Over the July 4th holiday I had the good fortune to be a visiting writer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA writing program.
Even before attending the talent show, I knew that I was experiencing a different kind of graduate education.
For the uninitiated, a low-residency degree combines distance learning with two seven to ten day “residencies” during the year where students and faculty gather on campus for face to face lectures, seminars, and workshops. VCFA is one of the oldest, most established programs in the country, operating for better than twenty-five years. Low-residency programs rely on low student to faculty ratios 4 or 5 to 1, which allows for a significant amount of contact, even at “distance” when it’s done by phone, email, or Skype. When not in residency, students work on projects similar to those done by traditional MFA graduate students, directed reading, writing critical papers, and developing their own creative work.
They’re also going to their existing jobs, raising families, living their lives.
I did a traditional MFA, a three-year program, during which I took my 9-12 hours of coursework each semester while TA’ing two sections of developmental English or freshman writing. It was a small program, no more than 12 fiction writers and 12 poets at a time, and our cohort was tight, but it was more of a bunker mentality, shared time in the trenches. We were a community, but a small one, an isolated one. My colleagues were fun, brilliant, talented people. I could bore you listing their successes. I treasure the experience, but I can’t say it wasn’t a tough slog at times. I was frequently not happy, and following graduation, decided to retire from trying to write creatively.
(That only lasted 6 months because I appear to be afflicted with a compulsion to write, regardless if people are going to pay attention to it, but it was a dark time.)
At VCFA, the residencies felt more like a celebration, a place these people came to be amongst their tribe.
Like the talent show. One after the other, volunteers got up and sang and played and danced, and declaimed. The twelve-year-old son of one of the graduating students did a comic magic routine that had me puzzling over how he’d managed the trick through part of the night as I lay in bed. The cheers for each performer were raucous and genuine. During introductions, inside jokes were exchanged, and I had to laugh along with everyone, even though I didn’t get them because it all felt so good.
The campus is picturesque, but the dorms are old and Spartan. As the visitor, I got one with a bathroom, but that’s an exception. Flip-flops were omnipresent. There was a softball game between poets and prose writers (inexplicably won by the poets) important enough to go on through pounding rain.
But the dorm living and cafeteria food and informality doesn’t matter because it is the community that is important, and the community is rooted in the people. I’ve spent the better part of the summer alone, finishing a manuscript, and to be amongst these people who valued the same things I did was a great balm to me, and I could immediately see why people are drawn to this kind of education and experience.
It is highly academic, but divorced from academia. The students are admirably dedicated, but also enjoy healthy perspective on what they’re doing. It is the work that matters, rather than the status, or the politics, or what might be next on the ladder of success.
I realized a few things about how I think education works, or should work.
Proximity is not to be confused with intimacy, and intimacy is very important. The residential experience is only as good as the quality of contact with the students. VCFA students and faculty may only see each other 20 days a year, but the bond was obvious. At one of the graduating student readings, all three readers choked back emotion as they thanked their mentors.
That intimacy is necessary because it breeds trust. Writing well creatively requires risk – emotional, personal – and students clearly felt comfortable taking those risks encouraged and supported by the faculty. The faculty are, quite literally, guides, object examples for students as they figure out how to negotiate the demands of the lives they’ve chosen.
While these are adult learners, many of whom have achieved great success in professional fields, I think there’s some application to undergraduate education, namely in working to bridge the separation between students and faculty, the notion (more likely to be held by students than faculty) that we are there to deliver knowledge and the students are there to receive it.
In all of my syllabi I say that I want the course to be a “shared inquiry” into the subject at hand. I mean this, and the course material reflects this idea, but I don’t know that I always live it. At VCFA the small class cohorts and fellowship during the residency shows me that achieving these goals extends beyond the classroom or the assignments.
To do better, I may need to be willing to share more of the inquiry, to explore our selves outside of the classroom context. I’m not talking about being friends with students, or inviting them over for a barbecue, but instead demonstrating an attitude of openness to my students, to share with them not just the things I’ve come to believe about writing well, but how and why I’ve come to believe them.
It is like that famous “March of Progress” illustration showing the progression of monkey to man.
I need to do more to show my students the monkey I used to be, and how I became the Neanderthal standing before them who hopes to one day achieve human form.
Put another way, I can’t stand on a pedestal and encourage them to climb toward me.
I think most of us that work in higher ed take for granted that education is a good thing, but I think very few of us really help students understand and engage with what it means to pursue education and show them that most of us continue this pursuit for our entire careers, and we do this because we see value in it.
Being amongst the people at VCFA reminded me that education is communal. It is intimate, and it is personal. I’ll be working on practicing these values with all of my students this fall.