UT Celebrates Its First MFA Cohort

Published: Jan 14, 2014
UT’s first cohort started the inaugural semester in the spring of 2012, spending 10 vigorous days on campus per semester, with readings, seminars and small, intimate workshops all meant to inspire and help refine the student writers.
UT’s first cohort started the inaugural semester in the spring of 2012, spending 10 vigorous days on campus per semester, with readings, seminars and small, intimate workshops all meant to inspire and help refine the student writers.

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For 25 years, Daniel Cox worked as a civil engineer, utilizing his degree and his minor in math. Now, one of the newly minted Master of Fine Arts in creative writing graduates, Cox plans to spend the next phase of his career writing short fiction.

“One of the reasons I came to UT was because the program was new, like jumping off a cliff,” said Cox, who found the experience improved his craft. “I like being in a room with better writers. It makes me up my game.”

Cox was among the 19 students in the first cohort of UT’s low-residency MFA program who received their diplomas during a hooding ceremony Jan. 11.

For the last four years, Cox has run a creative writing program out of a regional jail in Virginia. He leaves it in the hands of local Richmond poets who will continue the effort, as Cox moves on to work on his writing and pursue a similar inmate program for visual artists.

UT’s first cohort started the inaugural semester in the spring of 2012, spending 10 vigorous days on campus per semester, with readings, seminars and small, intimate workshops all meant to inspire and help refine the student writers. Guest authors and mentors have included George Saunders, Miranda July, Karen Russell and Denis Johnson, among others.

Back home, the students mail monthly packets of their writing to mentors and receive significant feedback in the process. For graduate Nathan Deuel, who commuted to Tampa from his current home in Beirut, the flights were more than worth it.

“The low-residency format is amazing because you come here for 10 days, blow your mind, fill the tank — overfill it with information and stimulation — and then go back to your desk, and for four months you have enough energy to just create the best work you’ve ever done, and then you get to come back. It’s 10 magical days, and we love it.”

Deuel, who has his undergraduate degree in literature and English, leaves UT with the spring 2014 publishing of his first book, Friday Was the Bomb, a series of essays he said the MFA program helped him grow into a book. He describes it as “an unusual perspective — personal essays from a father and husband of a war correspondent, with ringside seats to five of the craziest years in the Middle East: the end of America's involvement in Iraq, the Arab Spring and civil war in Syria.”

Deuel, a former Rolling Stone and The Village Voice editor, moved to the Middle East with his wife, Kelly McEvers, NPR's Beirut bureau chief. He wrote full time for several years, but felt something was missing. An inkling told him a graduate degree might be the solution.

“The academic side of writing is a lot less solitary and selfish. When you’re sitting there writing alone all that matters is what you’ve produced,” Deuel said. “When you come into the classroom setting it’s this delicious give and take, this sort of cooperation. It had been years since I’d experienced the classroom, and I was so happy to come back.”

Don Morrill, associate dean of Graduate and Continuing Studies and Dana professor of English, said the faculty are elated by the first cohort’s successes.

"We're proud of the literary community we've established here, now in full flower,” said Morrill, of the 92 students total in the program. “Faculty, students — we're all in it together, for the long term, for the love of the art."

Deuel said the whole cohort feels emotional about reaching this milestone and have a sense of loyalty to the program.

“We’re all trying to figure out how we can continue to be a part of the program whether it’s coming for visits or in some professional capacity later,” Deuel said. “It’s a program I think most of us want to be a part for the rest of our lives in some way.”

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