Rewriting the M.F.A.

 

An author and professor with advertising experience brought a radical idea to academia: rebranding. But Oscar Cásares’ grand experiment almost failed before it flew.

When Oscar Cásares published his first book, named after his hometown of Brownsville, he made a condition that confounded his New York publisher.

He wanted it stocked at H-E-B. The editors and publicists had never heard of the place and were mystified as to why they would sell literary fiction at a supermarket. “There aren’t many bookstores in South Texas,” he explained.

They didn’t exactly swing into action. But not long after, Cásares met H-E-B grocery king Charles Butt at a San Antonio Christmas party and told him about the book. Once Butt turned around and ordered enough copies to send Brownsville into a second printing, the publisher took notice. So did the media—stories about how great fiction was being sold at the grocery store drove sales even higher.

That marketing savvy was more than a coincidence. After graduating from UT, Cásares, BS ’87, had gone into advertising. He worked as a copywriter at agencies like GSD&M for a decade before composing bestselling fiction.

Now a writing professor back at his alma mater, Cásares might seem to have less use for his advertising mind. But when he agreed to become director of UT’s master’s of arts in creative writing program in late 2010, Cásares had stepped into a distinct marketing challenge.

Only a select few universities have great graduate writing programs. Perhaps no other has two. The University of Texas hosts the fully endowed Michener Center for Writers, one of the country’s most selective and sought-after. The Michener Center gives ample fellowships and writing time to the less than 5 percent of applicants it admits. They earn a master’s of  fine arts in three years and have no teaching obligations along the way.

Cásares’ older, more traditional program was different. A two-year program housed within the English Department, it earned students an M.A. rather than an M.F.A. Although the grad students logged teaching time, they weren’t landing jobs to teach college creative writing after earning their M.A.’s. And lacking full fellowships like the Michener Center, the program wasn’t attracting nearly as many high quality applications.

Poet and faculty member Dean Young suggested making it an M.F.A. Administrators agreed, but Cásares wanted even more: to rename the program and change its image. There was an advertising term for that, but to the English Department, it was practically a foreign word. “Rebrand? I don’t think that word had ever been uttered in this building,” Cásares says, pointing around ’50s-era Parlin Hall with a laugh.

But English Department chair Elizabeth Cullingford recognized that UT couldn’t have the Michener Center and “that other M.F.A. program.” The new degree needed its own identity, playing up that the program took only two years and offered paid teaching assistantships.

Cullingford had forgotten about Cásares’ advertising background. But when he came to her with the rebranding idea, she quickly remembered—and was game to test the former copywriter’s big plan. “My principle as an administrator,” she says, “is if someone has a great idea and is enthusiastic about it and thinks we can make it work, I’ll give it a try.”

Not that there was a budget for it. So Cásares called in a favor from an old GSD&M colleague. Scott McAfee had become managing partner at the ad firm of Sanders\Wingo. Excited by the prospect of working with UT and a respected friend, he agreed to take on the project in spring 2011, donating more than $30,000 worth of work and resources to it over a year and a half.

After months conducting research, interviews, and focus groups, McAfee and his agency spent weeks with Cásares reviewing hundreds of potential names. They finally hit upon “the New Writers School,” connoting a place for young writers to come together and learn.

Its image would be a timeless bound book imprinted with the name in classic white block letters. “We wanted something that felt credible and powerful,” McAfee says. “And it had to have a hip factor. The idea of a little black notebook, artists and writers making notes, had appeal. It’s simple, tactile, something you can touch and feel.”

The English Department loved it. By spring 2012, Sanders\Wingo had books printed and beautifully photographed for the program’s new website, which launched in the summer.

Just when McAfee was “cracking champagne,” he got a sorrowful email from Cásares. The department had just posted a job for a poet in the New Writers School—and gotten a call from the provost’s office. “What’s this?” administrators asked coolly. It turned out that within UT’s web of regulations, colleges, schools, and units are classified rigidly. This program could not be called an official school.

McAfee was understanding. Cullingford was disappointed. Cásares was crushed. He had neglected his spring book leave in order to see the rebranding through. “It imploded,” he said. “It was horrible.” The name would have to be changed, books reprinted, photos retaken, and website redone. With surprisingly big efforts needed to change the name from “school” to “project,” work continued through the fall.

Now the rebranded New Writers Project is poised to make a splash, complete with a reading series at BookPeople, interest in an up-and comers fiction series from Amazon, and attention from key magazines like Poets & Writers.

Purists may not be convinced yet, but Cásares remains firm. “I’ve encountered some of that attitude— that advertising and literature, or advertising and academia, shouldn’t mix, that both should remain pristine,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you do something cheesy or lower the quality. But it’s a business. It just is.”

Of course, the test of a business is in the numbers. The New Writers Project’s applications have already quintupled since it began offering an M.F.A. last year—and with the name change in effect, they’re only headed up.

photo courtesy of Sanders\Wingo 

 

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