If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re applying, or at least considering applying, to the University of Wyoming’s MFA program. And for good reason, there’s much that makes this program valuable. However, there are some things I think that you, the applicant, should know, things that aren’t made clear on the website or things you simply wouldn’t be able to know without having an insider source. Yes, I’m your insider source. (As such, I won’t be covering topics or details that are easily available through the website).
First, I should say that the faculty page on UW’s MFA page can be a bit misleading if you don’t pay attention to the small note at the top of the page. There is what is called “core faculty” and “affiliated faculty.” Core faculty teach workshop, chair and serve on theses committees, and participate, in some fashion, in the governance of the program. Affiliated faculty cannot chair these committees, but they can serve on them. Core faculty is the group of folks you should be primarily concerned with since they are the ones who teach workshop, though this isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t reach out to affiliated faculty whose work and opinions interest you.
To my knowledge, the following are considered core faculty here at UW: Andy Fitch (cross-genre, but mostly creative nonfiction), Alyson Hagy (fiction), Harvey Hix (poetry), Jeff Lockwood (creative nonfiction), Rattawut Lapcharoensap (fiction), Beth Loffreda (creative nonfiction), Kate Northrup (poetry), David Romtvedt (poetry), and Brad Watson (fiction). (Val Pexton and Paul Bergstraesser are possibly also core faculty, but, according to this hardcopy handbook I’ve been given by the program director, Jeff Lockwood, their status is in limbo).
Also, according to the website, Kate Northrup is affiliated faculty, but, as of this year, I believe, she is now core faculty (though I have yet to meet her since she seems to travel a lot).
Affiliated faculty: Mark Jenkins, Frieda Knobloch, Danielle Pafunda, and Joy Williams.
Again, the website is misleading in that it doesn’t specify whether or not Danielle Pafunda is core or affiliated. She is affiliated, which is unfortunate, because I was under the impression that I might have the opportunity to take workshop with her. I was disappointed to find out that this is not the case.
In terms of the aesthetics and personalities of these folk, I’ll tell you what I know so far. Danielle Pafunda’s writing is kinda surreal grrlesque stuff. David Romtvedt is a very narrative-driven guy, but very down-to-earth and fun to listen to. Harvey Hix is a bit difficult to place—he has a decent background in formalism, but has been known to jump around from book project to book project. He’s a bit more reserved than Romtvedt, but has plenty of goofy and lovable moments. Most importantly, he’s an extremely generous reader. He hardly offers any prescriptive remarks on your work, keeping his focus on one’s personal experience of the work, the purpose, techniques, etc. Kate Northrup’s work is lyrical, pretty (I know, I know, “lyrical” isn’t really saying much, but I’m not sure how else to describe it without getting lengthier). Andy Fitch, I think, also writes poetry, though I’ve yet to encounter his work. (I can’t really speak for other faculty since I’m in the poetry genre and have only concerned myself thus far with the work of the poets).
UW’s MFA really emphasizes the interdisciplinary freedom they offer students because the faculty themselves are fairly interdisciplinary themselves. Jeff Lockwood, the program director, studied entomology before becoming a writer. Harvey Hix has a strong appreciation for the visual arts, so much so that he curates exhibitions (I’ve only seen one, but I believe this is something he’s done a few times…). David Romtvedt is a musician who just came out with his first novel this year. Danielle Pafunda, while a member of the Engish department, is also some type of faculty (something tantamount to “affiliated”) in the Gender and Women’s Studies department.
Interdisciplinary emphasis and opportunities
As far interdisciplinary things go for students, you can essentially take whatever you want outside of workshop. There is no craft course offering and no literature course requirements. The only other required course that isn’t workshop is a composition pedagogy course that you take during your first semester here (more on this soon).
As a result, MFA students take classes on whatever department they’d like, given that you’re committed to it and it may, hopefully, fuel your writing. Furthermore, students can do a graduate minor in any department that offers such a minor (i.e. American Indian Studies, Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), Gender and Women’s Studies, International/Global Studies… there may be more, but these are the ones I’m aware of). A minor seems to require you take four classes in that department (ENR is more, and takes more than two years to complete, but the ENR program will fund you to stay here another semester), so, should you declare one, you’ll have little to no time for anything else.
I decided to take on a graduate minor myself in Gender and Women’s Studies; the other poet in my year is an ENR minor, which seems to be the most popular amongst MFAers. So, if you have a strong interest in environmental studies, UW might be a great fit for you.
The MFA is now an independent program
As of May 2015, the MFA program separated from the English department and is its own departmental entity. I wish I could elaborate more on the implications of this, but unfortunately I can’t. I can only say this new development seems to mostly or only affect how matters of university bureaucracy are carried out. It does, however, affect who can serve on your thesis committee. One member of your thesis committee must be from an outside department, and now the English department counts as being “outside.”
New-ish program director
Just to quickly mention: this year is Jeff Lockwood’s second year as program director. Prior to him taking this position, Beth Loffreda held it. No larger significance to glean from this (at least that I’m aware of), but just thought I’d mention it.
Very new composition program director
One fairly important thing for applicants to take note of, that you would otherwise could not know, is that UW just hired a new director of composition named Kelly Kinney. While this doesn’t affect MFA-specific things, it does affect two things that you will be directly involved in: teaching first-year composition and taking the required pedagogy course. This is the last year that GA’s will be teaching a specific iteration of the composition curriculum, a curriculum that I personally don’t like. I could go on and on about why I disagree or find the whole affair distasteful, but I’ll keep things brief.
The whole point of composition and rhetoric is to teach students how to write. However, the writing assignments that we currently dish out, while helpful in some ways, aren’t the sharpest in terms of either students’ interests/major or encounters with everyday prose forms. We have them write these generalist essays with strangely specific formulations for how to write an argumentative-body paragraph. We teach them terms that are only specific to UW’s composition program, and none of the composition mentors bothered to define these terms for us during the one-week pre-semester colloquium (a series of lectures and activities on how to teach freshmen composition) until we finally got up the courage to ask. (Also, in theory, the colloquium seems nice; in reality, it is hell. Helpful in some ways, but still an overall hellish affair.)
However, starting next year, we’ll be teaching a new composition curriculum courtesy of Kelly Kinney, who is a great person. Nothing is set in stone quite yet, but, during a meeting with Kelly, I found out that she wants to get rid of these generalist essays (“generalist” meaning not discipline-specific) and is thinking of bringing in prose forms that students from any background or major may more readily engage in, such as personal essays and letters to the editor.
Perhaps, I had overlooked a detail somewhere, but I wasn’t aware that students had second-year alternatives to fulfill a GAship. Most of the second-years aren’t teaching freshmen composition (their GAships range from working at a radio station to working at the Writing Center). Unfortunately, this isn’t a stable setup. Two of the second-years were told they were going to teach comp again in the spring because of a lack of teachers, and they didn’t have a say in the matter. This might occur again next, but it might not. Kelly Kinney’s restructuring of things may affect how much the university needs graduate student labor.
Romanticization vs. Disenchantment
Lastly, and most importantly, I want to talk about how current MFA students view their own program.
There are some students who say they have fallen in love with Laramie and the American West as a whole. I admit, the landscapes are beautiful and very worth exploring. As someone whose eyes have only interpreted the world through the speeds and shapes of city life, I still find the horizon and the natural landscapes refreshing and one-of-kind. At the same time, there are some things I don’t like about living here. There is no denying that Laramie is an incredibly small town with limited recreational and shopping options. If you can’t live without a Trader Joe’s in your life, you’re out of luck (though the nearest one is in Fort Collins, CO, about fifty minutes away). There are no clubs or hip urbanite bars with a monthly drag competition. I mean, there are bars, and a few quaint coffee shops and book stores, so don’t panic quite yet.
Anyways, what I’m trying to get to is that there seems to be a divide between students who love the program and town as a whole and ones who may enjoy the program and not the town, or don’t particularly like either. This divide runs between the white, straight, cis-gendered students and the minorities.
This divide has little to do with the faculty and the program itself (though I could be wrong, and I don’t mean to be represent myself as a mouthpiece for the collective feelings of the other minorities in this program) and more with the town. Laramie is a pretty white town with the usual undercurrents of racism, sexism, and homophobia. All the current black students have experienced racist aggressions from town folk. This isn’t to say that I’m discouraging writers of color to not apply to UW (the funding is certainly worth it). Rather, just know that Wyoming is a conservative state with a fairly homogenous population.
I, myself, have yet to experience highly aggressive forms of racism and sexism, but 1. I’ve only been here for a few months, and 2. I have light-skinned privilege.
Furthermore, if you’re a writer of color, you will, without a doubt, experience microaggressions from your cohort and faculty no matter which program you’re at. This dynamic exists here as well (though many faculty and students may know better to some extent, there are certainly ones who don’t).
If you’re reading this final paragraph, I just want to say thanks for taking the time out of your day for my much-too-long post. And, if you’re an applicant, my best wishes for you! Good luck.