Monday, August 3, 2009

Is Seth Abramson unethical?

In the Twittersphere today (blogosphere also, I'm sure, but I didn't have time to follow it), much kerfuffle over Seth Abramson's announcement that he's starting a consulting firm to advise would-be applicants of creative writing MFA and PhD programs. Steve Fellner wrote a post decrying this as the "most unethical entity" in poetry; he later removed the post for "legal reasons." Lots of people seem excited, in a "Yay, awesome!" way about this. As far as I can tell, this is at least partly because people just don't like Seth Abramson, or find him "insufferable" to put a finer point on it, and enjoyed seeing him raked over the coals.

However you feel about SA and how cool he would or would not be to get a beer with, I just don't see how this can be called unethical. It's no more unethical than any consulting service whereby people offer expertise and advice for money. In other words, if it's unethical, so is SAT tutoring. So is resume coaching. Doesn't Steve Schroeder offer resume services for a fee? Is that unethical?

My understanding is that SA was previously providing similar services for free via email. He's a lawyer. That means his time is quite literally money. He realized he could bill for those hours. Guess what, that's how businesses are born. Every business is based on the premise that people will pay for what they want and/or need. Sure, most of the information he has is readily available to those who want to do the research and/or networking. But people are lazy and their time is worth something too.

When I was applying to grad school, I certainly would have paid for, if not a consultant, a book that told me what the top programs were, how much funding they offered, how many students they admitted and so forth. Nothing like that existed at the time. I relied on an outdated US News report and the advice of my poetry teacher (it was part of her job to advise me). The one place she suggested that wasn't already on my list was Emerson, both the best suggestion and the worst suggestion: best because it's the only place I got in (though I was later accepted off a wait list), worst because, as a program, it kind of sucked. I'm doing OK, but I could have been better informed. I'm sure there are people way more clueless than I was.

Is this a sign that creative writing has become an industry? Yes. As such, it is kind of "icky"? Yes. But unethical? No.

For the record, I don't have a problem with the "entity" being questioned or criticized. It's an open question whether or not such services should exist, are valuable, etc. Same goes for the MFA "machine" as a whole. I just think terms like "unethical" and "corrupt" don't apply here.

12 comments:

  1. Yes, I do. No, it's not. I know a shit-ton more about resumes than the people I serve, and my expertise provides them with demostrable value. I'm willing to bet the same is true of Seth, MFA programs, and his target clientele. Thank you for the most rational post on this subject that I've seen so far.

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  2. I think the discussion on HTML Giant is pretty good. I'm coming around to the conclusion that everyone involved—the firm and its customers—are fools.

    As a mere observer, I will let them be, like a nature documentarian filming a pack of hyenas about to attack a herd of unsuspecting gazelles....

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  3. The only item here that I feel is somewhat unethical is, in fact, the SAT tutoring. Not everybody in high school who wants to go to college can afford SAT tutoring, and obviously the people who can afford the tutoring benefit from it. Imagine if you were taking an exam in school and only people who could pay the teacher more would get the best information on how to do well on the exam. Happens all the time, I know, but that doesn't make it right.

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  4. Having money puts you at an advantage in every possible way when it comes to getting into college; being able to afford tutoring is only one element of that. Kids with money also go to better schools (often starting at a very young age), eat better, probably get more encouragement and help from their parents, etc. Private schools send more students to good colleges. Are private schools unethical? The world is hugely biased toward the rich. I don't like it either, but it's really more a problem with the larger system. I.e., hate capitalism, not the tutor. I mean I don't think taking a job as a tutor is unethical, on the level of taking a job to build bombs for the government.

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  5. What's also interesting to me is that I think we're now talking about "levels" of ethical behavior, which I think is relevant. The difference between a private school and a standardized test is that the first never claims to be standardized. The ETS people though have a long history of denying and trying to remove bias in the exam itself, but then just farm out the bias to companies that do the tutoring. So on some level, if "ethical" refers to the idea of proper professional standards and compliance with those standards, I think the term "standardized" is where the unethical practice is created, and that's one reason why standardized tests are almost always a bad idea. Private schools claim "You'll pay, but you'll get a better education," while the ETS folks claim that they have developed an objective standard for measuring competence. Only the first claim is true.

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  6. "Well, maybe the test was gender biased, you know, a lot of questions about hunting and testicles..." --Jerry, after Elaine scores 85 on an IQ test.

    Private school must suck...such high expectations. I'd rather have a worse education if it meant I was having a more relaxing time. Which is exactly what I and everyone I grew up with got in our town, which I don't think even had any private schools. And yeah, the mediocrity of it sucked in a lot of ways, but I look back fondly now on the ease with which we passed our days. My favorite class in high school was newspaper. It was kind of like M*A*S*H: there were a few of us who slacked off all the time but did the best work of anyone in the class. I spent most of the time making the crossword puzzle. Sometimes we played a miniature version of baseball using a wad of paper and a rolled-up phonebook in the auxiliary room, out of view of the teacher, who had about as much control over us as Colonel Blake did over Hawkeye and Trapper.

    I forget where I was going with this.

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  7. Standardized tests are mostly hooey. What are they supposed to measure? If they're supposed to provide some kind of objective measure of "intelligence" outside of what we learn in school why aren't they more like IQ tests. If not why doesn't performance in school suffice? It's basically a test to see how well you can do on a test.

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  8. I did not do well on the SAT. I did OK. I did not study for the SAT. When I got to college I ended up teaching the SAT. I learned all of the tricks. We had to take the SAT in order to make sure that we were OK to teach the SAT. I think I got 2 answers wrong on the test. So 2 years after high school I got a very excellent SAT score. This test is totally teachable. I taught myself how to teach the SAT.
    This test is stupid and anyone can learn to get a better score.

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  9. Exactly. It basically tests how good you are at the SAT. You can learn that from a Kaplan course but you can also learn it from an SAT study book, IMHO. Either way, it's a retarded system. It is largely about knowing the "tricks"--it's like a crossword in that way. The more crosswords you do, the faster you can solve them b/c the writers use the same stupid clues over and over. Also you have to grok the language the clues are given in, which isn't English.

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  10. I got a 1330 (out of 1600) and I didn't even study on my own. It is kind of like a crossword puzzle, which is why it was fun for me. Of course nowadays they have a writing section...that would definitely suck. Speed-writing is the most useless skill of all. Like those in-class finals in college. Yuck.

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  11. I read that someone looked at the scores for the essays on the writing section and students who got the highest scores basically just wrote the most.

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