Why is MSU MFA on the Huffington Post “Underrated” List? Hmm…

Yesterday, The Huffington Post posted (that’s what they do) a nice little article providing info on…(drum roll)… (deep echoey voice calling out)… “The Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs” for 2011-2012.  Minnesota State, Mankato, where I teach was on the list.  The author, Seth Abramson, wasn’t exactly sure why people in the know like the program so much, but conjectured a bit about Assistantships and Friendliness.  He’s on the right path, I think — lots of students gain support and we are friendly, I think.  I wanted to add a bit to the conversation.

1. Last night in my graduate fiction workshop students were unafraid to be exhaustively critical.  They talked craft and story.  There was very little discussion that started “I don’t like…”  There was a lot of discussion that started “I’m not sure this is the right…” chronology, structure, mode, etc..  There was smart discussion of what was and wasn’t put into scene (and why).  There was thoughtful analysis of characterization and setting.  Again, these were hugely critical conversations that took place while the authors of the works sat back, listened, took notes, didn’t say a word.  And, there wasn’t a drop of poison that spilled from any lip.  The students were helping each other make sense of, and improve, smart, complicated material.  From what I’ve seen so far, that is the culture in this department.  We know the publishing world is difficult.  It will beat us up.  We don’t batter each other.  We work to make better writing.

2. Students engage here:

  • A minimum thirty people show up to either read or support one another at Writers Bloc, a monthly student-run reading series in this excellent venue downtown, one really suited to host The Pixies in 1986.
  • I host a story show, Tales from the Poorhouse, on the local public radio station (KMSU), which gets most of its material from our students.  They work off a prompt, write for an hour in a shared space, then deliver excellent little pieces recorded live in front of their peers (12-18 students participate ever couple of weeks).
  • Students entirely run The Blue Earth Review, a really good literary journal (alumni go on to run chapbook imprints and other journals).
  • The department raises funds to help students attend the AWP national conference (where the Blue Earth Review has a table, of course).  We must have had twenty students in Washington, DC this February (as well as the entire faculty).
  • I see MFA students traveling in packs (to bars, dinners, each other’s houses, etc.).  Nothing sets a writer up for a good life better than creating deep relationships with peers.  These sorts of relationships have sustained me through the wicked professional landscape.  What a joy to operate in an environment where relationship building (rather than rivalry) is the norm.

3. The Good Thunder Reading Series is a juggernaut.  Just since I’ve been here (9 months) the department has hosted Dan Chaon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Reif Larsen, Patricia Henley, and George Saunders (among many other greats).  Students have hours of contact with these people.  Who gets to discuss Buddhism with George Saunders in a kitchen at midnight?  Our students.

4. The English Department is innovative.  They are supporting a growing film studies program that has moved into production curriculum, which means MFA students can write for screen and have the growing ability to actually produce film while in school.  This is huge.

5. Mankato isn’t a big city, but it is urbane and also very small and also intellectually large and, yes, I mean, I guess, some kind of surreal. I hang out at a coffee shop where people argue art, literature, film, reality television, board games, role playing games, computer software, fast food restaurants, sushi dining, weather reports.  Knitting groups meet.  AA meets.  Writerly groups meet.  The shop’s workers know everyone’s name.  This little strip the shop is on looks like San Fransisco, partially depopulated (yoga studio, health drink shop, book store, coffee shop, diner, art gallery down the street…).  Inside the coffee shop, it feels a bit like Northern Exposure.  There is a punk scene here.  There is a farmer scene.  There are Christian pizza shops on the hill.  There are old hippies fully regaled riding their 1964 Raleighs in snowstorms.  I can move from seeing live music to being on a trail in the woods in about five minutes.  This is fertile space for a writer.

6. The MFA faculty: Rick Robbins, Candace Black, Richard Terrill, Roger Sheffer and Diana Joseph are all publishing all over.  But, more importantly, they have their doors open to students.  They host parties at their houses.  If you didn’t know, writers can be completely nuts and egomaniacal and awful to one another.  Not here. I haven’t seen an ounce of it at Mankato.  As far as I can tell, this group wants to mentor, actually enjoys teaching, and often bends over backwards to help students.  I’m with them.  This is the kind of environment where I want to teach.

The result of all this?  Students who come out of this program do good work.  They are publishing big and small.  They are teaching all over the place.  The few alumni I’ve met personally thus far are living excellent, fruitful, artistic lives.  What else could you want from an MFA?

And so, yeah, I agree, this program is underrated.


3 Responses to “Why is MSU MFA on the Huffington Post “Underrated” List? Hmm…”

  1. 1 McCutcheon April 20, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Amen, amen. I just got a tiny peek at the program, when I was privileged to be invited by Richard Terrill to be a part of his creative nonfiction writing workshop course in the Spring of 2009. It was a small group (five real MFA students and me), but everyone brought it, and they all had a lot to bring. It was a pivotal experience for me, quashing all the doubt I had been fostering as to whether I could write or not. I was pushed and challenged, but also nurtured and strengthened, not just by Dick but by every one of my classmates. From everything else I have heard since, I think it is clearly a helluva program there, and even though my path does not seem to be leading me to an MFA of my own, I am excited to be settling in the neighborhood soon so I can at least rub elbows with you amazing writer folk and soak in the cool, cool stuff you have going on.

  2. 2 Kara B. April 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    I was in that class last night that Geoff wrote about, and it’s an amazing workshop experience. On top of what Geoff said, I want to point out that MSU-Mankato allows students to take a variety of classes and even switch genres mid-program, which many programs are not open to. That’s indicative of how supportive the faculty is of the students figuring out what kind of writers we are. The “form and technique” class in poetry and prose help us take apart and study the craft. And the contemporary prose and poetry classes ensure that we’re talking about what’s being written now, in addition to the classics.

    I just looked at those program rankings and discovered that I turned down the #2 nonfiction program to come to MSU-Mankato’s nonfiction program. Who knew? Based on the course offerings, faculty, and funding, MSU-Mankato seemed the obviously superior choice back when I was making the decision. And I don’t regret it at all. I’ve had an amazing experience so far and learned more than I can say.

  3. 3 Ken C. April 20, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Yeah, but it’s in Minnesota! (Kidding… I think.)

    I haven’t seen the list but wonder if the University of Pamplona is on it. I’d be right at home, considering the critique I once got in a workshop (“This narrative is like the running of the bulls….”) Talk about red flags!

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I am…

Geoff Herbach. I am the author of Stupid Fast and Nothing Special, among a bunch of other stuff. When I'm not writing, I teach writing at Minnesota State, Mankato.

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