a top-10 low residency MFA program
—Poets & Writers, year after year after year
MFA or not? Low residency MFA or traditional? Questions to ask to help make your decision.
The passion to write is a driving force in the lives of many folks. Pursuing an MFA degree is a big commitment of time, and money. Because so many choices are available (more than sixty low residency programs, as well as many traditional MFA programs), deciding which MFA program is right for you may be difficult. This page presents questions to ask yourself and the different programs that interest you. You will also find the answers to questions most posed by prospective students.
While the focus in the MFA program is on an individual’s writing, the study of literature is an important part of the curriculum. From reading, students learn about craft, critical analysis, and the aesthetics of writing, which can be incorporated in one’s own work.
While the MFA is the degree most commonly held by writers who teach creative writing at the college level, many low residency MFA students simply cherish the experience for its intrinsic value. The program is well suited for people who wish to become better writers and desire the experience of graduate-level instruction.
According to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (see AWP Guidelines for Creative Writing Programs & Teachers of Creative Writing), “The primary aim of writing programs, through work in writing, form, and theory, and through the study of contemporary writers and past authors, is to help students become better writers.”
Pursuing an MFA degree gives you tools to improve your writing while studying with professional writers, who are also experienced teachers, and allows you to spend time with others who are as passionate about writing as you.
The low residency program format is ideally suited to the future life of a writer. While some course hours are taken on campus, students return home to pursue their creative writing through independent study, one-on-one with a faculty mentor.
During the program, the student establishes writing habits within a natural home setting, not removed to an isolated, solely academic environment. Writing time is not interrupted by attending classes. Because students are away from home only about ten days each semester, low residency MFA programs allow students to pursue their studies regardless of where they live. Typically, low residency MFA students are settled in lives, jobs, homes, and families.
Low residency MFA programs work well for people who are self-motivated and disciplined, who can organize their own schedules and accomplish what needs to be done.
The Spalding low residency MFA Program seeks to be intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive. Our tagline “Where Every Individual Talent Is Nurtured” is not about coddling our students, but it does speak to our philosophy of support rather than competition among our students and constructive rather than destructive criticism by our faculty. We think students learn best when they hear honest assessments of their strengths as well as their weaknesses and when they receive instruction targeted to actively improve their writing. Some think the word “nurture” implies that our Program is not rigorous. But “nurture” and “rigor” are not mutually exclusive. The Spalding low residency MFA Program has implemented several features, detailed below, that ensure the students achieve the best kind of MFA education.
Program Director Sena Jeter Naslund is a hands-on director who brings intellectual leadership to the Program. Sena is visible and approachable during the residency. Using her more than thirty years of teaching in low residency MFA programs and more than forty years of teaching in the academy, Sena thoughtfully and purposefully designed the Spalding low residency MFA program to include the best possible learning opportunities for the students.
In the Spalding low residency MFA program, the word revision applies not only to writing but to the program itself. Through various evaluations by students and faculty, the MFA Staff consider suggestions and often make changes based on the feedback.
Three semesters to choose from: Spalding low residency MFA students may begin their studies in spring, summer, or fall. The spring and fall semesters are 6-months in length, and the summer semester is 9-months long. The summer semester works well for teachers’ schedule and for those who have full-time jobs or very busy lives. For more information about offerings, see the flexible scheduling page.
Program Book/Script in Common: All students and faculty read a Program Book in Common before coming to the residency. The Program Director leads a book discussion early in the residency. For the spring and fall semesters, the author of the book visits the residency and gives a public presentation as well as a private question and answer session for our students and faculty. The area of concentration of the Program Book in Common changes each semester, so students normally read a book or script and meet the author in every area of concentration that we offer. Our featured guests have included novelists Tim O’Brien, Ernest J. Gaines, Ann Patchett, Susan Vreeland, and Michael Ondaatje; poets and essayists Yusef Komunyakaa and Molly Peacock; children’s writers Jaqueline Woodson, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Donna Jo Napoli, Patricia MacLachlan, and Nancy Willard; poets W. S. Merwin and Claudia Emerson; essayists Terry Tempest Williams, Pico Iyer, Barry Lopez, and Scott Russell Sanders; poet and children’s writer Naomi Shihab Nye; screenwriters Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) and Robert Moresco (Crash); and playwrights Marsha Norman, Heather Raffo, and Rebecca Gilman. In Spring 2014, the Program hosts hosted the Diana M. Raab Distinguished Writer in Residence Frank X Walker, Kentucky poet laureate.
Additional Books in Common: Every student reads a Faculty or Guest Book or Script in Common in his or her area of concentration before coming to the residency. A group session, led by the author, discusses issues of conception, writing, craft, and publication. For the summer residency abroad, students also read books by authors of the destination country
Acceleration: Students who have published a book(s) or produced a play or movie may qualify for completing the program in three independent study sessions and four residencies.
Book-length Manuscript Workshop: In addition to traditional workshops, the Spalding MFA Program offers a workshop for book-length manuscripts during the spring residency. We believe we are the only program that offers this feature. Students in fiction, creative nonfiction, or writing for children may participate on a space-available basis during their fourth or fifth residency. Five students and one mentor spend two hours on each full-length manuscript. At times, MFA alumni join this workshop.
Publishing/Editing Component: Spalding University is the home of The Louisville Review (a literary journal since 1976) and Fleur-de-Lis Press. After returning home from the residency, students read submissions for TLR and are instructed how to compare and contrast the submissions. Graduate assistantships are available to second, third, and fourth semester students who wish to read as student editors for the magazine. During each residency, an agent, editor, publisher, or a person familiar with the publishing world speaks to the students about the publishing scene. A question and answer period is always included in the session. Publishing and revision panels for all students and publishing and revision panels by area of concentration are also presented.
Interrelatedness of the Arts: The Spalding low residency MFA Program encourages a continuing discussion regarding the interrelatedness of the arts. At each residency, students are given the opportunity to attend at least one arts event, such as a play, symphony, ballet or other dance performance, opera, or jazz performance. We might visit an art museum or bring in visual artists to discuss their creative process. Most residencies, the Program Director leads a discussion about the interrelatedness of the arts because all the arts have the creative process in common and much can be learned from thoughtful investigations of other art forms.
Preparation for Teaching: Because the MFA degree is the one most commonly held by teachers of creative writing, the Spalding low residency MFA Program helps prepare students to become teachers. During the fourth residency, students lead a Small Group Discussion of a published work to gain experience in intellectual leadership. In their graduation residency, students deliver a lecture, gaining direct teaching experience. Faculty lectures and other discussions are held on teaching techniques and suggestions. Workshops provide an excellent model for how to teach. We also offer two course opportunities for aspiring teachers, a teaching practicum in the form of a teaching workshop during a residency and an independent study in pedagogy and other topics related to teaching.
Creative Thesis Discussion: One faculty member and two other students participate in a discussion of each graduating student’s completed creative thesis. In this way we celebrate, support, and encourage our students.
At Spalding, we believe writing is writing, and any writer can benefit from writing in areas other than their major area of concentration. We offer cross-genre study at each residency, and during the course of the Program, every student reads works in several areas of concentration and completes a few brief exercises in most areas. Students may participate in cross-genre workshops, which are workshops offered in two areas of concentration, and during one of the five residencies, students may request to be in a workshop in an area of study other than their major or minor area of study. In addition, students may study in more than one area during their time in the Program. Students may take an enrichment semester in their major or minor area of study or another area of study, if accepted in that area.
Enrichment Semester: During the regular course of four semesters, students may study one area for three semesters and a second area for one semester. An optional enrichment semester is offered for students who wish to study further in their major or minor area or in an additional area. The enrichment semester, which is not required for graduation, focuses on creative writing and does not require a reading list or critical writing.
Assistantships and Scholarships: In 2013, the program gave 26 assistantships for the fall, spring, and summer semesters. Assistantships are available to students no matter where they live. Most are for reading for our literary magazine, The Louisville Review. Also, in 2013 the program awarded 59 scholarships, mostly to new students. The awards totaled more than $80,000.
Spalding offers six areas of concentration: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, writing for children and young adults, screenwriting, and playwriting. Students may study more than one area in their four semesters of study. In order to study more than one area during the semester, students must apply and be accepted in the area or areas they wish to study (exception: writers for children and young adults should see the writing for children and young adult page.
Faculty identify students who need extra help with critical writing. An expository writing consultant is made available—at no extra expense—to students who need more help than the mentor can provide in the regular packet schedule. During the second residency, students meet with an expository writing coach to help develop their critical writing. While much more emphasis is given to creative writing, students are expected to be competent in critical writing.
Faculty are encouraged to identify students working on book-length projects who are not yet ready to work on such projects. These students are given assignments or exercises to help them become ready to continue on their longer project.
Click here for a printable list of Spalding MFA faculty. Most MFA programs list their faculty members in ads and on their websites. Even the most well-read prospective student may not be familiar with many names on the list. There are innumerable good writers out there and many good teachers, but the gifts for writing and teaching may not always coexist in the same person.
It’s risky to choose an MFA program based on a desire to study with particular faculty mentors. Faculty members come and go from one semester to another, and your turn with THE ONE faculty member you want to work with may not happen. Instead, consider the faculty as a whole. Become familiar with the writing of the faculty in your area of concentration.
According to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (see AWP Guidelines for Creative Writing Programs & Teachers of Creative Writing), “Writing programs are . . . characterized by the presence of active and experienced writers on their faculties.” In the Spalding low residency MFA program, all faculty members have published one or more books and all have several years of teaching experience.
When hiring a new faculty member, the Program Director first considers the quality of the candidate’s writing. Then she ascertains whether the faculty member shares her philosophy of teaching. Our Program sets forth to be intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive. The Spalding faculty are expected to meet students at their current level and help them attain new levels of accomplishment in their writing.
The Spalding MFA Program holds the faculty to high standards. Faculty members are given a one-semester contract, and faculty members who do not perform to the high standards set before them are not asked to return.
Workshops are the backbone of the residency and meet every day.
Before the residency, students submit materials to be workshopped. Workshop Booklets are sent to students and faculty about three weeks before the residency. Everyone is expected to read the entire Workshop Booklet more than one time and make margin notes and a summary comment before arriving at the residency so everyone is fully prepared to discuss the work during Workshop.
Workshops vary from smaller Workshops with 5-6 students and one faculty leader to larger Workshops that consist of no more than twelve students with two faculty leaders. Smaller workshops meet for the same amount of time as larger workshops; smaller workshops take advantage of extra sessions where student work is not discussed to discuss issues of craft, writing of a particular author, or editing/publishing.
Whenever possible, we attempt to place students with different workshop leaders from one residency to another. Workshops include students who are at different levels in their writing, and first, second, third, and fourth semester students are usually included in each Workshop. Students learn from each other under the guidance of the faculty leaders.
The residency’s first workshop session is spent discussing published work, which is introduced by the faculty leaders. This exercise helps new students learn the language of critiquing and gives the Workshop a chance to develop its personality before students’ work is discussed.
Each student’s work is given one hour of discussion. Students learn from the discussion of others’ work as well. Specific questions of craft may be raised and discussed in the course of the Workshop. Workshops are guided so that a positive atmosphere is created, and while students are encouraged to say something positive about a work first, everyone is also encouraged to identify areas needing improvement.
At the end of the week, every student submits a one-page revision of their Worksheet based on comments from the Workshop. These sessions are gratifying as everyone sees immediate improvement from the week’s discussions and comments.
While students may engage in online chats and discussion boards during the independent study session, the emphasis is on the study of creative writing through packets which are responded to by faculty mentors, who are professional, publishing writers. Online workshops, which include students, do not provide the level of expertise or concentrated feedback that our packet system provides. Such workshops are sometimes informally arranged among students, but not as part of their curriculum.
The intense residency has most days scheduled from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Students have access to nearly 100 hours of classtime during the 10-day residency session. After the residency, students engage in an independent study session with a faculty mentor.
During the residency each student, with his or her mentor, creates an Independent Study Plan according to the student’s writing goals. The Independent Study Plan is an outline of what is to be included in each of the packets during the independent study session. The study plan includes a list of 8-10 books that the student chooses with the help of the mentor. Students in their first and second semester write a short critical essay about each of the books. The study plan may be adjusted throughout the independent study at the suggestion of the mentor or students to include different or additional books. If a need is identified, mentors may give students writing assignments or exercises.
Like other low residency programs, our curriculum includes a longer critical essay in the third independent study session. The Extended Critical Essay is from 20 to 30 pages. Students become familiar with MLA style from the beginning of their studies. First- and second-semester students who are identified by faculty mentors as needing additional help with their critical writing are referred to an expository writing tutor (at no expense to the student) for individual tutoring. Before the second residency, all students write an extra essay that is workshopped at the residency with the expository writing coach.
Typically in a traditional MFA program, students have two or three sets of work discussed in one workshop class. For example, a prose writer might turn in 50 to 70 pages (about 3 stories) for the entire semester. Most of the time in that class will be spent discussing other students’ work. In the Spalding low residency MFA program, a student sends 5 packets of original writing to his or her mentor during the independent study session. These packets (except for poetry and picture book) may include up to 50 pages of original writing. The intensity of the residency and independent study allows students to have four to five times as much work critiqued each semester than in a traditional program.
Different low residency programs have different page counts for packets, and in some cases the faculty decides just how much he/she is willing to read during the independent study. This is an important point and should be researched among the different programs.
Spalding packets consist of new creative writing, revision, short critical essays, and a cover letter that discusses the students’ goals and questions. The mentor gives feedback in a permanent form, such as a letter, email, or audiorecording, and also makes margin notes on the packet material. While online workshops or discussions may enhance a student’s education, they cannot take the place of individual feedback from experienced faculty mentors.
Students call mentors for a conference during the independent study session at midsession and at the end of the session. Mentors may suggest additional phone calls if they think extra contact is needed.
When you are looking at cost, be sure to add in all the extras that other programs may have. Beginning with the fall semester 2014, our tuition is $550 per credit hour), which includes all fees, except the application fee of $30. (The Program is a 65-hour degree; each semester is 15 hours, and the Graduation Residency is 5 hours.) Transportation to and from the residencies and housing is the responsibility of the student. Most residency meals and postage/books/phone calls are the student’s responsibility.
For the Louisville residencies, students are responsible for travel and housing, while several residency meals are included. The cost for housing ranges from $450 to $900 for nine nights at the Brown Hotel. If they prefer, students may make their own accommodation arrangements. Students who bring a car to the residency may have parking fees. For the summer residency, students are responsible for travel, housing, and meals; the estimated cost is $3,900-4,900, but costs do vary depending on the location and accommodations.
For the fall and spring residencies, Spalding offers housing options: double or single rooms at the Brown Hotel, a nearby four-star, four-diamond hotel. The prices range from $450-900, for the 9 nights of the residency. Students may make their own housing arrangements. Several meals, usually catered by well-known Louisville caterers, are included in tuition. Breakfasts and some dinners are on your own. Louisville is an easily accessible city by air or car located in middle America. Spalding is about 15 minutes from the Louisville International Airport (SDF) and about 2 miles from Interstate 65.
For the summer residency, which is held abroad, the Program works with EF College Study Tours to identify appropriate housing, and students and faculty stay there. Most meals are not included in the summer residency. The cost for the international study package, that includes air, housing, two meals, and some special sessions is around $3,900-$4,900.
Because low residency students are usually older and more established, they often do not make the decision of where to attend based on the availability of financial aid. Traditional MFA programs frequently have more to offer than low residency programs in the way of teaching assistantships, fellowships, and scholarships. However, the Spalding lwo-residency MFA Program offers scholarships of about $500-750 to new students based on merit, then need. To second, third, and fourth semester students, we offer assistantships, which result in tuition remission of from $600 to $1,800 each semester the assistantship is awarded. The assistantships are available to students no matter where they live. In 2013, the program awarded nearly $80,000 in assistantships and scholarships.
Most students who are U.S. citizens are eligible for federal student loans, which, for graduate students, is up to about $20,500 per year, or more. (Discuss details of federal student loans with a Financial Aid Counselor.)
The Spalding low residency MFA Program is diverse in many different ways: heritage, race, geographical location, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion. Few venues in life offer such a range of diversity. It is a permanent goal of the Program to increase diversity and encourage acceptance of each person and of his or her individual creative expression.
Our students and faculty come from 45 states and DC. We have also had students from foreign countries: Canada, Mexico, Israel, Great Britain, Singapore, South Africa, and Germany. The average age and median age of our students is 42. Our students have ranged in age from 22 to 82. About 40 percent of the students are in fiction, about 15 percent in poetry, 15 percent in creative nonfiction, 10 percent in writing for children, and 20 percent in dramatic writing.
The Spalding low residency MFA Program, which has graduated (since 2003) more than 500 students , works hard to keep in touch with our alumni. Every issue of the program newsletter, “On Extended Wings,” includes writing news from students, faculty and staff, and alums. At the end of every spring residency, we have Homecoming activities. We have offered weeklong writers’ retreats and also offer our summer residency abroad locations as vacation destinations for alumni and guests.
Through Facebook (http://facebook.com/spaldingmfa), alumni have a discussion venue where they can keep informed of one another’s activities and discuss books, craft issues, or other topics of interest. Through online writing groups, alumni may exchange materials and critiques with other alumni. Other groups of alums have begun writing groups and book discussions in their regional areas.
Our alumni association has a website, Facebook page, and newsletter, called SOARING. See http://www.spaldingmfaalum.com. The association seeks ways to keep alumni involved though events such as Homecoming and also through the organization the regional events.
At each residency up to eight Post Graduate Residency Assistants, who are alumni, are selected to attend the residency and help out the MFA Staff and faculty as needed. The Program gives stipend that helps defray travel, food, and housing costs. The MFA Program continues to seek ways for keep alumni connected.
During each spring residency in May we have a Homecoming weekend, where alumni can visit with each other, students, faculty, and staff. During the Homecoming, the program provides a variety of special events, lectures, and the alumni association sponsors a reading Celebration of Recently Published Books by Alumni, workshops, a film festival, a 10-minute play festival, a book/arts fair, and more.
The MFA alumni also give back to the MFA Program through the establishment of endowed scholarships for current students and also through the fund that provides for the Diana M Raab Distinguished Writer in Residence, who is the featured author for the spring residency.
If accepted for a second area, you study that area during your first or second semester. Faculty availability may determine the order of study. By midsession of the second semester, students determine which area they wish to continue studying with the help of their mentor and the approval of the Program Director for the third and fourth semesters. Students may take an enrichment (fifth and optional) semester as an opportunity to study a second or even third area. Again, students must apply and be accepted in any area to be studied.
For writing for children and young adults: Spalding offers a unique opportunity for students who write for children and young adults. Students choose focal areas during their second and third semester and may choose fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, screenwriting, or playwriting without additional admissions requirements. See our writing for children and young adult webpage for a full explanation.
All students have the opportunity to study different areas while in the program, through a variety of Workshop and cross-genre experiences that are offered at the residency.
- a cover letter discussing the enclosed material and asking questions about specific parts of the material.
- original creative writing consisting of some new material and/or some revisions: 35-45 pages of prose, screenwriting or playwriting, middle-grade or young-adult writing; 5-7 poems or text for 5-7 picture books. Third-, fourth- and enrichment-semester students have somewhat different requirements.
- short essays in MLA format, each based on a book from the reading list. Third-, fourth- and enrichment-semester students have somewhat different requirements.
- the student’s cumulative bibliography (for the independent study) in standard MLA format.
- a cumulative list of titles of original creative writing included in the current independent study session’s packets.
- a self-addressed, stamped envelope with sufficient postage to cover the weight of the packet material and mentor’s response (unless an electronic exchange has been arranged).
Spalding University’s low residency MFA in Writing is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award the Master of Fine Arts in Writing. Spalding University’s low residency MFA in Writing is a member of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and the Playwrights’ Center.
MFA Office: (502) 873-4400 or (800) 896-8941, ext. 4400
851 South Fourth Street
Louisville, KY 40203
FAX: (502) 992-2409
Last updated 07-09-2014