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« ON TRANSLATING FROM THE CHINESE by Martin Stannard | Main | Movies, Music, Shakespeare and Departing by Martin Stannard »

September 09, 2011


Where are Stacey's integrity and outrage when bad poems by cronies, friends, lovers and spouses are being published in Best American Poetry?

SP, Thank you for your reply. I do believe his work is to be admired, as is his passion and dedication to what he feels is contributing to a transparent discussion of what programs are supposed to do for their students, and what they can and can't offer. I believe all applicants have a right to know what they are getting into and that programs shouldn't try to obfuscate important facts about funding, etc. I agree that his personal stakes and opinions, and his outsized responses to any criticism, be it valid or misinformed, damage his credibility as an objective cataloguer of data. I think a more objective body could do a better job making the rankings less dependent on the whims of what Seth deems is fashionable. AWP, or the like... I don't know if anyone wants to step up and do it, but it seems to be an alternative, or competing, ranking system is the best way to solve this dilemma.

The information available in the community Seth fostered is invaluable to *any* applicant - beyond the rankings. The number of people with experience applying to programs and with first-hand knowledge of their cohort after finding a program makes this community a better resource for applicants than any in the history of MFA programs. On the other hand, all the faculty members I talked to when applying had either very limited information or pure hearsay concerning programs other than their own. I don't trust faculty members to gauge the quality of faculty members at other programs based on this experience - particularly because those faculty members usually haven't had a single classroom experience with the faculty members at other programs they recommend.

The factors Seth takes into account in the many separate rankings are important to many people for many reasons. It is reasonable to believe people have different reasons to choose a particular program, does it not? Faculty members emphasize the most nebulous element of all: reputation vs. teaching quality. They haven't done any research or sought first-hand experience of the teaching ability of many of their peers, and their opinion amounts to not much more than old-boy backslapping in my experience. I have no sympathy for these professors who cannot defend themselves in any way other than launching an attack on a community they only know from one poorly indicative list of numbers.

I applied to programs last season (and ultimately went). A certain well-regarded program that accepted me pressured me to accept well before the April 15th deadline. None of my undergraduate faculty members had any constructive advice for this situation. Seth, however, called the program's director and told them on my behalf that if they wanted to remain CGSR compliant, they would have to give me until the 15th. The director immediately apologized to me personally and told me it wouldn't happen again.

I don't know Seth personally. I have never met him. But he was willing to do that for me, and for that I owe him a word in this debate. He was willing to personally make my MFA application experience easier, and I think that shows his character. He only means to illuminate. He only means to institute order in a culture that is not very businesslike. Please stop whining. Programs that get fewer applicants because their paltry funding or heavy teaching load are revealed next to other, more attractive offers need to look to their own defenses.

I'm not sure about Seth Abramson's methodology, which probably can be improved, and on some level I don't care. There are dozens of programs I would never have known about and never have considered if it weren't for Seth's hard work and ability to expose me to them. Rankings aside, just having a sense of a school's teaching load, available funding, and the geographic area's expense for a student has been invaluable in my decision-making, not the only variables, but crucial ones nonetheless. So, I thank Seth for doing the work that laid the foundation for me, work I'd never have had the time to do myself. Regardless of the outcome, Seth has helped possibly thousands who are grateful for this one-stop start for all they might not have even considered. Improvements can be made, but isn't that true for so much program research? Ending the rankings all together seems like--to use a cliche--throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I like your point of view, Leslie, and the context in which you place Stacey's viewpoint. I agree that publications of graduates would be more valuable but since most of the programs do little to teach their students about publishing their work, and every writer has his or her own pacing and confidence issues, the results may be insufficient. As with most forms of education, what you go in for is not always what you end up wanting. Among the many graduates of writing programs are people who have not pursued writing, and who have still benefitted from the programs. But, anyway, ranking lists in magazines equal better sales for those issues.

The only mistake Stacey made is to call that fellow a poet. And if he represents the kind of prose writer coming out of Iowa, that program's reputation is in jeopardy. Trying to get through anything that guy writes is a real slog - but maybe that's by design.

Speaking as an outsider, as an infrequently here published astrological consultant
I am surprised at the insularity of the analysis. What do polls, biased or unbiased, have to do with poetry? Can't you shed, renounce, condemn this infection of scientism? Gathering data, fine -- but any kind of ranking, I would have thought SOME poet might express disapproval for the whole idea. Probably skipped her. Sorry.

But really how bout some analysis. Why are these rankings really important? A poet who thinks it's important to go to a high ranking program is not a poet. The rankings are important because they guide the hands of the disbursers of public funds, whose responsibility it is to see that such funds are as widely distributed as possible among people who call themselves poets. So said disbursers don't have to think much about their decisions, but can just point to the numbers, and get back to their computer gambling addiction. Discuss.

So I think poets should just all say NO POLLS. Poets against polls. Is there an unbiased poll? Is not a poll just the determination of the group bias?

What? Where is Erin's letter available for reading? And yes, Stacey, as confused and fumbling around in my own ignorance as I am here, one thing is clear: you are to be thanked, relentlessly, for all of the work you do here--and elsewhere--on the behalf of so many who care about "the news that stays news."

I hate it when I repeat myself: strike that first "here."

I found Erin's letter and this time will repeat myself intentionally and with good reason: I appreciate both Erin's and Stacey's advocacy, as well as those who have lent their support. Divisiveness, particularly when it results from sloppy research and hurts well-intended and very-hardworking people, is always deeply upsetting to me. Particularly on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Those defending these rankings need to take a look at OTHER college rankings out there, and compare the methodologies. US News does not base it's rankings - as imperfect as they are - on the opinions of 17 year olds who have never attended college. Forbes had some interesting new rankings in the last couple of years that measure colleges' contributions to student outcomes after they graduate. And Washington Monthly has a great list of colleges that contribute to the public good. There are a variety of metrics used in these rankings, but what they all seem to share is an assumption that a) the opinions of prospective applicants are not important and b) whether a school costs a lot is not the biggest factor in whether it is a good school. The reality is, money often does buy you nice things, and education is one of those things. "Funding" is quite misleading - many of these funded programs run their MFA students like indentured labor. Students who can afford not to do that may have an advantage, fair or not, as they can concentrate on their writing. Yet their programs are likely to be dinged due to lack of funding. Are these less-funded programs really not as good at developing writers? Or does it just look that way because students who are already at the cusp of publication are the ones most likely to get into the funded programs?

Trish (a Seth devotee?) seems to have misread Stacey's comments. Someone else points this out in this thread, but since it's in a longer (though well written) reply, I'll mention it here as well: Stacey didn't say that rankings could be done in an afternoon. She said that a first-year grad student (in statistics or a science that uses statistics, I take that to mean) could REVIEW the rankings in an afternoon. Having a review done by someone in the social sciences would make sense because statistical analysis involving human subjects can so easily go awry unless you know what you're doing, and making assumptions by claiming that there's "no reason to suspect" or "no reason to believe" something about the subjects just doesn't cut it. As Stacey writes elsewhere in her commentary, DOING the rankings the right way (assuming that's possible) would be time-consuming.

Trisha H. and Emily S.,

As I read her comments, Stacey didn't say that the rankings could be done in an afternoon. In fact, she argued that doing them so the results are more meaningful would be time-consuming. She did, however, say that a graduate student could REVIEW them in an afternoon (a graduate student in statistics or a science that uses statistics, I took her to mean). A graduate student in the social sciences might be a good choice because decent social science researchers are trained in how to avoid certain problems presented by working with human subjects when the researcher is studying the subjects' attitudes, opinions, behavior, etc.

right on, tory. information is one thing, and a good thing, so list the information! all the yelling in these comments about 'don't take away my information' doesn't speak to the salient issue of the information being slotted into rankings formed on half-finished criteria. the information-starved masses are fed these biased rankings straight along with their information, and a monolithic writerly elite is massaged into sluggish being.

i like repeating myself: the p&w ranking is a popularity contest (also a strange cult of personality thing with s. abramson) that misses important factors and pulls the wool over prospective applicants' eyes about where they should go, loading the MFA die, simply by ALSO providing much-needed information.

hooray, information! boo, using it to promulgate strange, snobbish hierarchies!


I stepped into this mess last month after avoiding commenting on the P&W site, or any other, prior to then. I'm more or less in agreement with Tory's comment on this site.

In addition, an issue that's arisen is whether or not Seth is an impartial pollster in this enterprise. Actually, one of my concerns has been that Seth comes across as far from disinterested in this matter (though he's certainly not UN-interested in it). Since Tory posted so recently (and it's been nice to see things simmer down for a while!), I'll paste here my most recent (and final, I hope) response on the P&W site for anyone interested (sorry for its length, but it includes text copied from the Creative Writing MFA Blog):

The gist of what I wrote Mary Gannon (not that I necessarily expect it to be taken too seriously by her or anyone else on the editorial staff):

I don't know whether or not "Faustino," in her/his comment below, is accurate about Seth's contract with P&W forbidding Seth from "advising" prospective applicants. Either way, are the following comments by Seth (taken from the MFA Creative Writing Blog) examples of what Faustino calls avoiding "advising" potential applicants? I don't know how the magazine can consider them the comments of a disinterested (impartial) pollster. Abramson repeatedly refers to his POLL as "the rankings." One doesn't need to be a statistician to see the absurdity of that. Does no one on the Poets & Writers editorial staff think critically about the evaluation of this sort of pseudo-quantitative information? Or does the editorial staff simply not care? On the blog, Abramson repeatedly goes beyond simply providing information or, as Faustino puts it, "correcting bad facts"; he adds his own assumptions, for which he provides scant or no evidence, and his own interpretations of information from other sources--e.g., Richard Ford, "maybe"--along with his strong biases, none of which have anything to do with his "hard data." (It took me only seconds to find these examples. He's made numerous comments about Columbia on the blog. Again, I have no bias toward Columbia. I never applied there and I personally know no one who went there for her MFA, though I admire the work of many of that program's graduates.)

The "rankings" are not even "votes" but lists of schools to which people MIGHT apply, some of which are chosen BECAUSE they are (or are perceived to be) easier to get into.

Here, in response to applicants who wanted to go to Columbia, are just a couple of examples from the blog,
I went to Harvard Law. Columbia's creative writing MFA program is not Harvard Law. Harvard Law has been ranked the #1 or #2 law school in the world for about seventy years. Columbia's fiction program isn't even ranked in the top 30% of programs in this country. And its poetry program is ranked #82 -- out of 150 full-residency MFA programs. HLS and Columbia cost about the same to attend -- the difference is that HLS is a three-year professional school which basically guarantees you a job upon graduation (and if you take a low-income job by choice, HLS offers the most generous, 100% loan-forgiveness program in the history of higher education), whereas Columbia will set a young poet or writer back $150,000 for a twenty-one-month course of study that does absolutely nothing whatsoever for one's chances of securing employment. Columbia can be turned down, shouldbe turned down, and unless one is independently wealthy it's not clear how or why it should be applied to in the first instance. Increasingly, applicants who do substantial research into the programs that are available around the country (200+ full-residency MFA programs, nearly 40 of them free and ranked higher than Columbia) are coming to this conclusion.
Columbia has a unique history -- their School of the Arts was devised as, and has always been, a cash cow. There's an article by someone who went there in the 1970s (is it Richard Ford, maybe? I can't remember) that explains how CU views its art programs, which is as a money-maker, pure and simple. They are not focused on artists first, and they really never have been -- it's about stats (books published, tuition brought in, &c). I'm afraid that's the sad truth about CU, which was covered up for years by ranking systems with no principle behind them except to laud famous writers and suck at the teet of Ivy League prestige.
By the way, Richard Ford went to UC-Irvine for his MFA. He didn't apply to Iowa because he didn't think he could get in, and he applied to Irvine not knowing how stellar its facutly was at the time (which it generally is, of course). Seth apparently didn't bother to look this up before he non-"advised" a prospective student regarding Columbia. (So, this is "freelance journalism" these days? Or is impartial blogging okay even when it's directly connected to these "rankings," which are published in a magazine Ms. Gannon describes, in her response to the open letter by 190 creative writing professors, as adhering "to the highest journalistic standards"?)

Ford's interview:

P.S. I found out about Columbia's lack of funding in 1997 by picking up the phone and asking them about it. I didn't need Seth Abramson's help, and neither did generations of earlier MFA students. If he sticks to the numbers and avoids the pseudo-rankings, I'll have no problem with his MFA-applications project. (My brother's doctorate is in statistics, so I've been able to discuss this subject with an expert in the field.) But as long as he includes the so-called rankings, he'll continue to mislead many students at least as much as he's helping them.

Well it looks like Mr. A has rolled over. Here's a piece from a comment he put on though as usual you need a shovel to get to his point:
"I suspect in my own research (and speaking only for myself here, and only as a guy who has a website and posts things on it) I will be moving away from rankings and toward simply providing any/all information that's available, unglossed and unsynthesized, and letting everyone judge for themselves what should be done with it, if anything."

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