Poets & Writers

MFA Programs in the Time of COVID-19

IN MARCH, shortly before the state of California ordered its residents to shelter in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, San Francisco State University shuttered its campus, forcing the university’s creative writing department to abruptly shift its courses online. For the better part of two months, writing professors at SFSU, like their peers at colleges and universities across the United States, had to learn on the fly how to teach a writing workshop via Zoom to students hunkered down in their homes.

“It was a hard semester,” says Nona Caspers, director of the creative writing department at SFSU. “People lost students. I don’t mean they died, but they disappeared from their classes. We couldn’t find them. Not very many, and we really tried. I’m so proud of our university and of our faculty, but it was hard. We’re still in a weird place.”

Six months later, as universities gear up for fall, professors at SFSU and hundreds of other creative writing programs around the country still find themselves in that weird place. As of late July, just over half of U.S. universities planned to invite students back to campus for in-person classes this fall, according to a survey of more than twelve hundred schools by the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the survey, 10 percent of universities said they planned to go fully online, while nearly a third of schools were proposing a hybrid model, mixing in-person and online elements.

In interviews this summer, as plans for the fall semester were taking shape, MFA program directors made it clear that even at universities that intend to hold classes on campus, students will be expected to maintain social distance and wear face masks in class. Reading series and large gatherings have either been canceled or moved online, and in many

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