Thursday, July 10, 2008

The MFA, what does Jacob A. Bennett have to say?

The MFA, what does Jacob A. Bennett have to say?

I asked former Somerville News reporter Jacob Bennett about his MFA experience at Goddard College. Jacob has helped us over the years with The Somerville News Writers Festival, and has interviewed many literary figures in Somerville and beyond. He currently works at Berklee College in Boston, and is a p/t MFA student.

I'd love to speak to my experience as a low-residency MFA Writing student; read below:

No holds barred, I love the program. I may have found another group of people (students and/or faculty) or another institution less desirable or less to my academic expectations, but Goddard is a perfect fit for me. I struggled for a couple years after earning my BA, wondering what my next step would be and how I would be able to afford another degree without a full-time job, or if I were ready to pursue a PhD - then I "discovered" the low-residency model that has in the past few years become so popular for MFA programs. (Two intriguing points of fact: the first low-res MFA writing program originated at Goddard, then "moved" to Warren Wilson a couple years later [reasons for which I have yet to look into - but it was the same woman who started both programs]; and starting in the earlier years of this decade, Goddard ran into financial woes and nearly closed [cf. Antioch College], but has since rebounded, re-structuring ALL programs, graduate and under-graduate, to the low-res model.)

Aside from my love of the people and the gorgeous campus, what really endears the program to me is the actual structure of the thing. There are no physical classrooms or scheduled classes (outside the twice-yearly residencies, which occur on campus in lovely, remote Plainfield VT, and comprise about 8-9 days of intensely scheduled workshops, seminars, master classes, advising sessions and readings by faculty, students and visiting writers), the success of the program and of the individual students results directly from the effort of all involved. Each student's situation is different, but for me, working a 9-5 M-F job, it is incumbent upon me to wake up at 5:30am to read for a couple hours, go to work, get home and read/write a little more; the weekends are much less stressful, as I have the "leisure" of reading or writing at any time. Every three weeks during the fifteen week semesters I mail a packet of writing, both creative (poetry, in my case) and critical (annotations, short and long critical essays) to my faculty advisor, along with a process letter explaining points of excitement or contention, what I was thinking of while reading or writing and how readings inform my own approach to writing. In turn, my advisor mails back a response letter, as well as closely read and marked-up copies of my poetry. That's the main architecture of the program.

What sets Goddard above (in my opinion) other similar programs (e.g. Warren Wilson or Bennington), is the Teaching Practicum requirement. In the third semester, each student must create a class and teach it, from the ground up. This includes getting a third-party sponsor (YMCA, Grub Street, Boys and Girls Club, etc), finding space to teach, recruiting students, creating a syllabus and executing at least fifteen contact hours in that classroom. At the end, students evaluate the instructor, an outside observer writes a report, and the MFA-er completes a teaching essay and bibliography. This is an invaluable experience for those (me) with little independent teaching experience and who are pursuing the degree for the purpose of finding teaching jobs. In reviewing similar programs, I found that among those I liked, none compared to Goddard in the kind of depth this portion of the degree offers.

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