University of Texas professor and award-winning writer Oscar Casares (Brownsville) knows the value of a Master of Fine Arts degree. Years ago, he left a lucrative job in advertising to get a graduate degree at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop*, at a slightly advanced age when the trend is for wannabe writers to launch straight from undergrad into M.F.A. waters. He's something of an inspirational story – and the word's gotten around. One or two times a semester, Casares says, an older-looking prospective student will make his or her way to his office to ask about taking the leap. "I realized I became the poster child for 'the guy who walked away,'" Casares says.
He'll probably be fielding even more queries now. UT's English department has just announced the creation of a M.F.A. in creative writing, and Casares will run the program. The department has long offered a two-year Master of Arts degree, but, as Casares puts it, "The M.A. itself is just not that marketable." (The new M.F.A. degree will carry over the M.A.'s two-year length and teaching requirement.) There's another interesting kink in that UT already offers a Master of Fine Arts through the Michener Center, a multidisciplinary program that offers classes in fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting. But then, other departments at UT similarly offer graduate degrees that might seem to compete with Michener. "[Radio-Television-Film] did it, Theatre & Dance did it," says Casares. "We were fortunate that we weren't actually breaking ground."
Casares is confident that the university can accommodate two M.F.A. programs – the two departments have long had a collaborative relationship – and that the switch-over will attract new applicants. "I think we're going to see a different kind of student. I imagine the talent pool is going to increase greatly." He's a little less confident about what kind of effect the new position is going to have on the delicate balance he's struck between academic life and fiction writing. "I have no idea what I've committed myself to," he laughs, "but I'm hopeful."
*Editor's note: The printed version of this article erroneously stated the graduate program Oscar Casares attended. It has since been corrected.
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