Poets and Writers’ MFA Ranking Controversy

Poets and Writers Rankings Slate In Slate, Scott Kenemore argues that the latest Poets and Writers' Rankings are a travesty, but his reasoning is self-centered and misleading.

Let's look at why Kenemore thinks that Columbia deserves to be ranked highly (in 2nd place behind Iowa):

Because the last rankings had them high.

As he says, "A few years ago, U.S. News and World Report ranked MFA writing programs, and put Columbia at No. 4.)" Except that was fourteen years ago, in 1997. That's not just a few years. Dozens of new MFA programs have sprung up since then. Huge swathes of faculty have changed university allegiances. And these meteoric rises and falls are not unheard of. Consider USC, ranked 44th in 1996 and ranked 23rd in 2011. So it's not inconceivable that Columbia's position has changed so radically.

Because funding doesn't matter to someone who will make big bucks upon graduating.

But I ask him: what percentage of students will make big bucks upon graduating? Starry-eyed prospective MFA students might believe that they will be the exception among their peers and actually land a book deal after graduating, but statistically, even in the very best programs, less than 50 percent will ever publish a book. In most programs that number is more like 5 or 10 percent. So that leaves a huge number of students who should, if they are realistic and pay attention to the numbers, choose an MFA that does not mire them in student loan debt.

Plus, many of those who do end up publishing a book do so four or seven or ten years after. That means they have to shoulder those loans for years before they finally land that first book deal (which might only be enough to pay back loan interest) and then for years more before they're able to land a faculty appointment. His logic leaves out all the students who don't experience instant success.

Kenemore, with six books published, is such a ridiculous exception to the MFA graduate he should not hold himself up for comparison. If the prospective MFA student is wise, funding should matter a great deal. Aside from the student, funding is a sign of the relationship between the university and the program. It's a sign that the university is not treating the MFA program like a cash register but is actually concerned about its students and wants to aid the program. All in all, Kenemore's advice that Columbia is "for people whose genitals still work," implying some kind of failure of masculinity or courage if you don't take on student loans that reach six figures, is the worst kind of bravura and absolutely foolhardy.

Columbia has great faculty.

And how many of the schools ranked above Columbia don't have great faculty? What's more, why should one all-star faculty member trump a number of good hardworking writers who care for students? In my experience, the all-star faculty members are there for marketing, and teach heavily reduced course loads and might or might not be available for thesis advisement. It's the grunt and file of faculty who are quietly toiling away making students into better writers. As Edward Delaney said in the Atlantic:

A single faculty-member writer who’s having a notable success often seems to trump a legion of others quietly publishing work that is respected but not widely celebrated. Columbia University’s Web site features its Nobel Prize–winning faculty member Orhan Pamuk, who began teaching last fall.

Orhan Pamuk is wonderful. I loved "Snow" and "My Name is Red." But star power alone should not be a reason why a student would go to a university.

I will admit that Kenemore's suggestion at the end of the article is an excellent one that Poets & Writers should adopt:

Poets & Writers should add a "manuscript placement" column to its yearly rankings spreadsheet, alongside fellowship placement and job placement. What percentage of fiction graduates secure a publishing contract worth at least four figures within 10 years of graduation? What percentage of poets win a prize that results in the publication of a book within 10 years of graduation?

That would be a helpful metric to judge the success of students exiting the program. It would take an enormous amount of research to track down all that information, but it also would be invaluable for prospective students. It would also be a way to judge the quality of the program in addition to the metrics we already possess to judge the financials of the institution.

UPDATE: Roxane Gay at HTML Giant takes Kenemore down a couple of notches with her snarky wit.

UPDATE: Twitter's been going crazy with rather derogatory remarks about the, um, literary quality of Kenemore's work.

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4 thoughts on “Poets and Writers’ MFA Ranking Controversy

  1. Abe says:

    Ranking MFA programs is a stupid enterprise to begin with. The differences in MFA programs are a minor factor in a writer’s success. A writer’s talent and especially work ethic will have far more influence over his or her career.

  2. BookFox says:

    I wouldn’t say it’s a stupid enterprise, I would say that it has limited benefits. The P&W list does a wonderful service in aggregating a large amount of data for prospective MFA students, but of course any way they try to numerically assign hierarchies to that data will fall short. It’s the nature of applying hard data to an essentially subjective discipline.
    But I completely agree that talent and especially work ethic are far more important. If you went to podunk MFA and you’re still publishing work in journals that a large chunk of Iowa MFAs fail to break into, who is the successful one now?
    Ultimately, it would help prospective students to have multiple lists ranking MFA programs. Having only one list gives that list too much power.

  3. Abe says:

    I guess “stupid” was a bit harsh. Obviously things like funding are practically important.
    Ranking just seems a process more suited to one hit wonders from the 80s.

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