English department offers students new path to teaching, publishing

The English department will offer a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing starting fall 2008.

With concentrations in poetry and fiction, the MFA is an alternative for graduate students pursing a Master of Arts in English.

Professor of fiction and creative writing Rita Ciresi said the three-year MFA is the only program of its kind on Florida’s west coast. She said it is a preferable to a master’s in English with a concentration in creative writing because it better equips students for future endeavors.

“The master’s degree is still a useful option for those people who want to study creative writing, but the MFA is considered a terminal degree, which means if a grad student comes into our program and takes the MFA, he/she will be a much better job candidate and they can teach in a four-year institution,” Ciresi said.

With a master’s in English, Ciresi said a student does not have that option and would be limited to teaching at a community college without going on to get an MFA or Ph.D.

“Not all of our students are going to go on to be teachers,” she said. “But it’s a way for us to better our students’ employment options and it gives them time to work on what we hope is a publishable manuscript.”

She said the program is something the department and students have wanted for a long time.

“Students have always been clamoring for the MFA, and we’ve been wanting to do it for quite a while,” she said. “We needed to get a critical mass of faculty, and we have that now.”

To complete the MFA, students must earn 45 credit hours with an overall minimum grade point average of 3.0, including nine hours of thesis classes to be taken during the final year. Students must also complete a book-length manuscript in fiction or poetry that will meet University and department requirements for the thesis.

“It takes a long time to write a good book,” Ciresi said, “and in our three-year program, with students able to concentrate on a manuscript in their last year, they are able to pull that off.”

Lee Davidson, graduate program specialist in the English department, said the MFA offers “a longer, more intense period of studying and reading” for students as well as a time of vigorous writing to produce a manuscript.

Professors in the program include Ciresi and John Henry Fleming for fiction and poets Jay Hopler and Hunt Hawkins, the department chair.

The department is in the process of hiring a fifth professor to teach creative nonfiction. Ciresi said an offer for the position has been made, but the recipient has not yet been announced.

She said part of the program’s appeal is USF’s excellent reading series. In addition to inviting writers on its own, she said the department has the support of the Humanities Institute, the lecture series and the Florida Literary Arts Coalition.

USF is a member of the Coalition, which sends professional writers out to speak to students throughout the state. Writers such as Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates and former U.S. Poets Laureate Billy Collins and Louise Gluck have visited USF to host readings. On Feb. 21, the department hosted a reading by poet Mark Jarman in the USF Graphicstudio.

The department also welcomes writers-in-residence, or professional writers who teach classes for a semester. In the fall, fiction writer Suzanne Strempek Shea was a guest instructor, and this semester novelist Ad Hudler is teaching.

“That gives our students the chance to study with people outside our program and I think get new perspectives,” Ciresi said.

Davidson said another unique aspect of the program is that it gives students the opportunity to study and work with authors who write about Florida, like fiction professor Fleming.

“That’s not to say that is the only kind of writing students will look at, but it is something special that you wouldn’t see at a school in, say, Montana,” she said.

The creative writing faculty members have been excited about the new program and helpful in its development, Davidson said.

“A lot of applicants for this first round of students for the program have been in direct contact with faculty members and basically been personally picked, which I think says something about our program (and) is pretty impressive,” she said.

She said the department is trying to compete with existing creative writing graduate programs by appealing to students still studying at the undergraduate level with mailings and other promotions.

There is a limit to the number of students admitted into the program, however. Davidson said the limit allows the department to monitor the quality of education and the students’ graduate experience, and provide more aid through graduate assistantships and a better student-to-faculty ratio in the midst of statewide budget cuts.

“I don’t think the budget cuts will affect the program in the foreseeable future because something that would have immediately been affected would have been not getting the new creative nonfiction faculty member,” she said.

Ciresi agreed and said the program will thrive despite the cuts.

“We’re a small program, we’re a very supportive program and we have very dedicated faculty,” she said. “We’ve always operated on a shoestring, so hopefully we will continue to do so.”

Ciresi said that since most of the MFA students will receive financial aid from graduate assistantships, the program provides a three-year window in which they can concentrate on their writing without the added pressure of working a full-time job.

“It is hard to make a living as a writer; it’s almost impossible,” she said. “So the graduate degree is a way for students to find out a little bit about the difficulties of writing as well as the benefits and to explore some different job options.”