Those of you plugged into the MFA world – whether it be as a current or prospective student or faculty member of a graduate writing program – you’re well aware of the annual MFA program rankings by the fine folks over at Poets & Writers. I tend not to read too much into the rankings mainly because they are highly subjective in nature.
The 2012 MFA and PhD program rankings created a firestorm in the MFA and graduate creative writing community. (If you ask me, it’s about time…but I digress.) P&W’s editors drew fire from almost 200 faculty from various writing programs across the country. Those faculty members issued an open letter to the publication criticizing the process, the criteria and the results. A press release issued on behalf of the 190 creative writing faculty members, called Poets & Writers‘ ranking system “specious” and “disingenuous”.
At issue is how P&W came up with the criteria for ranking schools, and the small sample of participants (readers of the Creative Writing MFA Blog) polled for the survey. The faculty members take umbrage at the notion that P&W did not factor in “faculty or writing reputations” in determining their rankings. Mary Gannon, P&W’s editorial director countered in a lengthy response that, “faculty quality is too complex to assess.”
I view this “war of words” between P&W and the faculty with particular interest. I recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University, a school with not one, but two graduate writing programs. There is the M.A. in Writing Program, a rigorous, part-time program (from which I graduated this past spring). Then there are the Writing Seminars, a prestigious, full-time, two-year MFA program – which ranks 17th on this year’s list. I aspired to get into the Writing Seminars, but the program is full-time and highly competitive, so I went for the next best thing. Ultimately I want to teach writing, and in order to do so, I need at least an MFA to be taken seriously. But many MFA programs are full-time, and that won’t work for a working girl like me. So I’ve been looking at part-time MFA programs in the region, and have found a couple that I’m considering seriously and applying to now.
Did I look at P&W’s past MFA rankings in my search for an MFA program? Sure. (I should note here that P&W also ranks part-time and low-residency programs, too.) Did the rankings influence my decision to consider or avoid certain programs? Not really. I had my own criteria (location, diversity of faculty and students, good restaurants near campus – hey, a girl’s gotta eat) to factor into my decision. I simply used P&W’s rankings as a springboard in my own decision-making process.
While both P&W and the faculty members at odds with the publication make valid points, I find myself siding with the faculty. Using such an exclusive pool of individuals (readers of a particular blog) as the basis for this survey hardly presents an opportunity to get objective, wide-ranging data. Why didn’t P&W post a survey on its website or print it in its publication? Surely people like me would have seen in and responded. I’ve visited the Creative Writing MFA Blog on a number of occasions as well as P&W’s Speakeasy Forum. I’ve read the opinions and advice from other MFA applicants, current and former students. And to be quite honest, most of what I read was – in large part – questions, opinions and criticisms of programs in P&W’s past top rankings. So rather than reading comments about the same 15-20 schools that everyone was interested in, I decided to take the list and do my own research on a few. In the end, the schools that I am considering now for my MFA aren’t even on P&W’s top 50 for 2012. But I know based on what I’ve read about these programs, and recommendations from some faculty at JHU, these are excellent programs with great faculty and reputations.
Judging by the flurry of activity on P&W’s Comments page, MFA-gate isn’t going away anytime soon. I’ll have more thoughts on this in the coming days, that’s for sure. But in the meantime, I’ve got writing samples to gather and a statement of purpose that just won’t finish writing itself. And right now, that ranks #1 on my priority list.