by Johannes Goransson on Aug.30, 2010
So there has been and continues to be a lot of talk about Seth Abramson’s MFA rankings. I haven’t read much of these debates, but I did just take the time to watch some of Seth’s videos on his blog and read some of the stuff. And here are my quick two cents.
1. I went through this material because I wanted to find out the reason for the rankings. What is the point of the rankings? I still don’t see it. I think Seth has done an admirable job getting information to applicants about aspects of the programs that may not be immediately available. That’s good. But what’s the point of the rankings? This seems incredibly suspect to me.
2. Especially since, as Seth notes, a lot of things can’t be “measured.” It’s hard to quantify the pedagogy of teachers, what kind of location an applicant might like etc. A lot of things are very hard to quantify. So why create a ranking system?
3. Why not publish the facts and then let each and every applicant do their job: read poems or stories by the faculty and read critical articles – maybe even pedagogical statements – by the faculty, and visit the place (or read about the place on line) etc. The rankings – based largely it seems on polling of students on Seth’s site – lend themselves to the kind of “poll-think” that you see in politics. Instead of trying to create a hierarchy, why not encourage applicants to read the faculty’s work? Some things are not quantifiable, so why create a ranking system?
4. One part that really shows how problematic Seth’s methodology is is when he talks about the importance of “community.” The way to measure the strength of a community, according to Seth, is to look at the selectivity of the program: “One would expect a program that is fully funded, and therefore highly selective, to have the strongest cohort of writers. Over time, more selective programs will have a stronger community of writer than the less selective programs.” This seems at the heart of my disagreement with Seth: he believes that there is an objective “strength” in writers; I don’t. I think there are many different kinds of applicants, some of which are more likely to get into some programs and less likely to get into other programs. Just as there are some books that are good fits for the editorial stance of one press, others for another press.
5. When I applied to grad school, the only school I got into was Iowa. So is Iowa selective or not?
6. I also disagree with Seth in his statement that “community” of peers is more important than faculty. Absolutely untrue. But a very Iowa Ideology way of putting it. You obviously learn very different things from peers and faculty. Iowa’s rhetoric has always been: this is just two years of funding for you to write an interact with other writers, the teachers don’t really do anything. But of course they do! This rhetoric – which Seth seems to have totally absorbed – is a way of dealing with the problem a lot of people have with the idea of teaching art: according to romantic ideals (which are on full display at U of Iowa), art cannot be taught, it must be just achieved based on “Talent” etc. To deal with the contradiction, Iowa always pumps out that rhetoric. But it’s of course false, students absorb a lot of rhetoric and aesthetics from their teachers (witness Abramson’s rhetoric). The problem with Iowa is not that they don’t teach, it’s that they pretend they are not teaching while teaching!
7. I learned a lot at Iowa – some bad, some good – and my writing was definitely affected. Some of the ways it was affected, I’ve rejected, and some I’ve kept. Well, that’s a very simplistic way of stating it; it’s become part of my writing – how I think about writing, how I think about thinking about writing.
8. I did learn a lot from my fellow students: mostly that was more social things, how people positioned themselves in poetry for example. Or the way they thought about poetry (basically still, the odious Lowellian “who’s on top” game; I see these rankings as part of that sensibility). And I learned who the cool poets were (Clover, Palmer, Tate, etc), “the unofficial reading list” as I called it.
9. Seth makes a really strange claim at one point in one video, asking “how much of a window would they have into who you are on the day to day basis, and what your values are, and what you believe, and how you comport yourself” just from reading a poem. This is an insane statement. Of course you would learn a whole lot about a professor by reading their poems or critical works. Why would you study with someone whose aesthetics you didn’t share, or whose views you found antithetical. There can be no more important thing to do when applying for MFA school than reading up on the faculty. You may not learn what they are as a person, but that shouldn’t be as important as their ideas.
10. Seth’s views make the MFA seem like a fun lifestyle choice, a vacation for 2 years. Funding is what matters, so that you can live the best. The best funding equals the best students; bestness can be bought. This is I think a rotten way of viewing art, and an especially rotten way of viewing students who are just coming into their senses of themselves as artists. You should go to a program more than any other reason because you feel you would benefit from studying with the faculty. If you erase faculty, why not just get a grant and hang out with other grant-gainers? Or work and write at night and hang out with other writers? Even if you value the ‘community’ of other students more than the faculty, this ‘community’ is in fact assembled by the faculty, so having some notion of and agreement with faculty aesthetic is critical.
11. My advice to applicant is: look at the facts (funding, location, whatever) but, most importantly, read a lot of poetry. And that’s my advice for becoming a writer as well.