IAIA’s Creative Writing Department Begins Low-Residency MFA Program

By Monty Little

Santa Fe, NM – The leaves have all fallen around the Institute of American Indian Arts campus. Critiques from students and faculty can be heard echoing in the hallways, and drumming from keyboards become syntactical. Students prepare themselves for the coming semester, while some seniors are looking ahead to the next step in their educational path ”” Graduate School. Application deadlines can be another stressful thing to worry about, but excitement is found around campus, more specifically, around IAIA’s Creative Writing department.

In the summer of 2013, IAIA will open their doors to the first group of students achieving their Masters in Fine Arts in IAIA’s first Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing. The Low-Residency MFA program will have students in residency for six and a half days, with readings nightly, workshops, discussions, and classes daily that will add up to 40 hours. When graduate students are not in residency, they will work with faculty mentors through Blackboard for 16 weeks.

“Tentative dates for the first residency are July 28 through August 4, 2013,” IAIA Creative Writing Department Chair, Jon Davis says. “If all goes as planned, there will be 30 graduate students and roughly 6 faculty mentors on campus for that first residency.”

Davis, Santa Fe’s Poet Laureate, says former IAIA professor, Arthur Sze, and Davis sought the idea of a graduate program back in 2000, and they thought the program would be established ten years after. They were close. In fact, the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Academic Dean, Dr. Ann Filemyr brought up the idea again in the spring of 2007.

Davis researched 35 Low-Residency MFA programs around the country, including three of the nations most successful programs: Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, Vermont College, and Pacific University in Oregon. He studied their programs, looking at their professors, teaching curriculum, operation, and their methods for exchanging and critiquing work. During 2008, Davis consulted the Associated Writing Program’s “Hallmarks of a Successful Low Residency MFA Program,” and attended a Low Residency Caucus at AWP’s annual conference for more insight.

“In the fall of 2008, the Faculty Council approved the concept of developing an MFA in Creative Writing,” Davis says. “By February, I had a complete proposal and a curriculum. During February and March of 2009, the Curriculum Committee reviewed the entire program and approved both the program and the individual course proposals. On May 14, 2009, the Board of Trustees passed a motion approving the MFA.”

The Higher Learning Commission, an independent corporation and member of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools accredit degree-granting post-secondary institutions, visited IAIA on November 5th, 2012. “In preparation for the HLC’s site visit and review, the program went through a further round of adjustments, primarily a review of financial and practical matters,” Davis says. “This time led by Dean Ann, Bill Sayre, and Lawrence Mirabal, with strong support from President Martin.”

It was also then when the Higher Learning Commission interviewed a few Creative Writing students after meeting with faculty, which included: Carolyn Conley, Paige Buffington, and Windsong. “The main question was why we felt IAIA should have its own MFA program,” Buffington says. “They asked us about the program’s strengths. I said that the faculty is encouraging. They prepare us for graduate school as if it is the next step and not just an option.”

On the same day, the Higher Learning Commission’s review ended in a favorable vote. IAIA was ready and ahead of schedule for an MFA program.

Currently, Davis, who will be Interim Director, is organizing the program, which includes building a faculty staff. “The initial group of six [faculty members] will be 80% Native and will include some very well known names,” Davis says. “The number of mentors will grow as the student body grows. If we have a full program (60 students) in August of 2014, the faculty will expand to 15-20 total faculty mentors.”

According to Davis, IAIA’s Low-Residency MFA program will be affordable. “We’ve tossed around an early application deadline in April, a late deadline in May or even June 1st. Given our constituency, we want to keep the price low, yet pay the faculty well so we can get the best available writers.”

IAIA’s Creative Writing Department was asked why chose a Low-Residency MFA rather than a full residency program. Two good reasons: “A student can live away from Santa Fe, attend to family, work, community, and still participate,” Davis says. The other reason is, “Faculty are paid per student, so costs and tuition are precisely aligned. Ultimately, we will rotate a roster of 15-20 faculty members in and out of the program.”

According to Davis, most schools generate huge profit, which is why IAIA is pushing for the MFA program. But the profit is not what the Creative Writing program is interested in; in fact, “We want to provide a service to the Indigenous writers of the continent. If it works, the students will dream of literary matters, too.”

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