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Student, Staff, and Alumna Speak Out on Behalf of the MFA Program

The following three pieces represent the thoughts of a current undergraduate, recent alumna, and staff member about the contributions of the students and faculty of the Master of Fine Arts program to our community. We write these in response to complaints about the program and in hopes that the community at large will understand that when we share our dorms, offices, dining hall, and walking trails with MFA students and faculty, we get a great deal in return.

–Julie Wilson

I always saw the MFA program as an extension of the WWC Creative Writing subculture with which many of us happily (if indulgently) self-identify—weirdos both observant and annoyed, emotional thinkers with a competitive streak. But it seems that most flocks of writers complain and care, and we are no exception; we demand particulars.

Working as an assistant for the MFA this Winter Break, I found that like undergrads, graduate-level folks run the gamut of easy-going to picky. Although I didn’t witness it, I heard about the rumored salmon story, and I did help several students locate extra pillows. I also, though, found James Franco to be quite nice despite loads of people acting weird around him, and I had MFA students ask my name, recommend books, and thank me profusely for directing them to Bannerman or making a copy. A faculty member signed a book I had of hers, drawing a little bird and some mountains.

It does seem that the MFA folks love this place, and we creative writers should know this better than anyone. We have several former MFA students and faculty teaching us in addition to the current Beebe Fellow, and during any residency, an MFA alum works for Alissa, Amy, and Deb in Lower Sunderland. Asking students who are on-campus only nine days a semester to partake in the work program is an interesting if impractical idea, but calling the program out as one composed of fussy, entitled assholes because of a single comment about salmon perpetuates the same kind of WWC stereotypes that irritate us undergrads.

I don’t drive a Prius, I’ve never been to Connecticut or hiked anywhere for more than an afternoon, I’ve never even touched a dulcimer, I haven’t been an anarchist or a communist since high school, I don’t have rich grandparents, and I couldn’t name you a single Phish or Tori Amos song. I bet you could create a similar list of your own, and I’m fairly certain you have. I also know you’ve probably heard undergraduate concerns about a perceived paucity of local meat in Gladfelter, and other students commiserating upon the dearly-missed salad bar wasabi peas.

Regardless of problems or miscommunications or unrealistic expectations, we never want to hear inaccurate labeling of our own community. Instead of further alienating the MFA students and faculty, how about welcoming them into this place we love so much.

—Freesia McKee, ‘12

As the semester comes to an end, one of our last tasks in the Writing Center is to thoroughly clean our work space. I’m sure you do it too. In our case, we clean extra because we have visitors in our space over the summer—the faculty and graduate students in our college’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing.

Some of you have done this to, cleaned your space for MFA students and faculty. You’ve done it before winter as well as summer break. I clean my office; you clean your homes. We contribute to their program by sharing our space, and in so doing, it’s only natural to want something in return.

In a piece published in the Echo recently, a student called to task an MFA student for turning her nose up at Gladfelter food as an example of their lack of investment in our community. This writer also suggested MFA students should participate in the work program while they are here. I imagine this suggestion was more rhetorical than real—the low-residency model would make such a suggestion impossible—so I’ll address the feelings that seem to be underlying the argument: We contribute to your program through sharing our space; we want something from you.

The good news in this argument is the evidence of this student’s investment in this place, which I hear echoed all over campus. Students and staff alike care enormously about aspects of our community from the salad bar to parking spaces to trees to gen ed requirements to the governance structure. We want everything to be as good as it can possibly be.

The MFA program helps make our college’s reputation and intellectual vitality as good as they can be.

When the day comes that any one of us, students or staff, leaves here in search of further education or employment, we will carry this place with us; it will become part of our resumes, our CVs, the brief biographies that we share with friends, lovers, teachers, employers. This place is home to us now; when we leave it will become identity, or at least a core part of our identity. Employers will perk up if they think highly of this place when they see it on your resume; people will connect with you if they know someone who spent time here.

Our MFA program, approaching its 35th anniversary, is nationally acclaimed. It routinely tops lists of the best MFA low-residency programs in the country. Its graduates and faculty have won numerous top writing awards. Published writers know the program, writing teachers know the program, friends of graduates know the program.

In a world where there may be only six degrees of separation between you and everyone else, it is almost certain that you will encounter people down the road who will say, “Warren Wilson, great writing program.” Add those to the people who say, “Warren Wilson, cool work college,” or “Warren Wilson, environmental leader,” and you’ve just added to the number of times you will impress people when you tell them you are a graduate or former employee of this place.

My community, let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot. We want this place to be as good as it can be in as many ways as possible. Our home is our identity. Welcome the students and faculty of the MFA program.

—Julie Wilson, Writing Center Coordinator

During my time as an undergraduate at Warren Wilson, I worked as an MFA residency assistant twice and participated in the Winter Residency program my senior year as a Creative Writing major. As a result, I have probably spent more time around Warren Wilson’s MFA graduate students, and faculty, than the majority of my fellow undergraduates. I have worked on campus over summer breaks and heard the complaints of my friends and fellow students concerning their own treatment and the attitude of the MFA students.  I’ve heard how those in the MFA are called elitist, that they complain about the food, that they have no value of work from scrubbing toilets or working in the cafeteria. I’ve heard nearly every complaint about the MFA that there is, and I know my fellow undergrads well enough to know that there has to be some truth and foundation to these words. However, during all of the time I have spent around the MFA students and faculty, I’ve had an extremely different experience.

I’ve seen, and partly participated in, the break-neck pace that is set during the ten-day residencies, which barely leaves time for eating and sleeping. I’ve heard from the students themselves of the workload that is required of them throughout the rest of the year, which must be completed while still maintaining full-time jobs and families. While participating in the MFA program, these people must divert time, energy, and money from their real life obligations. Despite the fact that their time is so brief and chaotic while they are on our campus, I’ve met many MFA students that have taken time to talk with me about my own writing, to give me advice and suggestions, to talk to me as an equal and yet also someone they can still help.

The MFA are not parasites on a campus that belong the undergraduates, they are merely another facet of our community.  As undergraduates, we are taught the time management of work, study, and service to our community. The MFA graduate students are doing these same things, not on our campus, but in the real world where their livelihoods and those of their families depend on them. Their time on our campus is time that must be stolen and sacrificed from their other obligations. It is true, some MFA students may not always have the “proper respect” for our community and campus, but I know just as many undergraduates who are equally disrespectful. Not every member of a community is perfect, and if we were to judge an entire community by only a few of its members, what kind of tolerance and understanding is that showing in ourselves?

The next time that any Warren Wilson undergraduates sit around and voice their complaints about the MFA students, I want them to realize that anything they saw can also be said of any undergrad. I have seen firsthand the disrespect done to our community by our own community members. And we complain because a person might want salmon at the salad bar? I have heard plenty of undergrads make complaints about the food in our cafeteria. It’s a cafeteria, not a five-star restaurant, and not your mama’s kitchen. It’s not going to please everyone all of the time, it’s statistically impossible.

So, why not practice some tolerance and understanding. Isn’t that supposed to be something our community promotes?

—Kat Evans ‘10


One Response to “Student, Staff, and Alumna Speak Out on Behalf of the MFA Program”

  1. As an alum of the Warren Wilson MFA (Fiction ’92) program, I can attest to the fact that MFA students whine endlessly about the food.

    At the time, I had two young children, and I greatly appreciated that all of the cooking and cleaning was done for the 10 days of my residency; it was, frankly, annoying to have to listen to the complaints about the food while I was trying to enjoy my meal.

    As for the rooms I was assigned, I tried to be courteous of the fact that I was essentially a guest in someone else’s home, but looking back on it, I wish I had thought to leave my host or hostess a gift.

    I think the MFA program could post an etiquette guide for graduate students reminding them not to be ungracious about the food that is served and to encourage them to bring a host/hostess gift for the student sharing his or her room.

    Speaking for myself, the MFA program was a very rewarding and special time in my academic life, and there is no reason that the MFA students cannot make a concerted effort to give something back to the undergraduate students who literally open their homes to us.

    Posted by Leslie Stahlhut | October 14, 2012, 1:32 am

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