{Writing Wednesday} 5 Disadvantages of Low-Residency MFA Programs

5 Disadvantages of Low Residency MFA Programs

In a previous post, I detailed the numerous advantages to the low-residency model of creative writing study. Now let’s take a look at the downsides.

Lack of funding.

For students who don’t have full-time employment that can subsidize their educations, this reason alone is enough to deter many from the low-res route. There are a few schools that offer small grants for entering MFA students – like the one I received one from Antioch, for instance – but the majority of educational costs (including the not-insignificant expense of residency travel) will either fall on the student or require hefty loan debt.

Few opportunities to acquire teaching experience.

If your main goal is to improve your writing craft, this won’t be a particularly pressing concern, but if a teaching job is one of your long-term aspirations, think carefully before embarking on a low-residency literary journey. It’s not impossible to gain teaching experience in such a situation (I’ve known low-res students who arranged gigs at local community colleges, for example), but it’s important to understand that such a prospect will be far more difficult than in a traditional setting.

Limited access to university infrastructure.

This issue, of course, will depend quite heavily upon the school in question, but it can rear its head in unexpected ways. As a low-residency student, I wound up having to pay for a library card at my local university, for instance, in order to access academic texts and journals in a timely manner. I found that, while most administrative support concerns got resolved eventually, I did sometimes miss the built-in cadre of easily utilized resources that came with a full-residency program, so it’s definitely a point to consider.

A sense of community that may be more elusive or difficult to maintain.

The operative word here, of course, being may. In my case, I had a small child and wasn’t the least bit interested in spending my nights tipsily talking shop in Iowa City bars, so the type of community my low-res cohort established through Facebook and phone calls suited me fine. If you’re an extrovert or establish friendships most easily through structured environments, however, you might find the low-residency experience a tougher, more alienating one.

An educational experience dominated by one-on-one mentorship.

Yes, Observant Reader, this is the very same line item I listed as an advantage earlier. Why the double-duty as blessing and curse? Well, if you wind up with a mentor with whom you click, your term can be an insight-filled delight, but if you’re assigned someone dead-set on imposing his or her aesthetic on your work (which does happen occasionally, though far less often than MFA naysayers like to assert), you could be in for a miserable time – and unlike in a traditional program, you usually won’t have other courses to balance out the experience during that term. (The good news, of course, is that you’ll usually have at least four mentors during your two years of study, maximizing the number of perspectives on your work, and minimizing the domination of any one faculty member’s criticism.)

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