Emerson MFA Thesis Process Needs to be Revamped sign now

To: Creative Writing Graduate Program Director, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Acting Dean (School of the Arts), WLP Chair, WLP Curriculum Committee, Dean of Graduate Studies, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs

Cc: WLP Faculty, President of the College

We the undersigned (current and recent graduate students) believe that the thesis process for Master of Fine Arts creative writing candidates at Emerson College is currently inadequate and needs to be revamped. It has recently come to our attention that the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing has considered altering the thesis process. We strongly agree that this needs to happen, and we provide this petition as a means of indicating where the current process is lacking from our point of view and how specific issues may be improved.

We do not believe the issues with the thesis semester reflect shortcomings of the faculty—our thesis chairs and readers. They provide feedback that is truly invaluable. In addition, though we find that Emerson’s MFA program may be lacking in this one area, we do not mean to suggest that we have not valued our time at Emerson; we have encountered a strong community of writers that has nourished our creativity and passion for the written word. Emerson’s program is unique in that it offers a variety of opportunities simply not available at other institutions. That is why we chose Emerson over other schools. However, to keep Emerson competitive and to help students produce the best work, the manner in which the thesis is administered must be reconsidered. We simply want the MFA program to be the best program possible, which is in the best interest of all parties.

The following areas of the thesis process need to be addressed:

A. The cost of the thesis semester is financially irresponsible. The thesis is currently presented as an eight-credit course, costing approximately $8,000, which most students pay for out-of-pocket. This suggests that the equivalent of eight Emerson-guided work hours are spent on the thesis per week. It is not reasonable to expect a thesis committee to devote that much attention to a single thesis.

B. The amount of time thesis chairs commit to meeting with their students varies widely from professor to professor. This inconsistency makes some feel as though they are “not getting their money’s worth” and undermines the perception of the Department’s commitment to the thesis process.

C. The amount of time committed to the thesis in the curriculum is inadequate. Too many graduates emerge from the program with almost no thoroughly revised, publishable work. While some of this can be attributed to certain students’ lack of discipline, a fair amount can also be attributed to the thesis process itself.

There are many ways that the process can be improved. A number of MFA programs offer possible alternatives. We propose that Emerson consider the following possibilities. This is by no means an exhaustive list:

1. Complement the one-on-one thesis process with a workshop consisting of students in their thesis semester. This is a structure similar to what is currently in place at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

2. Make the thesis a yearlong process. Here are a few suggestions:

a. During the first semester of the thesis year students could participate in a workshop specifically for those working on their thesis. This would function strictly as a revision workshop. In the second semester, students would meet with their chairs on a one-on-one basis. During both semesters students might take an additional course, if necessary.

b. In both semesters, the student would work with their thesis chairs to revise their manuscripts. In one semester, students would take a course on “the first book,” where they would analyze and critique first books and learn about the business side of publishing. In the other semester, students would take an elective, if necessary.

c. Assign two thesis “readers.” Students might work with one reader in each semester. A system similar to this is currently used at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

3. Make consistent the required frequency thesis chairs and students meet. MFA candidates at Sarah Lawrence, for example, meet with members of their thesis committee on a semimonthly basis. This would encourage chairs to analyze work more consistently and demand that students commit more time to revising throughout the thesis semester.

4. The one-on-one thesis process currently used could be reduced to a four-credit course. The student would then complement this with an additional course, possibly an elective, or the department could develop “the first book” course or thesis workshop described under item 2. Our understanding is that Emerson previously had such a system in place. Though Emerson may have had valid reasons for changing this system, we feel that it is a more financially responsible option than that which is currently in place.

5. Assign all matriculating students an academic advisor. Though we do technically have an advisor, few students work with this individual consistently, and this person, who serves as the advisor for all current MFA students, cannot be expected to provide the constant and engaged support emerging writers require. If students have regular discussions with an invested professor about what they are hoping to do with their writing and what they need to do in order to accomplish their goals during their time at Emerson, they will have a better sense of direction and purpose by the time they sit down with their thesis advisors, preparing them to get the most out of the process.

We truly hope the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing and the college heed the need to restructure the thesis process. We also believe that to successfully restructure the process, the college should seek out the insights of current and recent graduate students whose first-hand experience with this process and familiarity with other models makes them qualified to accurately assess the successes and limitations of the system currently in place. Restructuring the thesis process is a necessary and logical step to make Emerson’s already strong MFA program more competitive and to enable students to produce the best work possible.

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