Thursday, September 02, 2010

Useful Links

Gathered together here, for ease of access, are some useful comments and links.

If you haven't already checked it out, the new MFA themed issue of Poets and Writers magazine is on the stands, and it includes (along with a list of personal statement dos and don't from moi, sadly not available online) Seth Abramson's 2011 MFA Rankings.

Here's his article about methodology.

Here's the rather scathing critique of said rankings and methodology from the executive director of the AWP. (I have to wonder - why is the AWP so threatened?)

And here are some comments from Seth and others, pulled from the last mailbag (though you can read all these comments, in context, in the mailbag, I thought it might be interesting to use them to start the discussion here):

From commentator Chris N.:

It seems to me that a ranking that only reflects the preferences of the most recent year's applicants is bound to be somewhat unstable over time. Maybe not this year, but eventually. Even if there's a close correlation between last year's list and this year's list right now, it seems that inevitably there could be some problems in the future. Potentially, an individual program could drop or jump as many as 6 or 7 spots in any given year based on the whims of that particular year's applicant pool's preferences and that could be very upsetting and confusing for applicants--both those who have been accepted and those planning to apply.

And part of Seth's response (read the whole thing here and the discussion continues down the page):

With 148 full-res programs nationally, even a 7.4-spot drop or increase for a program is only 5% movement off the previous year, or slightly above the MoE (Margin of Error) for even the best political polling in the world (usually 3% MoE). And thus far most movement is within that 5% on a year-to-year basis--the 2011 rankings are actually the fifth year the rankings have been compiled, and the consistency of program placement over time is remarkable. Yet there's also the possibility for real movement, which isn't the case with the usually static USNWR rankings. With USNWR, if the undergraduate program at UW-Madison drops ten spots from 35 to 45 as it did this year, it feels upsetting, as you say, but then you realize that that's only because the USNWR rankings are not set up to register such dramatic changes. The P&W rankings are.

From commentator Vegascetic:

I think arguments over rankings are based on the perceived importance of the rankings. In my opinion, rankings are something to look at, consider, et cetera, but it's not like I'm gonna base whether I apply to such and such a program based soley on rankings in a magazine. Just not gonna happen. Somewhat insulted that some think that's even a possibility.

From commentator Blob:

I think the rankings matter (or don't matter) depending on what you plan on doing with your mfa/why you're getting an mfa. For those that are using the mfa primarily as a chance to work for 2-3 years on their writing then the only rankings that probably matter are funding ones. But some people want to use the mfa to hopefully get one of those very competitive teaching jobs than ranking does matter. A school with good post-grad placements and a strong reputation will likely give the candidate more of an edge.

From Seth:

There is more or less no prestige to be had in having an MFA, period. Nor does the MFA assist one with job prospects, unless one has a lot of publications to go with it. As to non-teaching employment, the MFA mostly gets ignored except to the extent it suggests you're creative. The most valuable MFA degrees in such contexts--though it's all relative--are degrees from schools with strong reputations generally (Brown University, Cornell University, University of Michigan, University of Notre Dame, Washington University at Saint Louis, and so on). The only minor "prestige" bumps one might get in securing a teaching job would be with an MFA from either an Ivy, the Writers' Workshop, or maybe (at a stretch) Michigan -- and the genre should be whatever you do your strongest work in. Generally, poets don't care where you did your MFA; fiction-writers barely do, and fiction agents somewhat do.

From mystery, tenured professor L.G:

I know that the academic job market has become increasingly competitive--and you're right, it's very hard these days to get a tenure track job without a book--I do think that the prestige of the degree can be a "significant" factor. In addition to being on the market myself, I have also been the Chair of several tenure-track search committees for creative writing positions, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that applicants with degrees from places like Michigan, Iowa, Cornell, and so on, always caught my eye, especially if they also had impressive magazine publications.

And finally, a couple of links that aren't in the last mailbag, but that I'd like draw your attention to:

Stellar agent, talented writer, and former editor Betsy Lerner kicks off an MFA rankings debate here. I recommend that you check out her highly amusing blog on a regular basis, and the revised edition of Betsy's advice book for writers, The Forest for the Trees, should be on every aspiring writer's shelf.

And Mark Doty, poet, memoirist, and Rutgers faculty member, quotes Dean Young on his blog:

The MFA programs may be booming because our business is to boom. OUR BUSINESS IS BLOOMING. If there is a problem, it is in the professionalization of creative writing. J'accuse, AWP!

I'll open up a new thread for general mailbag questions - perhaps we could reserve this post for further comments and expansions on these issues. What do you think about the rankings? And about the AWP's response to them? How do you plan to use them? How important are they to you? And who do you think L.G. might be?


etrangette said...

Although I don't agree with the degree to which Fenza directs his harsh commentaries at Seth Abramson, I completely agree with the article as a whole.

In making a decision that so greatly impacts a writer's life, he or she should rely mainly on individual preference, rather than popular opinion. An artist does not follow a crowd and an artist should not feed into a competitive atmosphere that rankings promote. Writing, as an art form, is unique to the artist, and whatever program that is best for whatever individual entirely depends on that work of art.

Seth Abramson said...

"In making a decision that so greatly impacts a writer's life, he or she should rely mainly on individual preference, rather than popular opinion."

Excellent -- that's exactly what the methodology article for the rankings says, and what the article preceding the rankings in the print edition of Poets & Writers says, and what every article I've ever written on MFA programs says, and what The Creative Writing Handbook says, and what I told AWP when they offered me a job last year and then decided to make me into a pariah because I refused.

The rankings have been introduced -- again and again and again and again -- as a "secondary resource" which should not be dispositive in applicants' decisions, but used simply to put "more information at their fingertips." If AWP had been willing to release any of the information it collects from programs -- rather than hiding it in agreement with the programs -- it wouldn't be necessary for the rankings to provide hard data on funding, acceptance rate, placement, teaching load, program duration, program size, CGSR compliance, curriculum type, cost of living, and so on, all of which are measures that AWP's own "Hallmarks of a Successful MFA Program" agree are important to the application and matriculation decisions.

So knocking the polling portion of the ranking chart is a non-starter -- even if only hard data were presented, the same top 50 programs (with perhaps only 1 or 2 changes) would be featured. Why? Because the hard data matches the polling and vice versa. Applicant consensus isn't based on "popular opinion" but an accurate and fact-based appraisal of which programs have the best funding, are the most selective, and offer the best outcomes to graduates. And, to an extent, the consensus is built, too, on impressions of programs formed in 1996 via faculty questionnaires (programs ranked high in 1996 with good funding more or less held their position, with a few rare exceptions like Johns Hopkins -- a long story -- whereas those with bad funding did not). But there isn't some mystical separate stock of information applicants could have had and could still have access to, which if only they had access to would cause them to make totally different decisions on the basis of factors that'd make us proud to call them artists. That's a bohemian fantasy.

The rankings don't create competition -- programs had a 2% acceptance rate back when the conventional wisdom was an imbecilic "apply to four or five programs" (advice based on nothing whatsoever but professors' desire not to waste much postage on recommendation letters), the only difference the rankings brought was to bring to light what was already the case so applicants could be armed to make better decisions.


Seth Abramson said...


I want to hasten to add that my acid isn't directed at you, but at AWP's lack of professionalism. I used a quote of yours only as a way of showing that AWP has deceitfully tried to convince people -- and has done so, in many instances, successfully -- that things I've believed about MFA programs for years, and published in print and online countless times, are actually things my detractors believe and I do not believe. That you'd quote back at me my own opinions as though we were in disagreement is no fault of yours -- I blame AWP, not you. Best wishes,


etrangette said...

On the contrary Seth, I have always been in agreement with you and do believe the article presented you in a tasteless way contrary to reality. I want to take the time to personally thank you for all you have done for us applicants who would be in the dark if it weren't for the help of yourself, Tom Kealy, and others.

I want to give you a personal example of how your rankings are used as a "supplement" to individual preference: I personally know that I require a certain flavor of living to be happy wherever I am. From experience, I know it would be hard to find this lifestyle in the southern states. So although there are many fully funded wonderful southern schools ranked highly on your top 50 list, just ruling out these areas (and others areas in the US like them) enabled me to limit my potential list to 16.

I hope this makes you feel better!

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