Friday, September 9, 2011

Why I Signed.

Here's the Open Letter, published in The New York Observer yesterday, that's making some waves in the academic creative writing community. It was signed by almost 200 poets and writers who teach in creative writing programs across the country. I was one of them. Here's why I signed.

First, what are we contesting?

Poets & Writers rankings of the "Best" MFA programs in the country.

The main problem with the rankings, for me, is that to decide what the Best programs are, they've polled prospective applicants to MFA programs asking them about what programs they'd like to apply to.

Love this quote in the magazine piece: “It’s analogous to asking people who are standing outside a restaurant studying the menu how they liked the food,” said Leslie Epstein, novelist and Boston University program director. (Random plug for Leslie Epstien's work: If you haven't read a novel by Leslie Epstein, do so.)

When someone says something is a list of the BEST, I want to know that it's been judged by people who understand the industry. The BEST wines, well, I want the judges to know wines. I want the judges to bring a measure of professionalism, knowledge of the field, and deep experience to the process of judging. If they don't yet have that experience, why would I need them? (It feels a little American Idol to me.)

It turns out that I'm friendly with (though have never met in person) the man behind the rankings. Seth Abramson, a poet and lawyer. And I understand why Seth has poured so much time and energy into getting data to prospective students. In fact, his efforts have been valiant. Before the ranking, there was very little out there that was current -- in forms of the rankings we're all familiar with. (A few years ago, the Atlantic Monthly scratched the surface with a top ten MFA and top five PhD program listing.) And I actually do send students to Abramson's blog, where he used to announce a lot of this polling before Poets & Writers picked up the data and started to devote a cover issue to it.

Of course, I told Seth my frustrations with the rankings -- which I find deeply misleading in the way that Poets & Writers bills them as "Best". Seth and I have argued, pretty heatedly about this. His issue -- from what I've gathered -- is that the prospective students were the ones willing to provide data and that it was nearly impossible to collect data from overworked programs. I think that one of Seth's main goals early on was transparency -- to make it easy to have data on program web sites, to give facts and figures about financial aid right there in black and white ... And these are good goals. More data was a good cause.

But the problem is that this quest started to drive the bus. In particular: funding and participation from schools to work with Seth (whether they were frustrated or overworked or wanted to opt out...) and financial aid.

In this economy, it's insane to believe that financial aid isn't a priority for the vast majority of students. Also, the MFA doesn't lead to a six-figure job in a law office. As a result, going into debt for it is NOT wise. The programs with the best funding might make them the BEST for one student, but not for all students.

When I look at college guide books -- and I do it PLENTY -- with my 16 year old daughter, hell YES, tuition is something I look at and think about (A LOT). (I've got a BUNCH of college tuition coming at me in the next 20 years or so -- hundreds of thousands of dollars worth, potentially.) But, still, it doesn't drive my bus in all decision-making.

In fact, my daughter is looking at art schools, going into a field that's catch phrase includes the word "starving". She will probably apply to RISDI -- arguably the BEST art school in the country -- and RISDI is a very expensive school. So expensive that it makes my ribs ache a little. If she gets in, we will suck it up. Now, take me to a contest between two mid-tier art schools and give me a 20k differential in the cost, and the less expensive school would turn my head. These are pressure points everyone must weigh for themselves.

Before attending, my daughter and I would visit the prospective schools. We'd look at the work by the students and the graduates and current faculty. We would see the art spaces, facilities. We'd get the shake down on the mandatory courses and the options for things like ceramics and glass blowing and iron works. We'd get a feel for how traditional or experimental the programs are. We'd look around the town/city -- decide if it could feel like a home. (We've already started to do these things.) And basically, these are similar things that I was looking at when I chose my MFA program -- UNCG.

(Wait. Is this just sour grapes? Did the university where I teach do badly? Well, actually we didn't do well at all on the MFA list -- we didn't make the top 50, but -- weirdly, as we're the same faculty, doing the same thing, in the same place, with the same approaches -- we were ranked #2 on the PhD rankings list out of 15. And many of the schools in the top ten were represented in the signatures on the open letter.)

What I really like about the Open Letter is that it gives some sound advice to prospective students. It cautions them, and when people ask if they should go for an MFA in creative writing, I caution them.

But the fact is, I remember when I found out there was such a thing as an MFA in creative writing. I was in college, studying Creative Writing at Loyola College, which was one of very few colleges to offer CRW as an undergrad major at that point. And as soon as I heard that there was a place where you could study how to write fiction with writers who knew their craft, I knew that's where I go. I was compelled. There's no other word for it. It wasn't about a job. It was about this craft, this life -- words on the page.

And amid all of the arguing and fuming on this issue of rankings, I can't help but think that it's comforting that people are passionate about this simple idea -- how to get in a room with other writers and learn this craft.

This handing down of craft is something that all of us -- the faculty at MFA and PhD programs, Poets and Writers magazine, and Seth Abramson -- are dedicated to.

[Corrections to original post: Poets & Writers doesn't use the word "best" -- they use the word "top". And in this same issue of Poets & Writers , they, too, give advice to prospective MFA students, featuring 26 program directors in their own words.]