On the northwest ridge of picturesque Mount Vernon, Cornell College looks the part of any classic novel setting — making it the perfect fit for Iowa’s newest creative writing master’s in fine arts program, which the school plans to launch next summer.
Cornell’s program, though, will differ from the University of Iowa’s renowned full-residency Iowa Writers’ Workshop in that it will be “low-residency” — meaning it will involve some amount of distance education, mixed with shorter on-campus residential stints.
In that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — which in 1936 offered the world’s first creative writing master’s in fine arts degree — is full-residency, Cornell expects to attract a different audience, according to the program’s director and designer, English professor Glenn Freeman.
Iowa has “this incredibly rich literary culture and such a great program at the University (of Iowa) and since our audience is so different, I think we can work with the university and develop resources that might be a benefit to both,” Freeman said. “I think it just enriches the whole area to have one more program like this, since they’re not competing.”
The Cornell MFA will mark the private liberal arts school’s first graduate degree program in nearly 100 years. And based on its market research, it will fill a niche as the state’s only low-residency version — with the nearest similar programs at Augsburg University in Minneapolis and at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
“That made us realize there was a market for it here,” said Freeman, who has a long history with low- and full-residency writing programs.
Freeman, 56 and in his 15th year at Cornell, in 1991 completed a low-residency program for his undergraduate degree at Vermont’s Goddard University. He then shifted his studies 10 miles west to the state capital of Montpelier, where in 1994 he earned a low-residency MFA in poetry at the esteemed Vermont College.
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“That’s what made me so interested in them is that I have this background and really believe in them,” Freeman said. “I wanted to make this happen here.”
Program suited to Cornell’s unique academic structure
After his education in Vermont, Freeman pursued a full-residency doctorate in American literature at the University of Florida — a degree that in 2004 landed him his first full-time job at Cornell. The college dates to 1853 and in 1978 adopted its “one-course-at-a-time” model that allows students and faculty to focus on one subject in 18-day chunks.
In that Cornell is known for its unique academic structure, the uncommon low-residency MFA seems a natural fit, Freeman said. Plus, he said, it will expand Cornell’s appeal to non-traditional students.
“This is for maybe midcareer adults who don’t have time to pick up and move somewhere for a program,” he said. “They can continue with their work lives or family lives but pursue a degree.”
The four-semester program will involve four nine-day residencies at the start of each semester, followed by a fifth final residency that will have students give a 60-minute lecture, deliver a public reading and lead a discussion.
Each residency will coalesce each group’s 10 to 12 students around a common passion for writing, facilitated by workshops, panel discussions, lectures and a plan of study for the rest of the semester. Each student will be assigned a mentor who will help in the fourth semester finalize a book-length manuscript of publishable quality.
Four guest faculty — who all work at other colleges and universities — have agreed to be Cornell’s first mentors, working remotely with students they’re assigned during the semesters but coming to campus for the residencies.
“The faculty will hinge on the enrollment,” Freeman said. “As we go along, we will expand.”
Total cost for all four semesters: $33,475
Freeman said he started pushing the idea of a low-residency MFA in creative writing five years ago as a way to make use of Cornell’s campus in the summer.
“It seemed like a really good option for us,” he said.
Although some might ask whether students lose something in the creative process by working away from campus, Freeman thinks low-residencies produce more sustainable writers.
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“I think the benefit is that the way that you’re working in the program actually models the way you would be working when you’re not in school,” he said. “When you do a full-residency, it’s almost unrealistic. You can get a lot of work done, but then when you graduate you have to figure out how to fit writing into your life.
“Whereas with the low residency, that’s what you’re doing,” he said. “You’re figuring out how to fit writing into your life. So that there’s not a huge shift once you graduate.”
Although Cornell began marketing its new MFA only in August — and hasn’t started accepting applications — Freeman has received 125 inquiries. The total cost for all four semesters, including fees and room and board during the residencies, is $33,475 — if you’re OK with a double room.
A way to ensure expansion rather than contraction
And, at a time of unease across the higher education landscape, Cornell President Jonathan Brand said the new MFA not only serves a state and community niche but helps his institution expand rather than contract.
“The future for colleges and universities is really one of expanding the groups of people we can serve,” Brand said. “Well, we have a strength in creative writing. We’ve had a strength in creative writing. We are fortunate to be just up the road from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the strongest academic programs in the country.
“And when you’re in the business of generating ideas, we had staff who came to us and they said, ‘We think that there’s a need for a low-residency MFA program in creative writing.’ ”
It didn’t take much convincing, Brand said.
“We think we could meet it beautifully. We think we’re well positioned to do it. We have the facilities to do it, including a new Center for the Literary Arts. What do you say we do it?” Brand said.
“And I will tell you, it’s very exciting.”
For more information, visit cornellcollege.edu and search for M.F.A. in Creative Writing.
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