Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More problems with MFA rankings: Debt builds character

Since my last post on MFA rankings got a bit of attention (it's currently my #2 most viewed post after "Things I Can Tell About Your Taste in Music from Your Tattoo"), I feel almost obligated to respond to this article by Sandra Beasley in Poems Out Loud: "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making: Life Outside the Poets and Writers 'Top 50 MFA Programs.'"

Let me preface this by saying that again, my response isn't personal. I have met Sandra Beasley on more than one occasion and she's exceedingly lovely. But I do disagree with the article's argument. And here's why: It's written from the (biased) perspective of someone who already has an MFA. And it tips me off to a sixth reason why people don't like MFA rankings: they feel defensive and protective of their own experience. They applied to and chose their program (or, if they were like many people I have met, only "chose" a program by virtue of its being the only one that accepted them*) without the benefit of rankings, so why can't others do the same? I'm sorry to say it, but this smacks to me of old-fogeyism: When I wanted a fire I had to chop the wood myself! You kids today don't appreciate the value of a hard day's work, etc. If we did it that way in the past, by God we can keep doing it that way.

Sandra makes the argument (at least, I think she does; it's constructed as an ironic list, whereby she pretends, e.g., to advise readers to accept nothing less than full funding and then reveals that she in fact does not agree with this advice; in all honesty it took me a minute to realize this because the advice is far from obviously facile) that having to pay for your MFA might be positive. She chose a program "that required cobbling together a full-time job, fellowship pay for editing [the] literary journal, and over $20,000 of loans"; she seems to suggest that this experience built character.

I realize that the majority of people who would even consider attending an MFA program are at an economic advantage; they may be people who have no college debt, people who have never even had a job. For such candidates I suppose that having to cobble together funds and accrue tens of thousands of dollars of debt might build character. But can we try to look at this issue from the perspective of an "aspiring" writer who falls in the minority? Who may not have the money to pay out of pocket, who may already be in some degree of debt (from college or otherwise), who is quite familiar with the experience of working for a living, and may have found that despite all the character and experience this offers, they don't have the time they want or need to devote to writing? And their reason for pursuing an MFA is the desire to take a two-year sabbatical from all that and just write? And maybe they have the foresight to avoid more debt if possible? Wouldn't it be nice if someone in that position could find accurate information on how much funding each program offers? Or would you still tell that person, Don't worry about funding--just "follow your heart, or your whim"?

The article ends like this (again, this is intended ironically):
Don’t, whatever you do, run the risk of failure. This is why we have rankings and how-tos, right? To buffer. To plan.

Otherwise, just imagine what could happen.

You could end up ... here.
I may be misreading this (am I?), but to me this kind of says, "Follow your heart, risk failure, and you'll end up like me, a successful writer with two prize-winning books of poetry and a forthcoming memoir." I think Sandra absolutely deserves this success ... but most MFA graduates won't attain it. And those who go into debt to not attain it may be more bitter.

I'm happy for the writers who have followed their whims and gone on to have a positive MFA experience. But with or without rankings, some people end up at the right program and some people end up at the wrong program. There's no way to fix it so everyone ends up with the right kitten. Rankings won't do it, but neither will obfuscating and withholding information.

*Data on acceptance rates might reduce this phenomenon, whereby writers are forced to "choose" the one program that admits them, or are accepted nowhere at all. If you plan to apply to five programs and realize they all have acceptance rates of less than 1%, you might rethink your strategy and apply to a lot more programs and/or apply to a "safety school."


  1. San Francisco State University's MFA program is the only one I applied to.

  2. Hi Elisa--

    Strange being the first to write in, but it shows we're in dialogue. I don't take your critique as any kind of ad hominem attack. You raise great points, giving me an opportunity to clarify my ideas. Thanks for that.

    First, I should admit that my piece indulges rhetorical stylings that undermine its value as a a rational argument. Fingers crossed that my writing elsewhere shows that was a choice of mode, and not a failure of competence!

    We're on the same page on this--MFA rankings have no intrinsic value of good or bad, as long as there is transparency in the factors considered.

    My "gilding the lily" reference was not to those who made the rankings, but those who obsessed in the discussion over them. Part of the problem (this shows we're a cottage industry) is that these populations overlap in the form of Seth Abramson. He seems like a good guy. But he inspires ire because he placed himself at the functional center of something that he spent unending paragraphs commenting on. I've read a LOT of his comments over the years. Yes, years. I feel old.

    That said, Abramson & co. did lay out their methodology for how schools were judged in the P&W article. I respect that...except leaving out low-res and some other programs is a serious oversight. Why?

    Because the most compelling scenario in which aid should be taken into account is when cost is a prohibitive factor in attendance. I'm not talking about the middle-class 23-year-old who doesn't want to wait tables. I'm talking about what even you refer to as the minority--a kid so in debt from college he couldn't get approved for another loan, or a 43-year-old woman with two kids.

    It's a compelling picture. But aren't these people often particularly interested in low-res or other alternative programs, which also tend to have more manageable fee structures and/or relocation demands? How can rankings that aim to serve this population not comment on this set of options in a meaningful way?

    But I shouldn't hide behind the middleman of rankings. Do I imply in my essay that (as your title aptly puts it) "debt builds character"? Ooof. If so, I sound like a privileged brat.

    I'm not trying to disown my words. But what I was trying (and maybe failed) to say is: Thinking of MFA years as a refuge from earning a living is a very dangerous idea. You're entrenching the notion that your "true and best" writing happens outside the drudgery of everyday life. Well...that's what awaits you post-MFA. A lifetime of it. And I can't think of more than a handful who used their MFA years to write a masterwork. So where does that leave you, two years out from the program?

    Debt doesn't build character. It doesn't destroy it either. I was disturbed that on one hand the P&W survey seemed to weight aid so heavily, while on the other it ignored the programs that might most appeal to those genuinely constrained by life circumstance.

    Finally, on the ending: I stressed over that. It could be misread as a form of bragging. I meant it as a cosmic recognition that no one can anticipate how we end up where we do.

    My undergrad days at UVA were great, but I left them believing that I wasn't a naturally talented poet. I was just the one who "worked really hard." (Read: competent diligence! sexy!) I was rejected from Iowa. On the first day of my MFA, the professor who lured me to AU told me he'd decided to retire. All those things were heartbreaking at the time. All of them contributed to where I am today.

    Maybe I'm just rationalizing that the kitten was my first choice, having already brought it home. I can live with that--maybe not as a Plato wannabe, but as a flawed and inconsistent human. I can think of worse things than being driven to succeed in a way of justifying the vulnerabilities of years past.


  3. ..."IN a way of justifying"...what the hell is wrong with my grammar?

    Can you tell that I'm a writer, and it's 1:46 AM?

    Ah well. The window's character limit made me trim before, but this second note gives me a chance to say:

    I really appreciate the dialogue. It's so, so much better when people talk to each other instead of at each other.

    Off to bed,

  4. Sandra -- Thanks so much for your comments. I too think it's a conversation/dialogue "worth having," and civilly, without undue obsession or bullying and name-calling. I appreciate that your article didn't resort to the "What the fuck is this shit" type of rhetoric.

    I'm definitely with you on the need for transparency, and I agree that there's no reason for low-res programs to be left out of the picture entirely. Even if they'd have to be judged on different merits, I'd like to see some attention paid to them too.

    And I do see your point about writers needing to find a way to write while they work and do normal life stuff, not only in a precious, removed fairyland. I have to FORCE MYSELF to write and I whine constantly about not having enough time for it. But, I'm not independently wealthy, so it is what it is. The transition into the "real world" was hard for me, even though I worked part-time through grad school, had some fellowship help from a tutoring position, and still took on plenty o' debt. And aside from the time you buy, there's a lot about the MFA atmosphere that's conducive to writing (the deadlines, the constant conversation with other writers, the scandals and affairs (JK, we didn't have fun stuff like that at Emerson)) ...

    Anyway, thanks again for responding. -E

  5. In the next round of rankings, there should absolutely be coverage of low-res programs, plus an additional category scoring both res and low-res on "Scandals & Affairs."

  6. Seriously. If I'd known everyone at Emerson was going to be married, I wouldn't even have applied.

  7. For real. Married and faithful. Booorrring.

  8. *laughing* I'd like the "S&A" rank for conferences and colonies as well, while we're at it.

    Shifting the topic slightly, the MFA definitely offers a service in terms of a community of fellow writers--it's a place to learn about opportunities, be reminded of deadlines, chat about writing without worrying you're boring someone, etc. But as I'm working on an article for P&W about how blogging has affected the poetry scene, I find myself wondering...has a lot of that energy moved online?

    Just to be clear, I'm not arguing that anything competes with a round of beer & spicy fries at Babe's. Yet one of the things I really thought about in choosing AU was that I thought I was likely to stay in DC, and I thought a local MFA program might be a segue to a writing group or set of best friends/writers who would sustain me POST-grad. That didn't really happen, and looking back I'm not sure it was a fair expectation.

    But in the space between then and now, I am astonished by how much my writing community (and in return, my investment in that community) has migrated to being online. I'd be curious to know, from someone just coming into the creative writing world, if they feel like they need an MFA to become part of the web dialogue.


  9. I definitely feel that my community has migrated online. Even when I still had a lot of writing friends in Boston (not so much anymore), I was just sort of stagnating and not-writing for a year after graduating, until I went to AWP for the first time and discovered all the online journals and blogs and whole world of poetry that I didn't really know existed. I suddenly felt so much more IN IT than when I was just licking and stamping envelopes and sending them off into the void.

    But I do think the web dialogue and those communities are semi-exclusive/intimidating at first. I felt like I had to put in a lot of time on the fringe before people started thinking of me as a part of it.

  10. Elisa and Kathy, I can't vouch for your experiences, but there were *plenty* of scandals and affairs at Emerson. And I was happy to have been involved in some of them.

  11. We were in the wrong class, I guess. The one above us had a scandal or two I can recall.

  12. Sometimes the most completely wrong and unsupportive program turns out to be the best for one's writing in the end--and it's why we go there, to become better writers, right?

  13. I guess I'm concerned that my program didn't make it into the top 50 and therefore my degree will be looked at as not worth as much...even though the writing program is well-regarded (they have a Ph.D, but just now got an MFA program, which is ass-backwards, but there it is). This concerns me because I want a teaching job. I can write regardless, but I want a teaching job because I LIKE to teach and I'm good at it. So I'm giving those rankings the fierce and squinty eye.

  14. @Noelle: Sometimes sustaining a severe injury or getting divorced turns out to be good for one's writing. It doesn't mean we shouldn't take steps to avoid those things, since a writing boost is no guarantee and there are other (serious) consequences.

    @Sara: If you read my first post on MFA rankings, you know that's the very first reason I gave for disliking the idea of them. I think it's totally legit. I'm not personally pursuing teaching so luckily I don't have to worry about that. Although, I think it's also true that you're more likely to get a book published if you go to a more prestigious program. (If only because you make more powerful connections.)

  15. As far as connecting with a writing community -- I don't have an MFA, and haven't ever found a need (or felt a need) to have an MFA in order to connect with other writers. Most of the poets and writers I know live and work outside the academic world. I'm not saying this in any way to disparage the value of MFA programs or academic work in themselves, just saying a little of where I come from with this.

    Before the internet swept over the earth, I carried on active connection and community with other poets and writers, either by writing letters (paper mail) or telephone or, locally, meeting face to face whether in groups, at readings, or sitting across a table from each other talking somewhere. The kinds of things poets and writers still do. I didn't find a need for an MFA then either.

    The internet has become a useful tool, and I enjoy being able to blog about poets and writers whose work I like, and whatever other things come to mind that seem relevant to me. though the original reason I finally caved in and got a computer was that most of my friends (including most of my poet friends) had started using e-mail, and were no longer answering my letters (or taking much longer and the answers were much briefer).