Monday, November 2, 2009

Why people don't like MFA program rankings

Just as frequently as people complain about the methodology behind rankings of creative writing MFA programs, they complain about the very idea of such rankings. They claim that MFA rankings are inherently ridiculous, flawed in concept. I'm trying to figure out where this stance comes from, because it seems silly to me. I mean, if you don't get anything out of MFA rankings, you don't have to consult them. But why argue that they shouldn't exist at all?

Some possible reasons for believing that MFA rankings are bad and wrong:
  1. You have an MFA or are otherwise associated with an MFA program (e.g., are employed by one) and you're worried your program won't rank well. I suppose this is a legitimate concern. If your MFA program wasn't previously ranked and now it's showing up dead last or at #72 on some supposedly definitive list, your degree is worth less in the eyes of the world. This is certainly true of me. I went to Emerson and Emerson isn't going to be on anyone's top 10 list. But I don't really give a fuck because I don't structure my life such that anything significant depends on the value of my graduate degree. I'm not trading on it for publications, academic jobs, etc. I'm not saying I'm better than you if your life does depend on the value of your degree, but perhaps it means I can be more rational about a ranking system than you.

    Of course, no one who's claiming to be anti-rankings on principle is admitting this as the reason.

  2. MFA programs aren't like other graduate degree programs. Choosing one is like adopting a kitten. You just have to follow your heart and pick the one that feels most special to you! Ranking MFA programs is like ranking kittens. You can't rank kittens!!! (Or eat them.)

    I think some people actually believe this -- that creative writing programs can't be measured or compared quantitatively because writing is art and art's not quantitative. Basically, these people are confused. MFA programs can be compared along the same data points as other degree programs: cost, availability of funding, acceptance rate, average class size, etc. This information isn't any less factual because the classes are "about" art.

  3. Closely related to #2: Accepting rankings means admitting that MFA programs are like other degree programs, which feels cheapening. It brings your MFA experience down to the cold, calculating level of douchebags going for an MBA. This is art. It's not a business. It's not about money, etc.

  4. You just hate Seth Abramson. Which is your right, by God, but don't try to rationalize your hatred by arguing that everything he does is morally bankrupt and/or maddeningly broken in concept. Instead of going around leaving comments about how you can't rank kittens, just say "Seth Abramson is such a tool LOL" or your variation of choice.

  5. Because your friends don't like them. There definitely seems to be some social bandwagoning going on here and it's very Mac vs. PC. Being anti-rankings or at least anti-Seth's rankings is what all the cool kids are doing. I like the cool kids (by which I mostly mean HTMLGiant; not being sarcastic, I really do love HTMLGiant) so I hope they don't stop liking me just because I don't see what the big flipping deal about rankings is.
I can't think of any more. Input?

BTW I've never met Seth Abramson and I don't follow his poetry so I'm not "defending" him (get it) on personal or poetry-buddy grounds.


  1. I don't think people are as mad about the rankings as they are about this guy charging hundreds of dollars for a useless "service". Basically taking advantage of naive 22-year-olds.

    Btw, if PC's didn't exist, there wouldn't have to *be* a "Mac vs. PC" debate. ;)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Really? I could give a rat's ass if some writer givens a few dozen other writers workshop feedback every fall for the usual online workshop rate. These things are a dime a dozen in industry magazines, online, whatever. Bowling Green has one. Iowa has one. There are tons in New York. How do you think writers earn extra money? Hello? People can make up their own minds about whether it'll help them or not, and since the thing isn't saying it'll get people into MFA programs the worst you can say is that it's not any more helpful than any other tuition or fee required workshop thing. It's a nonissue unless you hate the guy, then it's an issue because you hate the guy not because of the thing.

    My problem with the rankings is #1- I don't like my program's ranking!

  4. @Matt: My point exactly, those are two separate issues, but a lot of people act like the rankings are horrible in and of themselves. Go make out with your Mac! :)

    @martinflood: Yeah, #1 is the most legitimate, kudos for having the guts to admit it! I doubt many/any people who went to Iowa object...

  5. Found this post on accident looking at the stats on my blog.

    I posted something similar on my blog (well, instead of a list of why people hate the rankings, I did a list of things that could be done to improve them... aside from the whole insult Seth like it is going out of style thing... I mean, he is a bit over the top online, but I don't get the sort of asshole-ish shit that gets spewed).

    If people are totally against the rankings, cool. Say it swiftly and move on (many of these people probably will I'm guessing). But then you have to get past that point of absolutism and work with what the world provides.

    Anyway, keep the discussion civilized and see where it goes.

    Also, good point about Iowa. I wonder how he factored the placement rankings, and I think the student 'vote' thing (by itself) gives Iowa (among other places) a bit of false weight.


  6. I think a lot of people are a lot of mad that Seth is dragging dirty little MFA program secrets into the open. I don't think there's any doubt that his ridiculously detailed looks at MFA programs have done a lot of these hypothetical naive 22-year-olds much, much more good than ill when they were looking at programs. That he does have a propensity for making enemies and making very attorneyesque arguments online (B contributing at least something to A) simply tosses gas on the flames.

  7. Aaron thanks for the pointer to your blog. I agree with you (and Steve) that the existence of rankings does more good for prospective students than harm. And of course it's fine to look at them with a critical eye but it has gotten "uncivilized" pretty fast. Though all the irrational stuff annoys me more.

  8. Hi Elisa,

    I'm pretty sure that some people who went to Iowa find the rankings pretty silly and/or problematic. The program I attended was ranked pretty highly and I find the rankings pretty silly and problematic.

    I'll go for a variation on the kittens argument:

    I can absolutely understand ranking programs based on funding. That makes bags of sense, and for many people the availability of funding is going to be the determining factor in choosing an MFA program. Go rankings!

    BUT, the other stuff is pretty much all kittens, especially when it comes to the people (the faculty, other students) who are probably going to be the most important factor in your education.

    Wouldn't it make more sense to read books by the faculty and by alums or current students? I realize this is a "soft" sounding argument, but I believe in softness. I feel like most of the people I was at school with were there for these soft reasons, and we were all the better for it.

    There's just something about these rankings that erases the writing that's happening, and that feels totally wrong.

  9. Hi Heather,

    I think reading books by faculty is a good idea for sure ... doesn't fully replace other data points though. I applied to the University of Michigan because I thought Alice Fulton taught there. Turned out she was teaching at Cornell at the time. University websites are often out of date or just don't offer all that much information. Info on funding is especially unavailable, as you mentioned. I wish I'd had more data to base my decisions on when I was applying. I was basically flailing.

    I think your fellow students do end up making or breaking your MFA experience to some degree. But that's pretty much a crapshoot.

  10. for a second, i was thinking that seth abramson was the guy from KNOCKED UP. and i was very confused.

  11. @matt, I don't think there is such a thing as an innocent 22 year old. By that time, if you're being tricked by someone, it's because you're very stupid or they're very clever, but not because you haven't had a chance at anything.

    I wrote a blog entry about the amazing sideshow that is Seth Abramson hatred. I don't get it either except as it pertains to one particular area:

    He seems to always finds blogs that mention him, and comments in his defense in their comments. No one seems to be bothered by this but me, but it weirds me out. It's like he's God, or something.

    And in (slight) defense of the people who hate his rankings but aren't considering buying T-Shirts to prove it, his ranking system IS wholly unscientific, which sure is weird for something as rooted in empirical data as statistics are.

    I mean, one part of me wants to say "Okay, but he never claims it is," and the other part of me thinks it's like giving out free nachos without the cheese. I mean, yeah, it's free, but it's hardly worth anything at all that way, is it? And after you've stood in line only to get a crappy scoop of tortilla chips (this part is the metaphor for reading the stats. Man, I'm on a roll), you may just have a little bit of resentment over the whole affair.

  12. Good point Keith ... if you're so easily duped, you'd probably do no better choosing a school on your own.

    Actually, aside from the much ballyhooed poll, most of the rankings are as scientific as any other college rankings (at least the ones based on funding and selectivity which is the stuff that seems most valuable to me). Are you just talking about the poll on prestige or whatever?

  13. Oh, and I don't think you have to be God to sign up for Google Alerts. :)

  14. I've just linked to this discussion on my 11/11/09 blog post, on the subject of MFA's.

  15. I had no idea there was Seth Abramson hatred out there. I did see, however, that he seems to have left the building, and has taken his blog with him.

  16. Hi John, there is a lot of Seth Abramson hatred out there ... I feel like it's partly some kind of self-sustaining mechanism where people pick up on the fact that he's hated and decide to hate him too without personally doing a background check. Like the assumption is, "If everyone hates him he must really suck, right? I'll take y'all's word for it." He had a massive reputation management problem and I'm not sure he was handling it in the best way, but it just sort of spiraled I guess? The whole thing was uncomfortable to watch and I hope at least his having "left the building" puts an end to the public shaming stuff.

  17. good post about a topic that has been boiling for at least a year now. and it finally EXPLODED! rankings don't really work, but it would be nice to have a one stop resource for each program to list tuition, funding available.

  18. I think the rankings are fine -- the only problem comes with how people read them. If you get hung up on the difference between #7 and #8 without considering what the information is based on, you might as well just not. If you're approaching it with a general, "I consider myself and my ability highly and therefore want to go somewhere in the top 20ish of a comprehensive and well-considered list, BUT I'm sure as heck going to investigate how this list was put together and what the contributing information is (not to mention augment it with my own research) so I can make an informed decision," then fantastic. In other words, as with many things, if you accept it as dogma and react like an automaton, you get what you put into it. If you bring your brain and a grain of salt, you also get what you put into it. I think the biggest cause of this "controversy" is that the P&W imprimatur is going to drive more readers of the first type to Seth's list.

  19. Thanks for your comment, Amy. I agree with you, but I think it's true of any ranking system, and not restricted to MFA rankings. Yelp reviews, the AFI top 100 movies, etc. Aside from rankings based on hard facts like tuition costs, there's subjectivity involved and your mileage may vary. I think if people get value of out of lists and rankings, it's because they want some kind of frame of reference to start with.

  20. I like Seth fine. But I do think the way he was ranking the MFA programs was ridiculous and not only that, beside the point. Who cares if you got funding if the faculty discourages you and you hate the surroundings? I just don't think folks looking to choose an MFA program can look at those rankings and know - bam! where they should go. These things are subjective - as an extension of the kitten argument - and a program that's fantastic for one person might be a nightmare for another. And I know this from talking to writers who went to top-ranked schools and did not have great experiences. They seemed very bitter. I went to a perfectly fine school that was low-residency, and it was great. I had to take out a loan, in fact, I turned down a program that offered me scholarships to go to one that didn't. Foolish? Maybe. It worked for me. The point is, the rankings are biased (and those biases don't match the experiences I've heard about) and possibly might steer someone a program that makes them unhappy. And the number one thing an MFA program can do for you? It can help you write. That's it. It's not a magic bullet. And you can write on your own without an MFA program, without mentors. I chose to get one, and I'm happy I did, but not everyone has to.

  21. My feeling is that a writer can end up at an MFA program that makes them unhappy with or without access to rankings. For years there has been a lack of information and some people have been happy with their choice of program, others have not. I don't think the very existence/availability of rankings is going to make more people unhappy. People can be steered to the wrong program by other forces -- I'm not sure my undergrad poetry professor steered me toward the right program, but I don't blame her for that. I'm not bitter that she was the best information source I had. But I think better and more complete information could only have helped. ONE information source (a teacher, a list of rankings, one campus visit, etc.) is not a guarantee of anything, certainly not happiness. You're always taking a chance.

    My main point is that if anyone would prefer NOT to consult (inherently biased) rankings, they can just not consult them. But I don't think it follows that they make everything worse for everyone.

  22. As a followup ... reported student satisfaction could be incorporated into a comprehensive ranking system. It often is for other types of programs. In which case, if a certain program is prestigious but many of the students end up unhappy, its prestige level could start to fall.

    I was never arguing that the existing rankings are perfect, just that I think rankings aren't inherently bad.

  23. "By that time, if you're being tricked by someone, it's because you're very stupid or they're very clever, but not because you haven't had a chance at anything."

    "if you're so easily duped, you'd probably do no better choosing a school on your own."

    senior citizens are easily duped by scam artists--so should we just say to them, "tough luck"?

  24. Equating rankings to scam artists seems like a stretch. Rankings may be biased or imperfect but I don't think they're purposely deceptive.

    A closer analogy perhaps: let's say senior citizens are more likely to buy silly crap from infomercials like the Snuggie. Does that mean Snuggie sales should be made illegal?

  25. i wasn't really talking about rankings by themselves, i meant higher education in general. especially involving art. i just really have a lot of contempt for college education, i guess. anything post-high school is a waste of time, in my experience.

  26. Ah, well, that's a horse of a different color, as they say.

    I didn't find post-high school education to be a waste of time, but I certainly think I spent too much money.