Summer Institute vs an MFA

In July, I went from a 10-day Summer Institute in Singapore to a 7-day Summer Residency in Hong Kong. The Summer Institute is the core programme of the National Writing Project (NWP) , which has, as its tagline ‘improving writing and learning in the nation’s schools’. The Singapore version, which I helped organise, was called the Starter Writing Institute, and was aimed at Senior and Lead Teachers. The Summer Residency that I went to was part of the (self-funded) Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing that I am doing for the sheer joy of it.

Several people have asked me what the difference between the two is, and while I’ve articulated it in different ways, I think this sums it up:

NWP

What it is: A professional development course that is aimed at getting teachers to see themselves through the lens of writers by experiencing writing for themselves before they teach others.

Target audience: Experienced teachers who do not see themselves as writers and who are interested in writing.

Activities are related to : Pre-writing,  story generation, getting feedback from peers in a supportive environment, relating theory to classroom practice.

MFA in Creative Writing

What it is: A graduate degree, that aimed at getting students’ work published and at honing their skills for teaching writing at university level. The programme assumes that you know why you want to write.

Target audience: Professionals from all walks of lives who have working experience (this is for my particular course profile — the ones in the States tend to be populated with fresh grads).

Activities are related to: Story generation, critiquing each other’s story in environments that range from honest-but-nice to critical-and-nit-picky, preparing your work for a standard that is ready to enter the published world.

Coming from one to the other, and being a teacher who is a writer, as well as a writer who is a teacher, I think both programmes serve different needs, and that they overlap in terms of the fundamentals of writing. During the Summer Residency, I found myself thinking that a particular story I had heard could have used some pre-writing activities from the SWI. Conversely, during the SWI, I wondered whether the MFA practice of workshopping could be the catalyst that would push some of the teachers to a higher skill level.

Most of the common critiques of the MFA programme (and indeed the main question that many MFA students and graduates have) surround the notion of what work is ‘good enough to be published’, and who dictates those standards. I just read this article by someone who had an MFA, but found that the Summer Institute reminded her of why she wrote in the first place.

Why do you write? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it.

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