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Poets & Writers Responds to Open Letter

Poets & Writers Responds to Open Letter

We are disheartened to have read the open letter written on behalf of creative writing teachers and program directors protesting our publishing the 2012 rankings of MFA and PhD programs. We do, of course, respect the signatories’ right to express their complaints, and we take them with the utmost seriousness.

Our mission is and always has been to serve writers. Poets & Writers Magazine is published by the forty-year-old literary nonprofit Poets & Writers, Inc., which gives more money directly to writers to give readings and facilitate workshops—many in underserved communities—than any other nonprofit in the country. While the magazine’s editorial integrity has been called into question around the issue of the rankings, I can say with conviction that our editorial staff has worked tirelessly to ensure that our magazine adheres to the highest journalistic standards.

In publishing the rankings it is precisely these editorial standards that we are striving to uphold. Our ethical obligation is to be transparent to our readers about the source of the rankings and how they were derived, which we have done consistently and without reservation. We lay out our methodology explicitly in a four-page FAQ section that precedes the actual rankings in print, dealing directly with many of the issues raised in the open letter. The first question in the FAQ is: “Should I rely on these tables to choose where to apply?” We answer unequivocally in the negative, giving afterward an explanation of why this would be a bad idea. To characterize this as a “disclaimer” that we posted only on our website is, to say the least, an oversimplification. But then to state, “Regrettably, it appears on a separate page,” further misrepresents our clear intentions, and also disregards our readers’ ability to think critically. Do the letter’s signers seriously think that anyone contemplating a writing life will not have the desire, common sense, or attention span to read beyond the rankings?

We know our readers. They are writers, some of them emerging or unpublished, but all of them individuals who believe in the written word and identify themselves as committed to it. They actually read our magazine thoroughly. And our responsibility is to serve them and their particular needs—in this case, providing a comparative overview of leading programs’ features, plus other articles on the issues pertaining to graduate creative writing programs.

So let’s raise the tone. Reasonable people can disagree on methodology, and there is surely more than one way to skin this particular cat. But we have labored mightily to contextualize the material put before our readers, presenting the rankings along with guidance for how we think they should be used, plus other advice—much of it the same as that offered by the signers of the open letter—about how students can determine which programs are best for them. Since undertaking this work, we have carefully considered the criticisms we’ve received. The advocacy organization for creative writing programs, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, for example, criticized us for not taking faculty enough into account. We maintain that faculty quality is too complex to assess because an excellent teacher for one student is not necessarily a good fit for another. But we considered the criticism and decided to address it by including coverage of notable new faculty hires. Subsequently, we have directed readers from our pages to our free online MFA database, which includes a list of core faculty for each program. In response to criticism that our coverage did not include the perspective of program representatives, we included in this year’s issue a 3,000-word feature (an expanded 7,000-word version appears online) of advice directly from this group, some of whom took the opportunity to criticize the rankings.

While we readily consider reasoned criticisms of our work, we cannot in good conscience make editorial decisions in response to outside pressure from those groups and individuals who disagree with our coverage, much less those that threaten to withdraw advertising as a means of influencing editorial content. Our responsibility is to our readers. And we would hope that, as writers, our critics would understand and respect this obligation.

Why did we decide to publish rankings in the first place? With the proliferation of MFA programs, whether or not to attend one has become a growing question among our readership. We began to see more and more users visiting the MFA thread in our Speakeasy Message Forum hosted on pw.org, where we discovered a burgeoning community of individuals exchanging sound advice and wisdom about creative writing programs. Users shared their online research about program features, inside information from students, and advice from mentors. We saw too that there was a growing need for this information to be more widely distributed—many users posted questions asking which programs were strongest and why, while many others expressed their frustrations at not being able to easily navigate some programs’ websites.

We engaged Seth Abramson to assist us in sharing this information. Abramson has been collecting data about applicants’ preferences and about MFA programs for five years, and we stand behind his integrity. In order to tap into the collective wisdom of as many applicants as possible, we turned to the Creative Writing MFA Blog, a website founded by Stanford University professor Tom Kealey, author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2005). We decided to survey “readers of one blog,” as Deborah Landau puts it in the press release that accompanied the open letter, because it is arguably the most highly trafficked website about creative writing programs. Like our MFA thread, it is a gathering place where students, applicants, and creative writing teachers engage in conversation, sharing the information and advice they receive from online research, mentors, and one another. It’s hardly a group whose opinions don’t matter. Instead, it represents a well-researched sample of the annual pool of applicants to creative writing programs. Reporting on the trends of where this group is applying is valuable information to share with our readers.

Why didn’t we survey MFA faculty and students about the quality of MFA programs? To continue the analogy Leslie Epstein used to describe our approach in the press release, that would be like asking diners who only frequent their favorite restaurant to assess the quality of all restaurants.

While applicants are not experts on creative writing programs, they do have a vested interest in researching the various qualities of a number of programs and comparing them. They are advised by their teachers and mentors. And those who have joined online communities focused on creative writing programs are informed by the research shared there. Students and faculty affiliated with any one program do not necessarily have a vested interest in researching other programs, and it makes sense that they’d be biased toward their own. In fact, in some cases, promoting his or her program is a requirement of a faculty member's job. How can they be expected to be fair about assessing their own program or informed about assessing any other? 

But along with the popularity ranking, we include in our coverage five other categories of rankings—all of which are based on hard data, plus eleven other categories about program features.

While we must stand strong in expressing our right to pursue an editorial project such as this, we do not stand in opposition to the many hardworking teachers and administrators who may feel slighted by our work. We have already reached out to some teachers and administrators, and will continue to do so, in order to learn more about their concerns and deepen the conversation. In the meantime, I invite anyone who is interested in sharing a civil and productive conversation on the subject to call or e-mail me directly.

Sincerely,
Mary Gannon
Editorial Director
(212) 226-3586, ext. 209
mgannon@pw.org

 


[Below is a copy of the content contained in the press release and open letter that have been circulating.]

PRESS RELEASE

September 8, 2011

One Hundred and Ninety Writers Agree: the Poets & Writers Creative Writing Program Rankings are “Specious,” and “Misleading”

Creative writing faculty representing MFA/PhD programs from all over the United States—including those who teach in a majority of writing programs ranked in the top ten—have signed an open letter admonishing Poets & Writers for the methodology behind their 2012 program rankings.

The writers who’ve signed the letter—including notable authors such as David Shields, C.D. Wright, Bob Shacochis, David Lehman, Tony Hoagland and Heather McHugh—all believe the Poets & Writers rankings give disingenuous, oversimplified, and incomplete information to those researching creative writing programs.

Leslie Epstein, the celebrated novelist and director of the Boston University creative writing program, said of the rankings, which are based on polling prospective program applicants about where they’re planning to apply to graduate school, “It’s analogous to asking people who are standing outside a restaurant studying the menu how they liked the food. Why wouldn’t you ask those who’ve actually eaten there for an informed opinion?”

Epstein also noted that he recently asked Poets & Writers why the rankings don’t take the reputation of a program’s faculty into serious account. In an email response from the rankings architect, Epstein was informed that the teaching and writing reputations of his poetry faculty—including literary heavyweights Robert Pinsky, Louise Glück and Dan Chiasson—were “irrelevant” in determining P&W’s ranking of Boston’s fabled writing program.

Deborah Landau, critically acclaimed poet and director of the prestigious creative writing program at New York University, gave her opinion: “The Poets & Writers rankings are extremely misleading, a disservice to MFA applicants, and devoid of significance. If the Poets & Writers list were entitled ‘MFA Programs Most Frequently Applied to by Readers of One Blog’ that would be accurate. I’m puzzled that Poets & Writers, a fine publication, continues to publish this misleading list.”

The mission of the signed letter (see below) is to give expert advice to potential writing program applicants about how to research and apply to programs in a meaningful way. Those who’ve signed the letter ask that Poets & Writers stop publishing a ranking that does a disservice to those trying to make an informed decision about their education.

For more information, please contact Erin Belieu, Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University, at ebelieu@fsu.edu.

 

AN OPEN LETTER FROM CREATIVE WRITING FACULTY REGARDING THE POETS & WRITERS PROGRAM RANKINGS

The people who have signed this letter have all taught as creative writing program faculty. Many of us are now program directors and serve as members of our admissions committees. Most of us also hold MFA and/or doctoral degrees. We hope our collective experience and expertise will provide good counsel to anyone thinking about applying to writing programs.

To put it plainly, the Poets & Writers rankings are bad: they are methodologically specious in the extreme and quite misleading. A biased opinion poll—based on a tiny, self-selecting survey of potential program applicants—provides poor information. Poets & Writers itself includes on its website a disclaimer suggesting the limitations of these rankings, recommending that potential applicants look beyond them. Regrettably, the information appears on a separate page.

What’s worse, if a program decides against encouraging a bad process by choosing not to provide information, P&W’s process insists on including that program as though the information was negative, a procedure we think is unethical, as well as statistically misleading.

The P&W rankings, in their language and approach, labor to create the impression that the application process between applicants and programs is adversarial. It is not, as any proper, sensible survey of MFA students and alumni would indicate.

Instead of asking such students and alumni about quality of instruction, or anything else about actual program content, P&W’s rankings are heavily skewed toward viewing a program’s financial aid offer as the final arbiter of that program’s overall quality. We agree that financial aid must be a serious consideration, but a student’s relationship with his or her faculty—what and how one learns—is at least equally as important.

In economic times like these, there is no immediate correspondence between any degree and employment. This is particularly true of the MFA in creative writing and PhD in English with a creative dissertation. While we work hard to help our graduates find jobs, it is essential to understand that creative writing for the vast majority is not a profession. Some writers earn their living as teachers, but others are lawyers, full-time homemakers, doctors, editors, business owners, sales clerks, and mechanics. No applicant should consider pursuing a creative writing degree assuming the credential itself leads to an academic job. And no applicant should put her or himself in financial peril in order to pursue the degree.

Our best advice is to do your research through the programs you’re considering. If you are able to visit those programs, ask to sit in on classes and for the contact information of current and recent students. Talk to people you respect about different programs. Read work by the instructors.

Most programs have basic academic and financial information available on their websites. But don’t hesitate to ask questions of the program directors, admissions committee members, and students presently attending the programs. This kind of commonsensical research will help you find a program suited to your hopes and talents.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Aaron, Emerson College
Lee K. Abbott, Ohio State University
Jonis Agee, University of Nebraska – Lincoln
Marla Akin, University of Texas Michener Center for Writers
Julianna Baggott, Florida State University
Sally Ball, Arizona State University
Aliki Barnstone, University of Missouri – Columbia
Steven Barthelme, University of Southern Mississippi
Jocelyn Bartkevicius, University of Central Florida
Robin Behn, University of Alabama
Erin Belieu, Florida State University
Karen E. Bender, University of North Carolina Wilmington
April Bernard, Skidmore College
Mark Bibbins, The New School
Mary Biddinger, The University of Akron
Scott Blackwood, Roosevelt University
Robert Boswell, University of Houston
David Bosworth, University of Washington
Mark Brazaitis, West Virginia University
Lucie Brock-Broido, Columbia University
Ben Brooks, Emerson College
John Gregory Brown, Sweet Briar College
Andrea Hollander Budy, Lyon College
Janet Burroway, Florida State University
Robert Olen Butler, Florida State University
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, University of California, San Diego
Scott Cairns, University of Missouri – Columbia
Kara Candito, University of Wisconsin - Platteville
Kevin Canty, University of Montana at Missoula
Mary Carroll-Hackett, Longwood University
Michelle Carter, San Francisco State University
Alexander Chee, Columbia University
Alan Cheuse, George Mason University
Jeanne E. Clark, California State University Chico
Brian Clements, Western Connecticut State University
Mick Cochrane, Canisius College
Michael Collier, University of Maryland
Gillian Conoley, Sonoma State University
Bob Cowser, St. Lawrence University
Jennine Capó Crucet, Florida State University
Kelly Daniels, Augustana College
R. H. W. Dillard, Hollins University
Chitra Divakaruni, University of Houston
Jim Dodge, Humboldt State University
Timothy Donnelly, Columbia University
Michael Dumanis, Cleveland State University
Camille Dungy, San Francisco State University
Karl Elder, Lakeland College
Leslie Epstein, Boston University
Elaine Equi, New York University
David Everett, Johns Hopkins University
Kathy Fagan, Ohio State University
Andrew Feld, University of Washington
Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Florida State University
Ned Stuckey-French, Florida State University
Forrest Gander, Brown University
Eric Gansworth, Canisius College
Steve Garrison, University of Central Oklahoma
Maria Gillan, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Michele Glazer, Portland State University
Tod Goldberg, University of California, Riverside Palm Desert
Eric Goodman, Miami University of Ohio
Jaimy Gordon, Western Michigan University
Carol Guerrero-Murphy, Adams State College
Corrinne Clegg Hales, California State University, Fresno
Rachel Hall, State University of New York at Geneseo
Barbara Hamby, Florida State University
Cathryn Hankla, Hollins University
James Harms, West Virginia University
Charles Hartman, Connecticut College
Yona Harvey, Carnegie Mellon University
Ehud Havazelet, University of Oregon
Steve Heller, Antioch University Los Angeles
Robin Hemley, University of Iowa
DeWitt Henry, Emerson College
Michelle Herman, Ohio State University
Laraine Herring, Yavapai College
Sue Hertz, University of New Hampshire
Tony Hoagland, University of Houston
Janet Holmes, Boise State University
Garrett Hongo, University of Oregon
Ha Jin, Boston University
Arnold Johnston, Western Michigan University
Diana Joseph, Minnesota State University, Mankato
Laura Kasischke, University of Michigan
Catherine Kasper, University of Texas at San Antonio
J. Kastely, University of Houston
Richard Katrovas, Western Michigan University
Christopher Kennedy, Syracuse University
Richard Kenney, University of Washington
David Keplinger, American University
James Kimbrell, Florida State University
David Kirby, Florida State University
Binnie Kirshenbaum, Columbia University
Karen Kovacik, Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis
Stephen Kuusisto, Syracuse University
Deborah Landau, New York University
Jeanne Larsen, Hollins University
David Lehman, The New School
Dana Levin, Santa Fe University of Art and Design
Lisa Lewis, Oklahoma State University
Catherine Lewis, Purchase College, State University of New York
Samuel Ligon, Eastern Washington University
Robert Lopez, The New School
Denise Low, Haskell Indian Nations
Kirsten Lunstrum, Purchase College, State University of New York
Patrick Madden, Brigham Young University
Megan Marshall, Emerson College
Michael Martone, University of Alabama
Cate Marvin, College of Staten Island, The City University of New York
Gail Mazur, Emerson College
Janet McAdams, Kenyon College
Shara McCallum, Bucknell University
Karen Salyer McElmurray, Georgia College & State University
Heather McHugh, University of Washington
Sarah Messer, University of North Carolina Wilmington
Jennifer Militello, River Valley Community College
Wayne Miller, University of Central Missouri
Debra Monroe, Texas State University
Dinty W. Moore, Ohio University
Brian Morton, Sarah Lawrence College
Rick Mulkey, Converse College
Brighde Mullins, University of Southern California
Antonya Nelson, University of Houston
Ian Blake Newhem, Rockland Community College, State University of New York
Thisbe Nissen, Western Michigan University
Daniel Orozco, University of Idaho
Pamela Painter, Emerson College
Alan Michael Parker, Davidson College
Jeff Parker, University of Tampa
Oliver de la Paz, Western Washington University
Donna de la Perriere, San Francisco State University
Joyce Peseroff, University of Massachusetts Boston
Todd James Pierce, California Polytechnic State University
Robert Pinsky, Boston University
Kevin Prufer, University of Houston
Imad Rahman, Cleveland State University
Ladette Randolph, Emerson College
Marthe Reed, University of Louisiana Lafayette
Nelly Reifler, Sarah Lawrence College
Frederick Reiken, Emerson College
Paisley Rekdal, University of Utah
R. Clay Reynolds, University of Texas at Dallas
Kathryn Rhett, Gettysburg College
David Rivard, University of New Hampshire
Richard Robbins, Minnesota State University, Mankato
Mary F. Rockcastle, Hamline University
Robin Romm, New Mexico State University
Michael Ryan, University of California, Irvine
Benjamin Alíre Sáenz, University of Texas at El Paso
Martha Serpas, University of Houston
Bob Shacochis, Florida State University
Brenda Shaughnessy, New York University
Aurelie Sheehan, University of Arizona
David Shields, University of Washington
John Skoyles, Emerson College
Tom Sleigh, Hunter College
Casey Smith, Corcoran College of Art and Design
Maya Sonenberg, University of Washington
Gregory Spatz, Eastern Washington University
Brent Spencer, Creighton University
Sheryl St. Germain, Chatham University
Les Standiford, Florida International University
Domenic Stansberry, Vermont College
Thom Tammaro, Minnesota State University Moorhead
Alexandra Teague, University of Idaho
Daniel Tobin, Emerson College
Mark Todd, Western State College
Ann Townsend, Denison University
Peter Turchi, Arizona State University
Paul Vangelisti, Otis College of Art & Design
Sidney Wade, University of Florida
Jerald Walker, Emerson College
Rosanna Warren, Boston University
Laura Lee Washburn, Pittsburg State University
Joshua Weiner, University of Maryland
Lesley Wheeler, Washington and Lee University
Richard Wiley, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Ann Joslin Williams, University of New Hampshire
David Wojahn, Virginia Commonwealth University
Gregory Wolfe, Seattle Pacific University
C.D. Wright, Brown University
Robert Wrigley, University of Idaho
Steve Yarbrough, Emerson College
Stephen Yenser, University of California, Los Angeles
C. Dale Young, Warren Wilson College
Matthew Zapruder, University of California, Riverside Palm Desert
Lisa Zeidner, Rutgers-Camden, The State University of New Jersey
Alan Ziegler, Columbia University
Leni Zumas, Portland State University

Reader Comments

  • Caterina says...

    Oops. I meant "its designation" (no apostrophe). Sorry.

  • Caterina says...

    I noticed earlier: In paragraph #8 of the magazine's response to the open letter, you identify Tom Kealey as a "Stanford University professor." According to his own online information and other sources, he was a Stegner Fellow (and that, to me, is about as impressive as it gets following--or sometimes in place of--an MFA, so I'm not diminishing that achievement in the least). My understanding is that in the wake of his Stegner, he became a Jones Lecturer at Stanford. (He has a lectureship there now, but I don't know it's designation.) Anyway, as someone who used to write for a couple of newspapers, I thought I'd clarify that detail.

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