Innovationally Stimulating and Emotionally Rewarding

By Karen Mann

Spalding MFA Administrative Director

In 1997, Sena Jeter Naslund asked me to co-direct a low-residency MFA in Writing program. We approached Spalding University with the idea, and we all know how that turned out—570 alumni later!

Sena Jeter Naslund Karen Mann SP02

For years, Sena had taught in several graduate programs, not to mention another low-residency program, and she had ideas for innovative ways to design a program, ways that would improve upon and be better than other programs. From the outset, she planned for our program to be intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive.

Even after 14 years of directing this program, we are constantly evolving. In addition to Sena’s groundbreaking ideas that have been a part of the program from the beginning, many of our innovations have grown out of students’ and faculty and staff members’ suggestions. Among the many features that make us unique:

  •      Cross-genre exploration, allowing students to learn from other modes of writing while focusing on their own area, even taking a residency or independent study outside their major area
  •      A rotating series of international residencies, giving writers a wealth of opportunities to deepen their understanding of different cultures
  •      An emphasis on the interrelatedness of all the arts: writing, visual art, music, dance, theater, etc.
  •      An extended summer semester, allowing busy students to choose the semester length that fits their schedule
  •      The most active alumni association in the country

Often our best brainstorming sessions happen at the faculty meeting at the end of a residency. For example, at the end of last fall’s residency, we hatched the idea of offering more generative workshops, which led to faculty developing a focus and description for their spring workshops. Students then filled out a preference form before they were assigned to a workshop at the spring residency.

From every new idea we learn even newer and better ways to present our intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive program to our students, students for which the passion to write is central to their lives.

I’d love to hear from you about which innovations helped you. Leave a comment below in response to one or more of these questions: Which feature of the program meant the most to you? What about the program changed the way you think about writing? What most surprised you about the program?


Karen Mann is the co-founder and Administrative Director of the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing at Spalding University. She has published two novels: The Saved Man (Page Turners Publishing, 2014) and The Woman of La Mancha (Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2014).


6 thoughts on “Innovationally Stimulating and Emotionally Rewarding

  1. As an adult learner I most appreciate flexibility. The program is completely customizable and I find the choices in genre, books, and workshop to be excitingly diverse. The interrelatedness of the arts is clearly emphasized. While studying creative nonfiction, I have learned to appreciate beautiful examples in all genres, but I’ve also been encouraged to experiment with them as well. I even wrote and filmed a mini movie…fiction, gasp

    As a career teacher, I’m most surprised by the fun I’m having as a student once again, for the mentors, guests, and program directors have been supportive and receptive to everyone, a wonderfully diverse student body hard at work and play. I feel like I married into a really artsy and brilliant family full of righteous earthlings.


    1. Thanks, Matthew! You certainly have taken advantage of several great opportunities during your time as a student! I love your last statement!


  2. My husband didn’t understand why I wanted pursue an MFA. “You’re already published,” he said.

    But until Spalding, I’d never had any college level creative writing classes. A friend from SCBWI told me about Spalding–she SOLD me on Spalding. (Thank you, Marjetta!)

    On paper, the journey looked good. As a writer for children, I had the opportunity to take an entire semester in a different genre. Oh,my gosh! Greg Pape led a marvelous, insightful workshop. And I was a little intimidated going in because I knew my classmates were seasoned poets. What I didn’t know was how generous they all turned out be, even with a beginner like me. And Greg amazed me with his ability to understand and be genuinely interested in the wide variety of voices we as a group represented.

    This program has been nothing short of fantastic! My favorite outing so far was to the theater production of WAR HORSE. Another thing that amazes me is the talents of my peers. The caliber of their work humbles me and inspires me.

    I love the camaraderie during workshop and later in the evenings! I like that some of talk via social media between residencies. I enjoy the program immensely. And I don’t have to be sad when I graduate because of all the slum activities as well as PGRA opportunities. YAY!


  3. Hands down I have never felt more respected, valued, understood and appreciated than I do at Spalding. I’ve always been blessed to attend great schools but the MFA programs blows everything else out of the water. Not only have I had great support from faculty and staff, but I’ve made wonderful lasting friendships with my peers that persist past graduation and will no doubt remain for the rest of my life. When Sena welcomes everyone home at the beginning of the semester that’s no joke; when you enroll at Spalding you have just been admitted into a new home with a new family that will love you and accept your love on an epic scale.

    I’d have say that what benefitted me and surprised me the most were the same: the interrelatedness of the arts. And by that I don’t mean only those activities organized as such each residency. I’ve attended many screenwriting lectures (and even did a residency where I created a short film) that helped me a great deal as a fiction writer. I discovered a voice I would never have believed I could have in CNF. I’ve recently begun a project working on a piece for teens and I have to say, Kathleen and the other poets make even poetry seem really cool. I never expected there might be a tool or two I could borrow from them to strengthen my fiction writing but then, I could never have imagined a Spalding MFA program before I attended. The arts aren’t just interrelated; they are all facets of the same diamond we all want, as writers, to polish and Spalding is a priceless elegant and classy setting.

    Many thanks to Sena and Karen for founding this program!


  4. You’re so right, Matthew! My main draw to this program was the flexibility to build an MFA curriculum that worked for me. I’ve been able to study abroad, enjoy a slower semester, pick up the pace with a quicker semester, and now transition from one genre to another.


  5. When I began looking into grad school I didn’t really think it was an actual possibility. I didn’t think I could afford it if I did manage to get accepted. I feel so fortunate to have found Spalding. They accepted me, giving me the confidence to pursue financing.

    My two years in the Spalding MFA in Writing program were the best time of my life and worth every bit of effort. I graduated in 2006 at age fifty-five, proving that you are never too old to pursue your dreams.


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