Now that two MFA Summer Residencies have been held entirely online, faculty in the King’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction say they are surprised and pleased by what they’ve learned since March of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced them to reimagine how they would deliver this core component of the program. Executive Director of the MFA, Kim Pittaway says that back then, they were 10 weeks away from the arrival of 60 students and mentors for eight days of lectures, mentoring sessions, and social events on campus. On March 13, when most of the world shut down, Pittaway had “literally just finalized everything for the in-person. We were locked and loaded, and then we had to start all over again.” Professor Stephen Kimber remembers that time as blind panic, but now the MFA faculty member says the experience taught them how to use technology to their advantage and improved the program.
Prized for bringing together students and mentors from across Canada and the U.S. on the King’s campus at the beginning of each academic year, graduates of the MFA are effusive about the immersive learning experience the program delivers. Many say the intimacy of King’s, Halifax, and the program are why it’s so special.
By contrast, Garrett Mombourquette’s entire experience of the program has been online. Now in his second year, students like him haven’t experienced the program in any other way. He did notice that people were much more comfortable on Zoom during the most recent June residency, and used features like the chat function more often. Mombourquette, from Prince Edward Island, says he was not the least bit disappointed about doing his MFA online last year. He feels grateful that he can re-watch and access transcripts of the lectures, and most significantly “work towards something meaningful during a difficult time.” The only thing he misses is the feeling of reading in front of a live audience.
As the first program to go online at King’s and Dalhousie in 2020, Pittaway says they “were at the front of the wave and had to figure it out ourselves.” That meant a few stumbles. She regrets sending students 20 recorded lectures with no detailed instructions about which to watch first. Knowing now that those students felt overwhelmed, Pittaway provided clearer directions this year.
Following university protocol, program faculty were expecting to use Microsoft Teams. But Kimber says two weeks before the start of the program, faculty and mentors tried it out, and realized you can’t see everyone who’s logged on. According to Kimber, “It was the immediate turning point moment where we said, ‘we’re going with Zoom.’”
What technology can’t change is the array of time zones in which students live. As soon as she knew the program was going online, Pittaway turned her focus to its core element, the mentorship sessions, and moved them to a time that was reasonable for everyone. She says the feedback received from students about the online residencies held last week and last year is that nothing was lost by connecting participants online. She says it might even be better, “because there’s kind of no place to hide when you’re at this focal length (on camera).”
Poet and essayist Lorri Neilsen Glenn, who has mentored students since the program started in 2013, misses “IRL, In Real Life…. I miss real people in real life. I miss conversations, the kind of body presence that communicates volumes without saying much.”
What she doesn’t miss is finding a parking spot each day. She also recognizes the opportunities that have grown out of this experience. “I can see the MFA using hybrid approaches—returning to face-to-face, in real life sessions but keeping some of the benefits of having more materials online, more engagement across the country online.”
Glenn is referring to the monthly addition of webinars and reading sessions, which keep students connected and engaged.
As part of the program, MFA administrators also plan social events. Kimber and Pittaway know there is a magic that takes place outside the classroom; it happens in the Wardroom, in hallways, and at readings. One of their pandemic additions is the Coffee Break, a daily half-hour session hosted by alumni with a mixture of first and second-year students. According to Pittaway, these sessions, which are “universally loved by the students,” allow them “…to meet folks that they wouldn’t necessarily meet in their groups. But also just to have the chance to talk to other people who’ve been through the program.”
Kimber says that building breakaway rooms into the social events was “weird at first,” but ultimately he compares it to being in a bar where you might start off talking with people at one table, going to the bar for a drink, and then returning to another table for another conversation.
Even though the MFA faculty doesn’t miss haggling to reserve meeting rooms and looking for places to park, they are all looking forward to the time when they can gather in person once more for the June Residency. But it won’t look like it did before the pandemic. As Kimber says, “the pandemic has opened our minds to possibilities that we didn’t know existed.” Those possibilities are now part of the program.