Friday, October 23, 2009

P&W Ranks High Residency Programs

by Christopher Cocca

Poets & Writers magazine has published their MFA rankings. Check out the context here.


  1. I think the controversy surrounding these rankings is ridiculous. I won't even link to the BS I'm talking about lol. I've noticed that the people responding with the most disgust toward the rankings and their creator are those who applied to and completed MFA programs prior to the ranking's conception. People offer up all sorts of qualifications as to why they can dispute the rankings, but do not offer to rank the programs themselves.

    I look at these rankings as the results of a popularity contest, a measure of which MFA programs are the most popular amongst applicants. Were they a valuable resource when I prepared my list of programs to apply to? Absolutely. Would I recommend the rankings to future applicants? Absolutely. If someone applies to a school that nearly all applicants apply to and they get in (okay, I'm talking about Iowa lol) they can say that they were one of the best in the applicant pool that year (or at least Iowa thought so). For people with a more competitive spirit, this type of ranking really matters.

    Many people have their own personal rankings for publications. The most competitive publications receive the most submissions. To some people, getting into a journal that is "piss-small" is nothing compared to getting into a more prestigious publication that receives tons of submissions. How is this any different than the process of getting into MFA programs?

    As far as the Seth Hate (yes, it deserves a formal name) I'm really trying to understand where it's really coming from. I don't know that I buy that people are so worried about poor little innocent applicants to MFA programs that they must defeat this evil being who ranks the programs and offers consultative services for a fee. I'd like to know where the hate is REALLY coming from. What did he REALLY do that has people so upset? What people are appearing to be so upset about can't possibly be it. And if it is, that's just petty. I can't wait for the day that someone admits what exactly it is about SETH (not the rankings) that has them so upset.

  2. I tend to agree with you, JayTee. I found the rankings helpful. There's nothing wrong with questioning Seth, but at this point I cringe every time there is a new post about rankings anywhere. I think, "Here comes the crazy anger..." Really, I think people should read all the old postings and arguments about this topic. I think it's been addressed to death. I'm not talking about normal skepticism here either. There are people that drag this out for days, and it seems just, well, odd.

  3. JayTee, and Kerry, I'm in agreement with you both.

    While I do think the rankings are a helpful resource and a reasonable place to start, I think all rankings are subjective and fallible and no substitute for doing one's own research on programs and finding the place where one fits regardless of whether it's ranked #1 or #49 or not ranked at all. We're all doing MFAs for our own reasons, and no one program is or could be the "best" program for everyone.

    As far as the "Seth Hate", I'm baffled by it as well. Though I'm generally baffled by people who get bent out of shape over things that truly aren't that important.....

  4. Well, as someone who has questioned the rankings quite a bit, I feel it necessary to trot out (hopefully for the last time) a few responses to the above thread.

    First off, is anyone questioning the rankings really worried about the applicants? Not really. Most places people end up will nurture their writing, I'm guessing. Most of the people who are worried are worried about the prestige of their own programs. Yes, some of them are alumni, others are current students. Does that make this a sillier discussion? I think so, yes. That being said...

    Even most of those who question the rankings think they serve a useful purpose. So on that point we're all agreed that the rankings are marginally useful. But seeing as they are being sponsored by Poets and Writers and are being called a rankings, rather than say, an applicant preference poll, or, as you mentioned, JayTee, a popularity contest, that useful purpose is, in my opinion, a bit inflated.

    I think people are also defensive because of the variation within the rankings. Seth has stated that his tier level is around 14 schools large, because he believes that within those 14 spots there's not much difference between the schools (this is a paraphrase, but I don't think too inaccurate).

    In fact, if you go deeper than that, I think most of us would agree that there's not too much difference within the talent of incoming classes at all. I have friends who are super-talented going to schools that aren't "top ten."

    As for the "Seth Hate." I don't know. Some people don't like him, it's true, but he also has the inclination and ability to defend himself and his arguments. He also has a number of people who agree with him (I mean, the first three comments were people defending him before he even got hated on).

    I don't think that the anger, if there is anger, is as much about the rankings as it is his personality: he does come off as arrogant, and he seems unable to find common ground with people who disagree with him (in over a year on the blog I've seen him admit he's wrong once).

    And while I think he's widely knowledgeable about MFA programs, I don't think he's very deeply knowledgeable about them--so having a consulting company made up entirely of Iowa graduates who also maybe don't know too much about other programs (Iowa being a program that he maintains is the best program in the world, even though he predicates his polling on applicant preference and selectivity, and Iowa is not the most selective school...)--

    Ok, wow, I'm going to stop right there. See, now there's some pent-up frustration right there (and Seth hating, although I do respect the work he's put into this project, even if I disagree with his methodology and his conclusions).

    Basically, if there is no other way to rank programs fairly than applicant preference, does that mean that applicant preference constitutes a full ranking? Just because one can't doesn't mean the other has to.

    That doesn't mean I think any of the programs ranked highly don't deserve to be there, just that the whole rankings business seems to me more difficult than it's worth.

    Now, having said all of that--does any of it (my thoughts included) really matter that much?

    I think Emily's got the right idea, that they are really not that important (I just tend to get bent out of shape over little things, myself).

    So, my apologies for the tirade. I hope everyone is getting good writing done so far this semester...


  5. No apology necessary, Josh. You made some great points. That type of sense-based argument is cool. I guess I maybe should have linked to what I was talking about so it wouldn't appear that I was saying any dispute about the rankings is crazy. I don't mind the disagreements, but recently on the Best American Poetry blog I think things got out of hand and they stopped letting Seth's replies go through. So that made everything unbalanced and ridiculous. You are definitely right that he can defend himself, I just didn't like seeing a situation where he wasn't able to. I'd hate to see anyone in that situation.

    I can see reasons for the Seth Hate. I find it odd how much anything he touches enrages people. And I'm not so sure anymore if some of the people just don't like him and don't want to see one of his ideas be successful. That's just how some of the junk reads, like pure jealousy. And no, I'm not the queen of Seth fans lol.

    So all I'm saying is that disputing the rankings is cool. Taking that dispute so far that you insult their creator in a public forum without allowing him to defend himself= not cool.

  6. I'm not sure how I feel about the whole enterprise. I keep thinking that you have to pick the program that's right for you based on the information available and based on your own needs, some of which will have nothing to do with writing. And yes, some of the "information available" is subjective...maybe a lot of it is. So for me it all goes back to "who do you want to work with? what do you want to write? where do you want to be? what can you afford (money, time spent, family obligations) and why are you going in the first place?" That's what's worked for me, and even though I'm only haf a semester in, this really does feel like the right fit.

    I also think MFA applicants reading this thread will benefit from the conversation, so thanks, all, for your thoughts here.

  7. JayTee, I hadn't heard about the dust-up at the Best American Poetry blog, but you're right, that's just disgraceful.

    Christopher, you make some great points. Admittedly, some of us (myself included) are way too lazy to do the real work of finding the right program. Fortunately, I think it usually works out, anyway (I love where I am right now, too)--so I guess, "Go team first years!"

  8. Sheesh,

    Seth's blog was the gateway to me understanding the world of MFAs. As a result of reading all his rankings, I understand more about MFAs than many of my peers.

    Perhaps Seth's issue is that he communicates very dryly. He is clearly brilliant, has thought most things out, a hard worker, a get-it-done-er, rather helpful and kind (in my experience); but he communicates like a robot, and doesn't seem to care. Why should he? I sure don't -- if it doesn't bother him that he'll upset a few people who want him to start responses with "I understand where you are coming from--I see your point, but here's where I'm coming from:" rather than "You error is___ and the correction is ___" - then why should he communicate any different than that?

    I'm pleased to have such a brilliant resource. I would argue strongly that the hard work he's put in on the rankings has done much much more good than harm for MFAs in general.

    John Gilmore

  9. John, I agree with you about the fact that the hard work has done more good than harm. That being said, the guy's not perfect (and I doubt the "clearly brilliant").

    I wonder why you disparage people taking the time to "understand where [someone else's opinion] is coming from". The formulation you propose that Seth use: "Your error is ___ and the correction is ___" seems to assume that everything he says is correct and anyone who questions/disagrees with him is making some kind of error--this just seems a little false to me, especially since most of the debate is about differences of opinion. Specifically differences about the relative worth of each data set being collected, but also how they are collected.

    If you were correct that the debate was about the facts/data itself, and not the opinions surrounding the facts/data, then yes, a simple error correction would be appropriate.


    PS. Now I'm really going to stop arguing these points. Apologies again, but I couldn't resist letting "clearly brilliant" and "brilliant resource" slide.


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