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What is a Low Residency MFA Program?

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 6/27/2011

Here is a look at the details of what constitutes a low residency MFA, how a low residency graduate program works, and what programs it is focused on.

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    From a Distance

    Many of the distance learning programs have become incredibly popular in recent years without maintaining much respectability. Within the realm of the Master's of Fine Arts degree, there has been a program type that maintains aspects of this distance learning with brief blasts of very intense residential education. This program is called a low residency Master's of Fine Arts program, though in theory there can be other types of low residency graduate programs.

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    The Low Residency Format

    The low residency MFA model has lent itself mainly to creative writing programs because of their decision to keep many of their students in mostly solitary environments. What low residency indicates is that you do not have the majority of your time in residency, which means you do not attend class on campus or engage in campus specific activities. Instead, most of your time is spent working on your projects, completing assignments, and having occasional communication and critiques from faculty and/or other students. This is a low residency program, not distance learning or an online program, so there is still a very serious residency requirement. Depending on the program, most low residency MFA programs have the students come to campus twice a year for a ten day intense course session. This period will require that you spend all of your time with other classmates, attend lectures and presentations, participate in workshops, meet with advisers, read other work, and basically get as involved in the formal education process as you possibly can. From there you will leave and return home to continue working on your projects, checking in every few weeks for criticism and review. The requirement of each low residency MFA program is different, but usually you will have to attend a certain number of residency sessions, complete the proper communication and work for a certain number of terms, and complete a final project.

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    Creative Writing

    Almost every single low residency graduate program is an MFA in creative writing, mainly because of the belief that writers benefit from more time alone to work on and review their writing. Usually the creative writing programs will ask that the student focuses in on one of three disciplines: fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. The expectations of their work will then be structured around those genres and they will set goals there. Much of what the coursework tends to be established around is an incredibly large amount of reading, writing responses and such, attending residency, and completing work in their specific genre.

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    Notable Low Residency Programs

    Oregon's Pacific University offers a low residency Master's of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing that follows exactly this format, where students communicate over the semester with their work and critical responses and are expected to work on their coursework for 20-25 hours weekly. Bennington College is well regarded in general for its creative writing academics, and their low residency MFA is one of the highest regarded. They follow a "read 100 books, write one" format, and is actually fairly strenuous even though you are not in class.