|Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont,|
with John Dewey Inset
“Though the [Goddard College] residency only lasts a week each semester, the heart of the program leaves with you...As much as you become a part of the program at Goddard, the program becomes part of you.”
– Sarah Cedeño, MFA in Creative Writing (From Goddard’s Quotes Page)
“Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”
– John Dewey (1859-1952), American philosopher, psychologist, educational reformer, and practitioner of progressive education
In the past two days, I have criticized Goddard College for honoring a convicted killer by inviting him to speak at commencement on October 5, 2014:
On that matter, I stand by my words, and I am still angry and disappointed, BUT let it be known that I will always love Goddard College for providing me with not only an outstanding graduate education but also its first-rate “Goddard Experience.”
Anyone who has graduated from Goddard will understand exactly what I mean.
So it is distressing when some (mostly) conservative pundits, journalists, posters, and bloggers, instead of remaining on point about the Mumia Abu-Jamal commencement address, have been taking the opportunity to bash Goddard’s educational model without really understanding what it’s all about.
And their readers have been buying into the media sound bites focusing on the self-directed curriculum, hinting that, perhaps, hippy-dippy students are allowed to “slide by” and “party on,” 24/7.
As a Goddard alumna (MFA, 1994), I’m here to show naysayers that nothing could be further from the truth.
I’m here to defend Goddard’s progressive educational model, as envisioned by John Dewey (American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer) – 100%.
Working in a self-directed manner is difficult work because there’s no one standing over the student and assigning day-to-day “homework”; if the work – in this case, writing – gets done, then fine; if not, then the student will have to repeat the semester, take a leave, or drop out.
Also, the self-directed part involves developing an in-depth study plan, a negotiated contract between student and advisor (a faculty member who is assigned to each student as a guide and a reader) because the Goddard MFA Program in Creative Writing has specific requirements that must be fulfilled: submission of an MFA thesis (including a long creative work, a long and short critical paper; a creative process paper, and an extensive bibliography); a teaching semester, complete with curriculum development (I created a new course) and lesson plans; a book list about a mile long (approximately 150 books and articles), with a reading journal required (in addition to the critical and process papers), submitted in packets, four times a semester (about every three weeks).
Before graduating, I was required to defend both my creative and critical works.
Each semester, students are required to submit their packets to their advisors, each to include, at the very least, a progress report, new creative work (about 10-20 pages, depending on genre), and a reading journal. Other items, as needed, might be included in any given packet, such as outlines and drafts for the critical papers and bibliographies.
Submission of each packet is required; a student cannot move forward in the program without submitting them, all of them.
Deadlines for submitting packets are firm — no submitting packets all at once at the end of the semester. Back in the day (early 1990’s), we used the United States Postal Service or U.P.S. to send our packets, and if we wanted to squeeze in some extra time, we overnighted our packets. And we paid all postage ourselves, both to our advisors and back to us (ah, yes, the ubiquitous SASE).
Email was too new and not yet generally accepted for submitting attachments. Perhaps a more recent graduate can jump in the comments section and discuss what role the internet now plays in a Goddard MFA program.
So much for the hippy-dippy curriculum...
The only difference between a traditional and a low-residency program: I did all my intensive work at home, over 500 miles from Vermont. Instead of taking tests, I wrote papers, conducted research at my local college, and wrote a novel. I also completed my teaching component at my hometown college, with a colleague observing a few classes and writing a report (on a form provided by Goddard), which she sent to my advisor and the registrar’s office.
The packets and occasional phone calls kept me in regular contact with my advisor.
Everyone involved in academe understands that formal classes are not the centerpiece of a graduate student’s curriculum, especially in the creative arts – in the end, it’s the ongoing assessment and end product that counts, not classroom face time and continuous testing. At Goddard, an additional component is emphasized: the process, for the process is evidence of professional and personal growth. Also, the process becomes part of the final transcript, the proof, in place of standard grades, of successful completion – in addition to the submitted thesis – a system similar to the European model of higher education.
By choosing a low-residency program, I was able to complete my MFA without having to be away from my home, job, and partner for weeks at a time. One actual advantage: by working from home, I was not distracted by silly college politics and extracurricular activities, such as regular partying and socializing, both serious temptations.
The residencies last one week, during which students and advisors engage in intensive workshops, presentations, and readings. The days start early, about 8:00 a.m., and end at 5:00 p.m. with student and faculty readings as the evening entertainment.
– “Old-fashioned hard work,” to quote the rallying cry of the Right.
I met with my advisor, both one-on-one and in group. Every semester, we were expected to revisit our study plans and tweak and change as needed – a tenet of the Goddard experience involves personal and professional growth and progression of intellectual discourse. In other words, my study plan as developed in first semester was quite different in fourth semester, for my creative project and critical paper topics – and outlook – had changed and evolved.
All of this had to be completed within two and a half years (normally two years, I took a semester off to write my novel).
I am including my final thesis Table of Contents to show, once and for all, that earning a Goddard degree is no rubber stamp deal:
I. Creative Thesis, a novel:
What Happens When the Fat Lady Sings (pages 1-612).
II. Major Critical Paper:
“A Literary Biography of Alan Sillitoe: Angry Young Man, Revolutionary, and Established British Writer – Focus on Short Fiction” (pages 614-683).
III. Short Critical Paper:
“Lady Chatterley’s Evolution from ‘Personality’ to ‘Blood’: The Role of Eight Wildflowers and the ‘Blood-warmth’ Marriage Ritual” (pages 684-704).
IV. A Creative Process:
“The Writing of What Happens When the Fat Lady Sings” (pages 705-720).
(My entire reading list and research sources) (pages 721-734)
One would see similar types of critical papers (with long titles and scholarly topics) at traditional graduate schools.
For two and a half years, I worked hard to complete my requirements, while also holding down a job and running a household.
I would stack a Goddard curriculum against any Ivy league one any day and feel confident that Goddard would compare well, if not exceed the Ivies.
By the way, Parts I, II, and III of my thesis have been published (for what it’s worth), some in juried national and regional journals and anthologies.
Goddard’s self-directed and progressive model is not for everyone, especially the lazy, the unimaginative, the pedant, and the grind looking to be spoon fed data – to be regurgitated on tests. A Goddard student tends to be highly intelligent, creative, and independent.
Yes, it is possible to blow off a Goddard education and waste two or four years knocking about and doing the minimum, but I have also seen this occur at the traditional college where I taught for 16 years. The difference: unsuccessful Goddard students tend to drop out early, while ten o’clock scholars at traditional colleges can drag on for years, being carried along as they repeat course after course.
No matter where a student attends college, the student alone decides what he or she will draw from the educational experience – the school itself is the vehicle for change, not the cause of, or impediment to, it.
I loved my undergraduate experience at a traditional school, although I found tests to be stifling, annoying hoops to jump through. I understood the reason for testing, but my favorite parts of college happened in the classroom, writing papers (yes, I actually liked the discovery of learning through research), participating in extracurricular activities, and attending cultural events, off and on campus. If a student is attending college just for credentialing or because of parental pressure, well, yeah, the experience is going to be less than enjoyable.
But undergraduate and a graduate studies offer two different experiences, the former more directed and monitored and the latter more self-directed. This is also true in traditional graduate schools.
I include a small sample of notable and accomplished Goddard graduates:
Piers Anthony, English American author (Science Fiction and Fantasy)
Mary Johnson, Author and director of A Room of Her Own Foundation.
Mary Karr, Writer (The Liar’s Club)
Neil Landau, Screenwriter, playwright, television producer
William H. Macy, Actor
David Mamet, Playwright
Walter Mosley, Writer (“Easy” Rawlins series)
Matthew Quick, American author of young adult and fiction novels.
Stephen C. Smith, Economist, professor, author
Tommie Smith, Athlete (1968 Olympics), activist, and educator
Paul Zaloom, Puppeteer (Bread and Puppet Theater)
My Goddard peers were primarily older adults, average age around 40. We had a few traditional age students, but most of us had, back home, full lives, jobs, partners, and children.
We worked hard, but when our work was done, we had a good time, with social gatherings that included some spirits – we were not monks, after all.
Despite our differing goals, we all had one thing in common: we were totally invested in our educational goals as evidenced by our high graduation rate and the wonderful work that emerged from the program.
In closing, I would like to thank again my three Goddard advisors and second reader: Jan Clausen, Sara Rath, Michael Klein, and Patricia Foster; you all have made a significant difference in my life.
Please feel free to comment, but keep your remarks civil and on topic.
No name calling, please. Such comments will be deleted.
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