Behind The Scenes: Making The Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing Residency a Virtual Experience

by Web Services

Students in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing are used to working in the virtual world. During the semester, they attend classes and work one-on-one with their mentors online. But in the hybrid program, students also complete two in-person residencies on the Wilkes campus in January and June of each year. The residencies become a welcome chance for students to interact face-to-face with faculty and members of their cohort. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that. The June 2020 residency, like all of the University’s summer classes, is being held online, using the Zoom platform. Nine days of morning-until-night classes and programming have been translated into a virtual experience. 

News@Wilkes spoke to program director Bonnie Culver and program co-founder, Mike Lennon, about ways that they’ve adapted the in-person experience. 

A complicated playbook: Every cohort enrolled in the creative writing program has a different class schedule during residency, depending where they are in the program sequence. The newest class might be having a traditional lecture while others might be attending a craft class while still others are learning how to do research. For the virtual residency, instead of juggling room assignments for multiple, simultaneous classes, Culver and her faculty are juggling simultaneous Zoom meetings. The result is a 41-page document used to coordinate the many invitations to Zoom. Every online class has a different group of people who must receive an email invitation with a link to access the class. 

Because students and faculty come from all over the country, starting time for the virtual residency has been moved back to 10. This will allow people on the West Coast and in the mountain states to join at 7 or 8 a.m. instead of 6 or 7 a.m. 

Practice Runs: Although residency starts on Friday, June 12, Culver met online with every cohort during the week of June 8 to ensure that every student has mastered the technology before classes begin. Culver was accompanied by David Hicks, who will succeed her as program director when she retires in August. These preliminary meetings allowed the program to resolve problems with online access before residency. 

Later start, shorter days: Days at residency usually start at 9 a.m. Because students and faculty come from all over the country, starting time for the virtual residency has been moved back to 10. This will allow people on the West Coast and in the mountain states to join at 7 or 8 a.m. instead of 6 or 7 a.m.  On the flip side, after hours of Zoom classes, students need a break from staring at the screen.  Days will end at 5 p.m.  Evening readings are pre-recorded so that students, who are required to attend them, have more flexibility when they need to show up online. 

Not-So-Speedy Dating: Speed dating – the term describing one event where students meet with faculty to help choose a mentor for their creative thesis – is done with all faculty and students in a room. Students rotate among faculty at 10-minute intervals to chat about their projects and reading lists. In lieu of being able to do this face to face, online meeting rooms for each genre – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting – will be set up and all faculty teaching that genre will be there to answer questions and discuss projects. Students also can meet virtually one-on-one with faculty.

Adapting assignments: Some assignments – especially those for new students in the program – had to be adapted to the online space. For example, one exercise required a trip to the Polish Room in Wilkes’ Farley Library. There students examined artifacts and collectibles before choosing objects create character sketch that emphasize what those objects reflect about a character. Instead, students will be asked to find an object in their homes – perhaps something that belonged to their grandmother or an item passed down from a relative – and use it to do a similar exercise. Virtual tours of Emily Dickinson’s home will be tapped for an exercise in writing about place. 

An online banquet with no buffet line: The closing banquet, another residency tradition, will still be held on Friday night. It will be strictly BYOF (Bring Your Own Food), since it’s impossible to serve dinner virtually. One thing won’t change: Every student who has completed the Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degree requirements will be recognized by faculty with individual comments delivered from the online stage. 

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