There are nearly forty low-residency MFA programs in the United States, and more are springing up each year. These innovative options are popular with good reason, as they offer several advantages over traditional MFA studies. (They also offer several distinct disadvantages, which I’ll detail in a forthcoming post.)
Having graduated from a low-res MFA program, I’ve managed to distill its benefits down to the following five:
1. The ability to avoid relocation or job loss.
By far the most pragmatic and compelling reason most students choose a low-residency program, this advantage is a boon to writers with established ties in a home community, steady employment they don’t want to forfeit, and/or partners and families to consider.
2. A diverse cohort of peers.
No doubt because of benefit #1, MFA students in low-res programs are a far less homogenous bunch than their traditional counterparts. In my program, for instance, students ranged in age from 23 to 70, hailed from all parts of the nation (and several foreign countries), and held a variety of jobs in fields ranging from IT to Hollywood screenwriting; many balanced the demands of writing, full-time work, and raising children. The voices they brought to workshops and online groups reflected a polyphony of cultures, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, and racial backgrounds, which made for a rich and engaging experience.
3. The opportunity for sustained mentorship.
In the majority of low-res pedagogical scenarios, students interact with their peers during each term, but the heart of learning lies in the one-on-one relationship between student and faculty mentor. Not only does this helpfully prepare one for future dialogue with agents and editors, it also allows for far more in-depth and contextual feedback than is often available in traditional workshops (a particularly strong benefit for those who are working on novels, as opposed to short fiction).
4. Unique possibilities for study abroad.
Several low-residency programs offer students the option (or, in a few cases, the requirement) of spending their residencies overseas, working with international faculty. A few examples include Fairleigh Dickinson University‘s Wroxton, England campus, the Irish residency offered by Carlow University, and the University of New Orleans’ summer residency options in Mexico and Europe.
5. A working apprenticeship in the writing life.
While traditional programs immerse students in a ready-made literary community that’s full of university-mediated opportunities, a low-res program, by its very definition, requires students both to articulate and plan towards their goals, budget their time and energies in the face of other obligations, and network in their communities. In short, a low-res program essentially duplicates (with some additional structure and resources) the life of a working writer.
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