MFA Spotlight: Columbia College in Chicago

I am very pleased to welcome  Chris L. Terry to our blog, and want to take this opportunity to thank him again for agreeing to conduct this interview about the MFA Program in Fiction at Columbia College in Chicago in continuation of our MFA Spotlights.

Chris L. Terry is in wrapping up a Fiction Writing MFA at Columbia College Chicago.  He works in his school’s Office of African-American Cultural Affairs and teaches juvenile inmates through Storycatchers Theatre. For more of his writing about the Columbia graduate program, check out Marginalia. Click ChrisLTerry.com for links to his other work.

NICHE: Could you please give us a brief account of your journey to the MFA?  How did you get here and what factors determined your decision to attend Columbia College in Chicago?

CHRIS L. TERRY: I got a BA in English from Virginia Commonwealth University, then spent about five years in New York City, doing proofreading/copy editing work. Since I wanted to write, editorial work started to feel like watching my own birthday party through a window, so I knew it was time for grad school. Also, I wanted opportunities to teach and do other fulfilling types of work, and I hoped that grad school would present opportunities.  I first heard of Columbia College Chicago when I was interning at Akashic Books. They published something by Joe Meno, and his author bio mentioned that he taught at Columbia. I already had it in my mind that Chicago would be a good place to go to school, so I investigated.  I’m usually a very logical person, but I got a really good gut feeling about Columbia right away.

NICHE: Tell us a little bit about Hair Trigger, the literary magazine. Are writers outside the program encouraged to submit their work there?

CHRIS L. TERRY: Hair Trigger is an annual publication of the best student work from the Fiction Writing department. Teachers hand-pick submissions from work turned in in their classes, and the final decisions are made by graduate and undergraduate students who are taking a class on publishing a lit mag.

NICHE: What are the benefits living in The Loop?

CHRIS L. TERRY: As far as I can tell, nothing except a short trip to class. The Loop is downtown Chicago, and it gets pretty boring after 6pm. If you want to go to an expensive bar or do some tourist crap, stick around. Otherwise, hop on the train and, in twenty minutes, you’ll be back in one of Chicago’s many terrific, comfortable neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own personality and benefits. I live on the edge of super-diverse Uptown on the far North Side, a 45 minute door-to-door commute to school.  A lot of other folks live in Logan Square, Pilsen, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Lakeview, Andersonville, Ravenswood, Edgewater and Rogers Park. The city is huge and has a ton of options. All these neighborhoods are near reliable, inexpensive public transportation.

NICHE: I understand that Columbia College in Chicago is somewhat unique in that it offers two degree options. The website states:

“The two-year MFA program in Creative Writing-Fiction focuses intently on the development of the student’s own work, while the three-year combined course of study (MFA/MA) encourages them to explore the relationship between writing and teaching.

The MA expands upon a pedagogy component introduced in the MFA Fiction program and brings hands-on practice teaching and enhanced credentials to the student’s portfolio. A substantive work of fiction in the form of a publishable-quality thesis results from both programs, and often serves as a point of entry into a career in writing, teaching, or publishing.”

Can you tell us which track you chose to peruse, and why?  If you picked up the MA, how do you find teaching?

CHRIS L. TERRY: I’m just doing the MFA. I’ve had plenty of chances to do interesting teaching work and can devote my writing time to my fiction, as opposed to academic writing.

In the 1980s, Columbia’s Fiction Writing department split off from the English department to become a program that exclusively uses the Story Workshop teaching method. This is poised to change – the school is currently working on bringing Fiction Writing and English (Poetry and Nonfiction) back together. In the meantime, since we are the only program that teaches Story Workshop, you have to learn Story Workshop as a Columbia Fiction Writing student before you can teach it. To teach Story Workshop at the college level, you have to take an extra 18 credits and receive an additional Teaching MA, to go with your Writing MFA. The Teaching MA is focused on teaching Story Workshop, so it’s a degree that focuses on a style of teaching that is only done in one department, at one school. And, like any degree, the Teaching MA does not guarantee you a job.

Since Fiction Writing is currently separate from the English department, Fiction Writing grad students rarely teach the basic comp classes in the English department. The only person I know that has done it, already had a Master’s in teaching from another school. Meanwhile, the Poetry and Nonfiction grads that I meet have a lot more access to these opportunities, since they are in their department.

I am glad that the schools are going to come together. Though I’ve met grads from the English department through other on-campus work, it’s strange to not have the opportunity to interact with them in an academic setting. I could learn a lot about language from Poetry folks. I could compare notes on personal narratives with Nonfiction students. We’re all writers – we should be talking. And, we’re all MFA students – we should be able to teach college classes.

That said, I value the teaching experience that I’ve received through my department. I came to Columbia College Chicago wanting to teach, and am confident that I’ll be able to find other teaching work once I am done with my degree. I’ve been inspired and entertained by my students, and I learned a lot about myself, my craft, and the world around me through my work.

NICHE: Which writers have you worked with and why?

CHRIS L. TERRY: The cool thing about getting an MFA is that everyone you work with is a writer, and I am confident that most of my classmates will be known writers in the near future. In the meantime, I can tell you that I’ve taken classes with authors such as Audrey NiffeneggerJoe MenoLaurie Lawlorand Don DeGrazia, and that I had to turn down a workshop with Bonnie Joe Campbell because I had to work.

NICHE: What unique benefits does the MFA Program in Columbia College in Chicago offer? What scholarship or financial aid does Columbia offer?

CHRIS L. TERRY: Being in Chicago, a terrific city with a far-flung and friendly independent arts scene is a benefit in and of itself. The Story Workshop is also a unique benefit.

Funding is not too hot. Your application to the grad program is also your application for the Follett Fellowship, which is a scholarship that is only offered to a couple people per program per year. That’s your only option during your first year. By your second year, you can apply for an assortment of $2,000 – $5,000 scholarships, and it’s a good way to chip away at tuition.  It’s weird–I quit a decent paying corporate job to go into debt to devote myself to honing a craft that I’m passionate about.  Now that I have these skills, my debt almost ensures that I will not have the time to write.  But, I’m glad I did it.  School has taught me how to discipline myself as a writer and I am ready to put that to that to the test. I have learned how to lead a life that I love, that does not bore the pants off me.

NICHE: What other advice would you give to prospective or current attendees of MFA  programs?

CHRIS L. TERRY: Please take a few years off between undergrad and grad school. Use that time to get some life experience that you can draw from as a writer. Use that time to see just how wack life can be – it will increase your drive and focus while you’re in school. Otherwise, write your ass off and get ready to meet some incredible people.

This MFA Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on March 24th, 2012.

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