MFA Programs in the Time of COVID-19
Poets & Writers Magazine|September - October 2020
Writers, teachers, and administrators plan for a new normal
By Michael Bourne

IN MARCH, shortly before the state of California ordered its residents to shelter in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, San Francisco State University shuttered its campus, forcing the university’s creative writing department to abruptly shift its courses online. For the better part of two months, writing professors at SFSU, like their peers at colleges and universities across the United States, had to learn on the f ly how to teach a writing workshop via Zoom to students hunkered down in their homes.

“It was a hard semester,” says Nona Caspers, director of the creative writing department at SFSU. “People lost students. I don’t mean they died, but they disappeared from their classes. We couldn’t find them. Not very many, and we really tried. I’m so proud of our university and of our faculty, but it was hard. We’re still in a weird place.”

Six months later, as universities gear up for fall, professors at SFSU and hundreds of other creative writing programs around the country still find themselves in that weird place. As of late July, just over half of U.S. universities planned to invite students back to campus for in-person classes this fall, according to a survey of more than twelve hundred schools by the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the survey, 10 percent of universities said they planned to go fully online, while nearly a third of schools were proposing a hybrid model, mixing in-person and online elements.

In interviews this summer, as plans for the fall semester were taking shape, MFA program directors made it clear that even at universities that intend to hold classes on campus, students will be expected to maintain social distance and wear face masks in class. Reading series and large gatherings have either been canceled or moved online and in many cases, MFA programs are planning to Livestream their in-person classes so students who cannot be physically on campus can complete their studies. And no one discounts the distinct possibility that another surge of the coronavirus could send classes back fully online this fall.

“Returning to campus comes with responsibilities now that we all share— wearing masks, social distancing, and all the rest of it,” says Elizabeth Poliner, director of the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University. “This is not going back to the way it was. This is on-campus learning in the context of a pandemic where we have to all be responsible for our share in keeping the community as healthy as possible.”

Many writing programs planning to reopen for in-class instruction in the fall expect to combine socially distant classroom settings with prohibitions on large in-person events, with small but notable tweaks at each campus. At Hollins, for example, which is based in Roanoke, Virginia, students will be seated at least six feet apart and be required to wear face coverings on campus, including in-class, Poliner says. The school will also have to move many of its public readings and departmental events online, and administrators are exploring ways to accommodate students and faculty who cannot attend classes in person.

At New York University, located in the heart of one of the nation’s earliest COVID-19 hot spots, the MFA program plans to hold socially distant in-person classes but also Livestream its workshops and craft classes so students who have underlying health conditions or who are unable to travel to campus from overseas can still attend, according to program director Deborah Landau. (NYU’s low-residency MFA shifted its July residency, normally held in Paris, onto Zoom.)

At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, classes will maintain social distance and meet outdoors whenever possible, at least until the Thanksgiving break, when the university plans to go entirely virtual, according to program director Lan Samantha Chang.

San Francisco State, however, will offer only online classes this fall. The move, mandated by the California State University system, which ordered all of its campuses to switch to digital education, came as something of a relief to Samantha Cosentino Baker, an MFA student studying literary translation at SFSU. “Worry cripples me,” she says. “And when asked to be creative, I can’t afford to be in that frame of mind. If I don’t have to worry about pulling well-trafficked door handles, sitting at shared desks, and flushing communal toilets, I can better concentrate on the work.”

Still, the shift complicates Caspers’s job as SFSU’s writing program director; she is now left to grapple with the question of what is, and what is not, essential to a creative writing education and how writing programs like hers can make up what is lost when classes go virtual.

Writing classes are in some ways ideally suited to live to stream. Workshops tend to be small and require no special equipment or laboratory space. Students can easily exchange manuscripts online, and Livestream video technology allows for a relatively close approximation to a traditional class discussion, with a teacher leading the conversation and students chiming in with feedback.

But as writing students and professors learned this spring, the reality of virtual workshops is a little more complicated than that. Video streaming programs like Zoom require a powerful computer with an internal camera, high-speed internet access, and, just as crucially, a private space at home to focus on a class for several hours at a time—all of which can be a challenge, especially for students without a lot of money or a room of their own at home.

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