The low-residency model offers a mentorship mode of learning that may be closer to the way writers studied craft prior to the advent of traditional MFA programs. Students benefit from incredibly small classes (three-five students in each class in the Ashland MFA Program). They benefit from the one-on-one attention of their faculty mentors and from online discussion with other students and faculty during non-residential semesters. Each faculty mentor serves as a catalyst for an online discussion forum during fall and spring semesters and responds individually in writing to packets of student creative work.
The low-residency model also makes it possible for students to function in their family and work lives, even as they commit fully to the writer’s life. The Ashland MFA’s body of current and past students includes a doctor, a lawyer, a psychologist, college professors, a college administrator, primary and secondary teachers, a social worker, business professionals (including one corporate marketing director), computer technicians, retired military officers and students with a wide variety of other professional and non-professional work backgrounds. The range of work experience students bring to the program creates a fertile context for the exchange of ideas. Also, students in low-residency programs tend to be older than students in traditional MFA programs. The average student age in the Ashland MFA Program is 42. As they study and develop their craft as writers, older students tend to have a greater wealth of experience for ideas that might inform the writing of a book.
In short, students in low-residency MFA programs enjoy working with faculty as accomplished as faculty in traditional MFA programs, and they probably receive a great deal more individual attention. While tapping into the benefit of the low-residency mentorship model of study, low-residency MFA students do not need to relocate to enter a university, they do not need to quit their professions and they do not need to disrupt their partners and families.
Finally, the intensive residency experience is probably unlike anything found in a traditional MFA program. During intensive residencies, students in low-residence MFA programs live and breathe literature 12 hours per day. Students take classes in the morning, attend craft seminars in the afternoon, readings at night, meet with visiting writers and editors, participate in individual conferences, attend thesis defense sessions, publishing seminars and share together two meals a day. Intensive residencies tend to recharge creative energies for all writers associated with the program, faculty and students alike.
The Ashland MFA Program is distinct from any other MFA program in the country in that it offers degree tracks in two genres only—poetry and creative nonfiction. Though poetry students study in workshops exclusively with other poetry students, and creative nonfiction students with other nonfiction writers, the influence of both genres is always present in the program. During summer residencies, following morning workshops segregated by genre, all students and faculty attend afternoon craft seminars and evening readings. All craft seminars and many readings are designed to celebrate both genres, and often bring the two into dialogue with one another. What, for example, we have asked in past craft seminars, does it mean to write through an orientation to the idea of truth? What is the necessary role of the imagination for an author who realizes that any representation of truth in language necessarily falls short of the entire range of emotions, ideas and sensory experiences present in even the most ordinary moment? What is the role, for poets and nonfiction writers, of facts, research and the accuracy of detail in interacting with the imagination to craft language into an embodiment of the radically real? The Ashland MFA Program also offers a cross-genre option, for students who are active in both genres. The exclusive two-genre focus—and the emphasis on what poets can learn from CNF writers and what CNF writers can learn from poets—distinguishes the Ashland MFA Program from all other low-residency and traditional MFA programs.
The Ashland MFA Program is also one of the few low-residency programs to work on the single annual residency model. There are three 14-day intensive residencies during the process of completing the two-year degree—one gateway residency, one mid-program residency (after the first year) and one exit (post-thesis) residency. Again, this format accommodates very well for students with regular work lives. Our students can devote each year a single two-week leave from work (or vacation time) to the single, annual Ashland MFA summer residency. This residency format also creates more of a full-immersion experience, as it is longer than the 10-day residencies typically found in other low-residency MFA programs. In the Ashland Program, students sustain for a full two weeks a non-stop focus on their own writing and on the writing of others. (We keep a 12-hour daily schedule on residency weekdays and a half-day schedule on weekends).
The Midwestern location—on the north-eastern edge of the Midwest—is yet another distinctive quality of the Ashland MFA Program. While our student body has a foundation in Ohio, there are students in the program from most regions of the United States. Our students currently come from 19 different states. We have drawn 43 percent of current and past students from Ohio and 57 percent from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Florida, California, Texas, New Mexico, Washington, Colorado, North Carolina, Montana, Nevada, Georgia, Virginia, New Jersey, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Utah, Tennessee and Louisiana. The Ashland MFA Program probably has as rich a geographic distribution of students as any other low-residency program in the country. Ashland MFA faculty mentors also come from many different states—Indiana, Alabama, California, Ohio, New York, Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin.
Finally there is one other distinctive quality in the Ashland MFA Program that is hard to define and that may not readily be found in many other MFA programs. The Ashland MFA Program is built on the idea of creating a supportive, literary community that maintains only the highest expectation for new writing. The program embraces the idea that accomplished writers often developed their craft through an association with an audience of other writers who are both supportive and insist on high aesthetic standards. The pedagogical philosophy behind the Ashland Program supports the creation of a literary community that extends well beyond degree completion. Alumni, current students, faculty, staff, visiting writers and editors are all members of the extended Ashland community. Without any sort of demographic distinction whatsoever, we welcome all talented writers who love and celebrate literature and believe in the possibility of adding a book to the canon. We look to draw to the program students and faculty who celebrate the successes of others and feed off that energy to work toward successes of their own.
Book publication with respected presses and a graduate degree are benchmark requirements for faculty in MFA programs but these alone are not sufficient qualifications to teach in the Ashland Program. All Ashland faculty mentors have published books, most faculty have won prestigious book awards and many have published in both poetry and creative nonfiction. Though we care very much about these sorts of professional accomplishments, we care even more fully about hiring deeply committed teachers. We look for faculty mentors who believe that in sharing knowledge of their craft they will enrich their understanding and commitment to art. We look for mentors who will work to pass the literary mantle—who love the life of literature in and beyond their own lives. We look for faculty who are strong enough as mentors to make students feel uncomfortable as writers and who are strong enough to make them feel always welcome as human beings. We look for writers who understand implicitly Emerson’s sense of mature ambition—that every human accomplishment, in literature or any other field, “admits of being outdone” and will always be surpassed, or already has been surpassed by prior works. An awareness of this fact is both a motive for modesty and collegiality among writers, and it is a motive for ambition—a stimulus to create better and better works of literature. We look for faculty who find no contradiction between their aspiration as writers and their commitment to respect the integrity of all human beings. We look for faculty who will set this sort of tone in their workshops by guiding student comments always toward the best interests of each student writer.
To understand the sensibilities of their mentors students should always thoroughly read the books of their faculty. They should also work with as many faculty mentors as possible and only then choose a thesis advisor. Students benefit from being exposed to a range of aesthetics in a range of faculty mentors. After working with multiple faculty mentors, students will be better informed in choosing thesis advisors who might provide the most useful critical feedback during the thesis semester.
The Ashland MFA Program offers a publishing seminar during every intensive summer residency. We generally invite literary agents or senior editors of journals, independent literary presses or university presses to address the students and faculty in a 90-minute session. As part of the post-thesis residency, graduating students meet in hour-long sessions with prominent editors to receive additional advice and critical feedback on their theses.
Some students in the Ashland MFA Program serve as preliminary readers for submissions to River Teeth and to the Ashland Poetry Press. Submissions to River Teeth and to the Ashland Poetry Press will always also be read by editors.
We generally enroll 22 new students from around 50 applicants. Admittance is based almost entirely on the quality of the applicant’s writing sample, though we also consider letters of recommendation, the narrative each applicant provides on his/her development as a writer, undergraduate transcripts and (when relevant) graduate transcripts. All graduate students at Ashland University must have completed a four-year undergraduate degree.