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English Department Creates New MFA Program

Oct. 11, 2011
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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Students who enter the Sam Houston State University English department’s new Master of Fine Arts degree program will have an experience that is unique to those they would have in any other creative writing program in the state of Texas, according to program director Scott Kaukonen.

Though there are about 135 MFA programs nationally, including four others in Texas, graduate students who enter SHSU’s program when it begins next fall will have the opportunity to gain practical publishing experience through SHSU’s Texas Review Press and “Texas Review.”

Founded in the mid-1970s by 2009 Texas State Poet Laureate and Texas State University System Regents Professor Paul Ruffin, the “Texas Review” is a bi-annual literary journal that publishes short fiction, poetry, and essays from contributors around the world. Texas Review Press will publish 18 titles from all genres this year.

“Our MFA students will have the opportunity to work in both venues, and to gain valuable, practical, hands-on editorial and publishing experience,” Kaukonen said.

Recently approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the English MFA program will build upon the creative writing option currently offered as part of the Master of Arts in English program.

“Within the MFA program, the demands will be significantly greater,” Kaukonen said. “It will be a 48-hour program, essentially three years, and students, for example, will be required to take five workshops—four in their major area of concentration and one outside that area—which will form the core of their experience, and produce a book-length thesis—perhaps eight or nine stories, or a novel, or 30-40 poems.

“They also will be expected to take a significant body of coursework in literature and theory. We will be an ‘academic’ program in that sense, not just a studio program, and we make no bones about that,” he said. “We believe that writers should be readers, and should understand not only the tradition in which they write—why they should study those ‘classics’—but also of the times in which they write—why we think they should study and be aware of contemporary literature and ideas as well.

“We know that there’s a high demand for slots in MFA programs across the nation.The top few programs, such as the Iowa Writers Workshop and the James Michener program at the University of Texas—Austin, receive over 1,000 applicants each year for just a handful of slots,” he said. “The MFA is a terminal degree in that it’s the highest degree in the field of creative writing; it does qualify those who hold it to teach at the university level.”

More importantly, Kaukonen said, people want and need an experience that goes beyond simply getting a degree or “some sort of qualification;” the kind of community of writers the MFA program hopes to build will be one in which each person takes the craft seriously.

“The best MFA programs, and certainly we hope to build a program of that stature, provide writers with a community of fellow travelers, people who share a love of writing and literature, of character and story, of sound and sense,” he said. “It’s a difficult task to set about to write a novel or a collection of poems, and it’s doubly so for many of us to do it alone. We want others to bounce our ideas off of, to provide us with feedback, or to just sit around with us over drinks and help us to sort things out in our head.

“So the community aspect of an MFA program is, in my opinion, invaluable. It’s not just the learning that takes place in the classroom or in the workshop, but it comes from being in the hallways and the coffeeshops and those other places where graduate students and writers assemble to argue over their favorite books and writers and ideas,” Kaukonen said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to create an atmosphere here that draws writers who value that sense of community, and we’ll be able to help our students find the inspiration and instruction they need to write those stories and poems and essays, the ones we will want to recommend to all our friends.”

In addition to Kaukonen, who is a fiction writer, the MFA faculty will include award-winning poet Melissa Morphew and Ruffin. Additional tenure-track faculty will be hired in the spring.

The program will begin accepting applications this winter.

The MFA program in creative writing is the second addition to the SHSU English Department this year. In August, the department added an interdisciplinary American studies minor for undergraduate students.

For more information on the MFA program, contact Kaukonen at 936.294.1407 or kaukonen@shsu.edu or visit http://www.shsu.edu/gradcat/eng.html.


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