and personal. It had possible tinder for discussion, but most readers couldn’t get past the sharp tone and appalling digs.

Although I could comment upon each point where he went wrong, I won’t. Others have already done this and done this well. But, what I can’t seem to let pass is Boudinot’s destructive and unspoken criticism of low residency programs and their students.

Ryan Boudinot is a graduate of Bennington College and former faculty at Goddard College. Both of these programs are low residency. This means, for two or three years, students are in-residence twice a year for one to three intense weeks, depending on the program, and then everyone returns to their homes across the country or the globe to work with their mentor and their mentor group from afar. And while they’re full time students, almost everyone returns home to full-time jobs and family.

In full disclosure: three years after leaving grad school, I restarted my MFA at Goucher College, a low-res program. It changed my life. I started from scratch and from day one I knew I’d found a home. Low-res programs have a unique, almost magical, dynamic that only low residency students and faculty understand. And it is for this reason I—an MFA dropout, an MFA graduate, and now a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction—can’t wrap my head around Boudinot’s willingness to, for lack of a better word, dis these alternative programs with such a wide brush.

And so, Ryan Boudinot, here are a few lessons I am sorry you didn’t learn:

  1. Low Residency MFA’s are structured around the positive relationship between mentors and mentees. There is no place for mentor gatekeeping or bullying.

A mentor is a trusted advisor, a friend, teacher, and someone who acts with intent aimed to benefit the development of the mentee. In my program, we referred to faculty as mentors. And, this is what they were. Each worked with a small number of students, catering to the needs of each and their manuscript-in-progress. They understood no student was alike and that required listening. They weren’t saints. We certainly had episodes of new mentors adjusting, and myths around mentors who didn’t make it (insisting that writing can’t be taught), but ultimately it was about investing in the development of a single writer. It was about guidance, pushing students to understand story, structure, character development, their specific sub-genre of choice, and writing ethics. Your judgment of these students and your gatekeeping attitude reflects less on them and more on your suitability to mentor and your ability to understand the true value and role of the low-res MFA. These programs are not aimed at students seeking admission to the Iowa Writers Workshop. These students range widely in experience and aspirations. They actively sought an alternative home for writers who may not fit inside traditional models. Why waste your time criticizing their existence and their lifetime libraries? Sure, you’re going to read some manuscripts that aren’t all that great, but I pick up a lot of books that aren’t all that great. Isn’t that why those students are there—to find ways to get better? To learn?

  1. Know your audience. Low residency students do not fit into a single category or stereotype.I lived in South Africa where I ran a writing school, edited, and reported. CK was a staff writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. SG was a lawyer in London. TM lived in Antarctica and was responsible for all scientist field communication. And SJB worked at a funeral home in Baltimore. More than half were married with children. Some were managing illness, divorce, or the looming death of a loved one. Your lack of respect for the low-res “21st century MFA student” and mockery of their difficulties managing the writing life balance makes me wonder: did you take the time to know your students? Did you listen? They would likely amaze you. They differ greatly from the traditional 23-year-old MFA student living below the poverty line while they teach classes, attend classes, and struggle to find the energy to write. And their goals are sometimes one book, a memoir they feel the need to write, a novel they’ve been thinking about for years. Or they may not have an interest in literary fiction, rather a yearning to write mysteries or young adult. My program was uniquely all nonfiction and ages ranged from early twenties to late seventies. And we had what seemed to be a 60/40 split between memoir and narrative nonfiction. We were serious and excited and eager. A few were challenging for mentors, I’m sure, but then again, I don’t know any job that lacks difficulty.
  1. Literary community is essential. Be kind and listen.

Sure, community can be constructed at home through writing groups and nearby workshops, but the support system and the family developed inside these residencies are unparalleled in my experience and, for many, lasts a lifetime. These are my people. And, because we have always lived away from one another, we learned from the start that writing is solitary, but we have each other. And, as a community, there was an overriding sense that your success is not my failure, rather your success is our success.

“Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are,” you write, “should just give up and do something else.” First, no one ever told me to quit my traditional MFA, but the feeling that I was a disappointment, that I didn’t share their goals for me, did enough damage. At the time, I was your nightmare. I was poorly read. I lacked confidence in my voice as a writer and, more generally, my place in this world. And, I questioned whether I should be doing this—writing—at all. The competitive dynamic of community in most traditional programs doesn’t lend itself well to correcting this damage. But, in my experience, the community constructed inside low-res programs is different.

On some levels, I’m in agreement: blowing deadlines and complaining isn’t ok, but this is also why many students have joined this community: individual support, guidance, mentorship, and modeling of the things they don’t instinctually do well. It is a place where I learned to ask for what I needed. It is your job as a mentor to be a part of this community and find teaching moments, ways to help each student correct and overcome their greatest flaws and obstacles. It’s a big job and some people are doing it very well. But, guiding someone to quit doesn’t help anyone. Writing is hard and it’s full of rejection at every level. The last place we should find this is in our mentors and our community.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: Boudinot set himself and his students up for failure. He joined an alternative community while still holding on to very conventional, even regressive, ideas about writing communities and the role of the professor. While it’s unclear why Boudinot discontinued his relationship with Goddard College, it is clear that he and his students were not serving each other well.


Maggie Messitt is the author of The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa, a work of literary journalism (April 2015). Her essays and reportage have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Essay Daily, Mother Jones, River Teeth, and Teaching Tolerance magazine, among others. She currently resides in southeast Ohio where she’s working on her doctorate and her next book, a hybrid of investigation and memoir. Co-editor of Proximitya quarterly collection of true stories, you can find her here and here and sometimes even here.







Tagged: , ,

§ 19 Responses to In Defense of the Low-Res MFA

  • So well said, Maggie. You “nailed” the essence of the low res. experience.Faculty having both full -time undergrad. teaching positions and part time low res. MFA gigs, are the worst offenders of lumping us ( I am currently Low res) in with their students in the traditional programs whose whining is usually for entirely other reasons. I whined last semester about possibly not making deadline on packet four because my father was dying and I was by his bedside ( he died a month later), not because I had partied too much the night before. Throughout the semester, I was spoken to like a child ( I am 60) and sometimes without respect. Low res. programs are, as you so aptly wrote, an different type of animal and need to be understood as such. Talk to me-adult to adult-and help me find solutions to better my work. I promise I will listen because I don’t even own a pair of Beats.

  • skyllairae says:

    Reblogged this on EAT ME and commented:
    This is a beautiful analysis. An explanation that I want to convey to the world. I am a Goddard College alum and I want to share my thoughts on this situation as well. Unfortunately I have to get ready for work so I am reflagging this as a gesture of preservation for the idea I want to write about. And background info. Please read this. It is important.

  • This has to be the gentlest, yet most direct, “taking to task” I’ve ever read. Well done. If the rest of us could write and express as well and as ethically as you do, the world would be a better place. Thank you.

  • Maggie Messitt tells it wonderfully. I’m not as nice as she…people who don’t like students really ought not to teach. Low-res programs have their rightful place; with mentors like those at Goucher, they will continue to meet the needs of students like Maggie and me.

  • 1WriteWay says:

    Now this makes me wants to sign up for a low-res MFA program!

  • Well said. As an older graduate of one of the top low residency programs (Spalding Univ.), I concur with everything put forth by this author. Earming and MFA was one of the mos academically challenging but rewarding accomplishments of my life.

  • Lovely, and encouraging. I’m young, inexperienced, unpublished, and desperate to write. For these reasons and more, I’m not ready for an MFA program (hope to be someday) right now, and reading these kinds of tongue lashings about what it means to we a writer–and how few people are truly writers–are damaging, discouraging, and frankly, scare me off an MFA program. Thank you for countering this kind of attitude (from Boudinot) with such grace, experience, and kindness!

  • Lovely, and encouraging. I’m young, inexperienced, unpublished, and desperate to write. For these reasons and more, I’m not ready for an MFA program (hope to be someday) right now, and reading these kinds of tongue lashings about what it means to we a writer–and how few people are truly writers–are damaging, discouraging, and frankly, scare me off an MFA program. Thank you for countering this kind of attitude (from Boudinot) with such grace, experience, and kindness!

  • Maggie, what are some of the best low-residency M.F.A. programs for international aspirants? Can you point to a list that I can access? Are any fellowships/scholarships available?

  • Amen. Beautiful. Captured my experiences with my own low-res. Ever thankful.

  • Thank you Maggie Messitt. Your words are very helpful. I am a Goddard MFA graduate and know Ryan. His words have been very damaging to many people. Yours are helping correct that damage.

  • Reblogged this on Public Work and commented:
    Exactly what Maggie Messitt says:

  • […] Stranger that infuriated many of my fellow creative writers. Criticism of Boudinot was widespread, thorough, and appropriate, calling the writer out on his misogynistic tone, his narrow definitions of […]

  • Javier says:

    I am 40 years old and wondering if I should do a low res MFA. I’ve wanted to write all my life but have never given myself permission to do so. I happened upon Boudinot’s essay and felt a little deflated. This entry made me appreciate what a low res MFA is/what it is about/who it caters too. I think I also know how to properly research/select one now. This is a wonderful essay. Thank you for writing this!

  • Javier says:

    Reblogged this on That Was Deep! and commented:
    This is a wonderful view of what low res MFAs are about. If anyone is considering one, they should look at this (and the post to which it is responding).

  • Amy says:

    Hello, I came across this blog post in the throes of a Google search: Goddard vs. Goucher low res MFA program in (nonfiction) writing. I am applying to both schools, and would really love to get a clear idea of the fundamental differences between the two. If anyone has thoughts or recommendations, I would be grateful. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading In Defense of the Low-Res MFA at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.


%d bloggers like this: