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Poets & Writers responds to disgruntled professors

By Harriet Staff

The folks at Poets & Writers have responded to the open letter disparaging their 2012 MFA rankings. An excerpt:

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 They are writers, some of them emerging or unpublished, but all of them individuals who believe in the written word and identify themselves as committed to it.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.

The entire piece offers an explanation for why the magazine does the rankings in the first place, and more insight into the methodology. Will this mollify the magazine’s critics and encourage them to raise the tone of the conversation? Stay tuned.


Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, September 14th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.