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Looking Back on the Brink of Looking Forward

Karen Mann, Co-Founder & Administrative Director of Spalding low-residency MFA

Mann Karen for blog

At the MFA residency this fall, we are honoring Sena Jeter Naslund as she retires from the MFA program at the end of the year and turns her attention to new creative projects. Leading up to the residency, I have been thinking not only about what’s brought us to this point in the MFA program but I have also been anticipating the future!

Twenty years ago, Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing was Sena’s idea, her dream. Sena is the award-winning, bestselling author of Ahab’s Wife and eight other novels. She received her PhD from Iowa, the granddaddy of writing programs. Prior to starting the Spalding program, Sena taught in several graduate writing programs, including traditional MFA and low-residency MFA programs. What she discovered was that the low-residency model was the very best way to teach writing and to receive an MFA. Having taught in the Vermont College low-residency program for 17 years, Sena saw ways to improve the experience and education for students, and she wanted to develop those ideas in a program in Kentucky, which at the time had no MFA in Writing program.

Sena and I had worked together on The Louisville Review for the ten years prior to our initial meeting with Spalding. We knew we worked well together: She had things she did well, and I had things I did well. These sets of skills were complementary, which led us to believe we could direct a successful new program.

In 1997, when Sena and I approached Spalding about starting a low-residency MFA in Writing program, we were well aware of Spalding’s reputation for innovative programming, as well as its commitment to peace and social justice. While it took a while to put things in place to start the program, by 2000 Spalding was ready. We were charged with enrolling 15 students in our first class. In October 2001, we welcomed our first class of 40 students, taught by Sena and eight faculty members. Within four semesters we had more than 100 students and 25 faculty members.

2001 First Class

Spalding MFA in Writing – First Residency, 2001

Even after 17 years of directing this program, we are constantly evolving. In addition to Sena’s groundbreaking ideas that have been 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 are

  1. 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

  2. A rotating series of international residencies, giving writers a wealth of opportunities to deepen their understanding of different cultures

  3. An emphasis on the interrelatedness of all the arts: writing, visual art, music, dance, theater, etc.

  4. An extended summer semester, allowing busy students to choose the semester length that fits their schedule

  5. Specialized workshops, including a teaching seminar and book-length manuscript workshop

  6. An option to take a semester studying translation

  7. An option to earn a post-baccalaureate certificate rather than the complete MFA degree

  8. The most active alumni association in the country

One of our early taglines was “Ideally suited to the writing life: Study with a great community of writers; write in your own home.” Others have included “Where Every Individual Talent Is Nurtured” and “Intellectually Stimulating and Emotionally Supportive.” I think these sentiments define our program as one that not only allows students who have a passion to write to pursue their writing goals, but also as a program that promotes creativity, community, and compassion.


Spalding offers summer semesters with international residencies. Sena Jeter Naslund and Kathleen Driskell in Rome, 2011

I look forward to continuing to co-direct the program with these values at our core. January 2018 will begin with Kathleen Driskell as the new Program Director, and I know the program will continue to thrive and grow in new ways, ways that might never have been conceived if not for the groundwork we have already put in place.

Mann Karen for blog

Karen Mann is the co-founder and Administrative Director of the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing at Spalding University. Her short stories and essays have appeared in various anthologies. Her two novels are The Saved Man (Page Turners Publishing, 2014) and The Woman of La Mancha (Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2014).



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