Going Borderless and Bilingual

U. of Texas at El Paso's unique M.F.A. program expands into the online sector.
January 25, 2007

A unique bilingual M.F.A. program in many ways defined by its base on the Mexican border is, with the addition of a new distance education initiative, embarking on a “grand experiment” to become borderless.

“At times, it’s difficult to get the students physically here,” said Lex Williford, assistant professor in the University of Texas at El Paso’s bilingual creative writing program and the instructor of the program’s first online course. The university’s residential M.F.A. program has been a magnet for students from Latin America, but, especially since September 11, Williford said, the border has at times been a barrier.

“What we’re trying to do is, in a sense, to become more democratic and make the border go away, and allow the students to be able to study in whatever their home country is,” Williford said.

A new online M.F.A. program at UT El Paso initiated this spring stands out not just for its embrace of Spanish and English -- which to a lesser degree mirrors the bilingual approach of the university’s thriving residential program -- but also its complete lack of a residency requirement, an uncommon development in a field that has been characterized of late by a proliferation of “low-residency” upstarts. Translating the residential program’s distinctive approach to fit within an online format is an experiment, observers say, worth watching.

“We’re increasing the reach,” said Johnny Payne, chair of the M.F.A. program. “I think we’re already attracting some interesting individuals who wouldn’t have come otherwise.”

The bilingual approach of U.T.-El Paso's residential M.F.A. program began in earnest about five years ago, Payne said, when the formerly isolated Spanish and English writing programs merged.

There are 35 to 40 full-time residential students, half of whom are funded for study. The range of students include "Spanish dominant" writers from Mexico, Central and South America, students from the border area, and "English dominant" writers from elsewhere in the United States who have studied Spanish in college and abroad, Payne said. Courses are offered in fiction, poetry, playwriting, screenwriting and nonfiction, and students, both in the residential and online tracks, are expected to study both a primary and secondary genre. Students in the three-year residential program are not required to write in a non-dominant language, but they do literary study in Spanish and English, and courses are conducted in both languages. “When I teach a course, I move freely back and forth between the two languages all the time. There are no premeditated plans about that,” Payne said. But there are norms, he added. “If you’re in a workshop, and someone has written a piece in Spanish, you discuss it in Spanish.”

“My first language is Spanish, and being that my first language is Spanish, a lot of my writing and my poetry is bilingual, and it also has elements of Caló, or Chicano slang,” Veronica Guajardo, a residential M.F.A. student from California , said in explaining why she chose El Paso’s program. “I thought how cool would that be to double the amount of writers, to have colleagues from Mexico and Peru and Latin America and all over the United States too -- how much richer would that be?”

“It’s not just translation,” added Mariana Achugar, an assistant professor of second language acquisition and Spanish at Carnegie Mellon University who has conducted research on El Paso’s program. “You’re able to develop skills in translating, but it’s also being able to receive critiques from someone who understands narrative in a different way -- even what a good story is. People who come from an Anglo tradition tend to need to have a lot of dialogue and expect a certain development of the story, and people who come from a Latin American tradition don’t have those needs when they’re writing and reading. That creates a discussion and a different way of seeing.”

The new online program, designed to promote even wider exchanges, has the potential to be exciting, Achugar said. But she does not yet know how or whether the program will succeed in maintaining the bilingual approach – and the valuable perspectives of local students from the border region, or the “cultural brokers,” as she calls them -- that have distinguished El Paso’s M.F.A. program.

Whereas in the residential program, students move freely between the two languages in each course, the online program will feature some courses presented exclusively in Spanish, and others exclusively in English, although students can write in either of the two languages, Payne said. The decision to offer monolingual instruction by course was deliberately made because online students don’t have access to the same sorts of on-campus mentoring services, he explained. “Hypothetically, a student can avoid a language. We hope they don’t make that choice,” Payne said.

“There are so many M.F.A.'s out there that if students are attracted to our program, it’s because of what we offer. At the least, our online students are going to get a multicultural experience.”

Indeed, of the 410 writing programs in the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, including 120 M.F.A. programs, U.T.-El Paso’s multicultural approach stands out. The program proclaims itself as the only bilingual M.F.A. program in the country, and David Fenza, executive director of the AWP, said that while other programs, such as the one at the University of Arkansas, have excelled in teaching translation, El Paso’s bilingual approach is “more complete, and more zealous” than other M.F.A. offerings.

“Proficiency in a second language is not a requirement in most programs. It’s a very exciting thing they’re doing because unfortunately America is a nation of monoglots, and universities have generally relaxed their foreign language requirements,” Fenza said. Literature has become a more international enterprise in the last century, he added: “A program like this that really understands [languages] as being part of a writer’s life, that’s a fantastic development.”

But the lack of residency in the new online program was enough to give Fenza pause. A great benefit of attending a M.F.A. program, even low-residency ones that feature just a couple weeks of classroom instruction per year, are the connections that emerging writers make with one another, he explained. “It’s kind of perplexing to me,” Fenza said of the no-residency approach, which he said is, as far as he knows, the only no-residency program up and running. “I’m not sure that it’s a good idea, but we’ll have to see how the experiment goes.”

“There’s no doubt that you lose a little bit, in fact, I’d say you probably lose a lot,” with the lack of face-to-face meetings, said Williford, who is teaching screenwriting, the premier online offering, this semester. Eventually, Payne said, the program, which is being phased in over several semesters, will likely offer three courses per term online, including a mix of literature and writing courses. Online students will have the opportunity to complete the degree in 2.5 to three years.

“What I’ve tried to do is emulate [classroom instruction] on several different levels,” Williford explained. This semester’s group of about 15 students, including five from South America and Mexico, will engage in “asynchronous” workshops on discussion boards. Students, who will likely be divided into groups based on which language they choose to write in, will also offer critiques on their peers' writing that Williford will compile into cohesive documents and post online. Eventually, Williford said, he’d like to have synchronous workshops online, but due to varying schedules, that doesn’t look like it will be possible for this debut course, at least.  “I think the real advantage to online workshops is even though they may not be face to face, they do have the opportunity to get to know each other in the ways that pen pals might,” Williford said.

“The diversity of stories in a sense is going to help the students get to know each other, and I’m hoping, get to know each other well enough so that they’ll want to visit each other at some point.”


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