Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Navigating The MFA Rankings Throwdown

by Tory Adkisson

Here is AWP's response to Seth Abramson's article on MFA rankings that appeared in the last issue of Poets and Writers. I am not completely sold on Matt Burriesci's response, particularly his assertion that "statistically significant information culled from a major, comprehensive survey of these programs––including admissions statistics, program size, tuition information, and many other important facts and figures" are made readily available by AWP. He notes that such information, if it does exist, is available to AWP's members. Currently, I am not a member of AWP, and my sense is that most of us on this blog, and indeed most current and especially prospective MFA students are not members of the Association of Writing Programs. It seems to me that this type of information, if it is being contested, should be made available to the general public, especially given that (until recently) all of Abramson's data on MFA programs was on his blog, and had been for a few years.

That issue aside, I do think Mr. Burriesci is on to something when he mentions the "other stakeholders" left out of Seth's survey, people who are important in the development and maintenance of any MFA program. I don't mean to downplay your role (yes yours!) as applicants, but certainly applicants have their own particular biases. I realize that by publicly disagreeing with Seth Abramson I risk a rhetorical onslaught of epic proportions, but I do think that the inclusion of other groups related to MFA programs, as well as the addition of other important factors (salient data on alumni publication records would be at the top of my list) in the survey would have made it much more persuasive. The methodology does not bother me so much, it's more of an issue of variables than anything else.

I do think that AWP's database of MFA programs is woefully lacking in some vital data that would be useful to applicants, data that Burriesci insists exists somewhere. Information on program size, stipend amounts, acceptance rates, and other figures are of vital importance to anyone considering writing as more than just a hobby. I agree with Burriesci that selecting a writing program is a "complex and serious business," but it's not one that any amount of hard and fast data can elucidate or simplify. The responsibility rests on the applicant's willingness to do the research and consider what they want out of a certain model (full vs low-res), location, aesthetic, legacy, and whatever else you like. I disagree with both camps (AWP vs Abramson) for different reasons: AWP is clearly not doing enough to present alternative data to counteract Abramson's work--if they had the data and made it accessible, Abramson's work would be (potentially) rendered moot. As for Abramson, the holy father of MFA program data, his biases are clear and, as discussed in a post (which I don't wholly agree with) from the Best American Poetry blog, Abramson's poll "reflects only the responses of self-selected readers of his blog" that is, people who agree with him. This point may not be wholly true, but given that the poll was conducted on the MFA blog, the biases seem likely, despite Seth's assertion (in the comments) that the blog is an unbiased he has no ideological control over. He is the most prominent poster on the blog (or was until he started his own MFA blog) and has even advertised his own debut poetry collection on it.

That's really all I have to say about this for now. I am interested to hear what other people think about this whole MFA ranking hoopla given the new parties that have entered into the fray. Please discuss!


  1. If you're an MFA student in an AWP-member university, you should be receiving The Writer's Chronicle regularly and might even be considered card-carrying student members of AWP; check with your program directors and/or program administrative assistants--or go directly to AWP and ask. I believe OSU pays a fee in order to belong and to have Chronicles mailed to its faculty and students.

  2. It is an interesting debate and I've been following it back when all there was were blogs about potential rankings. I think what always bothered me about "ranking" is that people have different priorities.

    What I wish AWP and/or Poets & Writers or SOMEONE would do is put together a comprehensive database of

    1 - tuition/fees
    2 - funding
    3 - student to teacher ratio
    4 - "success" of students afterwards
    5 - acceptance rates if available
    6 - rough idea of cost of living
    7 - needed to get in = GRE, sample etc.

    and then something similar for low-res (which I did)

    1 - cost
    2 - any funding
    3 - requirements to get in GRE etc
    4 - length of residencies, number a year
    5 - student to teacher ratio

    and maybe i'm missing a few things but it just seems like there can be a more objective way to supply the data. Sometimes I've been tempted to do it without ranking...

  3. Yeah, I was automatically given an AWP membership and I get The Writer's Chronicle in my box at school. I got the sense that more MFA students than not are members. But you're right that most applicants would not be members and would be unable to access the AWP info. I think you are totally right that they need to put that info out. In this whole rankings mess, it kills me how no one really offers an alternative!

    I like how you approached this topic, Tory.

  4. Some data, good (data on acceptance rates and funding: very good for this MFA applicant planning his future).

    But this fixation, this fetish for data and for a "methodology" strikes me as absurd, a carryover from the "results-driven," metrics-obsessed business world, and an overreaction to Bushian faith-based politics right into the arms of a different pseudo-science: the comfort offered by numbers, which tend to be the media argument-winner du jour.

    Other than a "tier 1, tier 2, tier 3" approach (and the MFA Handbook has been helpful there), ranking MFA programs simply throws a comforting illusion over the uncertainties of artistic study and the uncertain (some would say nonexistent) career path of an artist.

  5. Yeah, I think most MFA students get AWP membership through their programs - I know we do here at Penn State.

    And I think I agree with Jamie about the number obsession... I think that's what I meant when I commented on the last post about this hoopla and said that the whole ranking system is just not that important. I do favor transparency and data in regards to funding, acceptance rates, etc. And I find the idea of tier 1, tier 2, tier 3 useful. BUT I think the entire process is so subjective and so individual that the very idea of any sort of accurate meaningful ranking system is utterly contrived and unrealistic.

    So, I'm staying as oblivious as I can to the whole controversy right now. I appreciated the MFA blog, and Seth's blog, when I was applying - as a starting point for information, but for the comfort of other people going through the same process more than anything. I am not "pro-Seth" or "anti-Seth", but I guess if anything I am willfully disengaged from the debate.

    If you're an applicant, figure out what's important to you, then do your research. You'll find the place where you're meant to be.

  6. Tory,

    I promise I'm not here to argue with you--I love this blog, I think you make valid points, and I swear I am actually trying to pull back on being so argumentative (one reason TSE is on a long-term pause; right now, the only things getting me heated are the comments online that question my personal integrity). I think Stacey and I miscommunicated on the "bias" point and so you're right (and I now believe) my response was not apt. The MFA Blog, while not mine, is a) a blog where my influence is felt significantly, and b) biased. My point has been (and is) that the pro-funding bias of the blog is a "universal bias"--no one in the field prefers funded programs to unfunded ones, all else being equal. As to getting data from other demographics, you are 100% right, and if I can figure out how to do that with the time and resources available I will. As to AWP (and I've said this directly to Matt), the AWP database is missing 100+ MFA and Ph.D. programs, does not provide the data Matt says it does (of the P&W data, only program duration is routinely provided), and even the "member only" data (if I understand right) includes hard data from well less than half the programs.

    Tory, you're a good man, and I hope someday you'll think better of me. If I've been defensive, egotistical, obtuse, and argumentative, my only excuse -- which I know is insufficient -- is that I've been fighting what I consider the "good fight" all by myself. And if you've read around on the web you've seen some of the things I've been trying to deal with -- including most recently the absolutely jaw-dropping allegation (for anyone who knows my personal history) that I have ever, or would, compromise these rankings for money (which would be impossible anyway, as all the data collected were public, including the poll votes; anyone can check my math if they want to, or just Google my name if you want proof that money has never been the primary determining factor in any decision I've ever made). But no one steps in and says, "Hey, back off this guy for a sec--" And I'm not asking anyone to, I'm just saying that we're never our best selves when we always feel cornered/isolated in online discussions.

    Be well, and keep up the great work with the blog,


  7. Seth, I knew you would find me, and I appreciate your response. I don't want to make enemies in the MFA world, online or "real." I agree with you, of course, that funding is a universal bias, one that cannot be taken lightly in these tough economic times. I also understand where your missed communication with Stacey (and I have some of the same issues with BAP that you do) and see why you are going after people attempting outright character assassination.

    I don't hold any ill feelings toward you, Seth. I think you've done a lot of good things for our body of MFA knowledge. I agree that AWP's database seems dated and excludes a lot of programs. I hope this hoopla dies down a bit, although it is pretty entertaining to have all these volatile personalities butting heads.

  8. Greetings Tory, et al. I hope you don’t mind if I weigh into the fray here. It’s my understanding that nearly all MFA candidates are members of AWP through their various institutions as nearly all MFA programs are members. As the program at Ohio State University is a member of AWP you probably are too, and may want to check with your program director about that. Also, through my institutional membership, I have seen the statistics Burriesci refers to on the AWP website. It seems like they’re contained on the members-only section of the site, but they do seem statistically much more relevant than anything Abramson has culled or at least they are taken from a much larger sample size.

  9. While Abramson may not have compromised the rankings for money, there is a financial incentive for him to publish them since the statistics, however shoddy, are taken from his for-profit company. This incentive doesn’t necessarily compromise the rankings either (they’re compromised for other reasons), but it does help make them suspect. More than anything it’s important to note that the P&W rankings are statistically insignificant. That is to say they have been put together by someone who is not qualified in any way to be conducting such a survey as anyone who has ever taken a graduate statistics course or helped conduct major surveys or polling could tell you just by merely glancing at the rational. I don’t blame AWP for coming out against them since AWP is one of the largest advocacy groups for writers and writing institutions. The rankings are rendered moot because the methodology is simply flawed as the Best American Poetry blog succinctly points out. The idea that anyone could possibly rank these programs without surveying the teachers, students, and administrators directly involved in their operation is astounding. The idea that anyone would consider rankings from such a small representative sample to be “comprehensive” is astounding. The fact that P&W would accept such sloppy work is unbelievable and makes me wonder how much monetary gains played in their decision to publish the rankings since, as anyone who has read USA Today knows, surveys can be sensational no matter how poorly conducted. No one is coming to Abramson’s defense because of these reasons and because (despite his admission that he’s fighting a “’good fight’ all by myself” or that’s he’s some kind of CW martyr), he’s really just being a blowhard about something that ultimately doesn’t help the field in any way.

  10. MFA applicants probably know the least out of anyone about the dynamics of the programs they are applying to. I know I became much more knowledgeable about them only after I was in one and then more so after I started working for one. These rankings are something akin to polling only high school baseball players about the best way to hit a major league fastball when obviously they’ve never stood in the batters box against a major league pitcher. Simply put, MFA applications do not have the experience to assess the large and diverse landscape of MFA programs. More so, I do agree with you Tory that no “amount of hard and fast data can elucidate or simplify” the decisions an applicant has to make when selecting an MFA program, which partially seems like Burriesci’s point and is why more than anything the rankings seem so useless.

    Finally, I imagine the type of data people are looking for is hard to collect because it can change so frequently particularly in troubling economic times. This is one reason why it’s extremely unlikely that any MFA program is likely to let lose of their acceptance rates, that is because they can vary wildly from year to year. Also, I suspect if the acceptance rates were disclosed we would find out many programs are not nearly as competitive as they purport which is an obvious detriment to their image.

  11. Just to take a different, slightly less argumentative tack, and instead throw out a possibility for further discussion--I thought Anne Caston's comment on The Best American Poetry blog was an interesting one. This is a paraphrase, but I believe she said something to the effect of:

    Seth claims this survey holds no surprises (i.e. that it appears to reflect much of the current ideas about which top programs should be considered top programs), and that she (Anne) is not interested in a poll that has no surprises.

    Just wondering what y'all think of that comment...


  12. "Thomas" (whose name is obviously not Thomas, as you're using a fake Blogger profile),

    1. The AWP statistics you reference are from a survey of 142 AWP member programs, only 60-70 of which responded to any of the questions. AWP provides their averaged answers--useless, because no one needs to know the average acceptance rate or average funding package at 60-70 programs, they want specifics. The TSE data contains specific acceptance rates and funding packages for 60-70 programs, so I don't know how you could claim that a) AWP has a larger sample size (60-70 = 60-70), or b) that the AWP statistics are more useful, as I'd love to know how you, "Thomas", or anyone plans to use averaged statistics to make an application or matriculation decision. So my friend your whole first comment goes right in the pooper. (How's that for using demotic language to "seem" friendly to people who lie about you online?).

    2. I'm going to flush your second comment also because it's based on a lie: "[T]he statistics, however shoddy, are taken from his for-profit company." That's fascinating, "Thomas," as the statistics were collected from October 2008 through April 2009, and my company didn't exist (indeed wasn't even a twinkle in my or Chris Leslie-Hynan's eye) until June 2009. Nor did we have a website or blog until July 2009. So into the pooper goes that anonymous libel.

    3. Who knows what helps or doesn't help the field, only time will tell--but as "Thomas" is quite possibly someone with a connection to an unfunded MFA program disadvantaged by the universal bias applicants (and TSE) have toward funded programs, I'm not likely to take "his" opinion, or Stacey Harwood's, who (speaking of incentives) "Thomas" fails to mention is married to the Poetry Director of the largest unfunded MFA programs in the United States, giving her both a familial bias and financial incentive to try to take down the P&W rankings. It's probably worth noting that she's also been stalking me for four years--ever since I criticized her (four years ago) for letting her husband publish her in Best American Poetry without disclosing their relationship. So I apologize if anyone treating Stacey Harwood as some random statistician is a little humorous to me. What we do know--unscientifically--is that a recent poll of MFA applicants (more than 125) showed that 95.9% of those familiar with TSE disagree with Thomas and say it is helpful. Until the remaining 4.1% have a defender who's a) not anonymous, and b) willing to explain how knowing the acceptance rates and funding packages of programs hurts the field, I don't know that that tack is going to produce much, "Thomas."


  13. 4. "Thomas" writes: "The idea that anyone could possibly rank these programs without surveying the teachers, students, and administrators directly involved in their operation is astounding. The idea that anyone would consider rankings from such a small representative sample to be 'comprehensive' is astounding." This is what happens when someone bases their opinions from a "dialogue" on the BAP site in which Stacey Harwood deleted one half the conversation. First, let's be clear that AWP also disagrees with "Thomas"--as AWP protested when USNWR surveyed teachers and administrators, too. In fact, "Thomas" doesn't say that it's AWP policy to oppose all rankings of MFA programs, and that they therefore opposed measures taken in 1996, 2001, 2003, 2007, and now 2009. Citing AWP opposition means nothing. But here's the more important thing: the rankings were called "comprehensive," as anyone who read the P&W article knows, not because they claim to have randomly sampled a representative demographic--in fact it's the opposite, they transparently acknowledge having non-randomly sampled a sub-set demographic of the larger MFA community--but because these rankings are the first ever rankings that measure funding, that measure selectivity, that measure individual genres, that measure postgraduate success, or that provide data alongside the rankings regarding teaching load, program duration, cost of living, curricular focus, and so on (nearly none of which latter data is, in fact, available from the AWP guide, public or otherwise, check for yourself; and as to the non-poll rankings, this is the first time that sort of information has ever appeared anywhere). So the scope of the assessment in that sense was historically broad. As to only sampling applicants, the reason for this is stated constantly in the article--these rankings tried to avoid the fatal flaw that brought down the USNWR rankings, which is that those rankings did not seek out a target demographic (for the small portion of the rankings "Thomas" actually takes issue with) which, precisely because it did not have access to the subjective, unmeasurable data "Thomas" so favors, was forced to look at the only thing that can be measured--program immutables. Not "Thomas," not Stacey, not Robert P. Baird, none of the small cadre of detractors of this poll has ever addressed the issue of bias or sampling method (among current students) or differential values (among faculty and administrators, who in 1996 allowed the nation's programs to be ranked by faculty luster, which is non-probative of teaching ability, and alumni success, which is non-causal and therefore non-probative) or how in the world anyone other than applicants could be polled to look purely at program immutables--which the methodology of this ranking made transparently clear it was trying to do (and why, unlike the prior rankings "Thomas" implicitly lionizes, this ranking was the first ever to look at other measures besides reputation and then create separate and distinct rankings for these other measures).

    So let's be crystal on this, "Thomas"--I am a blowhard on things I'm passionate about. No question. But you have no idea of the things I would call you if you weren't an anonymous coward and liar and actually worth my time to speak to privately.


  14. Oh, my apologies for mis-paraphrasing Anne Caston above. She didn't say she was uninterested in a poll with no surprises, but was uninterested in a rankings with no surprises.

    My bad,

    Still, feel free to discuss

  15. Tory,
    I'm sorry for hijacking your thread. As I said above, when someone anonymously publishes online statements that would, if published offline, be grounds for a libel suit, you have to reply. The completely unsubstantiated allegation that I defrauded P&W readers in my professional capacity as a journalist by failing to disclose a financial conflict-of-interest (not even the theoretical mechanics of which anyone has yet explained) is a very serious claim in the world of actual people rather than spam-bots like "Thomas." Yes, I'm certain the reason I chose to make 8K/year as a doctoral student studying poetry, when I could be working at a private firm in NYC as an attorney, is because I'm the sort of person who compromises his principles for money. Jesus.

    When I think of how much time I've taken to try to respond directly to your concerns--well, you should be ashamed of yourself. Try e-mailing USNWR about their 1996 rankings and see if they'll spend hours of their time dialoging with you personally. It's a lack of graciousness like you're displaying now that really makes doing all this seem less worthwhile--if you're going to trash me, tell these people how much of my personal time I've given to you first. To say you've seen me (after tracking my work for years) admit error once--when I've admitted it more than once just to you personally--is disheartening.


  16. Hmmm. If we take the end of Seth's second comment, that the ranking is only a ranking of program immutables, then should it be called "a comprehensive ranking of MFA program immutables" rather than its current title as a comprehensive ranking of "MFA programs"?

    Is this a minor quibble? Or does it represent a qualitatively different way of assessing the rankings than the way in which they are being presented?

    Again, I'm hoping other people have opinions on this (pro and con both welcome!). Please discuss.


  17. My above post came before Seth Abramson's last one, so a quick response to that (goodness, I hope there's not another post I have to respond to again that I didn't see before I post this one. Yikes!):

    Yes, you've dialogued with me and others about the rankings methodology, and for that I applaud you.

    As for the admitting error only once claim--I'm not sure which other times you have admitted error that you are referring to (I'm thinking of the one MFA blog post with redactions in it). Mind you, you may be right. You may have admitted errors more than once and I simply misunderstood or did not realize that you were in fact admitting errors. After all, though I pay attention to the blogs, and have read your previous rankings, I have reservations about your rhetoric that I am "tracking your work." I'm sure there are things I've not read or commented on. I merely stated that there was one error-admittance that I remember witnessing.

    If I am wrong, my apologies. If not, since you're not citing any examples of times that you admitted error, then I see no reason to doubt my recollection. But then, no one else needs to share my opinion--someone else might recognize admittance of errors where I did not. I'm not trying to trash you here--I agreed that your rankings were useful, and I stated that you have a wide understanding of MFA programs, although I wonder if your consulting company will have any insight into non-studio programs. I don't know. Maybe it will.

    While I bet this is of much interest to the both of us, I doubt it's very interesting to the rest of the people reading this, so my apologies to everyone else who is not interested.


    PS. Monica J Brown: Again, my apologies.

  18. Josh,
    It's in the nature of rankings to be paradoxical: to proclaim themselves "rankings" they must take a totalizing, homogenizing superficial tack (or else they are not rankings); to be in good faith, they must concede that they cannot and do not hope to totalize the field assessed. I can only ask that people actually read the article they're talking about here; it makes clear that the rankings are not an absolute measure of program quality and don't claim to be. That doesn't disqualify them from being called "rankings"; this didn't happen in a vacuum, Josh, there's a decades-long history of educational rankings which title themselves as such but also do not make the grand claims their critics (rhetorically) try to ascribe to them.

  19. I'm a first time MFA applicant this season. I can't tell you how helpful Seth's rankings have been to me. Did I take them as absolutes? Of course not. But they were and continue to be an incredibly useful and accessible guide. AWP, no matter how much they squawk, has a woefully inadequate database of program information. Maybe the program details are more complete for actual members, but Seth's rankings, as flawed as they are (which he admits), are available to the only people in this debate who really need them: applicants. Yes, I know it's also a survery of applicants, who theoretically know nothing about the programs they have spent the last few years of their lives researching, but there's every reason to believe that including instructors, former students, or anyone else involved in the MFA process would involve just as much bias.

    Seth's rankings aren't perfect, but they're a step in the right direction. And if nothing else, they hold a mirror up to programs' faces and let the programs know when they aren't effectively communicating with applicants.

    I, for one, have found them useful, and I thank Mr. Abramson for providing them.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. I just found a hilarious rearranging of the top 5 rankings on HTML Giant

    Go UVA! lol

  22. I believe that an MFA program is what you make out of it. If it makes you a better writer then it did it's job.

    My admission to Adelphi came with an AWP membership but I haven't really done anything with it as of yet.

  23. I think I may have ruptured something laughing in incredulity and derision at the claims by the AWP that it provides data to MFA applicants that's even remotely useful. Seth Abramson has run circles around the entire organization. It's a classic blogosphere "crashing the gate" thing where a brilliant obsessive who cares deeply about something winds up rendering traditional elites irrelevant. It annoys me that the AWP offers such pitifully inadequate information. It pisses me off that the AWP would lie about that fact.

    My sense of what happened over at the Best American Poetry blog is that someone who is a bureaucrat in the utilities industry wrote a short, clumsy, factually inaccurate, and sickeningly/shamefully unfair letter of protest to P&W, publicized this fact quite self-aggrandizingly, and then prevented the person she so rudely victimized from defending himself (by disabling comments). What a joke.

    What's going on here, I think, is that graduates of MFA programs that are poorly funded and otherwise have lost some of their luster among potential applicants are inventing various ad hoc criteria for what a good ranking should have in order to cast doubt on the value of the P&W ranking, which hurt their feelings. But one thing every applicant should know is that the ranking chart/table thing contains a wealth of quantifiable information that no one else has ever collected in one place. Skip the ranking if you want, but you might as well use all the information that's there. It's the kind of stuff that the second commenter here said would be helpful to have.

    Please release your rankings of MFA programs immediately.

  24. For those who are interested, The Suburban Ecstasies has posted a response to AWP here.

    Also, those interested in honest dialogue will be (I think) saddened to hear that not only did Stacey Harwood (wife of the Poetry Coordinator at the largest unfunded MFA program in the United States, or did she forget to mention that in her letter to P&W) delete all my messages from her prior thread about the rankings on the Best American Poetry blog, she has also found a way to permanently ban my IP address from that blog--yes, forever. Meanwhile, she continues to pretend to want to have a dialogue about this and present only one side of the issue. I'd ask anyone who cares about honest dialogue to post the TSE response (the link, I mean, not the whole response) on the most recent rankings thread on the BAP blog. I'm not asking for anyone to argue on my behalf; I just think the readers of that blog should hear both sides of the issue, Stacey Harwood's personal biases notwithstanding.

    If you don't think your position is strong, you try to silence your opponent. In contrast, I've linked to Stacey's comments twice in just this one post. Draw from that any conclusions you think appropriate. Be well, all,


  25. Jim,


    Let me sum up your argument: You think I'm only allowed to express some reservations or otherwise comment on a project like these rankings if I have my own rankings to offer in their stead.

    Are you so incapable of nuance that you think no one can have those reservations and still agree that the rankings have some marginal value?

  26. I think we can agree on this: It's easy to go on and on about the flaws you see in someone else's work, and that goes for poems and stories as well as for rankings and blog posts. It's not so easy to produce good work yourself -- work that's worthy of a wide audience and strong enough to withstand the scrutiny of others. I'll try to keep this in mind if you will.

  27. Sure, Jim. We can agree on that much. Although, to carry on your metaphor, when we share work with the world (creative work, I mean) or a workshop or just a few close friends, often it's important to bear in mind that most criticism is meant to help, and often does.

  28. Precisely. People in workshop who flog the same weak arguments endlessly probably do mean well, and they probably are trying to be helpful in their own special way.

  29. Wow. I have no idea where the venom is coming from, but I hope that you are getting whatever you need to get out of this exchange. So much for believing we were having a back-and-forth in some kind of good-faith.

    Too bad.

    (By the way, saying "precisely" and then misrepresenting me is just weak. But hey, I'm sure you mean well.)

    (Second by the way, Jim: I guess it must be difficult when people offer you help with your stories/poems/whatever but you're just too good too listen to any of them).

  30. Oh dear, look what happens when I leave for a few days. Calumny abounds!

  31. Thanks for the sharing this website. it is very useful professional knowledge. Great idea you know about company background.
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