A Response to all the MFA Curmudgeony

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The interwebs have been abuzz (in certain circles – not the normal world, of course, since everyone else is busy discussing important things like maybe Occupy Wall St.) with furor over MFA rankings published in the Sept/Oct issue of Poets & Writers. After all, bloggers are generally writers and because we’re writers we have things to say about everything. Of course the masses would take arms against their supposed oppressors. As an MFA graduate myself, I’d been non-stop furious for weeks now. Okay, actually I’ve been entirely disinterested in the rankings. Nothing more than noise. Poets & Writers had decided to fill a void of information. MFA programs flourish in my mind due to two factors: reputation and location. I wanted to go to school in Maine so I did. If P&W wanted to attempt to make something official so be it. Was my school even ranked? I don’t remember. I checked the list out of mild curiosity before placing that issue along with my other writing mags in the basket next to the toilet. I’ve not been ignorant of the rumblings but they haven’t interested me. Until I stumbled across a blog post by the managing editor of the Missouri Review.

You may find the post here:

http://www.missourireview.com/tmr-blog/

Why would this inspire me to write when I haven’t written anything except a stream of nonsense about how I haven’t been able to write anything. Perhaps I just haven’t been sufficiently disgusted by anything of late.

Going back for a second… is anyone else reminded of Hackers when protestors start talking about their “Occupy” cause?

Occupy Wall St…. Hack the Planet.

 

Three words – each phrase alluding to a breakdown of the institution?

Anyone with me on this? Where’s Crash Override when you need him?

My problem:

Let me start by saying that I agree with Michael Nye, managing editor of the Missouri Review, in principle. If we lived in a happy happy joy joy world devoid of judgment or competition of any kind, his problem with the P&W publication of these rankings would be a perfect counterpoint. For his next job I nominate him for public school superintendant where he might continue the abolition of dodgeball or any trivial youth activity that, by nature, requires someone to win. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by participating in an unfair competition.

Let me also state that I loved my MFA experience. I went to the University of Southern Maine’s low-residency program. I understand that because I did not go to the University of Iowa Creative Writing Program I went to a de facto lesser-tier program. There’s Iowa and then there’s everyone else. I’m cool with it. But one of the things I hated about the MFA experience was the “outsider” mentality of the program – the collective of students, former students, faculty, etc. Perhaps my experience differed from that of every one of the people that are offering summary judgment against not just these particular P&W rankings, but the ranking of MFA programs by any outside party. They seem to suggest that the only way to rank an MFA program is by sampling the voices attending these schools. That is if anyone dared rank them at all. Nye suggests at one point that MFA programs are institutions beyond the need of rank. In face he says, “Rankings of MFA programs are bad for everyone involved.”

In my observation, MFA programs want to be treated as part traditional academia. Students and teachers want the same respect as any graduate level. Yet they also feel they are not subject to the same judgment. They want to be esteemed for their work in education – and let’s face it, who doesn’t? – while remaining something different entirely. This isn’t a Montessori grade school program. MFA programs teach a trade and though it may not beget similar paths to success as say an MBA or JD program, students exit these programs with hopes, dreams and very little idea what the fuck to do with the rest of their lives. There’s no clear path to success. They make their trade in any number of professions. So does that mean an MFA program can’t be held accountable by the few quantifiable statistics available for a program of any creative nature?

The faculties of pretty much every identifiable creative writing program don’t think so. In an open letter (which can be found here: http://www.observer.com/2011/09/creative-writing-profs-dispute-their-ranking-no-the-entire-notion-of-ranking/) to P&W they write:  “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.” I don’t know there, Bob, that certainly sounds a teensy bit like a cop out. It should be your job to place as many students as there are students that want jobs in writing, be they in academia, grantwriting or even the amorphous gig called freelance. I don’t mean to suggest you’re passing the buck but by suggesting that creative writing programs can’t really be held accountable for job placement… isn’t that what you’re doing?

While P&W certainly screwed the pooch in some of its methods for selecting its rankings – this is undeniable – these rankings, and really almost any scholastic rankings, largely come down to arbitrary, impossible calculations. I remember vividly during my freshman year at Emory University, the party-school rankings placed Emory University in the top 10. Let me repeat that – Emory University. I don’t remember which lampshade wearing universities it beat out to gain this prestigious ranking. That it beat any SEC school boggles the mind. The ranking came about because whomever scouted college campuses arrived at Emory during Halloween weekend. The one weekend that Emory students can honestly be called flat out stupid-drunk. The weekend for Dooley’s Ball. The one night of drunken debauchery, alcohol poisoning, stomach pumps and regrettable hookups in the middle of an athletic field. Probably your average Saturday at a Big 10 fraternity.

Rankings of any kind are, by nature, spurious. But necessary. W&P polled potential students and used expectation to fuel their polls. MFA programs have resisted ordering since their inception because they survive in a purgatory – the universities of which they are a part generally don’t seem to know what to do with them. So they let them roll on, uninhibited, until some secondary dean of students has to come speak at a graduation ceremony. Blah blah blah, future thinkers and leaders of tomorrow… and all that. Check back in five years when we still aren’t making a living in our chosen profession because we weren’t adequately prepared to make a living doing this writing thing. I expected a little more preparation for a secondary degree. No really, mea culpa.

The P&W list could be more refined but the intention is pure. To hold schools accountable for their product. MFA graduates of any kind want their degree to be respected, like any master’s program. It may only be the first ripple, but a legitimate ranking system would be a baby step toward wider legitimacy. Every other “trade” is subject to an arbitrary list of rankings to project a school’s worth. Instead of attacking the publication for its flawed methods with angry letters and threats to pull advertising, shake it off, chalk it up to one fucked up weekend at Dooley’s Ball and go back to not caring what anyone thinks of your particular brand of education. It’s worked that way for years.

 

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