Poets & Writers Magazine welcomes letters from its readers. Please post a comment on select articles at www.pw.org/magazine, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Editor, Poets & Writers Magazine, 90 Broad Street, Suite 2100, New York, NY 10004. Letters accepted for publication may be edited for clarity and length.
RANK AND FOUL
I have the greatest respect for Poets & Writers Magazine, which is why I was so disappointed to see Seth Abramson's "The Top Fifty MFA Programs in the United States: A Comprehensive Guide" in the November/December 2009 issue. The tutelage of an artist is a complex and serious business, and it cannot be reduced to a single spreadsheet column sorted in descending order. Abramson himself seems to concede this point before proceeding.
But even if one could squeeze this universe into one question, from a statistical standpoint Abramson's methodology would still be flawed. Abramson's piece is not a ranking or comparison of all MFA programs, but of residential programs in the United States. Missing in this analysis altogether are the dozens of low-residency and international programs. The samples Abramson used in his survey are three sets of five hundred self-identified applicants to MFA programs. But applicants to MFA programs are only one of the key stakeholders in the success of MFA programs. Other stakeholders include faculty, administrators, current students, and alumni.
Abramson is correct to point out the problems with previous ranking efforts, but he falls victim to the same sins of omission and reduction committed in those attempts. This particular sampled audience, while interesting, has its own set of biases in assessing MFA programs. Some may prefer to be admitted to a high-profile program, while others may be unaware of their full range of options. It's also an unrepresentative sample. There are more than thirteen thousand applicants to MFA programs each year. If we ask less than 4 percent of them to tell us their opinions about MFA programs, we will arrive at what Abramson produces: the opinion of this 4 percent of applicants to 75 percent of MFA programs. If you drill down, more questions are raised about the data. No demographic information appears to have been collected. We don't know, for example, if there's an appropriate geographical, gender, ethnic, and age variety in the sample. These factors do make a significant difference in the preference of applicants.
Perhaps most important,
the assumption of the survey itself must be questioned, because the audience
sampled is not qualified to make a comprehensive, qualitative judgment about
what they're being asked to rank. Presumably, most of the applicants Abramson
surveyed were in their early to midtwenties, and most lacked a graduate degree.
This narrow demographic cannot definitively assess the educational quality of
graduate writing programs in the United States. In short, the survey doesn't
provide the full picture, only a fragment of it. Unmeasured in the opinion
survey are the following criteria, which the Association of Writers &
Writing Programs (AWP)
feels are salient in one's personal choice of MFA programs: faculty, number of
matriculated students who go on to publish significant work, complementary
assets and infrastructure such as access to editorial experience at a magazine
or university press, and program philosophy.
Acting Executive Director, AWP
While I appreciate the huge effort involved in
compiling "The Top Fifty MFA Programs in the
United States," I was disappointed that low-residency programs were not a
subset of this ranking or even the subject of their own survey. For many readers,
a low-residency MFA is the real-life, affordable option: It doesn't
require a working spouse, trust fund, or huge loan to attend. It offers a
chance to work with fine mentors, many of whom are emerging or established
names in their respective fields, and can be just as life changing as an MFA from a residential program. I hope that you will
serve these readers better in the future.
Seth Abramson responds:
It was a Herculean, three-year task to gather enough data on domestic, full-residency programs to conduct a comprehensive assessment. The exclusion of low-residency and international programs was not intended as any slight against the myriad attractions of these programs. To have commingled low-residency and international programs with the research on domestic, full-residency programs would have been a disservice to everyone; in the categories on which programs were assessed for this study, low-residency and international programs would have had difficulty competing. These programs excel in many other areas that were not (and in most instances cannot be) assessed, such as location and convenience.
As to Burriesci's complaints, I would say that no scientific ranking of MFA programs can be done in an environment in which the full range of necessary data is not being made available by the programs to be ranked. Indeed, in a survey of MFA programs conducted by AWP in 2007, more than 50 percent of the organization's own member programs neglected to provide critical admissions and funding information when it was requested of them. In addition, no scientific polling of MFA programs should be done if it is to ask the wrong questions of the wrong people. Were the populations Burriesci would like to see polled included in the rankings, the rankings would have been designed, as past rankings have been designed, to serve the programs' and not prospective applicants' needs. The values and biases of those currently associated with MFA programs include a host of considerations that years of research show are of little concern to current applicants. The Poets & Writers Magazine rankings are a reflection of the considerations that a highly committed, well-researched class of applicants actually uses in making decisions about program quality. Thus: Applicants no longer believe a famous writer will necessarily be a strong teacher. Applicants no longer believe that the success of a program graduate from another decade says much about current cohort quality. Applicants have little interest in "complementary assets and infrastructure" unless that means a solid funding package for everyone. Applicants do not base their assessments on program philosophies because the programs generally do not advertise these philosophies. The ranking Burriesci describes would be one crafted to suit the needs of AWP's constituent programs, not the programs' (and rankings') most important audience—potential students.
GETTING STRONG NOW
Benjamin Percy may have a poster of Rocky Balboa over his desk, but I intend to post a copy of his article "Go the Distance: What Rocky Taught Me About Submission" (November/December 2009) over mine. Just the look on Percy's face says "Get up off your knees, sister, and keep fighting or I am gonna clock you one myself." Thanks so much. It's articles like this that convince me I must keep subscribing to Poets & Writers Magazine.
I am a regular
subscriber to Poets & Writers Magazine and I am writing to say how much I enjoyed the recent articles by
Benjamin Percy and Samantha Hunt ("The Agony of Influence: Lessons From the
Antimentor") in the November/December 2009 issue. Percy's
use of Rocky Balboa as his role model to get through his years of rejection was
inspirational and telling, while Hunt's account of her antimentor, Breece D'J
Pancake, was both vivid and moving. I also have to say that Andy Borowitz's
piece "Discarded First Lines From My Novel: The Toughest Part Is Getting
Started" was laugh-out-loud funny.
I stumbled upon your publication and felt compelled to reach out. Within your pages I found sincerity, pride, and truth. The type of sincerity that makes you feel accompanied, the type of pride that only the proud can possess, and that is the truth. Thank you for fueling this flame. I did not go to school to become a writer and I have never attended a workshop to become a better one. I have never released a book. I write for me. I believe the truest poets find rapture in purity. I played professional lacrosse for five years. I moved on from the game a couple of years ago because there were things that I wanted to say, had to say. I have turned my life over to ink. I just wanted you to feel how powerful your publication has been in the growth of my spirit. Keep marching.
Asheville, North Carolina
I just finished turning the pages of Poets & Writers Magazine and was astounded when I saw the black bar at the top of the last page informing me of your nonprofit status and mission. I had chosen the magazine originally for its quality writing, but found this to be a great treat at the end. I am glad that I unknowingly chose a magazine that is doing something as meaningful with its profit as you are. Keep up the good work!
Mount Vernon, Missouri
The title of Victor Lodato's play that was produced for the first time last spring was misstated in "First: Victor Lodato's Mathilda Savitch" (September/October 2009) by Eryn Loeb. The title of the play is The Bread of Winter. The degree that Sherwin Bitsui is pursuing at the University of Arizona in Tucson was misstated in "Road Trip" (November/December 2009) by Rigoberto González. Bistui is enrolled in the BA program. Due to inaccurate information provided by the sponsoring organization, the winner of Bear Star Press's Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize was misstated in Recent Winners (November/December 2009). The winner is Linda Dove.