A review of MFAngle, a podcast discussing the hidden curriculum in MFA programs, led by Tyechia Thompson and Joe Forte
Tyechia Thompson, Virginia Tech
Joe Forte, Virginia Tech
Hannah McGregor, Simon Fraser University
Tyechia Thompson and Joe Forte
MFAngle is a bi-monthly podcast produced and hosted by creative writing MFA students at Virginia Tech. Episodes are organized thematically around aspects of life in a graduate writing program. According to the hosts, the show is “for current and potential MFA students, lovers of literature, and more,” including anyone interested in graduate studies or creative work of any kind.
All founding hosts are women of color, attuned to how minority identities can be marginalized in academia. While the graduating founders intend to pass the project to entering and rising students in the program, they hope to preserve a marginalized perspective and continuity of diversity on the hosting panel.
The project began as a group assignment in a graduate Intro to Digital Humanities course. Instructor Tyechia Thompson designed the assignment to foster digital literacies in media production and online scholarship. Additionally, she worked with Joe Forte, a digital humanities specialist at Virginia Tech Publishing in the University Libraries, to develop the show as a pilot series for a podcasting community within broader library initiatives supporting alternative, interactive, and multimodal publishing in digital humanities.
Thompson required the podcast to be submitted for publication as an initial series of four episodes, so students could experience real stakes associated with a publicly visible continuity of vision. For students, this meant creating content for a specified audience and contextualizing that content within a social media identity derived from the mission statement of the show. Forte’s goal was to provide guidance and hands-on partnership in all phases, including development, production, and promotion. Importantly, we wanted the students to maintain complete ownership of the show and its direction. Therefore, publishing assistance needed to be adaptive and tempered as students took increasing responsibility over crucial roles.
The project developed as follows:
● Students researched podcasting formats to determine what was desired and possible within the timeframe provided;
● Students pitched ideas and selected a format of panel discussion around thematic topics;
● Students met with Forte to map production workflow and assign roles;
● Students developed media literacies in editing and recording techniques;
● Students wrote and storyboarded individual episodes;
● Students self-assigned specialized production and promotion roles;
● Forte worked with students to record episodes;
● Students, Thompson, and Forte created a hosting account with Soundcloud to generate RSS code from an episode playlist, which was then embedded on the team’s website and distributed to Apple and Spotify;
● Students adhered to a publication schedule then planned and executed a social media strategy to support listenership around this schedule;
● Several of the students chose to continue the podcast beyond the semester and reconceptualized the show as something passed on to rising MFA students in perpetuity; and
● Continuing students drafted a project proposal for sponsorship by Virginia Tech Publishing, who agreed to support the project and tasked Forte to continue oversight.
The project continues to evolve in cooperation with Virginia Tech Publishing and enjoys a five-star rating on Apple Podcasts with steadily increasing downloads and social media engagement.
The MFAngle podcast unfolds from a vital and timely premise: Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) writers interested in MFA programs often lack access to the hidden curriculum that governs these programs. Hidden curriculum refers to what education scholar Rachel Gable calls, “The set of tacit rules in a formal educational context that insiders consider to be natural and universal.”1 Students with prior knowledge of this hidden curriculum are positioned to thrive, while students without access to this knowledge—working class, racialized, disabled, queer, and otherwise marginalized students—often struggle to navigate the norms and expectations of educational institutions. The peer-to-peer sharing of tacit knowledge is a powerful response to this kind of structural inaccessibility. The MFAngle podcast models just that kind of sharing.
Featuring a rotating panel of women of color MFA students at Virginia Tech, including host Mirna Palacio Ornales, the podcast takes a roundtable format in which the panelists talk through concerns both practical and theoretical: applying to MFAs (they touch on application fees, fully-funded vs. partially funded programs, and getting student visas), horror stories about racist microaggressions in the the MFA workshop, practical tips about building and maintaining a personal writing practice within and beyond the MFA, and finding ways to continue writing in the midst of a pandemic.
In their discussion of microaggressions in Episode 3, “Workshop Horror Stories,” the panelists speak of the need to hear specifically from other women of color about their experiences in MFA programs; if they had heard these stories, Palacio Ornales explains, they would have been more prepared. These comments point to the expert knowledge this podcast is circulating—knowledge rooted in the podcasters’ experiences as women of color navigating institutions that were not built for them, emerging in the form of conversations that are at once individual and collectively affirming.
Stylistically, the podcast is warm and collegial, inviting an audience of other MFA students as well as undergraduate or even high school students with an interest in following this career path. Sharp insights into their educational experiences make the podcast a valuable resource for instructors in similar programs. After the pilot they add in a segment recommending contemporary writing in dialogue with the topics they discuss, like Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, as well as prompts for listeners’ own writing practices. This furthers the usefulness of the podcast as a teaching resource for undergraduate creative writing classes.
This is an excellent and worthwhile project with a few issues that still need to be worked out. As the series proceeds, the speakers’ mic technique improves, ensuring that their voices are consistently audible. The addition of new segments like reading recommendations helps give the conversations more internal structure. Similarly, in early episodes the panelists are not consistently named or identified (though the transcripts help with identification); each episode should include an introduction to each panelist in which we get to hear their voices so we can identify who is talking, a norm that isn’t introduced until the Coronavirus Special released in April 2020. Additional use of musical cues to structure the conversations would also be helpful, marking moments when the panelists shift topics. Audibility and structure improve consistently throughout the series but could be a deterrent to listeners of early episodes.
Generally, an ongoing and consistently released podcast can afford to have more technical hiccups in early episodes, while a short-run podcast hoping for more enduring relevance will need to be more consistently polished. It is never too late to revise earlier episodes to increase the likelihood of listener uptake and to help expand the audience for these important conversations.