Southern’s second terminal degree program is the first of its kind in the state
Writers and poets with a drive to learn more about their craft, and to do it within a community of other writers, now have a home at Southern. On Sept. 17, the state Board of Governors for Higher Education approved a new degree program at the university: a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, only the second terminal degree to be offered by the university and the first full-residency M.F.A. program in the state.
The English Department has long offered the M.A. and M.S. with creative writing option; the M.F.A. will replace these degree options. The primary difference between these degrees and the M.F.A. is that the latter is the terminal degree in the field of creative writing. A more rigorous program than that leading to the M.A. or M.S., the M.F.A. is essentially the equivalent of the Ph.D. in its field, preparing students to become published writers and to seek jobs as university-level writing instructors. Southern’s M.F.A. joins the Ed.D. program as one of the university’s two terminal degree programs.
“The M.F.A. offers a different level of professionalism, with different expectations,” says English Professor Tim Parrish, one of the architects of the new program. “In the abstract, M.F.A.s prepare people to be flexible thinkers, great written communicators and facilitators in groups,” he says, “but personal enrichment is really the draw. Students get to be part of a serious community of writers.”
English Professor Jeff Mock, who worked with Parrish on developing the proposal for the M.F.A., agrees. “We’ve had a wonderful writing community here,” he says, “but it’ll be a major difference to have these students here for this specific purpose.”
The creative writing faculty, which includes CSU Professor Vivian Shipley and Assistant Professor of English Robin Troy, along with Parrish and Mock, say that there has long been a need in Connecticut for a full-time M.F.A. program in creative writing. Western Connecticut State University offers a low-residency M.F.A. in professional writing, and Fairfield University recently added a low-residency M.F.A. program in creative writing. Low-residency programs allow students to do most of their coursework online, with only occasional visits to campus.
“With an online degree program, one misses the presence of a human community and the opportunities for personal interaction,” Shipley says. Southern’s is an on-site program, which, the faculty say, will give students a sense of common purpose and enable them to develop close friendships and working partnerships. And, as Troy points out, “People from Connecticut will have the opportunity to complete this degree without leaving the state.”
The new program is an exciting development within an already vibrant department. With flourishing undergraduate and graduate literary publications, award-winning faculty members and a visiting writers series, the department is well prepared to offer the high level of literary activity expected in an M.F.A. program. Michael Shea, English department chairman, says, “The creative writing program has a long history of great teachers and courses, and the M.F.A. program is a culmination of this tradition of excellence.” Shipley, who has been a member of the faculty since 1969, says the M.F.A.’s approval “is the most exciting thing to happen in this department since I got here.” She calls her colleagues — Parrish, Mock and Troy – “miracle workers” for what she sees as their success in bringing their collective vision for the M.F.A. program to fruition.
Parrish says that the creative writing program has been steadily evolving and that the M.F.A. is the natural next step. He points to the accomplishments of Southern’s creative writing students — publications, prizes, fellowships and acceptances to demanding M.F.A. programs around the country – as evidence that the university attracts serious writing students and supports them in their craft.
The curriculum for the 48-credit program will be based in literary studies, consisting in fiction and poetry workshops, literature and theory courses and the thesis. Currently, the M.A. and M.S. curricula allow up to 18 credits of fiction or poetry workshops and six credits of creative-thesis work. The M.F.A. will retain these opportunities while increasing course requirements in literature studies, the study of rhetoric and theory and the teaching of high school and college writing. The core of the program will be the workshop, a class in which students submit their original manuscripts-in-progress for critical examination by their classmates and the instructor.
Admission to the M.F.A. program is competitive, with roughly six poets and six fiction writers admitted each year. The deadline for applications is March 1. The creative writing faculty expect that the M.F.A. will attract prospective students from out-of-state as well as from within Connecticut, due to the increasing national competition to gain admission to residential programs.
Parrish expresses his appreciation for the support of President Cheryl Norton; Selase Williams, provost and vice president for academic affairs; DonnaJean Fredeen, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences; Sandra Holley, dean of the School of Graduate Studies; Kenneth Florey, professor of English and the English Department’s graduate coordinator; Robert McEachern, professor of English; Marianne Kennedy, associate vice president for assessment, planning and academic programs, Scott Ellis, associate professor of English, and the English Department.