September 17, 2020

"The End of an MFA"

First off, full disclosure: I had to request that we call it "The End of an MFA." They'd titled it "The End of the MFA," which felt far too dire. 

I have a new piece out in a nationally distributed magazine, and usually when that happens I shout from the rooftops. But I've been quiet this time--until a couple of friends, earlier this week, gently asked: why the silence? Part of the reason is that my essay, "The End of an MFA: What Happens When a Low-Residency Program Closes?" is not online; there's no link to share. Anyone interested will have to go pick up the September/October issue of Poets & Writers off the newsstands or, more likely, get around to finally reading the subscriber's copy that arrived a few weeks ago. 

I'm proud of the piece. I welcomed the depth of understanding that came with the multiple interviews I did to research it--I found that people were excited to talk with someone paying attention to the fact that * seven * low-res MFA programs have closed down since 2015. What's hit me in recent weeks is how acutely I am also grieving the loss of my own program at the University of Tampa. From the (very recently) updated website: "The MFA in Creative Writing is being discontinued and will no longer accept applicants."

The view in the snapshot above is one I've gotten every January and June since 2014, with the minarets of Plant Hall visible on the other side of the river. I'll always be grateful for the traipsing to Ybor City in the early days; the brisk walks along the river in recent ones, where I would stop in at the Armature Works for a bowl of ramen or a slab of ribs; the discovery of the gem that is the Tampa Museum of Art; conversations at The Retreat that left the stink of smoke in my hair; a pint sipped under the thatched-roof of Four Green Fields while I worked on an intro for the Lectores series. For the first time I had my own distinct home city in Florida, a state that my family (and my in-laws) have had ties to for as long as I can remember. 

Tampa is where I learned to teach. I got the invitation to apply when the main adjunct experience I had under my belt was a "Writing I" class at the Corcoran College of Art + Design (also now closed, ooof). I'm not saying I was unqualified--I'd led workshops in community writing spaces such as The Writer's Center (where I still teach), and I'd had multiple visiting writer gigs in tandem with book tours, which had taken me into classrooms across the U.S. But this was different. Steve took a chance on me. This was a paradigm shift, something that began to sink in as I met the other teachers and thought... colleagues? After years of lone-wolfing, I'd found a pack. 

My devotion might have been particularly acute because I had nowhere else where I taught on a regular basis. Sitting in on every seminar that I could--usually from my vantage point of sitting in the corner, on the floor, near the stage of Reeves Theater--I got a priceless education of my own. I hope that the colleagues I annoyed over the years by "eavesdropping" on their lessons can forgive me, but honestly I was just so excited to learn from you all. I also reaped the benefit of the fancy writers who we brought through as visiting Lectores. To be honest, I learned both from them and about them. I learned that what matters isn't the excitement the students have when you arrive, because that can be all glamour and no substance; what matters is the forward momentum the students have after you leave. 

Tampa was where I developed my workshop style: bright, performative, probably reading- and vocabulary-heavy, hopefully with a lot of laughter to ease the rigor. Tampa is where I developed my first dozen go-to hourlong lectures, which I'll carry with me for the rest of my teaching career, and realized that I delight as much in teaching nonfiction as I do in teaching poetry. Tampa is where I discovered what I'm most gifted at (line edits) and what I spend way too much time on (line edits). Tampa is where I had the time to form lasting mentorships with students, often seeded by the solidarity of shared identities or reference points. 

Tampa is where, ironically, I learned these mentorships were not limited by geography. I'm a firm believer in the low-residency model for the access and flexibility it offers. I took student work with me to Cyprus, to Kansas, to Ireland. I conferenced with a student on my wedding day, while someone fussed with the back-closure of my dress. I conferenced with a student while I was hunkered down on the floor of my SW DC apartment with my dying cat (that wasn't ideal, but bless the student for making me laugh in such a tough time). 

Students, you have been so, so kind and patient with me, and you trusted me with such valuable material of life and art. I'll never forget that. 

On the scale of 2020 losses, this is bearable. I've already heard from teachers delighted by the UT transfer students landing in their respective low-res MFA programs. I have every faith that they'll thrive. I'm fortunate to have a final two talented students, both of whom I taught in earlier semesters, with whom I'll get the satisfaction of shaping thesis manuscript--one last poetry collection, one last nonfiction work.

That said, I wish we'd gotten a proper send-off. When we met in January of this year, though there was open concern, there was also a resolve to rally and recruit. By February, the program had been shut down via an e-mail. In March, all of our AWP gatherings were cancelled. The June residency moved to Zoom because of COVID-19. I suspect the January 2021 capstone events for our last round of graduates will also be online or, even if there is an in-person component, it will feel risky for our scattered (former) faculty to fly in for the festivities. We deserved one more dance party. 

There's no need to use this space for a post-mortem, or to philosophize about why our low-residency program was vulnerable in the first place. Read the article! I just thought I'd put here what I couldn't put there, which was: pure gratitude. And pure sadness. 


Unknown said...

One of the best experiences of my life, a tad later in life. Changed my life and my writing. A pack found indeed. Thanks Sandra from an inaugural cohort grad in 2014.

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