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2014 MFA Index: Further Reading

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September/October 2013

Online Only, posted 8.31.13

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At present, only two CGSR signatories are believed to be noncompliant with the contract they and more than a hundred other universities signed and published for prospective applicants. This said, the CGSR Compliance category does not distinguish between programs known to have already violated the Resolution and those nonsignatories that simply could do so without running afoul of their host universities’ administrative policies. Therefore, while applicants should exercise due diligence and caution in applying to programs that are not CGSR compliant, they should also not presume violations will occur. The best policy is to contact nonsignatory programs directly and inquire regarding their CGSR-related policies; needless to say, some programs will welcome such queries more than others, as of late the question of the CGSR’s viability for creative writing MFA programs has been hotly contested by certain nonsignatory programs.

Any signatory to the CGSR found to be in violation of that contract will be listed as noncompliant, whether or not the program’s host college or university continues to be a CGSR signatory. Compliance inquiries are initiated on the basis of applicant self-reporting; since 2006, fully 100 percent of applicant complaints regarding programs’ CGSR-related policies have been found, following an investigation, to be meritorious. Indeed, in all but one instance the offending program ultimately admitted the violation.

GRE Required
This category indicates whether or not a program requires applicants to submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test scores as part of their applications. Generally, programs that offer a substantial portion of incoming students some form of financial aid require these scores, and so applicants are advised to take this test prior to applying in order to avoid artificially limiting their application options. In most instances, student scores are only lightly scrutinized (or simply ignored altogether) by the programs themselves, and instead reviewed—where they are reviewed—by individual universities’ Graduate Colleges, which often have minimum GRE-score requirements (typically very generous ones). Creative writing MFA applicants should not avoid the GRE General Test for fear of the Mathematics portion of the exam; even those programs that do give minor weight to standardized test scores in their admissions processes generally look only at applicants’ Verbal and Analytical Writing scores. At present no programs require the GRE Subject Test in English Literature, though one program (Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore) strongly suggests that applicants sit for and submit their scores from this exam. Applicants should also be aware that certain university-wide fellowships and grants require the submission of GRE scores. Applicants who do not submit such scores with their applications cannot be considered for these forms of financial aid.

Language Required
This category indicates whether or not a program requires applicants to exhibit proficiency in a foreign language prior to graduation. Some programs with a foreign-language requirement allow applicants to place out of this requirement through the submission and application of prior foreign-language course credits at the college level; other programs require that applicants take an exam (often a reading-knowledge-only translation exam) to show proficiency, regardless of their prior foreign-language experience. At present only a small minority of programs—nine of the 78 listed in the MFA Index, or 12 percent—have a foreign-language requirement as part of their curriculum. However, the category is presented here due to applicants’ great interest in, and sometimes anxiety about, such prerequisites for graduation.

Certain MFA programs require that individuals who apply and are admitted in a particular genre take only workshops in this “declared” genre while in-program. Other programs permit, or even require, matriculated students to take out-of-genre workshops—and among this latter group are two further subcategories of programs, those that permit students to take as many out-of-genre workshops as they wish, and those that permit or require only a limited number of out-of-genre workshops.

The past six years of online, public discussions between and amongst MFA applicants suggest that the availability of cross-genre study has become one of the top concerns for applicants seeking additional curricular information about the programs to which they wish to apply. Many applicants already write in more than one genre, and hope to have their multifaceted talents as literary artists shepherded, rather than impeded, by the curricula of programs on their chosen application list; other students are merely curious about genres other than their own, and view their in-program time as a rare opportunity to experiment with modes of literary art other than those with which they are already conversant. A smaller—but growing—subset of the applicant pool is comprised of self-styled “literary artists” rather than simply “poets” or “writers,” and these individuals already incorporate so many different aesthetic traditions into their work that to be limited to either “poetry workshops” or “prose workshops” would (in their view) be a betrayal of their artistic vision. Because the availability of cross-genre study is such a prominent concern amongst the applicant class, it is listed as a separate category here. All data for this category were taken directly from program websites; any program that permits or requires applicants to take out-of-genre workshops, in whatever number, has been listed in this column as a “yes” (“Y”). Programs that explicitly prohibit such study are indicated with a “no” (“N”). Because the tradition, among MFA programs, has been to disallow cross-genre study, programs whose websites were silent on the question of such study were also treated as and are listed in the MFA Index as a “no” for this measure.

Years of Establishment
Reciting the years of establishment for the nation’s full-residency MFA programs offers a critical historical context for the full-residency MFA Index, the institutions profiled and assessed in the MFA Index, and the very degree that is the focus of both the table and the institutions whose attributes the table’s surveys and hard-data measurements catalogue. This column of data does not apply to nonterminal, academic master’s programs in creative writing (with or without the option of a creative thesis), which are different in form and function from their longer, generally better-funded, more studio-oriented, terminal, art-degree MFA peers.

Previous survey methodologies used in assessing terminal-degree creative writing programs have leaned heavily on the somewhat tendentious factor of program visibility. When programs are assessed by individuals already within the system, the natural result is that older programs—whatever their selectivity, financial resources, faculty resources, curriculum, pedagogy, or student outcomes—move into positions of prominence due to their profile advantage. Yet applicants report only limited interest in programs’ historical pedigrees, as pedigree itself is often considered a suspect quantity in the national literary arts community. By publishing the years of establishment of 78 of the nation’s 173 full-residency MFA programs (with the years of establishment of the other 95 available on the MFA Research Project website), the 2014 MFA Index permits applicants and other consumers of these data to both disassociate historical pedigree from the distinct question of program quality, while also better understanding the historical context in which the creative writing MFA has achieved such cultural prominence.

Creative writing as an academic discipline originated in the late nineteenth century, yet by January of 1964 there was still only one MFA-conferring graduate creative writing program in the world. In fact, though the first MFAs in any field were granted in the 1920s, and the MFA-conferring Iowa Writers’ Workshop was founded in 1936, the MFA as a degree would have no abiding place in the national literary arts community until the 1980s. The 1940s, 1950s, and much of the 1960s were marked by attempts to find alternative models to the one provided by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: first, in the degree-granting, relatively nonselective, grade-free creative writing program at Black Mountain College, which was founded in the 1930s but had its heyday in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s; second, in the undergraduate-only creative writing program at Stanford University (founded in 1947 by Wallace Stegner) and other undergraduate programs modeled closely upon this one; third, in institutional but non-degree-granting programs like the Writers’ Program at the University of California in Los Angeles, founded in 1964; fourth, in non-institutional workshops such as the Black Arts Movement’s Umbra Workshop, founded in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1962; and fifth, in nonterminal MA programs in creative writing founded at a number of institutions, including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (1946), University of Denver in Colorado (1947), Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (1948), Indiana University in Bloomington (1948), University of Florida in Gainesville (1948), and Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia (1960). Some of these latter programs initially required academic theses of their students rather than creative ones.

Ultimately, certain elements of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA model became ascendant—after these and other elements had been experimented with by the types of degree programs listed above—because of a grass-roots campaign by working creative writers (among both faculties and student bodies at various institutions) to gain greater administrative, pedagogical, and creative autonomy from the academy to which they had previously been attached. Most of the early MFA programs appear to have been founded only after years—in some cases several decades—of struggle between creative writers and university bureaucrats, with the two primary bases for the latter’s objection to the MFA being that it cost much more than the MA to administer (due to the need for greater faculty resources, and the necessity of awarding tuition remission-eligible assistantships to many terminal-degree candidates) and permitted universities less immediate oversight over their resident literary artists. Far from a “cash cow” warmly embraced by U.S. universities, the creative writing MFA was for decades rejected by America’s universities—and often their English department faculties—as too exotic, too expensive, and too distant from the traditional academic functions of an American English department.

At the beginning of the 1980s there were still fewer than two dozen creative writing MFA programs in the world. It was not until the turn of the century that the rate of MFA-program creation significantly increased, as indicated by the table below, which catalogues MFA programs’ dates of establishment by decade:

1920s: 0

1930s: 1

1940s: 0

1950s: 0

1960s: 11

1970s: 11

1980s: 28

1990s: 39

2000s: 97

2010s: 120 *

* = This is prorated from the number of programs founded in the first thirty months of the decade.

Location Assessments
While not listed in the 2014 MFA Index, one of the seven areas of MRP Index assessment was “location.” A program received acknowledgment by the MRP Index for its location if its location appeared (or if its location was within thirty miles of a location that appeared) in any one of the following eight national media assessments of the best places for individuals (particularly students and young professionals) to live and work: Bloomsberg/Businessweek (“America’s 50 Best Cities,” 2011); U.S. News & World Report (“10 Great College Towns,” 2011); Parents & Colleges (“Top 10 Best College Towns,” 2011); Travel + Leisure (“America’s Coolest College Towns,” 2009); The American Institute for Economic Research (“Best College Towns and Cities,” 2011); StudentUniverse (“Top 10 Cities to Visit in Europe,” 2011); MoneySense (“Canada’s Best Places to Live,” 2012); or ELM (“2011 Top Cities to Live and Work Abroad in Asia,” 2011).

The suitability of a given program location to a given student is of course a personal assessment which can only be made by the student himself/herself; however, given the importance of location to prospective MFA students and the financial difficulties aspiring MFA students encounter in investigating prospective program locations in person pre-matriculation, media assessments of program locations have been employed by the MRP Index as one non-exhaustive measure  of program location quality. A full recitation of the criteria for each media assessment can be found via links to the assessments on the MFA Research Project website (www.mfaresearchproject.wordpress.com; see “Program Location Surveys”). Some of the criteria used by the listed media organizations included: Which towns and cities have the highest index of student-centered restaurants, bars, museums, pedestrian malls, bicycle paths/lanes, parks, hiking trails, sporting events, theaters, and concert venues; the total number of restaurants, bars, and museums per capita; the total number of colleges, libraries, and professional sports teams; income, poverty, unemployment, crime, and foreclosure rates; the percent of the local population with bachelor’s degrees; park acres per 1,000 residents; and air quality.

Application Fee
The application fee column lists each program’s application fee for the most recent application cycle. These data are taken from program websites.

The relevance of these data has increased in recent years, as three distinct but related phenomena have been observed in the MFA admissions system over the past six admissions cycles: Acceptance rates at the nation’s most competitive programs are steadily declining; applicants are responding to this trend by applying to a larger and larger number of programs each year (the conventional wisdom in 2005 was that the average applicant should apply to eight to ten programs; now, applicants are regularly advised to apply to between twelve and fifteen programs, and more if financially feasible; and the amount of money the average applicant has available to pay application fees has either remained steady or declined, with the vast majority of applicants reporting that they have less than a thousand dollars available for all MFA-application-related costs.

Given the cost of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test ($160), the cost per GRE “score report” to be sent to individual programs ($23), and the cost per transcript ordered from an alma mater (costs as high as $50 per transcript at some institutions, and rarely if ever less than $5 per transcript; some applicants, particularly nontraditional and international applicants, must order transcripts from multiple alma maters), applicants are increasingly unable to afford to apply to programs with high application fees. And because of the importance of applicant surveys to the MFA Index, programs with higher application fees are likely to receive fewer applications per annum and thus place lower in the one-year and five-year applicant popularity surveys than they otherwise would. The table’s recitation of application fees is consequently intended to benefit programs as much as applicants; most programs constantly revisit their administrative fee schedules, and in doing so the following data may be of assistance.


Genre Availability
Genre Availability measures the number of genres in which a given low-residency program offers either a formal track or an informal concentration or focus. As many programs occasionally offer courses in genres for which they do not offer a track or concentration, it can be difficult to assess which genres are sufficiently supported at a given program that the program is likely to receive creative portfolios in that genre. The aim of the Genre Availability category is to include only those genres in which a program is likely to attract an appreciable number of applicants—as opposed to a genre offered only as an occasional brief-residency course lacking substantial nonresidency, academic-year faculty support.

Residency measures the number of days per year a low-residency student in the program is required to be on campus. While at present there is no conventional wisdom as to the value of a long residency versus a shorter one, low-residency programs' residencies are typically the only opportunity for students to interact in person with their professors and to meet their classmates; consequently, many applicants to low-residency programs may prefer longer residencies.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose; and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Bloomsbury, 2008), a contemporary poetry reviewer for the Huffington Post, and a regular contributor to both Poets & Writers Magazine and Indiewire, he is also series coeditor for Best American Experimental Writing, the first edition of which will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), the Washington Post, Poetry, American Poetry Review, the Boston Review, New American Writing, the Harvard Review, AGNI, Fence, and the Colorado Review. In 2008 he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry magazine.

Reader Comments

  • trois_petits_chats says...

    What Seth still seems to fail to grasp is that what he calls "selectivity" is really just the school's acceptance rate. A school that generally draws less qualified applicants but has (or claims to have) a 5 or 10% acceptance rate is not going to be as "selective" as a school that attracts much more qualified applicants and has the same acceptance rates as the first school. He never makes that distinction.

    Of course, it would be hard to compare the quality of current MFA students in one program with those in another on the basis of any clearly quantitative measurement. 

  • vivian says...

    After reading your post, I would like to talk to you and get your advice. When it comes to an MFA and Critical Theory, NH Institute of Art is big on that....I applied and got in....now I am strongly wondering if this will help me.....I applied to Lesley as well. What are your thoughts about both programs? Which one is better???

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