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Slate has something to say about the MFA Rankings business

By Harriet Staff

Do you know what would make this whole MFA Rankings discussion even better? Juggalos!

No?

Okay, how about this:

Scott Kenemore, over at Slate, is weighing in with his two cents (and his ideas about writers “genitals”). He’s a Columbia University graduate, and he has an axe to grind, mostly, on Columbia’s dropping from #25 to #47.

How then, does one explain P&W’s yearly pummeling of Columbia’s program? It’s very simple. Columbia has expensive tuition, and Poets & Writers is attempting to shame Columbia into lowering it. Why, you might fairly ask? Why are they doing this? Why is it not OK to charge high tuition if folks seem more than willing to pay it?

Now we arrive at the heart of the matter.

Though Poets & Writers presents itself as an utterly neutral resource for scriveners of all stripes, the magazine is largely written for and by people focused on the teaching of creative writing as a profession. For this cohort, the Columbia model makes no sense. Why would you take out large student loans if you’re just going to publish a few chapbooks (with, say, a print run of 500 copies each), settle into a nice teaching residency at the University of Northern South Dakota making $35,000 a year (less, of course, your subscription to Poets & Writers), and achieve tenure based upon your trenchant stewardship of the student literary magazine?

They’re right. It wouldn’t make sense.

And then, later, continuing to focus on only one school amongst the ranked, he let’s us in on the types of students the Columbia MFA program is “for”:

Columbia is a school for people who actually want to become better writers, get books published, and survive—or even thrive—in the rough-and-tumble world of American letters. It is not a holistic weekend retreat. Columbia is a place for people who want to be the best and study with the best. (Or, OK, the best after Iowa.) It’s for people whose genitals still work, dammit. For writers who want to be brave and persevere in the real world where people often fail.

Most importantly, Columbia seems to launch writers successfully. At least that’s what it did for me and for most of my friends in the program. I arrived at the school in the fall of 2000 without significant resources. Finding ways to make ends meet during my time there was harrowing, depressing, and frequently terrifying. On top of this, when I graduated in 2002, I had about $45,000 in student loan debt.

And it was totally worth it.

And, he concludes:

I will not conclude by asking that Poets & Writers refrain from their annual savaging of Columbia. It has become almost fun to watch. And, anyway, by virtue of their position as the Citadel of Niceness, it’s something they must do. (The notion that a sign of good writing could be something other than an offer of assistant professorship at Possum Grape Community College approaches a Lovecraftian unthinkability for these people.) But I do have a modest proposal.

Poets & Writers should add a “manuscript placement” column to its yearly rankings spreadsheet, alongside fellowship placement and job placement. What percentage of fiction graduates secure a publishing contract worth at least four figures within 10 years of graduation? What percentage of poets win a prize that results in the publication of a book within 10 years of graduation? Including these figures would create a more informed worldview for a student thinking of getting an MFA and would allow students to attend the graduate school that most closely fits their own definition of “success.”

To which Roxane Gay says, “ stay classy, fiction dude.”

(Additional reading: AWP’s 2011 MFA Rankings page is pretty great.)


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, September 15th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.