Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ranking MFA Programs: yes, no, maybe

This letter was sent to me a week or so ago, but as I don’t teach in an MFA program, it wasn’t mine to sign or not sign (I think).  So, well, as it’s becoming something of a national movement now, what do we think of the idea of ranking MFA programs?  For me, the following seems fairly persuasive. 

Should we rank them at all? What should the methodology be? Is the current one the ebst one? Should we take other things into consideration? (Aesthetic? Tone? Fuzzy Dice? Team Puce?)

There’s a bit more here, with a couple quotes:


The people who have signed this letter have all taught as creative writing program faculty. Many of us are now program directors and serve as members of our admissions committees. Most of us also hold MFA and/or doctoral degrees. We hope our collective experience and expertise will provide good counsel to anyone thinking about applying to writing programs.

To put it plainly, the Poets & Writers rankings are bad: they are methodologically specious in the extreme and quite misleading. A biased opinion poll—based on a tiny, self-selecting survey of potential program applicants—provides poor information. Poets & Writers itself includes on its website a disclaimer suggesting the limitations of these rankings, recommending that potential applicants look beyond them. Regrettably, the information appears on a separate page.

What’s worse, if a program decides against encouraging a bad process by choosing not to provide information, P&W’s process insists on including that program as though the information was negative, a procedure we think is unethical, as well as statistically misleading. The P&W rankings, in their language and approach, labor to create the impression that the application process between applicants and programs is adversarial. It is not, as any proper, sensible survey of MFA students and alumni would indicate.

Instead of asking such students and alumni about quality of instruction, or anything else about actual program content, P&W’s rankings are heavily skewed toward viewing a program’s financial aid offer as the final arbiter of that program’s overall quality. We agree that financial aid must be a serious consideration, but a student’s relationship with his or her faculty—what and how one learns—is at least equally as important.

In economic times like these, there is no immediate correspondence between any degree and employment. This is particularly true of the MFA in creative writing and PhD in English with a creative dissertation. While we work hard to help our graduates find jobs, it is essential to understand that creative writing for the vast majority is not a profession. Some writers earn their living as teachers, but others are lawyers, full-time homemakers, doctors, editors, business owners, sales clerks, and mechanics. No applicant should consider pursuing a creative writing degree assuming the credential itself leads to an academic job. And no applicant should put her or himself in financial peril in order to pursue the degree.

Our best advice is to do your research through the programs you’re considering. If you are able to visit those programs, ask to sit in on classes and for the contact information of current and recent students. Talk to people you respect about different programs. Read work by the instructors.

Most programs have basic academic and financial information available on their websites. But don’t hesitate to ask questions of the program directors, admissions committee members, and students presently attending the programs. This kind of commonsensical research will help you find a program suited to your hopes and talents.


 Jonathan Aaron, Emerson College

 Lee K. Abbott, Ohio State University

 Jonis Agee, University of Nebraska – Lincoln

 Marla Akin, University of Texas Michener Center for Writers

 Julianna Baggott, Florida State University

 Sally Ball, Arizona State University

 Aliki Barnstone, University of Missouri – Columbia

 Steven Barthelme, University of Southern Mississippi

 Jocelyn Bartkevicius, University of Central Florida

 Robin Behn, University of Alabama

 Erin Belieu, Florida State University

 Karen E. Bender, University of North Carolina Wilmington

 April Bernard, Skidmore College

 Mark Bibbins, The New School

 Mary Biddinger, The University of Akron

 Scott Blackwood, Roosevelt University

 Robert Boswell, University of Houston

 David Bosworth, University of Washington

 Mark Brazaitis, West Virginia University

 Lucie Brock-Broido, Columbia University

 Ben Brooks, Emerson College

 John Gregory Brown, Sweet Briar College

 Andrea Hollander Budy, Lyon College

 Janet Burroway, Florida State University

 Robert Olen Butler, Florida State University

 Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, University of California, San Diego

 Scott Cairns, University of Missouri – Columbia

 Kara Candito, University of Wisconsin – Platteville

 Kevin Canty, University of Montana at Missoula

 Mary Carroll-Hackett, Longwood University

 Michelle Carter, San Francisco State University

 Alexander Chee, Columbia University

 Alan Cheuse, George Mason University

 Jeanne E. Clark, California State University Chico

 Brian Clements, Western Connecticut State University

 Mick Cochrane, Canisius College

 Michael Collier, University of Maryland

 Gillian Conoley, Sonoma State University

 Bob Cowser, St. Lawrence University

 Jennine Capó Crucet, Florida State University

 Kelly Daniels, Augustana College

 R. H. W. Dillard, Hollins University

 Chitra Divakaruni, University of Houston

 Jim Dodge, Humboldt State University

 Timothy Donnelly, Columbia University

 Michael Dumanis, Cleveland State University

 Camille Dungy, San Francisco State University

 Karl Elder, Lakeland College

 Leslie Epstein, Boston University

 Elaine Equi, New York University

 David Everett, Johns Hopkins University

 Kathy Fagan, Ohio State University

 Andrew Feld, University of Washington

 Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Florida State University

 Ned Stuckey-French, Florida State University

 Forrest Gander, Brown University

 Eric Gansworth, Canisius College

 Steve Garrison, University of Central Oklahoma

 Maria Gillan, Binghamton University, State University of New York

 Michele Glazer, Portland State University

 Tod Goldberg, University of California, Riverside Palm Desert

 Eric Goodman, Miami University of Ohio

 Jaimy Gordon, Western Michigan University

 Carol Guerrero-Murphy, Adams State College

 Corrinne Clegg Hales, California State University, Fresno

 Rachel Hall, State University of New York at Geneseo

 Barbara Hamby, Florida State University

 Cathryn Hankla, Hollins University

 James Harms, West Virginia University

 Charles Hartman, Connecticut College

 Yona Harvey, Carnegie Mellon University

 Ehud Havazelet, University of Oregon

 Steve Heller, Antioch University Los Angeles

 Robin Hemley, University of Iowa

 DeWitt Henry, Emerson College

 Michelle Herman, Ohio State University

 Laraine Herring, Yavapai College

 Sue Hertz, University of New Hampshire

 Tony Hoagland, University of Houston

 Janet Holmes, Boise State University

 Garrett Hongo, University of Oregon

 T. R. Hummer, Arizona State University

 Ha Jin, Boston University

 Arnold Johnston, Western Michigan University

 Diana Joseph, Minnesota State University, Mankato

 Laura Kasischke, University of Michigan

 Catherine Kasper, University of Texas at San Antonio

 J. Kastely, University of Houston

 Richard Katrovas, Western Michigan University

 Christopher Kennedy, Syracuse University

 Richard Kenney, University of Washington

 David Keplinger, American University

 James Kimbrell, Florida State University

 David Kirby, Florida State University

 Binnie Kirshenbaum, Columbia University

 Karen Kovacik, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

 Stephen Kuusisto, Syracuse University

 Deborah Landau, New York University

 Jeanne Larsen, Hollins University

 David Lehman, The New School

 Dana Levin, Santa Fe University of Art and Design

 Lisa Lewis, Oklahoma State University

 Catherine Lewis, Purchase College, State University of New York

 Samuel Ligon, Eastern Washington University

 Robert Lopez, The New School

 Denise Low, Haskell Indian Nations

 Kirsten Lunstrum, Purchase College, State University of New York

 Patrick Madden, Brigham Young University

 Megan Marshall, Emerson College

 Michael Martone, University of Alabama

 Cate Marvin, College of Staten Island, The City University of New York

 Gail Mazur, Emerson College

 Janet McAdams, Kenyon College

 Shara McCallum, Bucknell University

 Karen Salyer McElmurray, Georgia College & State University

 Heather McHugh, University of Washington

 Sarah Messer, University of North Carolina Wilmington

 Jennifer Militello, River Valley Community College

 Wayne Miller, University of Central Missouri

 Debra Monroe, Texas State University

 Dinty W. Moore, Ohio University

 Brian Morton, Sarah Lawrence College

 Rick Mulkey, Converse College

 Brighde Mullins, University of Southern California

 Carol Muske-Dukes, University of Southern California

 Antonya Nelson, University of Houston

 Ian Blake Newhem, Rockland Community College, State University of New York

 Thisbe Nissen, Western Michigan University

 Daniel Orozco, University of Idaho

 Pamela Painter, Emerson College

 Alan Michael Parker, Davidson College

 Jeff Parker, University of Tampa

 Alexander Parsons, University of Houston

 Oliver de la Paz, Western Washington University

 Donna de la Perriere, San Francisco State University

 Joyce Peseroff, University of Massachusetts Boston

 Todd James Pierce, California Polytechnic State University

 Robert Pinsky, Boston University

 Kevin Prufer, University of Houston

 Imad Rahman, Cleveland State University

 Ladette Randolph, Emerson College

 Marthe Reed, University of Louisiana Lafayette

 Nelly Reifler, Sarah Lawrence College

 Frederick Reiken, Emerson College

 Paisley Rekdal, University of Utah

 R. Clay Reynolds, University of Texas at Dallas

 Kathryn Rhett, Gettysburg College

 David Rivard, University of New Hampshire

 Richard Robbins, Minnesota State University, Mankato

 Mary F. Rockcastle, Hamline University

 Robin Romm, New Mexico State University

 Michael Ryan, University of California, Irvine

 Benjamin Alíre Sáenz, University of Texas at El Paso

 Martha Serpas, University of Houston

 Bob Shacochis, Florida State University

 Brenda Shaughnessy, New York University

 Aurelie Sheehan, University of Arizona

 David Shields, University of Washington

 John Skoyles, Emerson College

 Tom Sleigh, Hunter College

 Casey Smith, Corcoran College of Art and Design

 Tracy K. Smith, Princeton

 Maya Sonenberg, University of Washington

 Gregory Spatz, Eastern Washington University

 Brent Spencer, Creighton University

 Sheryl St. Germain, Chatham University

 Les Standiford, Florida International University

 Domenic Stansberry, Vermont College

 Thom Tammaro, Minnesota State University Moorhead

 Alexandra Teague, University of Idaho

 Daniel Tobin, Emerson College

 Mark Todd, Western State College

 Ann Townsend, Denison University

 Peter Turchi, Arizona State University

 Paul Vangelisti, Otis College of Art & Design

 Sidney Wade, University of Florida

 William Wadsworth, Columbia

 Jerald Walker, Emerson College

 Rosanna Warren, Boston University

 Laura Lee Washburn, Pittsburg State University

 Joshua Weiner, University of Maryland

 Lesley Wheeler, Washington and Lee University

 Richard Wiley, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

 Ann Joslin Williams, University of New Hampshire

 David Wojahn, Virginia Commonwealth University

 Gregory Wolfe, Seattle Pacific University

 C.D. Wright, Brown University

 Robert Wrigley, University of Idaho

 Steve Yarbrough, Emerson College

 Stephen Yenser, University of California, Los Angeles

 C. Dale Young, Warren Wilson College

 Matthew Zapruder, University of California, Riverside Palm Desert

 Lisa Zeidner, Rutgers-Camden, The State University of New Jersey

 Alan Ziegler, Columbia University

 Leni Zumas, Portland State University


At 9/13/2011 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a lot of people not liking something. Isn't the rule of thumb that if this many people don't like something, it must have some merit?

At 9/13/2011 12:53 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

Do people who think MFA programs shouldn't be ranked think no degree programs should be ranked?

At 9/13/2011 1:00 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Or perhaps they just think they should be ranked differently?

I'm soft on this one. A lot of people want rankings for various reasons. I understand that.

I'd be interested in seeing if there might be a different way to go about helping people with their need to rank than this one.

I'm still thinking about Team Puce. I think it might have legs.

At 9/13/2011 1:04 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

I'm sympathetic to suggestions on how to improve MFA program rankings, not at all sympathetic to the idea that rankings are inherently bad. Lack of rankings keeps the power on the side of the schools not the students.

At 9/13/2011 1:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm more cynical that you are. I'd rather see raw information available about programs (funding, sure, but reading lists, all visiting writers, future classes, hopes and reams of the faculty, etc) and have students wade through it, than to make a list, no matter how that list was created.

At 9/13/2011 1:12 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

That should have been "dreams" but I'll leave it, just to be funny.

At 9/13/2011 1:15 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

What I'd like to see is multiple lists -- that's how US News does the college rankings. So you can see which schools are the best value for the money, which have the smallest class sizes and so forth. Like I want a spreadsheet where I can essentially sort by different columns, depending on what's important to me. "Reputation"/selectivity can be one of them, doesn't have the be the one & only or the main one.

At 9/13/2011 1:16 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

I got reamed by the faculty.

At 9/13/2011 1:57 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The more information the better, yes.

At 9/13/2011 2:50 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

I really dis-like the ranking of something, which by it's very nature should be free from ranking, that is the act of writing poetry, creating art, creating music, and those places which try to encourage the act of creativity.

That said, there should be some kind of system to warn artists about those places which are not really interested in encouraging creativity.

On the other hand, anyone serious about creativity should be smart enough to know the difference between those places which are there to serve and those which are there to simply take people's money.

At 9/13/2011 3:53 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

If they're so smart, can't they just ignore the rankings? Like taking the SAT without a calculator!

At 9/13/2011 4:22 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Columns of different kinds of info, and then you decide. That's the only way, because really the sole criterion for judging an MFA program is the quality of the poetry it engenders--or the promise of the young poets who emerge from it. And since no statistics can reliably quantify talent, what statistics could MFA rankings be based on? And the opinions of people who presumably would know are bound to be biased. So give me info about the faculty, about financial aid, about the town the college is in, etc., and let me decide according to what's important to me. If I'm broke, the generosity of the financial aid may prove the deciding factor. I don't see any other good way.

At 9/13/2011 5:11 PM, Blogger adam strauss said...

I dislike this:

"I really dis-like the ranking of something, which by it's very nature should be free from ranking, that is the act of writing poetry"--

Poetry is not exempt from any of life's banality, its throat-cutting, its rat-race. I'll hazard that thought is hard to achieve without some sort of parsing, hierarchizing mode, and that not ranking works best when the whole selection is simply superb, aka yah ranking Williams versus George Herbert versus Petrarch versus Paul Celan versus Melvin Tolson versus Marianne Moore versus Keats versus Gwendolyn Brooks versus is a bit absurd--but because all the above--in my estimation--are exceptionally talented poets.

Hmm, I think I'm not conflating rank and competition (and this may make little sense).

At 9/13/2011 6:04 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

If you judge a program based on the P&W criteria instead of who the faculty is (i.e., which school is right for you), you deserve those rankings. I'll concede usefulness on the grounds of knowing who funds / doesn't / to what extent, but the rest is tangential at best and Seth's agenda in what he wants to get schools to do by way of the rankings is admirable but misses the forest for the trees.

Even conceding that every bit of information is unendingly useful, I raise my old banner in this argument: relist it alphabetically. That's it. Leave all the information, people can look for themselves. Track every MFA you can manage and print it as a standalone volume a la The Poet's Market.

At 9/13/2011 6:17 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I guess finally my reaction is somewhere off to the side. I would have signed the letter if I was teaching in an MFA program, because this ranking system needs to be tempered.

Still, I'd not burn this list. Maybe someone will find it helpful, though it's not the sort of list that would have interested me back when I was looking at grad programs.

At 9/14/2011 8:19 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I'm ambivalent about any sort of ranking system, really. The P&W one is atrociously inadequate, but even if we have multiple lists from multiple institutions, the situation will only be marginally better.

Really, the school you go to should be tailored to your interests. This is where reading widely is very important. If you want an education in the classics and want to work with very traditional forms, read contemporary poets who are already doing this, find out where (if) they teach. View the current and previous years' course lists. Ask that faculty for a syllabus or a recommended reading list.

It's a lot of work, but this hands-on approach will do much more for you than any list. Do this for a few different schools, apply, weigh your financial options and go.

At 9/14/2011 8:32 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Fuzz, yeah, I'll buy that. i'd add that there's an aspect to this that is very difficult to make a list from, and that's what those poets will be like as teachers. Some poets, from their work, seem like they're going to be great, but then you meet them and it's terrible. On the other hand, there aer poets who seem, from their work, that they're going to be terrible, but they turn out to be wonderful teachers and readers of new work.

In other news, I was listening to that new album by The War On Drugs this morning, trying to get through a headache. it's a very good album. have you heard it yet?

At 9/14/2011 10:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Some poets, from their work, seem like they're going to be great, but then you meet them and it's terrible. "

This question might be worth another informal poll: what correlation have people found between a poet's work and the quality of his or her teaching?

This goes beyond the MFA programs. Anyone looking for an undergrad class or even a noncredit workshop needs to choose based on something.


At 9/14/2011 12:46 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I think I've heard the claim that there's an inverse relationship between quality of artist and quality of teaching, but I'm skeptical of that claim. Roethke, Hugo, and Justice were, by all accounts I've heard, excellent teachers as well as excellent poets. One of my teachers, Alice Fulton, was both a gifted writer and a dedicated teacher.

At 9/14/2011 5:53 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

"Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after."

~ Henry David Thoreau

At 9/14/2011 7:01 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

That is to say, one can train a Morning Glory vine to climb your trellis but you can never teach it to be a Honeysuckle.

At 9/14/2011 7:48 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Alice was hardworking, and at first she seemed like the ideal poet for me to work with. She had a reputation for imagery-laden language and sound effects, and I had a close affinity with that—maybe too close. (A poet friend said, “YOU with FULTON? Rather a coals to Newcastle proposition, eh?”) Some people even thought—inexplicably, to me—that I was an Alice imitator. But our association ceased to be productive after about a term. Alice wanted to use her dazzling language to explore such subject matter as gender issues and mass media language; I, on the other hand, grew more bric-a-bracky, more stream-of-consciousness, more interested in associations as subject matter, more Tate-like in my juxtapositions. (Though I also had a weird tendency to turn around and write a villanelle or something.) Alice didn’t care for that—though she made some appreciative remarks about langpo. Soon I was unable to see much of a resemblance between her poetry and mine.

How important is it to be sympatico with your teachers?

At 9/14/2011 8:22 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

You don't have to write like them to respect them, and, if they're good, they shouldn't expect you to write like them (or anyone else) to appreciate your worth.

The best experience one can have in school is to learn both what is useful and what is not useful for you, as well as the faculty to determine which is which.

At 9/15/2011 3:57 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

David, you write:

"How important is it to be sympatico with your teachers?"

I'd say there are about as many answers to that as there are people. Right? Some teachers feel uncomfortable if they feel the student is too sympatico . . . others feel hostile if they feel the student isn't sympatico enough . . . while others are encouraging of diverse styles . . . and others quite happy to work with sympatico aesthetics . . . and then you have the whole personality issue, if your personalities are sympatico . . .

Some people say Jorie Graham was a genius of a teacher and some disliked her instantly.

These things make it very difficult to create a ranking.

At 9/15/2011 4:13 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Quite right, Fuzz and John.

"and then you have the whole personality issue, if your personalities are sympatico"

A personality, right. Got to get me one of those. I hear they come in useful.

At 9/15/2011 4:19 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I've several, if you want to borrow one.

At 9/15/2011 7:05 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

If you've got "good-natured werewolf," I'll take it. That's what I want to be.

At 9/15/2011 7:30 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I think that one's already on loan. How about vegan-zombie?

At 9/15/2011 9:30 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Night of the Living Dead wouldn't have the same impact if the zombies attacked tofu and tempeh.

I'd like to be a member of The Zombies, though. Great old band.

At 10/04/2011 1:36 PM, Blogger Don said...

I've started a project of creating an alternate ranking based on output of graduates. I'm mostly collecting raw data right now, using the prize anthologies as a shorthand list of who the top short story writers are (flawed, but at least a viable project) and then using that to build rankings. I'm about 2/3 through the BASS 2011 list which has turned up a few interesting surprises. Iowa, not surprisingly, was at the top of the MFA heap, but still fell below no advanced degree in creative writing for the top basket. And if I were looking to do a full-residency MFA anywhere in the country, University of Montana would have to rank really high on my list.


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