Seth Abramson's MFA Rankings

by 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.

35 comments for this entry:
  1. Matt Miller

    Quick question: why do you associate hierarchical thinking about odious “whose on top” politics with Robert Lowell of all people? Why is Lowell your chosen whipping boy when looking for a historical reference for the problems of modern poetry? (I notice you use his name when a lot when you don’t like something about the institution of poetry, and it puzzles me.) I read his biography many years back, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why you associate this leftist conscientious war-objector who was jailed for his efforts and relentlessly championed women poets and made racial politics one of his main life’s themes with “quietism” and “the odious Lowellian ‘who’s on top’ game.” The characterizations I hear of Lowell from younger poets associated with the avant-garde do not coincide with any historical accounts of his life that I have seen.

  2. Johannes


    I agree that I probably have made Lowell too much of a whipping boy, and in fact I like some of his poetry, but I think the “who’s on top” schtick is terrible because it avoids talking about actual aesthetics. I’m not associated with any ‘avant-garde.’

  3. Seth Abramson

    Hi Johannes,

    I think you know I’ve always been fond of your blogging — you’re thoughtful and smart and, as here, you do your homework. I really appreciate that you took the time to read some of what I’ve written about the MFA and to watch some of the videos I’ve made on the subject and posted highly visibly on my blog — so many who are really jazzed to discuss the rankings at great length and in great detail unfortunately had no time in their busy schedules to do so, apparently. I’ve been trying to (in most instances) avoid responding (at least in places other than my own blog-space) to many of the comments, positive and negative, being made about the rankings, but as we’ve met in person and as I respect both you and your poetry — something I do not say unless I mean it — I wanted to try to clarify a few misperceptions that I think you have.

    I think faculty is an absolutely vital element of the MFA experience. Absolutely critical. Where we disagree is on something I consider a fact, and which you consider something open for debate — while I’ve often learned much about a poet’s aesthetics from his/her poetry, I’ve never learned anything about their teaching aptitude, interest in teaching, interest in mentoring, private personality, abiding values (poets are not obligated to hold a mirror to their own lives if they choose not to, as you know), or other essentials like when and how often they’ll be on sabbatical, whether they’re considering jumping to another program, whether they tend to (like some of your professors at the IWW, I believe) choose certain “favorite” students and more or less ignore their other charges, whether they sexually harass their students, whether they’re going to leave their program to be visiting faculty elsewhere for half the time you’re in their program, whether they resent rather than are inspired by their most talented students, whether they suffer from a debilitating medical condition or mental illness or addiction (all of these are common in this field, as you know), and so on. So telling applicants to choose a program on the basis of faculty is setting them up for disappointment in a way I consider cruel (even though I know you don’t mean it to be) — not because faculty’s unimportant, but because the faculty “component” of the MFA experience never ends up being the way you expected.

    I got into the IWW because Dean Young liked my work (or at least that’s what I believe); ultimately, I never studied with him, and the two best professors I had were a Visiting Faculty member I couldn’t possibly have known would be in Iowa City in my second year, and another faculty member who I would have guessed ten times out of ten would not like my work (because we did not share an aesthetic) but who turned out to be one of my very best readers. Johannes, you’re a smart and talented poet and probably a smart and talented teacher — I have no doubt you could do much even for a student whose aesthetics you did not share, and anyway (in any case) the MFA system is self-selecting, as programs don’t _admit_ students who their faculty don’t want to work with and don’t think they _can_ work with. So how often does a student really end up, as you fear, at a program with faculty members who are unwilling or unable to work with them? Aesthetics is not pedagogy; we simply disagree on that. Artists are not inflexible in how they treat with others, either; we disagree on that also. A widely-read poet can be of enormous assistance to any aspiring poet — and their temperament and patience and generosity of spirit will ultimately be as important or more important than anything else, because two hours a semester with someone who writes like you is not as valuable as (say) one lunch meeting per week with someone just as widely read but with different aesthetics and the flexibility to speak profitably to and with people who don’t agree with them. I think most faculty have that skill, Johannes — and what’s more, that motivation. If nothing else, it keeps their jobs interesting.

    I know you’ve read much of what I’ve written on the MFA, but I’ll tell you that many of your questions are answered prominently in places on my blog you haven’t yet checked — for instance, the current top post on the blog (right at the very top) which within the first three paragraphs answers conclusively and without hesitation the largest question you have here: Why rank MFA programs? This question is also answered in the “On Applying to MFA Programs (Part IV)” video and in the “On Faculty” series — all linked to in the right-hand sidebar on the site.

    The rankings are an instance of education activism intended to aid both programs and students and applicants — and if the hundreds of e-mails I’ve received since 2007 from not just applicants but program faculty and administrators are any indication, the rankings are doing exactly what they were designed to do. Which is, in part, giving programs a method of self-assessment and the best argument they’ve ever had to offer to university officials for more resources. More resources for faculty, for staff, for students, for programming, for facilities, for books (e.g. a program library), etcetera. Meanwhile, applicants are better informed than they’ve ever been before — this is not something anyone has seriously questioned — and are warned in nearly every video or essay about the rankings to use them as only a secondary resource. I’m an optimist, not a cynic; the fact that some applicants may use the rankings unwisely is not, under my own worldview, a legitimate reason to deny the other many thousands of applicants access to not just hard data (which is well over two-thirds of the rankings chart by absolute volume) but also the polling, which reflects the conventional wisdom shared among applicants in the world’s largest (by far) and most vibrant MFA applicant community. To think that folks in this community only share soulless data would be insulting to them in the extreme; in fact, this is the first place applicants go to get anecdotal information about programs from current and former students, current and former faculty, and other applicants who have access to these resources for learning more about the many “unmeasurable” factors that are absolutely critical — like I’ve always said and written — to the MFA application and matriculation decision.

    I think (or hope) you actually know that the 2009-10 polling was not done “on my site” — that’s an ongoing bugbear raised by critics of the rankings. As stated in the very beginning of the rankings’ methodology article (available for free online) and in the print-edition introduction to the rankings, this year’s polling was done on a public discussion board run by novelist Tom Kealey and another run by Poets & Writers, Inc.; I’m not even a moderator on the former board — and I haven’t been for many, many months — and I have no special association or role with the latter beyond “participant.” None of this year’s polling was done “on my site,” which is The Suburban Ecstasies — a blog applicants can and do go to to find the largest-ever aggregation of publicly-accessible MFA data.

    A “hierarchy” is useful, and _only_ useful — if not at all dispositive of any program’s real-time quality — because some programs do much more to serve students than others, Johannes. Texas will pay students $87,000 for three years of study with no teaching responsibilities; at Columbia, you pay $125,000+ (with living expenses) for two years of study — much of which is not studio-based. The swing there is nearly a quarter of a million dollars, an additional year of study, and the opportunity to be in a studio program rather than an academic one — honestly, to simply list this data for applicants while giving no indication that the conventional wisdom has been (for years) that it is financially (and dare I say psychologically) dangerous to go into debt for a non-professional, unmarketable degree would be disingenuous, strange, and again, as I said, unintentionally cruel to an entire class of persons, many of whom are extremely young and vulnerable and suffer from all the daily tribulations (financial and otherwise) so many artists do. We can disagree on this, Johannes, but I consider it unethical to just throw data at people without framing it (transparently and without guile, as P&W has done from the start) on the basis of (to be blunt) the very same advice undergrads are being given this very moment by thousands of creative writing faculty around the country and the world: Don’t go into any debt for an MFA program.

    The notion that you, or any other creative writing instructor, can provide this intelligence to a student paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to attend your university, but that it shouldn’t be available for $4.99 to anyone with access to a computer or a bookstore, is again, in my view, not just undemocratic but also something that doesn’t comport with my own ethical standards — your sense of its “rottenness” notwithstanding. I’ve spent my entire professional career being accountable not just to individual people but to national trade organizations for my day-to-day ethics — I make no apologies for them, and I stand by my record of public service. If you think I would do something like this for “suspect” reasons then you don’t (as is simply true from a factual standpoint, I’m sure you’d agree) know me at all well.

    I do _not_ believe there is an “objective strength” to/for every given writer; I also don’t believe, as you do, that every program has an aesthetic bent its faculty can’t shake during the admissions process. I’m sorry, that’s just empirically false, and yes, the IWW is the best counter-example imaginable: The variety of aesthetics present among the 100+ poets and writers in that program when I attended was staggering. And now that I’m in Madison, the variety of aesthetics I see here — in just a six-person program! — is likewise notable. Of course, I also am better at identifying a range of aesthetics than, say, Ron Silliman — who says there are precisely _two_ in America. (Crikey — perhaps this is the best argument possible for the avid, critical, careful reading of poetry that happens daily in most MFA programs?)

    As with the matter of pedagogy, I simply appear to think more of faculty members’ adapatability than you do — I’m not so jaded, because I didn’t have the bad faculty experiences you may have had. I believe — I know — that faculty are trying to bring the strongest writers into their program each year, and that they do their best to exhibit a catholic taste in making admissions decisions even if (yes) they are always going to run up against some limitations, like anyone does, in dealing with their own subjective biases. Yes, experimental writers will (and I hope and believe this is changing) have a harder time getting admitted to most MFA programs — really, to nearly any program not named Brown, UCSD, or (I’m told) Southern Illinois — but your premise, that there are countless bastions of such writing which are _non-selective generally_ (making the rankings useless in trying to locate them) but which are incredibly open to experimental writing and which secure the strongest experimental writers is simply fanciful — if only because one of the only ways word-of-mouth would spread _widely_ about such programs would be through an online MFA applicant community like The MFA Blog, in which case the rankings would register the trend(!) And if such programs do exist — which would require, first and foremost, promoting themselves this way, and virtually no program does so — they would shortly get inundated by experimental writers, become among the most selective programs in the country, and be reflected as such in the rankings whether they had funding or not. NYU has absolutely dreary funding — and it’s a top 10 program in the world according to the P&W rankings, so don’t tell me only funded programs can get noticed in the rankings.

    Johannes, your point seems to be that if one makes their decision about where to apply or attend using only the rankings they will be poorly served — I agree with that, I’ve always agreed with that, and I beat you to the punch in pointing that out (with all due respect) by four years, and have not only written but published and disseminated this intelligence much more widely than you have. You’ve erected a straw man; you’re saying the rankings are imperfect and incomplete and must be used wisely, you don’t (and can’t) make the case that on balance we’d be better off without them. To attempt to make that case would be, indeed, absolutely insane — and if you did, I’d certainly be happy to send those with $125,000+ worth of debt for a non-professional, unmarketable degree over to your blog so that they could tell you precisely why in some detail and probably with much colorful language. Lucky for you, you didn’t take on that sort of debt to attend the IWW, a program at a well-funded public university — perhaps you’re under-experienced with MFA debt? I don’t know. I have $120,000+ in law school debt, so this is personal for me and something I’m not just guessing about. And frankly that’s “better” debt because I could work for a firm if I wanted to sell out — which I don’t, and won’t.

    I could give a you-know-what “who’s on top” — I’ve said many times that pedigree means nothing in creative writing, especially in poetry (and only because of agents, who I detest, in fiction), and I don’t feel any sense of entitlement or better-than-thou garbage for having gone to the IWW. I went there because (as you said) they give their students more freedom than anyone else, and at 30 years old I needed that. The only reason to rank programs is to make people’s actual daily lives _better_ — to help them reduce their debt, live in a place they can afford, be in an environment sufficiently challenging to their talent (as best as this can possibly be forecasted in advance, which is only imperfectly), in a community setting that’s the size and duration they want, with the teaching load they can handle, and so on. You don’t know me very well if you think I would care — one whit — if the IWW was ranked #25 or #35, especially as the law school I went to was ranked #2 and I made the same use of that fact (zero!) when I decided to be a public defender, which in no way “required” a pedigree of that particular sort. I make my own decisions — the difference between us is that I respect other poets and writers to believe they can and do make their own decisions also, and use the rankings responsibly rather than in the cynical way you presume they won’t be able to resist.

    You wrote: “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.” On this we agree.

    Be well,

  4. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Point #10 is probably the most resonant with me personally. I’ve never understood the extreme emphasis on community in the context of an MFA. Who’s to say you’ll ‘aesthetically’ get along with the others in your class? Who’s to say you’ll even like them enough for community to be possible?

    My stance has always been this: #1 reason/bonus of the MFA = dedicated time to write (and read a lot); #2 = close artistic relationship with the faculty, particularly an adviser. Somewhere in the distance is a # related to ‘community’, more or less based on luck as far as who your community consists of and what they might help ‘do’ for someone in an MFA. To me community is a possible bonus, some artistic and social gravy that make it a more enjoyable and productive experience, but a far cry from the primary reason to do it all in the first place. There are far easier (and depending, much cheaper) ways to find a more ideal community if that is all once wants.

    I think if Seth is going to keep going to all the trouble, it’d be far more helpful to the community at large as well as future applicants if there was, in place of a ranking, a ’round-up’ with summaries and insights into the different MFAs based on aesthetics, faculty, approaches to how workshop / dissertations are handled, maybe some positive/negative ‘blurbs’ from alumni, an so on. This would make it much easier to find where one might ‘fit’. I will acknowledge some of his data is helpful in this way, in regards to funding / cost of living / teaching load / etc. But these should be tertiary factors, no more no less.

    I’m also very put off by the strange setting up Seth seems to be doing, i.e., ‘I’ll construct these rankings from scratch, then of course I’ll be the one in a position to tell everyone how they can improve their score!’ This feels a half a step from employing himself as some kind of ‘consultant’ for pay–the sad part is from what I know of graduate school administration attitudes and practices, there are many who’d probably be more than willing to shell out the $ to make sure they got a better rank year-to-year.

  5. Elisa

    Reading the work of the faculty at my MFA program told me almost nothing about what they’d be like as teachers. The poet whose work I admired the most before I got there (and still) was probably the least helpful teacher. My favorite teachers ended up being poets whose work I didn’t and still don’t particularly care for.

  6. Seth Abramson

    P.S. Ironically, I just wrote an MFA Program Director, not three days ago, saying that they should check out the recent re-design of Notre Dame’s MFA website as a great example of how a program can use the rankings — and their highly-public call for new and better program websites — to better serve their current and future students. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the new Notre Dame website a) will almost certainly lead to more applications (and thus better selectivity and a higher ranking) for Notre Dame, as the rankings have always predicted, and also that b) all the “new” information Notre Dame provides on its website is information the rankings specifically and publicly encouraged programs to include on their webspaces. Yes, perhaps it’s a coincidence — or perhaps, as many believe, the effects of rankings are far-flung and generally more positive than most realize, even among populations who publicly complain the most about their uselessness. –S.

  7. Johannes

    I’m glad you like the web site, I know Steve spent a lot of effort on making it better. The old one was atrocious.

    I’m not “complaining” about your rankings; I’m criticizing them.


  8. Matt Miller

    Oh I liked your post in general. I agree with almost everything you said here. I am just puzzled by the demonization of Lowell, especially as a “quietist” (I know you don’t say that here, but I’ve heard the association elsewhere), when in fact, he was a rather loud radical.

    A better example of a political quietist and stalwart defender of hierarchies would be Gertrude Stein.

  9. Seth Abramson


    It was a poor choice of words on my part — as I said in my first post in this thread, I respect the way you’ve gone about discussing the rankings. I didn’t mean to belittle your efforts by saying “complaining” rather than “criticizing.” I apologize for that. My point was just that I’m happy to see — quite sincerely — that the rankings have been of use to Notre Dame in re-envisioning its outreach to applicants, and that I believe this will bear fruit for the program in terms of more applications going forward. I’d if I were a betting man (which I’m not), I’d bet you a steak dinner, Johannes, that the more applications you get at ND, the more you’ll be telling friends and family at dinner parties or whatever that your current class of students is the best you’ve ever had. That’s just how admissions works — more applicants to choose from, more variety, more talent, a better “fit” for faculty and students and therefore better mentoring, &c &c. At least over time — it may not always happen immediately.


    Your fears are unfounded — I spend countless hours a year working with programs to help them improve their services for students, and every single _second_ of that work I’ve done _for free_. I will never — never — charge a fee to programs to get as much of my time and advice as they’re willing to take. Plenty of MFA program directors can vouch for this, and plenty of their phone numbers are in my cell phone right now. This is not the same as doing private mentoring with applicants; the ethical proscriptions are entirely different as to working with programs, as should be obvious.

    What’s unfortunate about the assumption that I’ve done this for money — if you think there is anything more than de minimis money in this, you are wildly mistaken and I’m amused you’d think so — and about accusations to that effect, is that when these charges are leveled it’s all “what a creep he must be” (or the like), but when they’re refuted in no uncertain terms we don’t hear the opposite, e.g., “Hell, this guy’s doing all this pro bono work to increase student funding at MFA programs, even though it only gets him undeserved grief from the peanut gallery, and I do _no_ pro bono work for the poetry community whatsoever? Hmm — maybe I should actually go ahead and _commend_ him?” Nope, that never happens. Just conversations like this one. I’m sure you mean well, Ryan, but jeez, man, do the math — where in the heck would there be money in this? Programs can barely stay afloat as it is. And why would it benefit me in _any way_ to make this many powerful enemies? I do this because I believe in it. You can say I’m crazy, that’s fine, but I’m not disingenuous about this and never have been.


  10. Johannes


    I’m going to try to respond to your points here:

    1. I don’t think you should go solely based on the faculty, but it’s certainly the best indicator. But not just their poetry, also their critical writing. Part of the problem is that I think poets have tended to not want to discuss their aesthetics or their pedagogy, preferring to give the idea that we’re operating on some kind of objectivity.

    2. Teachers have an enormous influence. So I think it would be useful to interview teachers or have them answer questions or something like that. Not to rank them but to give prospective students better idea of who they are. I tried to do a bit of this on my Notre Dame web site.

    3. About teaching one’s “aesthetic”: I think the key distinction here is that you have a narrower idea of “aesthetic” means. I would be crazy to only teach my aesthetic in the limited sense because it would be bad for the class. In fact I pride myself on trying give a lot of different looks of poetry to my students, especially my undergrads. I would have had a heart attack by now if I were to try to force all my students to write like I do. Or at least no students would take my class, something that has never been a problem for me. But do note: that incredible breadth of style Iowa students and teachers always talk about is BS. The fact that students buy into it is a sign of the fact that aesthetics are hidden at Iowa instead of foregrounded.

    4. One does make a selection based on a set of values when one reads applications. How does one choose one applicant over another? Again, I don’t claim I only admit students who write like me, but you do have an idea of what a good student is, and what that idea is obviously varies an incredibly amount. Again, I think my idea of “aesthetics” is less narrow than yours.

    4. And people do have pedagogical stances. I think a lot about pedagogy (I was one class short of an MA in education when I went to PhD school), which I think shows in my writing about these matters. I think it’s worthwhile to look at what the faculty has written about pedagogy, or look at their syllabi (something that is often available) or ask questions of the faculty about their syllabi.

    5. You do talk about the “strongest cohorts” being caused by best funding; and I think that’s exactly what’s wrong with “rankings.” It just allows people to avoid talking about their aesthetics.

    6. I get irritated when you fancifully misinterpret my words. I don’t believe there are “non-selective” programs. Where do you get that from? And why would they be in favor of “experimental writers.” I didn’t write anything about experimental writers. I don’t even know what “experimental writers” means. But I do know that different programs have different criteria when they admit students. In a pool of 100 applicants, I doubt you and I would have the same top student, or even top 10. I don’t see how that is fanciful.

    7. Yes, it would be great to have super funding so that we could get all of our top choices, but generally we do pretty well (this past year all of our 5 students were in our top 10, the previous year I think we only lost one of our top choices, and that was a former student of mine. Of course, like you note, this is a “self-selective” process.

    8. I don’t remember saying Iowa has the most “freedom.” I went there because they let me in. I also don’t believe in “freedom” the way Iowa does. Too much at Iowa proceeded by normalizing pedagogy; I’m more interested in developing critical vocabularies for the classroom so that the terms can be contested.

    OK, I need to go now. I’ve got to pick up my daughter. I hope I responded to some of your arguments. I do think you’ve done a valuable service by bringing attention to these statistics, but I still don’t see why there has to be a ranking – something that leads to a “who’s on top” framework. Why can’t you group certain programs based on funding. Provide some pedagogy questionaire. Etc. These things seem genuinely useful. It wouldn’t be as splashy as “rankings” but that’s just me perhaps.


  11. Seth Abramson


    I know you’re going to think I’m just blowing smoke, but I like to think I’m pretty much a straight-shooter: I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to have a dialogue about this with someone who approaches these issues as carefully and intelligently as you do.

    I agree 100% that poets often act like their aesthetics are merely objective observation — it’s one of the things I hate (and you’d be surprised, there are many) about MFAs. Both students and faculty do this. I agree also that if faculty members have done critical writing (which, sadly, too few have; I’d say only 10% of faculty members have meaningful, substantive critical works out there in the public domain that touch not just upon aesthetics but pedagogy) applicants can and should use those writings as a resource in making application and matriculation decisions.

    I would love to find a way to get professors and students involved in these rankings. The problem is that AWP has already been down this road and failed, as has USNWR. USNWR gets a 39% response rate to its faculty surveys for fine arts programs, and AWP — even after promising complete confidentiality for responses, and even though they only ask about benign program features — can’t get much more than 50% of member programs to answer anything about their internal policies, values, structure, &c. Many programs so detest the P&W rankings they would never participate in any interview with P&W that involved or was even tangentially linked to a national assessment scheme of any kind (even if it was just hard-data-based, like a funding ranking). And those who _would_ agree to participate would also, I fear, often be motivated by self-interest. IWW students should not be assessing the IWW in any assessment scheme anyone else in the nation is going to rely on, it’s just irresponsible. The upshot is this: I leave it to programs to do their own outreach as to one-on-one interactions with prospective applicants, and I leave it to applicants to seek out such interactions. That really is a totally separate issue from the rankings — it’s not a conversation the rankings can participate in meaningfully, but it’s also not a conversation the rankings in _any way_ shut down. Perhaps you disagree, but honestly I’ve seen no evidence of it — programs do the same in-person outreach now, the same AWP panels now, set up the same AWP booths now, as ever before, rankings or no.

    As to Iowa, what can I say, we just disagree. I remember one workshop I had with a High Modernist, a third-wave NYS poet, a neo-Beat, a Collins-esque “accessible humor” narrative poet, two “mainstream” lyric poets, a Taggart disciple… sure, all these labels are more or less unhelpful, but I do know an “Iowa poem” (which, as Tony Hoagland observes, is more or less a Dean Young rip-off) when I see one, and I know what percentage of my class wrote them — because as you know you can pick up the packets for every workshop each week, and most folks do — and in my two years in Iowa City (2007 to 2009) that percentage was around 15%. Yes, if we define “aesthetics” much more broadly, there’s far more consensus than the above recounting suggests — but Johannes, that would be (and is) equally true outside MFA programs as inside them, so it’s a non-starter.

    You make some great suggestions for how students can find out more about faculty in advance — I hope applicants take this advice and I’d like to, in the future, promote this advice myself.

    I tend to think MFA students are both more and less open-minded than you seem to believe — i.e., I think a strong cohort can be made up of those who simply have a dexterity with language and who are quick thinkers, and the right faculty will help them find avenues for that native talent and facility; I don’t presume a “strong cohort” is going to have a common aesthetic upon graduation, and I think MFA faculties don’t look solely for polish but raw imagination and articulateness in choosing students — so if these basic linguistic skills are what make a strong cohort, not their “aesthetic” (which is going to change dramatically in their lifetimes anyway), it is possible for strong cohorts to develop in certain locations. But I also think MFA students are older and more hardened than you do — the average starting age is 26, so most have been writing for 10 years, and the idea that faculty can determine the course of their future progress as a writer is, I think, a little overblown. Most faculty members I’ve met (not just at Iowa) would significantly downplay their importance as to how a student is going to be writing in even five years — so for AWP, or anyone, to propose faculty as one of the most important factors in program selection is, to my mind, a dicey proposition. Somehow selectivity relates to native talent over time — Iowa students were incredibly talented, in my experience, as were/are Wisconsin students. Yet I constantly get e-mails from former Columbia folks complaining that (it has to be said) the poetry cohort at Columbia is really underwhelming — which the selectivity data would have suggested to us. It’s all anecdotal, I know, I’m just saying this plays into my belief in this correlation (apart from simple logic).

    I didn’t mean to misread or misinterpret what you wrote. I’m trying to figure out how you think it is that a community of like-minded, innovative writers could pop up all in one program at one time and have neither the rankings nor the world’s largest online MFA applicant community register that this was happening. What’s the narrative there? If a program has faculty who are idiosyncratic and daring, word will get around, more people will apply, the rankings will register it. It would take a secret cabal of writers applying to a less-well-known program for this to happen as I think you’re suggesting — like a group of folks who are all friends rushing a single fraternity in a university setting, but pretending not to know one another — and the problem then would be, as it turns out, that the lower-ranked programs are much _more_ conventional in their views of what “aesthetics” are and what the word means, and much _more_ interested in homogeneity. So those hypothetical innovative writers actually wouldn’t get in to such programs. You’ll find more diversity of the kind you’re discussing (and I agree, “experimental writing” means nothing, I was trying to make a different point and not doing it well) at top 50 programs than elsewhere.

    The answer to your final question is that without rankings programs will not change — institutions don’t respond to handkerchief-waving or “soft” criticism like the kind that crops up in interviews with students and faculty, they respond to data. Programs are looking for an big blinking light that says, “YOU NEED TO DO MORE,” and the rankings are it. It’s always been that way, it’s why I’ve been suspicious of institutions since I was, I don’t, like 6.

    Be well,

  12. Johannes

    I’ll let you know how well the rankings work convincing institutions….

    But at the same time as I have to admit there is a point to the rankings, you have to admit that there’s also a problem.


  13. Seth Abramson

    Johannes, I admitted there was a problem the day I started the rankings — 3 1/2 years ago. All I’ve ever said is that, on balance, they will be a positive force in the MFA community for years to come. A plus for programs as well as students. The e-mails I get — from program directors as well as students — bear this out.

    FWIW — because you did correct me on “complaining” versus “criticizing,” I do think you know that Poets & Writers has officially endorsed and adopted these rankings and that they are known nationally (and by countless media outlets) as the Poets & Writers MFA rankings. To call them “Seth Abramson’s rankings” feels a bit like a rhetorical ploy, to be honest — I may have created the methodology, I may do the research, but these rankings have institutional financial support, have been through a rigorous editorial process, and are sponsored by a respected publishing organ in the field of creative writing, and I think it’s only right that that be acknowledged. In the same way the U.S. News & World Report MFA rankings of 1996 were not referred to as (USNWR Editor-in-Chief) “Mort Zuckerman’s rankings,” to refer to these rankings as “Seth Abramson’s rankings” does seem like a conscious attempt to belittle the role they’re playing in this small pocket of higher education.

    Be well,

  14. Johannes

    Not at all. I disagree.


  15. Seth Abramson


    Read what I wrote again, and then go —

    No, not worth it.

    Just read what I wrote again. Your message shows that you didn’t read what I said whatsoever.

    If you think I represented 2,000+ clients with zero ethical complaints over seven years in two states just so that some anonymous troll could provide a link and think he’s somehow caught me acting dishonestly — please. You clearly have no idea who I am, just as I have no idea (by your own design) who you are.

    I have never charged a fee for my work with MFA programs, and I never will; I have done private, paid mentoring work with MFA applicants in the past and I clearly said so above. Hint: Johannes also has done (and still does) paid mentoring work with creative writers, but he gets paid approximately fifty to a hundred times what I make and doesn’t have to take flak from trolls like you. Great gig, clearly.


  16. Rawbbie

    I was wondering what percentage of the ranking goes into tuition rates and cost of living? I’m sure UT sounds good at 85,000 thousand a year, but does that pay enough to live in Austin and pay for school? At some schools tuition is ridiculously high (NYU) and I wonder if any attention is paid to schools that have extremely low tuition rates?

    I agree with Johannes that an overall ranking isn’t ideal; I think it’s an over simplification of the MFA world at best. I would love to see the process changed to incorporate several lists ordering highest to lowest award packages, lowest to highest cost of living, highest to lowest number of full time faculty, longest to shortest existence… which would be a more dynamic and useful approach.

  17. Robb

    In # 4, there, Johannes, you quote Seth as writing, “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.” I think you’re right to point to this as probably reflective of a more fundamental disagreement between the folks in the poetry world who are bothered by Seth’s rankings those who view them as a service of some value. I would add the following criticisms, though: first, the sentence “more selective programs will have a stronger community of writer [sic] than the less selective programs” just doesn’t track. It depends on how one reads “stronger,” but in either event it presupposes that selectivity = funding = strength. These are relationships between categories of value that only make sense this way to someone who assumes that selectivity is the same thing as strength, or quality. But, and this is where I think that Seth might somehow know better, that’s just never the case in ANY other academic field, arts included. Selectivity or cohort size just doesn’t correlate to “strength” unless you really weight your rankings for it to do so. Or, on another note, Seth might ask some of his classmates in Madison how they feel about not being “selected” as fully-funded, and how the dynamics between selectivity and funding play out in other institutional settings.

  18. Seth Abramson


    Fully funded students don’t pay tuition, and any uncovered tuition costs are deducted from each program’s stipend figure when funding is determined. UT’s MFA is free for its students. There’s no point in giving special credit tom less expensive programs when the funding rankings are measuring fully-funded, non-tuition-paying students in the first instance.

    Is it coincidence that the top 25 colleges have the highest SAT scores and (more or less) the lowest acceptance rates? Would Harvard be Harvard with a 50% acceptance rate? You seem to say so. In any case, what I’ve said here and elsewhere is that better funded programs on average get more applications, over time, than less well funded programs. This is true, empirically. We have five years of data showing it. I’ve also said that the more applications a program gets, assuming cohort size stays the same (as it does), the lower the acceptance rate is, and therefore the higher the selectivity. But you’re right, this is “selectivity” in the technical sense. The better question is whether the cohorts for such programs get stronger and stronger over time–and what does “stronger” mean, anyway? I’d say this–we’ll never be able to agree on a definition because it’s unmeasurable, unquantifiable, subjective, an aesthetic distinction, &c &c. So I’ll just say this: MFA faculty report, across the board, that, over time, more applications leads to them feeling more satisfied with their options in picking students. And given that AWP has told us that faculty opinions are the be-all and end-all of MFA admissions, as well as of MFA quality (as AWP has now endorsed faculty questionnaires as a ranking method for program quality), I guess we have to conclude that faculty really do know best? In any case, no, selectivity is _not_ the same as quality — but selectivity _is_ the same as saying that faculty have more options and are more pleased with their options, and as the whole point of the MFA is applicants’ belief that faculties at least have _some_ idea of what they’re talking about (why apply otherwise?), I think applicants are willing to equate selectivity with the notion of an all-things-being-equal “stronger” cohort, i.e. a stronger cohort in the view of faculty at individual programs, if not in some absolute sense that’s a non-starter because undefinable.


  19. Johannes

    It’s true that more funding equals more applicants and the ability to convince all acceptances to come to your program. I have a couple of very brief points. 1. Do you think it’s good that funding be so central in MFA discussions? Because it seems to me that your rankings participate in a growing emphasis on funding. I think this has its good points (students should not be in debt) and bad points (I think you should go to a program that is the best fit for your writing, your aesthetics etc). 2. Part of the problem with the strength of “cohorts” (love that word, BTW) is that the rankings and your comments make it seem that there is such a thing as objective strength and obviously that’s not true. If Iowa and Notre Dame CW faculties were asked to pick 5 acceptances from the same exact 200 applicants, my guess is that we’d probably have one person in common. 3. It also seems to me that your rankings don’t take into account that students *learn* things when they go to programs. I made this point before. It’s just not possible for a ranking to measure such a thing. That’s why I still have problems with the rankings, though I see your practical point in creating them.

  20. Seth Abramson


    Those are great — and very fair — questions. I’ll try to be as clear as I can regarding my value system here: As someone who came out of a professional, marketable degree program (law school) with $140,000+ in student loan debt, which I will be paying off into my 40s and perhaps beyond, I would rather see a young poet or writer attend a fully-funded non-professional, unmarketable-degree art-school program on the hope that its 2% acceptance rate and ability to attract stellar faculty (as evidenced not primarily by their name-recognition, but by the fact that word-of-mouth regarding their teaching is good enough that applicants continue applying in the hundreds and hundreds, which is one reason _why_ the rankings register that program as a top program) will lead to the young artist stumbling across a perfect mentoring fit and a strong cohort and therefore a great learning experience — as “learning” is indeed important here, even if we don’t see entirely eye-to-eye on this (as you feel I’ve drunk the IWW Kool-Aid as to pedagogy, when really these are all things I believed when I was 30 and had been writing poetry for nearly a decade apart from any faculty influence and hadn’t shown up @ the IWW yet) — than have them spend $100,000+ they will never be able to pay back, and will have to declare personal bankruptcy because of, for the benefit of a non-professional, unmarketable art-school degree and their own “guess” that someone whose poetry or fiction they like will also be a willing, engaged, passionate, knowledgeable mentor for their own still-forming aesthetics, which aesthetics (even were they unnecessarily “impeded” during the course of their program) would still be developing for six more decades, and which “impediment” may in any case end up (as so often happens in education!) being as valuable to them as would have been a purportedly “perfect” mentoring fit.

    We often learn who we are by being exposed to what we are not; therefore, on balance, the likelihood of harm to young poets and writers is substantially reduced, while their likelihood of being benefited remains sufficiently high, where funding is considered a dominant feature of the application and matriculation decisions and any assessment scheme looking at MFA programs. With such a scheme we have the best chance — even if it’s no sure thing — of doing right by young artists without hurting them in a way we will never be able to undo. The first criterion any ranking system must meet is, “Do no harm”–thus the mere fact that we had wildly harmful assessment schemes in place in 2009 (the obsolete 1996 rankings by USNWR, which wrongly fetishized faculty notoriety to the exclusion of everything else, or the misunderstood and misleading “lists” of The Atlantic in 2007) and that the current rankings replaced those schemes in a way that _on balance_ privileged applicant well-being (defining that term appropriately broadly) more than any other prior assessment scheme, has prevented a standing harm from continuing.

    But you must understand, too, that my view in this is neither a minority view nor a view which is now popular merely because I started saying it online and in print 2007 or even because Tom Kealey started saying it in print in 2005: This is the conventional wisdom agreed upon, and independently arrived at, by the vast majority of the thousands and thousands of MFA applicants who end up (lest we forget) MFA students and then MFA graduates in a few short years’ time following their own application cycles. It is the job of those few who think the certainty of massive, crippling student loan debt is worth the long-shot chance that an applicant can pick the perfect mentor in advance who bear the burden of showing us a) that such a picking process is empirically possible, b) that the benefit is worth the risk, and c) that those who don’t think the benefit is worth the risk are somehow anti-Art, or anti-artist (rather than quite the opposite) because they believe what they believe and try to spread that belief to others. Moreover, d) I think they bear the burden of disproving the theory that rankings — by their very visibility, clarity, starkness, predictability, transparency, publicity, and persistence in achieving accountability — will, over time (e.g., over a quarter-century, as real change takes decades) lead to stronger MFA programs: Meaning, better-funded programs with better-funded faculty and better-funded students, more resources, better facilities, better websites, better relationships between program and university, better transparency in program promotion and in internal program “self-reviews” designed to ensure forward progress in achieving program goals, better “fits” between faculty and students because faculty are able to choose from a far larger stock of applicants and see better program “yield” each year, &c &c. I stress again that we’re at the very beginning of a twenty-five-year sea change aimed at turning the American MFA into the largest patronage system for artists in the history of Art. That is, a fully-funded national MFA system in which transparency in advertising/promotion has been achieved at a 100% clip.

    The rankings don’t “rank” what students learn or who they will learn with, as no one could do so (USWNR included!), what they do is help create the _conditions_ that promote greater concern in, and ability to respond to, those unmeasurable yet critical considerations. If you asked my opinion on how rankings affect student learning and student-faculty relations at MFA programs, I would argue that, at _worst_, they have no impact on these things whatsoever, and at best a substantial positive impact over time. The only way this isn’t so is if you assume a) students can forecast mentoring relationships in advance, _and_ b) the cost of students getting it wrong (misery + $100,000 in unpaybackable debt) is worth the benefit of getting it right _minus_ the distinct possibility that students could “get it right” merely by seeking out the cohorts and faculties at top-ranked programs like Michigan, Cornell, Brown, &c. Which top-ranked programs — I always hasten to add — almost no one seems to _disagree_ are among the best at what MFA programs can and do wish to do. For all the concern over rankings, Johannes, I almost never hear anything say that the rankings are a poor reflection of what most of us secretly and not-so-secretly believe about program quality. Sure, I might put the IWW in the top five rather than first, or Oregon at #20 rather than #10, but this isn’t really the question, is it? It’s whether the rankings are, _generally_, giving visibility to programs that deserve it while giving every program sufficient opportunity to — if the program improves services to students (and does other things, like hiring faculty that will lead to more applications, which is what the “overall” polling registers) — achieve that visibility.

    I think the difference between us is that you seem to think the goal _both_ of us want to achieve has already been achieved and the rankings are now endangering it; I believe we’re nowhere near achieving that goal and that the rankings help us get there while benefiting applicants (and programs!) in myriad other ways, too. I think the evidence of the past two years has proven me right — if programs writing me to say they’re seeing applicant-pool increases and more interest from university officials in properly resourcing them is to be believed. And as to applicant opinion on whether the rankings are helpful as a _secondary resource_ (which is all they’ve ever claimed to be, everywhere I’ve written about or published them), applicant feedback on the P&W rankings has always been 98%+ positive — the great hidden story in all this hoopla.

    Be well,

  21. Johannes


    I obviously don’t agree that this is a perfect system. If that was so, people wouldn’t constantly refer to me as a “complainer.” And of course I think it’s important to get students funding. But I wanted to ask you a personal question – what you believe about funding. I see a program like the one in Texas which makes a few students rich but don’t actually have a faculty (is that right?). So it’s not just a matter of getting student funding but other issues as well (I can’t really think of them now but there are tons of issues involved). And at this point I’m not really talking about rankings, but what you think personally.


  22. Johannes

    Also, I want to add:
    1. I’ve never ever made this argument: “It is the job of those few who think the certainty of massive, crippling student loan debt is worth the long-shot chance that an applicant can pick the perfect mentor in advance who bear the burden of showing us”. I’ve never made any such argument. That’s your inner lawyer coming out.

    2. A lot of your arguments are based on “common wisdom” – ie the common wisdom of MFA students, or “almost no one would disagree that xyz are the best programs.” It is interesting that you should put me in the role of someone who is “satisfied.” I’m the one who is very much opposed to the common wisdom ideas of poetry programs. Why should we assume that “the great programs” are great? Shouldn’t we discuss such common wisdom? I say we question such common wisdom and encourage students to question it as well. (This does not mean that I think they should go in debt!). So much of poetry discussions are based on common wisdom handed down by authoritative teachers who are never forced to defend their views.

    3. Your arguments are often based on idealistic assumptions about the way people are hired etc. If a program has the right amount of money, they’ll be able to hire the best faculty, and the best faculty will get the best students, and the best students will get the best fellowships etc. But there are no “best” in art: no best faculty, no best students etc. Schools don’t even hire the most “popular” faculty capable of drawing the most student applications. Have you seen who’s on the faculties around the country? A lot of them are incredibly unknown and unorignal writers! Writers chosen not because of their qualifications or ability to attract students but because they *won’t rock the boat*. That’s probably the single strongest reason for hires… Your views don’t take into account any number of the politicking that goes on in the poetry world. People have points of view and they want to promote them; or more importantly, people in power in the poetry world want to maintain their power. This kind of stuff simply isn’t part of the “rankings”- discussions, as if rankings were not part of that part of poetry, as if rankings and quality existed outside of such matters. That this is the case is obviously not your or your ranking’s fault. But I would like those kinds of discussions not to be hidden beneath the “objectivity” of rankings. Can you see my point? I’m not opposed to funding at all, but I’m favor of allowing other discussions into the application process.


  23. Seth Abramson


    My personal opinion is that funding is critical to the learning experience — if/when I’m worrying about money, or a part-time job, I can’t write, and I think I feel (also) somewhat disconnected from faculty, who (often, in the view of students) have ample financial resources that allow them to do the very same task students want to do much more easily and in a much better state of mind: write poetry or fiction. Texas is the best-funded MFA in the world, has the best placement, is one of the most if not the most selective programs in America, has an amazing location, is hosted by a strong university, now has a small but notable faculty (Dean Young, Elizabeth McCracken), and so on, yet it struggles to keep its place in the top 5 I think precisely for the reason you’re noting (lack of a sizable permanent faculty) and also because the program offers no teaching experience and some students want that. My point is that there are 100 considerations that go into choosing a program, and in my own view the size and notability of a faculty is just one among many. I indeed would rank funding and what I call “cohort quality” as a higher priority, and indeed did so when I applied myself, as I nearly went to UMass purely because Jim Tate teaches there. In retrospect that would have been an unwise leap of faith for me for many reasons, not least of which is that Jim’s health problems may have made it more difficult for him to mentor students (through no fault of his own). I might well have made a choice there based on perceived faculty quality and made a mistake, and I’m ever aware of that — as it turns out, I was able to work with Peter Gizzi, UMass’s strongest teacher at present, in Iowa City, yet had I been in Amherst Peter would have been on sabbatical or teaching elsewhere (e.g. Iowa City!) for much of my time there, something I wouldn’t have known when I applied to either UMass or the IWW.

    I think you mistake some of my comments — usually I’m talking about how this conversation has played out and is playing out nationally, I’m not pinning many of these arguments on you in particular. So when I speak in generalities I do so in order for you to know that I’m not saying _you’re_ saying something, but that in my experience many have and do say that thing.

    It seems I am less suspicious of common wisdom than you, because I see the mechanism that produces it differently (perhaps). I believe common wisdom is produced not by proclamations but by hundreds and hundreds of benignly self-interested individuals making judgments based, on average, on values that I consider reasonable and which (because of their very reasonableness) have become popular. Unpopular, unhelpful, empty value systems don’t survive long, not in view of the arc of history — witness the old value system which said that a great MFA simply has award-winning writers; that was a stupid assessment mechanism but also (at base) a stupid value system for how artists learn and how they develop. The new value system says artists need time, space, freedom, flexibility, access to a large number of influences, sufficient financial resources to be independent, sufficient distance from the demands of the publishing industry and the demands of the workforce to focus only on their own writing, and so on. Those are values, and I share them, and many artists do because they’re the values that best support what artists wish to do: be artists. So when you say, “So much of poetry discussions are based on common wisdom handed down by authoritative teachers who are never forced to defend their views,” I just don’t believe that — I think students are much more circumspect of their elders than you suppose, and make decisions based on what suits them, not what suited people thirty years ago (which is when most elders formed their now-hardened views on everything from publishing to programs).

    I think you’re right to say that certain conversations that need to happen aren’t happening, and that it’s not so much that the rankings themselves crowd out such conversations directly as that any new type of conversation about MFA programs and writing generally necessarily leaves less time for other conversations to be had. But where my “inner lawyer” really comes out is here: I don’t have much interest in conversations that actually can’t be had without descending, immediately, into chaos. I don’t think those are productive discussions. They don’t make anyone’s life easier or anyone’s art more gripping. So when you say, “Writers [are often] chosen [for faculty positions] not because of their qualifications or ability to attract students but because they _won’t rock the boat_…,” a) I think it means I’m screwed on the job market, but more importantly b) even if that is true it is only true in certain places — the New York City programs have largely survived, for years, despite offering students extremely little beyond location, because they hire award-winning writers and hire them _because_ they are award-winning writers. I don’t think the NYC MFA positions are filled by genre “stars” because some felt, say, Komunyakaa would be a team player at NYU, or Jorie Graham at Harvard, or Thomas Lux at Sarah Lawrence — these selections were made on the presumption, what I’d call the AWP presumption, that the best writers are the best teachers. And honestly I don’t see you doing enough to push back against that nonsense (NB: not speaking of those teachers in particular, just the idea generally); when you note that many MFA faculties are filled with “incredibly unknown and unorignal writers,” I want to ask you, “What the heck is the phrase ‘incredibly unknown’ doing in there? Who cares if a poet or writer is ‘unknown’ if they can _teach_, which is what they’re being hired to do?” And to me, teaching is, yes, partly a matter of temperament and wisdom and flexibility and generosity as well as native talent. Likewise, when you opine that many MFA professors are “unoriginal,” I still would push you on that and ask, “Do you see the underlying assumption here? That an unoriginal writer can’t be well-read enough and broad-minded enough to inspire a student to be original?” As a poet I have no aptitude myself for minimalism of the “New Thing” variety; does this mean that my knowledge of Imagism, Vorticism, Objectivism, haiku, &c &c can’t be deployed to be helpful to a student — or that I couldn’t provide a student with a reading-list of work that’s in the vein that interests them? Or many other things for them besides, as a mentor and as someone intensely interested in their artistic development? Perhaps the best thing a professor can do is offer a student a good reading-list, &c. My point is that your underlying assumptions are, to me, every bit in need of challenging as are the underlying assumptions you’d like your own underlying assumptions to replace. So in three minutes all would devolve into a donnybrook if we go down this road _to the exclusion of_ (or simply _to the detriment of_) a more productive discussion with more immediate real-world consequences.

    So, my point is, I’m all for your conversation being had — but not if it impedes the conversation the rankings are part of to any degree whatsoever. Not because your conversation isn’t important, but because ultimately it will go nowhere and is (in a sense) intended to go nowhere — it’s the questions it raises that are, ultimately, the point of the discourse. Which is a mode of discourse I value (it’s Socratic, in a sense, and that appeals to me as a lawyer), but as someone who worked seven years trying to help real people escape real cages, I’ll never again confuse law school debates with courthouse consequences. And here, $120,000+ in crippling student loan debt is a consequence I wouldn’t want to be “crowded out” of any discussion — even a scintilla — for the purpose of an interesting and useful intellectual free-for-all which nevertheless is dangerous if it distracts applicants from consequences they will have to live with the rest of their lives, and which, unlike (say) misunderstanding the job market or how a particular mentoring relationship is going to unfold, they can’t recover from.

    The MFA Blog is a complicated place: You’ll see conversations about funding as well as conversations about professors who can’t keep their dirty hands off their students and probably deserve to be fired for violating university sexual harassment policies _repeatedly_ and _flagrantly_. And both those conversations lead to better applicant decisions and outcomes. The conversations you’re referring to as necessary are much more useful for, and applicable to, MFA graduates and MFA faculty members making 50K+/year. Applicants don’t have the luxury of getting bogged down in those conversations in the 90 days before they make application and matriculation decisions that will impact their financial bottom line, site of habitation, size of community, opportunity to teach, &c for years to come.

    Be well,

  24. Johannes

    its true that i was deliberatly provocative abt unoriginal writers but i absolutely and totally reject the idea that discussions abt the ideology of the mfa is somehow a luxury. Thats patronizing. This is exactly the conversation we need if we dont just want to reicate things. You are right that the internet – incl the mfa blo- have incred empowered young writers in variois ways.

  25. Seth Abramson


    I didn’t say it was a luxury, and I didn’t patronize–I said that conversation about the ideology of the MFA mustn’t be allowed, in any way, to crowd out a systematic assessment of the services being offered MFA applicants that _can_ be quantified, because conversation of things that _can’t_ be quantified is a) a separate conversation, in my view, and b) unlikely to result in systemic changes to the system because conversations without any standard for measurement of progress or any agreed-upon terms are long-term conversations with no natural endpoint. I said, too, that I didn’t believe the sort of conversation the rankings participate in actually crowds out the conversation you’re speaking of; if pedagogy could be quantified, which it can’t, the rankings’ failure to take it into account would be a topic for debate, it’s true — that instead the rankings only measure what can be measured, and don’t claim to measure what they can’t measure, and consistently and convincingly urge applicants to consider things the rankings don’t and can’t measure, makes conversation about things that can’t be measured independent of any conversation about whether the rankings have utility re: what _can_ be measured.

    I agree with you that there’s a conversation to be had that’s not being had, i.e. about the ideology of the MFA, though I think I probably disagree with you entirely re: that conversation — i.e., we would be on opposite sides of the debate, or if not on opposite sides at least on sides whose values intersected only at points. My view is that your sense — and mine — that our perspectives on pedagogy don’t always intersect (and your repeated presumption that mine were born at the IWW _is_ patronizing) is causing you to a) be suspect of my views and my role re: this separate conversation the rankings are participating in, and b) presume that the conversation the rankings are participating in somehow has a deleterious effect on conversations about pedagogy, when quite simply there’s no evidence of that whatsoever. That one conversation is being had, and the other is not, does not prove a connection between the two — A exists, and B exists, but that doesn’t mean A is related to B.


  26. Johannes

    Actually I’m not sure we would be on the opposite sides of that discussion. The opposite side would be the rather big group of people who are opposed to MFAs, which I am not.

  27. Seth Abramson

    I was thinking more in terms of the discussion over pedagogy as it plays out _within_ the context of an MFA program — i.e., the discussion of pedagogy we would and should have (and can have) if we assume, as we definitely must and therefore should assume, that MFA programs are here and here to stay. I think those who are opposed to the MFA in the first instance are already irrelevant — they lost.


  28. Johannes


    Reading back over yesterday’s comments, I find my comments pretty obnoxious and distracted. As one of those “unknown” poets, I obviously have to believe that has nothing to do with quality of teaching. And obviously I can’t blame you or the rankings for not incorporating all kinds of huge topics (such as hiring practices!).

    I can see your point in doing the rankings, but I hope that part of the conversation surrounding the rankings would include discussions that not only put programs into the kind of “objective” quality level, that it include non-numbers-based discussions of pedagogy etc.


  29. Leeyanne Moore

    My experience at Syracuse University rocked my world based on the faculty, the support (full funding) and how much I learned while I was there. While many of my peers at Syracuse are still amazing great friends and vital to my life as a writer, I would say this:

    1) When you have different levels of funding, man, people can resent it — even if you’re all fully funded! Beware of this competitive resentment as a constant low level stress when going into funded or partially funded programs.

    2) We did an MFA reading exchange program, and when the Cornell folks came to visit us at Syracuse, it seemed as if they had almost exactly the same array of peers that we had. At dinner that night they gossiped and bitched in exactly the same way we did about those who were “too experimental” all the way to those who “didn’t care enough”, etc. MFA programs seem to pick a wide range of writers, and I can see how it encourages you to stretch –but it also means facing up to your aesthetic nemesis daily, which can be draining.

    3) But having also taken upper level creative writing courses at UVA as well as having gone to Syracuse, I would say that every faculty member has at least one or more thing important things to teach you. The big question is: are you going to be open to learning what they have to offer and change your writing accordingly? Some writers won’t. They’ll write that same poem or story over and over for two or three years. If you leave grad school the same writer as you were when you entered, of course rankings are meaningless.

  30. Robb

    You write, “Would Harvard be Harvard with a 50% acceptance rate? You seem to say so.” Yes, I would agree on that. It was historically; it is now, still. Harvard is Harvard. Harvard would still be Harvard. You’re pretty ambiguous on “be,” which will let you shift terms around a bit in reply, but selectivity simply does NOT define an institution. Selectivity defines the capital that the institution can muster in the sphere of culture. The correlation is to that (that is, the cultural capital of some institution), not to what is defined in other surveys as “educational effectiveness,” among other things. One could (and folks do sometimes) talk about this sort of capital in terms of “placement,” but placement is about as useful a term in these sorts of ranking discussions as weather (with the exception of instances at the bottom end of the spectrum)–particularly since, in the way such things are reported, a one-year visiting writer position followed by years of soul-and-mind-numbing highway adjuncting still *can* count as placed in the same way that a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college does. To put this a slightly different way, you’d have to do some legwork to explain exactly what cultural capital gets a given individual (ie, what doors open, and why) that cannot be gained through other kinds of relationships.

    More generally, though, I think that my criticism about the notion of a “ranking” system would probably need to come from a different corner. The only people who profit from this sort of hierarchization of academic and arts institutions are those who sell the information, and those few clients who have entered the process with little enough information about their options (and little enough ambition to have not found information for themselves) that this sort of ballparking can be of use in ruling some sectors out. Everyone else loses out, and there are a number of reasons for that. Not the least of these is that these numbers are alluring to administrators in a position to exploit them, which means that they can become a kind of institutional currency in an economy that frankly doesn’t need more means for self-dividing. Ie, do we really need, in the American academy more broadly speaking, to expand creative writing course offerings to underclass undergraduate students, or are these classes simply a nice way of paying for cheap instructional labor that moves credits through the university in a very efficient way (this sort of creative writing course being, in general, relatively low-investment, high-reward for students taking the class)? I ask this as an open question, but it’s certainly a way of “funding” an MFA, which is itself, now, a way of getting a higher number in a ranking system at the same time as you make it that much easier to increase UG GPAs and times-to-degree.

  31. Seth Abramson


    You wrote,

    “The only people who profit from this sort of hierarchization of academic and arts institutions are those who sell the information, and those few clients who have entered the process with little enough information about their options (and little enough ambition to have not found information for themselves) that this sort of ballparking can be of use in ruling some sectors out. Everyone else loses out…”

    I’m sorry, but this just isn’t so. This isn’t so and I know from my own first-hand experience. that it isn’t so First off, your implicit suggestion that those who don’t or can’t access the information available in the rankings elsewhere are simply lazy and/or stupid is nonsense, and suggests you’ve never seen the rankings chart — which has sixteen categories of information, including four hard-data rankings, and is _not_ solely composed of applicant polling. That data took me four full years to aggregate because programs in many instances would not widely release it or release it publicly at all; I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours compiling that information about basic program features, and to think an applicant could just cruise around the internet and get the same information — no, that’s just flatly wrong, I’m sorry. It’s wildly off target. Even if you tossed out the overall rankings altogether you would still be looking at, when/as you look at the rankings sheet and the accompanying rankings sheets P&W has put online, the largest aggregation of “hard” MFA data _ever_ _anywhere_. Which means it benefits anyone who looks at it, and given that P&W (a non-profit, which I’m sure you knew) has provided all the information for _free_ online your claim that the information is only being “sold” is a further indication that (with respect) you’re arguing based on theories and speculation and don’t actually know what you’re on about when it comes to what the rankings actually are. To suggest every applicant everywhere doesn’t benefit when the largest pool of MFA information in the world is put online for free by a non-profit is insanity.

    Likewise, to believe the programs themselves don’t benefit runs absolutely counter to my years of experience. To repeat: You’re hypothesizing about the possible value of rankings, I’m speaking of what I’ve seen and know about their value first-hand. Rankings lead to, as I’ve said several times above, millions and millions of new dollars for programs and students and faculties and program facilities and degree programming around the country. University officials are loath to release new funds to university departments without assessment schemes that show what the department has achieved and what it still needs — the rankings provide one such assessment and many programs have contacted me directly to say their students are getting money they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise (and I’m speaking of tens of thousands of dollars here at individual programs) _solely_ because of the rankings.

    What you’re doing is looking at the rankings from the perspective of the one group they’re not designed for: MFA graduates. Graduates can only look at the rankings as dead intel on a page — they can’t use it in any way whatsoever unless their program is ranked high and they feel it somehow enhances the value of their degree by the tiniest margin. More likely they’re not happy with their placement — because everyone thinks their own program should be top 10 and nobody else’s (exactly the sort of bias, and lack of knowledge about others’ programs, that makes current MFA students exactly the _wrong_ population to poll for the overall rankings). For such individuals the right thing to do is _ignore the rankings_. A second option is to be _amused_ by them or to only care about them when and if _one’s own program does well_. The exact _wrong_ thing to do is obsess over them when they’re not intended for your consumption whatsoever. They are intended for three groups: MFA applicants, MFA administrators, and university officials. And they are promoted in exactly that way. I’ve never turned to MFA students and said, “You’re getting the third-best experience in America!” And then, to some other group of MFA students, “And _you’re_ getting the twenty-seventh best experience!” Because that’s not what the rankings measure and not what they’re intended for — they’re ex ante hypotheticals, not ex post anecdotes. Until you understand that, you don’t understand education rankings generally or these specifically.


  32. Robb

    I can appreciate how personally invested you are in this product, given the amount of time and the obvious energy that you put into it. It’s incredibly fun to watch you respond with the sheer volume that inevitably follows any criticisms of what it is that you do. However, I do want to emphasize that when you suggest I’m responding with “theories and speculation,” you’re quite openly neglecting the way in which you’re responding with theories and speculation about what your hard-earned data imply. There’s a theory and some speculation involved in the process of valuation, in the analysis of data.

    However, aside from the challenge to my assertions about who benefits from rankings systems (and let’s be clear that I did make reference to the way in which administrations make use of these numbers–congratulations on furthering the quantification of higher education, by the way), you seem to think that if only I could just…you know…understand what rankings measure, then I’d experience some sort of conversion. So, let me be clear: when I say that rankings make everyone lose, aside from those who have some way of benefiting from the overlay of such a quantitative system, I’m not suggesting that you could do it better. I’m saying that ranking is not the way to best understand or approach what education is, or what it does. And I’m asserting in this approach’s place that ranking systems deal in cultural capital, which is something different. You can arrive at that point through the collection of data, but you can’t confuse cultural capital (however it may be derived) with anything like quality of education.

    I don’t want to dwell too much on specific criticisms of your rankings, Seth. I don’t have any use for them, and I would hope that other factors than those you list would motivate MFA students to choose the programs that they do. But even those categories you have are difficult to understand–some programs that have 2/2 loads (in equivalent, though institutionally variable, courses) are rated as having “light” teaching loads, while others with the same 2/2 loads are rated as having “average” teaching loads. It’s something that can be easily compared, even by “an applicant [cruising] around the internet,” or more accurately by people talking to one another at a conference about their individual teaching experiences. And, yet, there are so many aspects of one’s education that don’t show up at all…setting aside the extent to which you seem to be–though surely you’re not–discounting the experiences of students who have moved through these writing programs.

    I want to step back a second; I admire the ambition in what you’re doing, Seth. And you claim to have the best of intentions, which I won’t question at this point–I want you to be doing good for the community. But as much as I admire your seemingly inexhaustible energy on this matter, I just can’t agree with you that these rankings have any value. I apologize if it seemed like I was singling you and your ranking system out at ‘profiting’ from this quantification; I didn’t mean to attack you personally in any way.

    But rankings are, from where I’m sitting, part and parcel of the processes that are eating the academy from the inside. I won’t make any claims that sound like, “until you understand that, you won’t understand where I’m coming from,” because that demeans both of us. Let’s call this some manner of differend, instead–I don’t think there’s much room for consensus.

  33. Seth Abramson


    I agree we shouldn’t demean one another; that’s not my intent, though in some ways the scope and substance of this conversation may make it inevitable at certain points. And you do, it seems, have a great deal invested in emphasizing (perhaps in ways you think I won’t catch, but certainly in ways that don’t advance the conversation much) your derision for these rankings. For instance, I am not “personally invested…in this product” (as you say), as it’s not a product and you terming it so is an intentional slight. I pointed out above things you’d said which were inaccurate and you’ve clarified a couple, but one you did not own up to was that you said these rankings are intended to benefit those “selling” them, and now you call them a “product,” all the better to make some sort of anti-capitalist critique, yet the fact remains that this “product” is simply publicly-released and/or publicly-available information compiled over a period of years and then publicly re-released and made available for free by a non-profit organization of great repute in the creative writing community. What I am “invested in” is the mission of that organization, which is also my mission, and that’s to help writers.

    You’ve no need to be cagey about whether you accept my representations that this (i.e. the above mission) is what motivates me because you simply have no evidence to the contrary and no reason to suppose otherwise. My own MFA years are over, my alma mater was ranked #1 before I ever did a single ranking, there’s no appreciable money in this whatsoever, it takes me hundreds of hours, and the most vocal response to what I’ve done (if not, thankfully, at all the most common) is criticism. So yes, it’s a labor of love, and no one labors for a “product”; it’s the _cause_ that I believe in, and that (yes) I believe any ethical person would and does believe in. I take a dim view of those who allow children to be hurt, and I’m at an age where, yes, twenty-two year-olds are, in my view, just kids.

    I do give long responses to criticism of the rankings, which admittedly those criticisms don’t deserve, as most are asinine and reflect the “critic” (we must use the term loosely here) having read absolutely none of the literature surrounding the rankings. Generally one doesn’t engage critics who can’t be bothered to learn about what they’re criticizing, but yes, it’s true, I do do so on many occasions. I indulge critics, and this is a failing. But it’s also further evidence that my aim is to be transparent and that I believe the rankings are beneficial, on balance. What I don’t believe is what you say I do:

    “I do want to emphasize that when you suggest I’m responding with ‘theories and speculation,’ you’re quite openly neglecting the way in which you’re responding with theories and speculation about what your hard-earned data imply.”

    You later indicate that what I think the data “imply” is (my words) “absolute program quality” (or “educational value,” or however we might put it) when I’ve consistently said that I _don’t_ believe that. So, for instance, my “hard-earned data” (your sarcasm in using that phrasing duly noted) that says Houston is better-funded than Hunter “implies” the following: Houston is better-funded than Hunter. My “hard-earned data” that says Cornell is more selective in terms of acceptance rate than Columbia “implies” the following: Cornell is more selective in terms of acceptance rate than Columbia. My polling of applicants on The MFA Blog claims only to measure what it measures, which is what the applicants on that blog believe at the moment they believe it; it measures their opinions, and to the extent their opinions are undergirded by their values, it measures their values as well. It does not measure “quality of education.”

    And lest you point to how the rankings are marketed, let’s agree that if the rankings never once say they’re ranking “quality of education” no one has any reason to think that’s what the “best” in the cover article refers to — instead, it refers to those measures in which the rankings _do_ determine who is “best”: Who offers the most funding, the most selective admissions process, the lowest cost of living, the longest program duration, the best student to faculty ratio, the best placement track-record, the most studio-oriented curriculum, the best teaching load, the best reputation among applicants, and so on. When I say someone is one of the most talented pianists in America I am making a broad claim about those aspects of piano-playing that matter to me; a pianist who is among the best in technique may not be among the best in the raw speed of his playing — provided I tell you what my values are when I say “most talented,” I’ve done no wrong by you or by the English language. These rankings make _crystal_ clear how the term “best” is being arrived at and defined.

    I’m glad you’ve changed your tune: “When I say that rankings make everyone lose, aside from those who have some way of benefiting from the overlay of such a quantitative system…” is _not_ what you said above. Above you said only those “selling” the rankings (i.e., Poets & Writers) benefited from them, and now it’s anyone “who has some way of benefiting” from them, which I assume means the several groups I described in detail above, and _not_ Poets & Writers, which is, again, a non-profit that releases the information we’re speaking of online and for free.

    In any case, in the interest of not being uncharitable (and you do seem to be charitable to me the 50% of the time you’re not snickering), I 100% agree with you when you say, “ranking is not the way to best understand or approach what education is, or what it does.” Actually, I agree with you 150%, which makes me wonder why we’re having this conversation. Perhaps the only difference between us is that I don’t think applicants are dopes; I don’t believe they open the rankings and believe they’re being shown “what education is, or what it does,” I think they think they’re being shown exactly what they’re being told they’re being shown: Who funds the best, who offers the longest program duration, and so on. Each applicant then decides what role, if any, that information plays in their own view of “what education is, or what it does.” Some applicants may find only one element in the rankings chart is relevant to that determination, others will find several. Virtually _none_ will believe the rankings come anything close to answering that question in full. Consequently, I see the rankings as an aid; you presume applicants are too irresponsible to know what they’re looking at (and what they’re _not_ looking at), and so you’d prefer the information were taken from them. That’s just not my value system.

    To say rankings deal only in “cultural capital” is false. They also deal in “real capital” in that they hold programs accountable for under-resourcing their students and prompt them to better resource those students. In the field of creative writing there is virtually no “cultural capital” to be had on the basis of one’s MFA pedigree, anyway; I don’t know any poets who care where any other poet went to school (or _if_ they went to school), and in fiction it is agents and publishers, not novelists, who are driving the pedigree obsession. To the extent these rankings open up the conversation about what pedigree means, i.e. by defining pedigree _only_ in terms of student services, not false markers like how many awards a faculty member has won, the agents hate them and any pedigree-related hegemony in the fiction community is being slowly but assuredly eroded and dismantled. To remove rankings from the equation would be to re-entrench pedigree systems that are cruel, senseless, antiquated, and arbitrary. So even to the extent rankings do move cultural capital around, and I admit that they do, it’s far better to move it this way (i.e. based on this value system) than the previous one, and those who wish to return to the previous hegemony are proposing a deleterious course for young poets and writers alike.

    If programs wrongly advertise their teaching load (intentionally or otherwise), the rankings are not responsible; if two 2/2 teaching loads are listed differently in the chart, either it is a typo or the program has misidentified its own teaching load (and you wouldn’t be able to tell that if so, necessarily, as program websites are not now what they were when the data was collected). But you can’t seriously expect me to think “teaching load” is an ambiguous category of measurement because you found a typo or because a program’s HTML expert fat-fingered his/her keyboard one day? In any case, “teaching load” is _not_ something applicants can easily discover, because programs attempt to hide it. So, yes, that information was “hard-earned,” too.

    I’m not offended by your suggestion that the rankings have no value, because it’s nonsensical. Even if the ordering of the programs had no value the data itself would have inarguable value, and because that data (and that value) is compiled and inextricably linked to a ranking format it would be illogical (an impossibility) to say the rankings have no value. If the data has value, the rankings have value, and the data does have value because there is a global consensus on the point (no one things more debt is better than less, for instance); that’s the dimmest possible view one could take of these rankings. That you believe rankings are eating the Academy alive lets me know that your positionality (re: cultural capital) is not that of an applicant. How do I know? Because these rankings, like me, could give a rat’s behind about the internal politics of hiring committees who are in some instances (contrary to any common sense or understanding of what an art school is) using rankings to assess prospective hires. I don’t set my daily schedule based on how idiots misuse information; my aim here is to help applicants get more resources, and in pursuit of that aim to help programs to do precisely that (which I actually do believe most programs are inclined to and _want_ to do). I don’t owe frivolous adults anything in view of the thousands and thousands of twenty-somethings they’re currently bilking (perhaps unintentionally, or with ambivalent intentions) for millions and millions of dollars those kids won’t ever be able to pay back. You want to shill for the powerful by advantaging the “Academy” and disadvantaging young people by doing away with rankings, again, that’s your value system, not mine. You are entitled to value the rights and privileges and communities of well-heeled faculty over those of young working artists with two dollars in their pockets (which is precisely what the USNWR rankings did in 1996). But I won’t, and I don’t.


  34. M******F******Awesome

    Interesting interview with Seth Abramson about his rankings here. It is hilarious. Poet, attorney, and total fucking queen.