Monday, July 12, 2010

Barthelme ‘not retained’ at U of Southern Mississippi MFA Program

This is some news I picked up from Brevity's nonfiction blog.
Ordinarily it should be a time to pop the cork on the champagne. After 33 years of building up a creative writing program from relative obscurity to one ranked in the top 10 percent in the country, award-winning novelist Frederick Barthelme is leaving the University of Southern Mississippi. But for Barthelme, who has been published in magazines ranging from the New Yorker to Esquire and has authored 16 books, the situation has an ashes-in-the-mouth taste.

He says he’s not leaving voluntarily his position as director for the Center for Writers, a five-faculty member program within the College of Arts and Letters’ English Department.

Instead, Barthelme who says his intention was to stay at Southern Miss at least another three years, feels that that his hand was forced by a College of Arts and Letters administration that is not acting in the best interest of the Center for Writers.

Link to the Brevity post here.

Budget cuts, huh? Anyone know of faculty being axed elsewhere for the same reason?

25 comments:

Seth Abramson said...

It's a strange article, as USM doesn't have an MFA program. They have a creative writing Ph.D., but it's never been ranked in the top 10%. Or close to it. This reminds me of Florida International claiming -- with no proof whatsoever -- that their MFA is "ranked" in the top ten. These programs, I swear...

S.

俊杰 said...
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Vince said...

Unfortunately...we all live in a reality --especially in academia-- that places value on prestige and reputation. Students want to make sure that they're investments (time, tuition money, moving) are worthwhile. Many programs have a proven track record while the others are working on building their records. Interesting.

Seth Abramson said...

I think so long as "prestige" is tied directly to the quality of the services provided to students--to the utmost degree possible--it's one useful measure (of many).

As to USM, what troubles me is the way the media is using a fanciful "ranking" of USM to substantively shift this debate over Barthelme. Either what was done was proper or not; USM ranking [at best] #30 (in a many-way tie) out of the 90 programs then-extant in 1996 neither should have any bearing on the news story nor on claims regarding the program being "in the top 10%." While USM was the top-ranked program in 1996 of those programs with only a creative writing M.A. and Ph.D., that's not the measure U.S. News was using--I just happen to know that's the case looking at the U.S. News data (and the ten or so programs covered by that data with only an M.A./Ph.D. in CW), but I've never heard the data interpreted in that way and the data wasn't intended to be interpreted that way (as it creates a "ranking" of CW Ph.D. programs that doesn't actually exist).

In any case, the comments section under the article is fascinating, if somewhat depressing. Lots of allegations of impropriety being thrown around...

S.

承蘋承蘋 said...
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Reed said...

Seth,

It's troubling to me that programs blatantly misrepresent their status like this, claiming to be in the "top 10%" or claiming to be a "top program," when there's no evidence to support this.

I'm wondering if it would be a worthwhile endeavor to create a list on this blog, or elsewhere, of programs that deliberately mislead applicants on their websites and/or programs that deliberately withhold important information regarding financial aid, etc.

It seems to me that contacting these programs via email would change very little, but perhaps if there was a resource on the internet that called them out publicly, they might feel compelled to make their website more accurate in the interest of getting off this list.

What do you think?

Seth Abramson said...

Reed,

I think ultimately it's up to applicants to keep programs honest by spreading the word about these lies -- if I told you the full spectrum of program lies I've come across in the past three years it would be horrifying. And the benign misapprehensions (i.e. not lies but misunderstandings) are almost as bad.

A few years ago The New Yorker hired some freelance hack to write an article on MFA programs, and he intimated that there were more than eight hundred of them. In fact, there are 194 around the world. But even today you'll see programs (and even more often, other media outlets) repeating that 800+ figure, and apparently using it to determine if they're in the top 10% of programs, etcetera. The problem--and there's no way to say this that won't come out wrong--is that at this moment in time there's basically one person in the U.S. who has done sufficient research on this type of degree program to be a certified expert, but major publications are not likely to have heard of some doctoral student from the Midwest. Almost every article I've read on MFA programs in the past few years has been at least 25% to 50% flatly wrong on the facts. I'm not kidding--there's just nothing I can do about it except try to spread accurate information myself.

That's why I try to spread the word about TSE -- the mainstream media has its head up its butt about MFA programs, which again I wouldn't say (because I don't like horn-tooting in others or myself) unless the misinformation wasn't really dangerous. Can you imagine someone heading down to Hattiesburg for five years (M.A. + Ph.D.) thinking they're at a "top 10%" program, only to discover that the type of program USM offers has never been ranked properly, and then when proper Ph.D.-only rankings come out in the next five years USM will likely be ranked in the bottom half of the three dozen programs of its type in the U.S.? These are commercial misrepresentations -- i.e., the concern here is that institutions may actually be causing people to spend substantial monies and move around the country (and world) on the basis of false commercial speech.

The specific lie USM is promulgating (on its website) is:

In 2001, U.S. News & World Report ranked the Center among the top 10 percent of graduate programs in creative writing nationally.

This is not a "kind of" lie--it is what one would call an out-and-out lie. That the rankings are actually 1996 rankings is not a lie but a "fudge"; the lie is that USNWR only ranked 94 programs, and they only ranked CW MFA & Ph.D. programs, of which there were 94 at the time (per AWP's 2009 Report, pg. 10; AWP's figures were for 1994, but of course USNWR's 1996 survey asked respondents to rate programs that existed during the 1994-5 academic year, so the AWP data is what's relevant). USM ranked somewhere between #30 and #32 -- i.e., it couldn't even say for certain that it ranked in the top third of programs at the time. But presto-chango, it's a top 10% program. Amazing.

S.

Seth Abramson said...
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Seth Abramson said...
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Seth Abramson said...

Sorry for the triple-post -- more Google glitches. --S.

楊儀卉 said...
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Seth Abramson said...

Is it time for a new mailbag?

S.

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Seth Abramson said...
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