Graduate School

The University of Mississippi

MFA in creative writing program recognized for diversity

Story by Tyler Carter

Professor Beth Ann Fennelly directs the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at the University of Mississippi, where in 2011 she was named Outstanding Humanities Teacher of the Year. Recently, Fennelly and her department were awarded the Diversity and Inclusiveness Award by the Graduate School. Winning this award was a great accomplishment for Fennelly and the MFA program.

“Winning the diversity award was an amazing recognition for how far our program has come,” Fennelly said. “It is not just that we have diverse students in our program — it’s that they are receiving the support they need to succeed in amazing ways. I’m really grateful that Dean John Z. Kiss and the Graduate School have established this award to promote and recognize the important ways that a diverse student body enriches the university and the culture at large. We will use the prize money to attempt to recruit even more diverse voices, and to advertise our program to people who might not know that the University of Mississippi can be a fabulous home for writers of any background.”

The Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program is prestigious as evidenced by the more than 300 applicants who applied for admission this past year. However, the program is very competitive with only a few students being admitted each year. The program is a unique one, according to Fennelly.

“Although Oxford has been a literary town since Faulkner, the MFA program is relatively young, established in 2001. In our 14-year history, however, we’ve already earned an astonishing national reputation. We were ranked one of the Atlantic Monthly’s ‘Top Five Up-and-Coming’ Programs, and we consistently earn a place in Poets and Writers’ Top Fifty Programs. In fact, our ranking rise has been amazing. In 2012, we were ranked 33rd, and this year we were ranked 14th.”

Another hidden gem within the fine arts program that attracts students is the faculty, according to Fennelly.

“Our current faculty, actively publishing, is a large part of what’s attracting applicants. Tom Franklin’s novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize and New York Times Bestseller. Pulitzer Prize winning Richard Ford teaches a master class for us every spring. Chris Offutt, in additional to being a novelist, is a scriptwriter for “Weeds” and “True Blood.” Ann Fisher-Wirth and Derrick Harriell are both Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters prize winning poets. In addition, every year we bring an emerging John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence to campus for one year. This year, the writer will be Mary Miller from Jackson. Our Grisham Visiting Writers Series brings the best writers in the country to our campus, such as Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Jennifer Egan, Tobias Wolff, and Natasha Trethewey.”

The Fine Arts program has more than fourteen students who have works either published, soon to be published, or works turned into film. Fennelly emphasizes that this program’s students are working exceptionally hard.

“They are serving as graduate teaching fellows and are either section leaders and graders in the English Department’s 200-level literature or 300-level Shakespeare classes (three sections per semester of around 20 students each; each section meets once a week for 50 minutes) or they serve as graduate instructors with a yearly 2-1 course load. On top of that they are taking three classes and trying to write the Great American Novel, Essay, or Poem.”

These accomplishments are due to a collective effort among faculty and students and Fennelly thinks the fine arts program in creative writing is a great place to receive the proper tutelage to become the writer or poet the students strive to be.

“We believe that we are the best place for hungry students dedicated to honing their craft, and we do everything we can to see that they have the resources and encouragement to use their time to its fullest potential. Our students’ success stories offer evidence that our plan is working. The last four of five years, we’ve had student work in New American Voices. We have students in Best American Poetry, The Oxford American, Tin House, and many, many other prestigious publications. These students bring credit not only to our program and university but the state of Mississippi. They go on to teaching jobs or editing jobs or take more unusual paths, and when they do, they bring with them stories of their education here.”