2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty

by Staff

Special Section

Posted 9.1.11

September/October 2011

 Frequently Asked Questions About the Rankings
Additional Rankings of Full-Residencies

Note: The following table appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Our most recent coverage of MFA programs is available in the September/October 2012 issue, on newsstands now.

A combination of hard data from programs that release funding and admissions figures to the public and a vital survey of what the individuals comprising the next generation of U.S. poets and writers have to say about their own priorities in choosing a postgraduate program, here are the 2012 rankings of the nation's top fifty MFA programs.

Notes: The top-fifty and honorable-mentions rankings correspond to the most frequently applied-to programs for the 2010–2011 application cycle, as reported by 640 MFA applicants surveyed from April 16, 2010, to April 15, 2011. [star] (honorable mention); — (unranked); Nonfiction Rank: n/a (not applicable) indicates nonfiction track is not offered; Total-Funding Rank takes into account program duration; Selectivity Rank: n.d. (no data available); Size refers to total number of students per matriculating class: XS (2–9), S (10–19), M (20–31), L (32–49), XL (50+); Full Funding refers to the percentage of a matriculating class that receives full funding: Very Few (0–15), Few (16–29), Some (30–59), Most (60–89), Nearly All (90–99), All (100); Cost of Living is compared with Ann Arbor, Michigan; Teaching Load: n/a (not applicable) indicates too few teaching appointments to warrant inclusion in this category, n.d. (no data available) indicates teaching load is unknown, Light (an average of two courses or fewer to teach per academic year), Average (an average of three courses to teach per academic year), Heavy (an average of four courses or more to teach per academic year); GRE Required: * (GRE scores required of applicants with an undergraduate GPA below 3.0), ** (GRE subject test is also preferred or required), *** (scores required only from applicants seeking funding); Cross-genre: (genre availability may be limited by program). Read more information about the methodology used to determine the rankings and check out the rankings of the remaining eighty-one full-residency MFA programs.

Comments

SmokeyJoe says...

I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise, given that this is the "Poets & Writers" site, but y'all are some wordy so-and-so's...

swlynch says...

I have just wasted a bit of time reading all of the comments posted here, and for one reason really, I was fascinated as to why Caterina was so upset with Seth Abramson, and I think it doesn't have as much to do with this list of programs as it is a cry for attention. By the look of it, this woman is paranoid. I get her point that this list shouldn't be the end all be all for an applicant, but all she had to do was just leave it at that, which means that this person has ulterior motives in ranting against pw's methodology.

I found the list helpful as a "springboard" as another commenter said. I am currently applying to mfa programs, and I don't think anyone should expect a serious applicant to just refer to this poll as a means for making a decision. Caterina accused Seth of being contentious, and also got upset for him calling her by her real name when she had been calling him by his first name throughout her posts. Caterina, you're not helping yourself or anyone else by barraging this article with comments. You should have just made your point that was extremely obvious in the first place and moved on. Also, I'm almost positive that Caterina made up the other user name to try and make herself seem more credible. That was hilarious, especially the part where she claimed that she knew a statistician through both usernames. 

Anyway, the rankings are a bit arbitrary, but it's nothing to throw a fit about. Again, the list has been helpful for me in my application process. Thank you pw.

bestnewamericanslush says...

Hey Everyone, I hope that the acceptances keep rolling in this MFA season! I know how exhausting the application process can be and that even writers with exceptional work are not always given the chance to attend the program of their dreams. A friend and I are planning to launch a fiction anthology--Best New American Slush--that will feature the work of MFA applicants that have not been accepted to a program this year. We are hoping to showcase a portion of the great talent that has not yet made into the madness that is the MFA world. If you are interested in submitting, please feel free to check out our page for instructions and further updates. 

https://www.facebook.com/BestNewAmericanSlush

jd- says...

Is there anyway this can be listed in an excel sheet so we can sort by our own metrics? 

Also what happened to studio/academic programs... I'd also like to see it gauged by having a strong literature component or not. Personally I'm not interested in taking the literature classes whatsoever and would view it as a waste of my money when I can go to other programs and take 10-12 classes that are ALL writing/technique focused. I took lit as an undergrad and have a grasp, I want more writing focus, not more lit classes especially forking up primo grad credit tuition for it. 

Location for me is the most important, I mean sure funding is also, but there are places I would not go even if fully funded, as funding is usually just enough to scrape by. Many funding packages are around what minimum wage jobs pay. It's insulting for those of us who have been out in the work force, I'd actually rather programs just offer night classes instead so I could move somewhere, get a real job and go to the MFA program at night. The fact that most programs I look at are daytime programs is a hindrence to me. 

ejjjjder says...

I don't know, I was a quiet member of the group last year and while Seth never specifically said, "I advise you all to do x" -- wait, actually, he probably did, casually, in his discussions encouraging us to seek fully funded programs. Specifically telling us everything negative he could find about the New York programs, too, to the point that he would get in arguments with people. This is all casual and offered as opinion, but where is the line drawn between someone's opinion and the opinion of the guy who does the rankings? When does it become advice about what Seth thinks is important?

Siddhartha says...

a haiku for cat

get yourself some help.

then when you are sound of mind,

write about those days

-

when you used to dance

to television static

while eating dog food.

-

I would buy that book.

don't you want to sell some books?

LMFAO

Caterina says...

Thanks, Mary, for your response.

*****

In my second-to-last posting, I didn't say with certainty that I thought I would not get taken seriously by you; I implied, I thought, that I didn't necessarily think I would. The difference in this case was intended as a logical, and not merely syntactical, difference. I based my meager expectations, by the way, on your earlier contact with me (in which you said that you would contact me--after which I didn't contact you again except to thank you and say that you could take your time getting back to me). The next response I got from you, however, was two sentences long (or thereabouts, depending on my memory of the punctuation), which came across as suddenly quite dismissive of the points I raised. (Let's be honest here: You and I have not had a long ongoing exchange, but after your curt response, which I graciously waited for over some number of weeks, I wrote you what’s more or less included in my last lengthy posting on this site.) So, I'm not going to accept without objection the suggestion that I might have contacted you an excessive number of times. You know that I did not, and if you're trying to imply otherwise, that's an unfair method of trying to discredit my arguments.

*****

I know a couple of brilliant people who are climate-change deniers, but they're in the minority (a tiny minority) of those who work in climate science; I also know a couple of"Truthers" in academe--Truthers being pretty common among the general public but part of a minority of academics (though the Truthers include their own "Scholars for Truth" subset). I also know a range of conspiracy theorists in general who are smart but, nonetheless, throw their reasoning out the window when it comes to their "pet" issues. I'm not simplistically equating these people with Seth, but my point is: Just because Seth possesses enough brains to have finished Harvard Law doesn't mean he can't have huge blind spots in his reasoning when he's invested so much or his time (and ego?) into a particular enterprise. Case in point regarding his reasoning at times: To defend himself, he's often said, "Anyone who knows me knows that I am..." He cannot possibly know what everyone who "knows" him truly thinks of him (none of us can have access to such private thoughts of others). He also said on Scarriet that it made no sense that some commenters there called him "compulsive" while others called him a "loose cannon"; one couldnt' be both, he argued. Of course one can be both! People are complex, and someone can be compulsive--even "anal-retentive" in some areas--while they are loose cannons in other respects; in fact, someone who's anal-rententive to the extreme, even, could get very emotional (erratic —that is, behaving like a "loose cannon”) when their systematic view of things is challenged. (If Seth ever decides to try his hand at fiction writing, maybe he'll need to think less categorically about human beings?)

*****

In any case, it seems clear to me that Seth likes to categorize and label things--which is fine to a point, I think, in the realms of genuine science and mathematics, though the latter is different in certain respects from empirical reasoning (and I'm writing this in anticipation of a Seth-like objection from someone): mathematical "induction" is, in fact, deductive reasoning, not scientific empiricism. 

*****

I don't believe that there's such a thing as truly "objective" journalism; journalists have biases (in fact, I wouldn't trust a journalist who lacks opinions). We can, however, try to be fair by acknowledging our biases. If this "ranking" system were presented as an op-ed piece, I never would have objected to it. However, Seth Abramson presents it as reflecting statistical merit—a position he expresses in spite of his having so often expressed online his own feelings about the purpose of an MFA and about specific programs, etc. Therefore, based on his followers’ comments online, I can't help but wonder if their views are influenced by his own views.

*****

The more important point, from my perspective: To confuse this "methodology" with science is a mistake that Poets & Writers ought to take seriously into account if they decide to honestly reconsider where to move forward in their attempts to help future MFA applicants.

*****

C./L.

mary says...

Caterina,

In response to your point below, that I and our editorial staff don't take seriously correspondence from our readers, I can assure you it's mistaken. We do it take it seriously. Our editorial staff, despite your perception, is made up of hard-working people who believe in our mission of serving writers and work tirelessly to do so. Please leave them out of it. As for myself, I also take all correspondence seriously. There comes a point, though, where there seems little to be gained from engaging in conversational battle. I can defend our work until I'm blue in the face, but I suspect it won't sway you from your position. I respect your right to your position. And as I've said, I will take all legitimate criticism under consideration as we move forward. At this point, I don't know what our future coverage will be on this subject. Nor would I be at liberty to say, if I did. No magazine would be able to do so. As a working journalist, you, I'm sure, understand this. Thanks.

Caterina says...

I'm still not reading Seth's postings. If I were to do so, and if his previous postings all over the Internet are any indication, I would certainly take issue with much of their content, and I don't have time to waste on the futulity of trying to argue rationally in response to his defensive (and self-interested?) position--though I readily acknowledge that he might truly believe he's impartial. I'm going to listen to my own reasoning and the opinions of the professional statisticians (three, now) with whom I've discussed this topic, discussions had only after those statisticians read the "Methodology" section.

*****

(Someone else out there who knows me can let me know if there's anything in those postings I should know about; otherwise, I'm not going to bother with them. Seth has had his say on this plenty of times, and thanks to this magazine, he's been given a highly visible podium for doing so. Also, I've followed this debate online long enough to doubt he'll offer any new arguments.)

*****

The opposite of the scientific method is choosing a position and then cherry-picking evidence that supports that position while ignoring other evidence, and the anti-scientific cherry-picking approach is what I see happening in the author's personal , passionate, and often hostile justification of these "rankings."    -C.

umass76 says...

P.S. "Chris," one of the applicants you represented as "wanting to go to Columbia," in fact had no such intention; he'd said exactly the opposite in the very same thread you cited: Writes Chris, "I specifically chose not to apply to programs like Columbia simply because they don't assist their students financially. While the connections at programs like Columbia could prove invaluable over the course of a writing career, I didn't want to bet on that. I know that I can't bet that an MFA will get me a high-paying editorial job or professorship, and loans just aren't worth the possible financial ruin later in life." My response to Chris came _after_ he'd made that statement. Just so, the second applicant had already indicated that she was "definitely" applying to Columbia, so my comment (made in March, months after applicants had formed their application lists and applied to programs) was clearly not intended to sway anyone's opinion about where to apply nine months later in the following application cycle (that thread was specifically intended for applicants who had already applied to programs, which is perhaps why it was titled, "Where Did You Apply?"). If you'd read the entire thread, you'd see that another applicant, Naomi, was asking for _matriculation_ advice, having already heard responses from all but one of the programs she applied to. The advice she received from "Another" was that Naomi "had to" accept one of those offers, specifically the CU offer, because it was to a program which (at that time) was ranked among the Top 25 MFA programs in the world. My comment in that ongoing dialogue between Naomi and "Another" was intended the way I've already explained in my comment below. Naomi noted that she was choosing between three programs, of which CU was by far the longest stretch for her financially. Again, under my current contract I'd not have been involved in the discussion at all, but to excerpt my comments out of context is really beyond the pale. 

umass76 says...

Those comments predated my current contract. It's the current contract that was earlier referred to as prohibiting "advising" applicants. As to the quote you provided, it was in response to an applicant query about whether CU is a program "you have to attend if you're accepted, regardless of price." One purpose of the rankings is to educate applicants about their options; no one should ever feel they "have to" attend any program, whichever program that may be. The question on the table at the time was whether an applicant can turn down a program they cannot afford; I did say, prior to my current contract, that programs one cannot afford can and should be turned down if one is only accepting an offer because one feels one "has to"--had I said otherwise, it would have implied a position the diametrical opposite of that position taken by both myself and P&W: that the rankings are some kind of absolute, that getting into a "Top 50" program (Columbia or any other) is an offer one "has to" accept. That's a position which would dangerously elevate the rankings above and beyond what they are intended to be. As the P&W FAQ says in response to the question, "Should I rely on these tables to choose where to apply?", the answer is "No." So yes, in the past I did explicitly encourage applicants to use the rankings responsibly (ironically, I am falsely accused of implicitly doing the opposite) and not to confuse the perceived prestige of a program (any program, CU being only one example) with whether that program makes sense for each individual applicant artistically, financially, or otherwise. There's been no hiding the ball here; in fact, the 2010 Methodology Article (published online for free and still available), notes that one aim of the rankings has been, in the past, "less overall student debt among MFA graduates." For their part, MFA faculty members recently surveyed by P&W also listed "funding" as the top concern for applicants (i.e., it is their stated position that this _should_ be applicants' top concern). All of this is consistent with the idea that applicants should not confuse the rankings with an encouragment to either apply to or matriculate at programs which don't suit their individual needs. As the P&W FAQ indicates, some individuals will be able to take on debt for an MFA, some will not; I took the individual I was responding to to be indicating that she could not readily afford to pay for her MFA degree, which made her comment about "having to" accept an offer from a high-prestige program worrisome to me. I would have given the same response (and indeed _have_ done so) had an under-resourced student indicated that they felt they "had to" attend any _other_ program financially beyond their means. All this said, under my current contract--the only one now relevant to this discussion--I would not have responded to that applicant at all. As to the second quote, which was also pre-contractual, you of course leave out the question I was answering in order to make my comment appear unsolicited. An applicant had queried me directly, asking, "Why do you think that such 'popular' or 'high-end' programs like Columbia still choose to not fund their students?" As a working scholar whose area of research is MFA programs and their history (a scholar and researcher being what I am when not acting under contract), I am often asked this question. My answer to this applicant was an accurate portrayal of the history (the factual history) of the program he was asking about. Others may dispute my presentation of that history--history, you may know, is often a bone of contention even among scholars--but that is most certainly what I was portraying in my response. It's historical fact that some graduate creative writing programs were originally conceived to increase university revenue, while others were intended to be revenue-neutral. One reason I have spent time researching this question is to correct the misimpression many have that all MFA programs are revenue-producers. Many are not. I am certainly not the first person to write about the unique history of the CU School of the Arts, nor am I the first person to observe that previous ranking methodologies tended to overvalue "pedigree" by essentially doing no more than quantifying the publishing-business luster of program faculties. No doubt I could have worded my responses to both applicants more delicately; when you're answering more than fifty MFA-related queries every week (sometimes more than a hundred), one begins to use shorthand and speak less artfully, it's true. You have the advantage of being able to sift through hundreds and hundreds of online comments by me to selectively present (and misrepresent) my overall conduct and views; I am differently situated--that is, I've had to do (for free) the hard work of answering hundreds of queries directed at me by strangers for the past five years. I envy you your armchair-quarterbacking, especially as you're paid the same amount to do it (nothing) as I was getting paid to try to answer those applicants' questions honestly and comprehensively. Having said this, I'll say again that under my present contract I would not have replied to that applicant (for which, you can be certain, I would have received as much vituperation as you're now giving me; the only thing people hate worse than having their questions answered is having them _not_ be answered).

Caterina says...

I don't have anything personal against Seth Abramson; I don't even know him, though I admire his choosing to use his law degree to work as a public defender (I don't admire his combativeness when it occurs because I know it's the sole reason some people won't post here or on various other sites--and is, in fact, the sole reason I didn't post here sooner than this year.) I obviously do, however, have several problems with these supposed rankings.
*****
The gist of what I wrote Mary Gannon (not that I necessarily expect it to be taken too seriously by her or anyone else on the editorial staff):
*****
I don't know whether or not "Faustino," in her/his comment below, is accurate about Seth's contract with P&W forbidding Seth from "advising" prospective applicants. Either way, are the following comments by Seth (taken from the MFA Creative Writing Blog) examples of what Faustino calls avoiding "advising" potential applicants? I don't know how the magazine can consider them the comments of a disinterested (impartial) pollster. Abramson repeatedly refers to his POLL as "the rankings." One doesn't need to be a statistician to see the absurdity of that. Does no one on the Poets & Writers editorial staff think critically about the evaluation of this sort of pseudo-quantitative information? Or does the editorial staff simply not care? On the blog, Abramson repeatedly goes beyond simply providing information or, as Faustino puts it, "correcting bad facts"; he adds his own assumptions, for which he provides scant or no evidence, and his own interpretations of information from other sources--e.g., Richard Ford, "maybe"--along with his strong biases, none of which have anything to do with his "hard data." (It took me only seconds to find these examples. He's made numerous comments about Columbia on the blog. Again, I have no bias toward Columbia. I never applied there and I personally know no one who went there for her MFA, though I admire the work of many of that program's graduates.)
*****
The "rankings" are not even "votes" but lists of schools to which people might apply, some of which are chosen because they are (or are perceived to be) easier to get into.
*****
Here, in response to applicants who wanted to go to Columbia, are just a couple of examples from the blog, http://creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com/2011/03/where-did-you-apply-mar-13.html (which I have saved in a Word document in case the page is later taken down):
*****
  Another,

I went to Harvard Law. Columbia's creative writing MFA program is not Harvard Law. Harvard Law has been ranked the #1 or #2 law school in the world for about seventy years. Columbia's fiction program isn't even ranked in the top 30% of programs in this country. And its poetry program is ranked #82 -- out of 150 full-residency MFA programs. HLS and Columbia cost about the same to attend -- the difference is that HLS is a three-year professional school which basically guarantees you a job upon graduation (and if you take a low-income job by choice, HLS offers the most generous, 100% loan-forgiveness program in the history of higher education), whereas Columbia will set a young poet or writer back $150,000 for a twenty-one-month course of study that does absolutely nothing whatsoever for one's chances of securing employment. Columbia can be turned down, shouldbe turned down, and unless one is independently wealthy it's not clear how or why it should be applied to in the first instance. Increasingly, applicants who do substantial research into the programs that are available around the country (200+ full-residency MFA programs, nearly 40 of them free and ranked higher than Columbia) are coming to this conclusion.

S.
*****

 Chris,
Columbia has a unique history -- their School of the Arts was devised as, and has always been, a cash cow. There's an article by someone who went there in the 1970s (is it Richard Ford, maybe? I can't remember) that explains how CU views its art programs, which is as a money-maker, pure and simple. They are not focused on artists first, and they really never have been -- it's about stats (books published, tuition brought in, &c). I'm afraid that's the sad truth about CU, which was covered up for years by ranking systems with no principle behind them except to laud famous writers and suck at the teet of Ivy League prestige.

S.

*****

By the way, Richard Ford went to UC-Irvine for his MFA. He didn't apply to Iowa because he didn't think he could get in, and he applied to Irvine not knowing how stellar its facutly was at the time (which it generally is, of course). Seth apparently didn't bother to look this up before he non-"advised" a prospective student regarding Columbia. (So, this is "freelance journalism" these days? Or is impartial blogging okay even when it's directly connected to these "rankings," which are published in a magazine Ms. Gannon describes, in her response to the open letter by 190 creative writing professors, as adhering "to the highest journalistic standards"?)

*****

Ford's interview:

http://www.pshares.org/read/article-detail.cfm?intArticleID=4087

Caterina says...

Thanks for passing this along to the stats person, Hello World. (I like your username, by the way!) My brother found the choice of sampling, among other details, "curious"--his polite way of putting it. (Yeah, he's my brother, but it's not as if we think alike.) Since he's a professional statistician, I'm going to have to defer to his judgment over Seth's on this one. Not that his judgment would come as any great surprise to many who are troubled by the rankings.

hello world says...

The basis of the rankings is the "methodology". I had a faculty member with a PhD in research methods look at Seth's "methodology" and he stated simply: "I took a quick look and it seems like nonsense given the contextual limitations."

He is going to take a more thorough look, and I will post his full results when I have them.

Thanks.

H.W.

Caterina says...

Lapwing, it appears to me that you do misunderstand what I'm saying. My Saying that there's no evidence to support a correlation between popularity and quality is not the same as suggesting that applicants should apply to one type of program (e.g., the "reviled" ones) over another type. I'm simply commenting on the assumptions that have been made by the pollster about the respondents' knowledge of various programs and their reasons for choosing the programs they do. The words "It's reasonable to assume..." (or words very close to those) appear more than once in the methodology. I remember what I thought when I first read that statement: that I wouldn't have dared include such an assumption in any of my undergraduate papers.
*****
Some programs are chosen by certain applicants precisely BECAUSE those programs are easier to get into, as the author, Seth, acknowledges in reference to his latest list of "The Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs." My program's listed in the top 50 AND among the underrated (and who knows where it'll end up next), but that's not my point; it's the overall APPROACH I object to--though I won't pretend that I'm not stunned by the low positions several extremely reputable programs are taking in these so-called rankings.
*****
On the other hand, the raw data, to whatever extent the'yre accurate, are extremely valuable, I think, and it would be stupid of me to have any problem with the compilation of such information.
*****
From a professor emeritus at UT-Austin, a former abstract algebraist who also did/does work in statistics (this is basic stuff, but the considerations she includes are no less important when interpreting survey results):
http://www.ma.utexas.edu/users/mks/statmistakes/StatisticsMistakes.html

elvisdog says...

If you are a prospective MFA student, and you are looking at these "rankings," you should be aware that they represent an arbitrary and incomplete evaluation of these programs. The people who are doing the evaluating literally do not know what they are talking about. The person who conducts this "ranking" has habitually focused on financial aid as the primary, at times the sole measure of the worth of a program.

What else matters? (a) A committed faculty that's willing to engage with the students. To find this out, you're going to have to talk to students who are actually in these programs, and not to prospective applicants, who don't know one way or the other. (b) A lively, congenial group of fellow students to inspire and console. Again, this is not something you can know about ahead of time. (c) The reputation value of a program, by which I mean the worth of your degree in the eyes of editors, agents, prospective employers, etc. There is a larger writing community, you can see it at work at Bread Loaf, AWP, Tin House and cocktail hours across the land. These people do have a sense of which programs are solid and which ones foundering. If you want to know what the reputation of a program is, you're going to have to ask them -- which P&W has not done.

What's the right MFA program for you? You're going to have to do some digging, read some books, maybe visit some towns, maybe have a long heart-to-heart with yourself about what you can afford and what's worth sacrificing for. But you're sure not going to find an answer here.

lapwing says...

If I understand what you're saying, Cat., then the most unpopular program, the program no one applies to, the program no one wants to attend, may very well provide the best quality. Everyone is just missing its greatness. So applicants should seek out the most reviled programs and ignore the supposedly good ones. If a program is popular, forget it: it's garbage. This makes no sense to me, but it does have a certain paranoid appeal.

Caterina says...

If you look closely at the signers of the letter, you'll also see many from well funded programs, including programs in this poll's top 25 (and that what it is, after all: a POLL among applicants and potential applicants). There's no empirical basis for concluding that a programs's popularity among applicants correlates to knowledge of the quality of that program, and assuming such a correlation is the sort of mistake a good statistician would never make. (Another mistake a good statistician would never make is to equate correlation with causation.)

lapwing says...

Whenever these rankings come out, there seems to be some basic confusion about who they're for.

The rankings are mostly for applicants and prospective applicants, right?

They're not for current MFA students. They're not for recent MFA graduates. They're not for program directors. They're not for professors.

Yet there's always this enraged uproar among current students, recent graduates, program directors, and professors, particularly those with connections to expensive but unevenly funded schools like Columbia, Emerson (well-represented in the unintentionally hilarious grievance press release), and Boston U.

In the racket they make, I hear "I've been slighted!" much more clearly than "But the poor applicants have been misinformed!"

If the point of the rankings is to help applicants, then I would say it succeeds wonderfully. If the point is to help graduates, professors, etc. (help them how, I'm not sure), then I would say it fails wonderfully.

umass76 says...

MJ024, That's a good point -- prior to this year's surveys, discussions were certainly had in the applicant community in which I provided data about individual programs being discussed. Sometimes that data appeared "negative" (e.g., in discussions of funding packages), sometimes "positive" (I recall that New York University used the MFA Blog to get out the word about its new funding scheme), though of course I never advised anyone to apply to this place or that place, nor offered personal opinions on individual programs (almost no one knows my _personal_ opinions on individual programs, as they're irrelevant to the ranking). My policy was always this: As long as accurate data is being mainlined into the community that needs it, that's what matters -- what's done with that accurate data is not, at the end of the day, my business. Choosing an MFA program is such a personal decision. In any case, this year my role was as described several comments below -- I corrected misinformation as necessary, but did not speak of individual programs beyond that. As to the long-standing conventional wisdom regarding seeking a good financial arrangement, it seems the cat is out of the bag: in a recent survey, MFA faculties recently ranked Funding the #1 concern for MFA applicants, and a recent letter signed by a number of MFA faculty members states, "No applicant should put her or himself in financial peril in order to pursue the [MFA] degree." I think this is pretty much the advice all applicants are getting now. --S.

mj024 says...

With what I just posted I wanted to add something, because I'm not trying to attack anyone or say that Seth is purposely telling people what to do or not to do. I just think that his opinions are weighted differently because he puts together the rankings. He is an authority, and the opinions of authority are often weighted differently. I hope I'm making sense. Everyone has an opinion about certain aspects of applications and schools, but when Seth would deliver his to the group of prospectives, it felt more like finding an "answer." Because of who he is. That could be heartening, or it could be disheartening.

mj024 says...

I don't know, I was a quiet member of the group last year and while Seth never specifically said, "I advise you all to do x" -- wait, actually, he probably did, casually, in his discussions encouraging us to seek fully funded programs. Specifically telling us everything negative he could find about the New York programs, too, to the point that he would get in arguments with people. This is all casual and offered as opinion, but where is the line drawn between someone's opinion and the opinion of the guy who does the rankings? When does it become advice about what Seth thinks is important?

Faustino says...

Clara S.,

Not only does Seth not advise people on which programs he thinks are good or bad in public posts, but he is contractually barred from doing so. He can only correct bad facts about programs in his comments. He has stated this many times and has not breached this agreement.

It's wrong to connote that the moderator of the facebook group is barring faculty members from entering. There is no prerequisite to join other than sending the moderator a request. Judging by the attitudes of several of those signatory faculty whom I know personally, they simply don't care and don't have time to read posts in the Draft - and I don't blame them for it.

Please join the facebook group and read a few posts rather than make statements based on third-hand stories.

umass76 says...

Hi Clara, everything you wrote about the Facebook group in question is untrue. Literally, everything. I remember a time when that stopped people from writing things online. Anyway, feel free to join the group yourself to confirm this. --S.

Clara S. says...

I’ll post the link to the Open Letter from MFA Faculty again, since I think people need to read this: http://www.observer.com/2011/09/creative-writing-profs-dispute-their-ran...

The biggest problem with these rankings is that the basic methodology seems journalistically unethical.

I read on another site that Seth is currently collecting data for next year’s rankings from a private Facebook group called “MFA Draft 2012,” a group you have to be approved to join. Apparently, this FB group consists almost exclusively of current applicants and of course Seth, who advises these applicants on what he feels they should prioritize, which programs he feels they should pay attention to, and which programs they might want to avoid, It seems that Seth is seen as an authority on this FB page and that his opinions are very much valued. It’s also worth pointing out that there are not many other voices, aside from the voices of other applicants, heard on this site. For example, I don’t believe that any of the 200 signatories of the aforementioned letter are members of this group.

I have no problem with Seth advising these applicants on various programs, or even with him stating what he believes these applicants should be looking for in a program (e.g., good financial aid.) What I do have a problem with is Seth advising these applicants, and then turning around and polling these very same applicants on where they plan to apply, and then using this data for the P&W ranking. This is the part that seems journalistically unethical. In other words, you can’t have a neutral poll when the person conducting the poll is also advising the people he’s polling.

Basically, it seems to me that Seth wants to wear two hats. He wants to be an advisor to applicants, but also a neutral collector of data, but unfortunately he can’t be both, and this is what leads me to wonder whether the editors of Poets & Writers are even aware of what Seth is up to over on that closed FB page and whether anyone is actually monitoring what he’s doing?

hello world says...

I am not Caterina, nor have I ever been Caterina. Seth merely thinks I am because he can't believe that more than one person would disagree with his rankings.

Thanks.

Caterina says...

Just so it's clear (since I was accused earlier of lying): I am NOT "hello world." But here's the letter that person is referring to (though the Observer's headline for the article is inaccurate): http://www.observer.com/2011/09/creative-writing-profs-dispute-their-ran...

hello world says...

I love the open letter to P&W written by various members of Creative Writing Programs. What's your opinion of it Seth?

-HW

umass76 says...

ABP, Look, I agree with you. This exchange is a waste of time, and was from the beginning. But the difference between Caterina and myself is that this is my job. Not my hobby. If there are misunderstandings about the rankings, I'm tasked (and have been, really, since 2006) with answering queries of the sort that Caterina (on occasion) put forward. But yes -- I would be happier if I didn't have to engage in exchanges like this one. I hear you. --S.

A Bloody Period says...

Seriously. Shut the Hell up. Both of you! You guys sound like little immature brats with elevated vocabularies. Caterina, sorry, you've said your piece. Shut the f*** up. Seth-let this banter die already. You guys are supposed to be professionals? Dear god I'm embarrassed for both your alma maters. You shame them with your stupidity. Grow up! Both of you.
*****

Caterina says...

I scroll down (generally once per day, though sometimes twice and sometimes not at all) to see what other people might have added. As a result, my eyes sometimes fall on part of the first or last sentence of S.A.'s postings (thus, I just now read most of his sentence with the word "charade" in it). With the exception of one atypically short posting by him, I haven't read anything else he's written to or about me since his first couple of postings, though a couple of people have called my attention to a few of his assertions about what I have or have not written. I don't claim that I haven't read something when I actually have, and he has no reason to presume otherwise. If I HAD read them, I'm sure I would be wasting an enormous amount of time responding in some detail to them, which I know from following his interactions on other sites would likely be pointless (at least on this topic and certain others), regardless of the content of my own comments.

umass76 says...

P.S. Could we please drop this charade that you are not reading anyone else's comments (particularly mine)? I find your claim that "friends" of yours are reading the thread on your behalf and reporting back to you about what's been said particularly bizarre and... well, creepy, to be honest. Of _course_ you're reading all of the comments in this thread -- that appears to be exactly the sort of attention you're craving here. Certainly you are not here to have your questions answered; that I've done in every single instance, without fail, and yet it appears to have had no impact whatsoever on your interest in this thread. OTOH, you're still referencing things I said ten comments ago as though they're "fresh," and still seem to think I'm using your real name when I only mentioned it once in passing (maybe twenty comments and two weeks ago), so maybe you're really _not_ reading anyone's posts but your own? But no -- that would simply be too bizarre and creepy, I can't possibly believe it. --S.

umass76 says...

Caterina, I'm afraid that you're again just misrepresenting what occurred to fuel your unwarranted indignation. The entire _point_ of our recent e-mail exchange was you wondering what my justification was for claiming that University of Arkansas had not been able to crack the Top 30 under any national ranking for MFA programs (a fact I was noting lamentably at the time, not approvingly). During that offline exchange I spent a good deal of my free time, which I certainly didn't have to spend, providing you with all of the historical research that was the basis for my claim, including _directly_ responding to your insistence that I supply you with an itemization of every national ranking ever done for MFA programs and Arkansas' placement in it. I provided you with that, and thereby proved my point. Yet in your _very first_ post on this site you pretended that that question had never been answered for you. You wrote, "What other national rankings could [Seth] be referring to [in saying Arkansas had never cracked the Top 30]?" That was a deceitful statement, as I had already provided you with the _exact_ (detailed) answer to that question offline. Hence, when I responded to you I mentioned our correspondence. For you to say that my "first response to [you] brought up an outside discussion that was mostly polite and was irrelevant to the points I made on this site" is false. Moreover, in your _very first_ post on this site you referenced our private correspondence by providing information here you only had _because_ of that correspondence -- specifically, my explanation of how I defined the term "underrated" in my article regarding "underrated programs" on The Huffington Post. So yes, you _directly_ made use of our correspondence in a misleading way in your first post, which is both a) why I mentioned it myself in reply, and b) presumed that you were here to continue that conversation, in which case it would have been polite for us to use our real names. That said, the _second_ you made clear you did not wish to use your first name (which I had only typed into a message in quotes and next to your alias by way of saying that I didn't know which name to address you by), I consistently began calling you by your alias -- even when, incredibly, you began signing all your comments using either your real first initial, real last initial, or even (once) your entire real first name, which was ironic and/or hypocritical given how much you'd howled over my brief mention of it several messages prior. You are not acting in good faith here, Caterina, and I find it remarkable that you would think you could contribute anything valuable to this conversation when you are not actively engaging with the one person best positioned to answer the questions you claim you have. On the other hand, given that in your _very first_ post here you pretended to be confused on a point you had already had meticulously explained and answered for you offline, it doesn't seem that your claims of confusion or having still-unanswered queries should be given any credence whatsoever anyway. --S.

Caterina says...

Regarding the last posting: In posting my first comment, I wasn't intending to incite the ire of Seth Abramson (though I knew I probably would). I'm not even reading his comments now, which I'm avoiding because I've seen his lengthy exchanges with others on the Internet; after all, I didn't post in the first place for Seth's benefit, and I don't think a back-and-forth with him will be productive, especially for other readers. My initial posting was in no way unkind or inflammatory, but his first response to it brought up an outside discussion that was mostly polite and was irrelevant to the points I made on this site. So, yeah; I got angry.
*****
My motives for posting have nothing whatsoever to do with a "need for love" (I would never draw such a conclusion about someone based on her online comments); I knew that by posting, I would be risking a long and hostile response from Seth, which is why I hesitated doing so for several days. But when any one person has this kind of influence regarding a complicated process, I think criticism is healthy (I was similarly uncomfortable with the disproportionate influence that Oprah Winfrey's book club had, though I fully understand that she had the legal right to express her opinion--which is what it was, her opinion). Online, Seth has said in his own defense, "Anyone who knows me knows that..." Well, I'll just say that my FRIENDS know that "self-aggrandizing" doesn't apply.
*****
The implication in one of Seth's replies was that I was somehow being less than honorable by not using my real name, but I notice that others who've commented (including the last poster) haven't used their real names either, and I think that choice should be respected by the author.

centerforpeacea... says...

Seth, I do not know how you have maintained such a calm and gracious tone with your interlocutor, who immediately made the conversation personal ("Harvard law degree or not (and by the way, my former "white-trash" parents got full rides at Harvard, so I'm not intimidated by your resume)...), and then had the incomprehensible nerve to blame you for making the conversation personal. Hello World, or whatever her name is, who cares?, is perpetually self-aggrandizing. It is a nasty habit, but is reflective of a need for love and validation, which I send her way. I hear you, Hello World. I send you love, Hello World. Hello World, you have been heard and understood. However, please leave this person, Seth, alone. He has done an excellent job intellectually and methodologically with this project, and has been a saint for taking so much time to repeat what he already wrote in the methods section over and over to you. The fact that you refuse to read a thoughtful, precise response to your rambling and ranting is especially troubling.

The internet is such a strange place. Writers are strange. Poets and Writers are strange. Especially on the internet. GO GO GO World! Hellooooooo World!!!!

Hooray for hippies. Hooray for sunshine. Hooray for visioncreationnewsun. May we all live in peace and bathe in the currents of good will. HELLO WORLD. HELLO.

umass76 says...

I'm sorry, Caterina, but that's simply not acting in good faith. You've come on here asking questions, which I've answered; made erroneous claims, which I've corrected; expressed legitimate concerns, which I've attempted to assuage. And all you've said -- over and over -- is, "Well, I'm not reading anything else anyone is writing, but..." or "Well, I know I asked you ten questions and perhaps you answered them but I'll never know because here's ten thousand characters on a totally different topic..." A good faith participant in a discussion reads what others write, considers what they say, and responds to their concerns. I've done that. You've consistently gotten personal with me and then refused to read my (entirely non-personal) responses to you. I haven't referenced your e-mails to me for many messages now -- as you'd know, if you were reading anything other than your own opinions. I wouldn't be quite so proud of making this thread into your own personal echo chamber, Caterina. Read my comments: You will see that they _directly_ reply to your concerns, time and time again. --S.

Caterina says...

I'm avoiding a detailed exchange with you, Seth; it got personal very fast, and I can't defend myself regarding what I wrote (and generally quite genially) in the small number of emails I wrote you--and reading your postings will just tempt me to spend time responding. (I rarely post comments anywhere, and my comments on this site are the first I've posted on this particular subject.) My statistician brother has now read your methodology, and I'm confident that my concerns are fair and rational.
*****
For others: In my last comment, I probably should have mentioned that a new Stegner Fellow also came from last year's second-year fiction writers at Iowa. The reason it didn't occur to me to include that detail is that Iowa hardly needs any defending in these poll results.

umass76 says...

Hi Caterina, I'll repeat here what I've said elsewhere: Rankings tables are specifically designed not to be reducible to a single column. What I mean by that is, a comprehensive ranking doesn't _merely_ say, this program is ranked first, this one second, and so on; it provides readers with _all_ of the attendant constituent data so that individual consumers of the rankings can ignore any column they wish to, reorder the programs based on their own values, and so on. So, for instance, you are saying the rankings don't seem to take into account the strength of the writers produced by your alma mater. That's incorrect; the hard-data rankings in the table that measure cohort quality are Selectivity, Funding (because high funding increases applicant-pool size, yield, and so on), Job Placement, and Fellowship Placement. Arkansas ranks in the Top 10 worldwide in both Job Placement and Fellowship Placement (average ranking in those two categories: 8th), the equivalent of a #2 or #3 worldwide ranking back when there were a third as many programs (i.e., at the time of the USNWR rankings you mentioned several times). Arkansas ranks in the Top 20 in Funding (specifically: 16th), the equivalent of a #5 worldwide ranking in the USNWR rankings you've mentioned. So if you want to speak of the USNWR rankings, Arkansas is Top 5 internationally in three of the four "cohort-quality-indicative" rankings. Even in its "worst" cohort-quality-indicative ranking, Selectivity, its current Top 40 position (#32) would be the equivalent of a Top 10 positioning in 1996. So the rankings in every way register the excellence you're seeing in the Arkansas alumni pool. The mistake I feel you're making is you're using the left-most column (Popularity) as a proxy for cohort quality, when it is not intended to be that--in fact, that's the very reason the constituent hard-data rankings I mentioned above are included in the table. The reason a program might rank lower in Popularity than in the cohort-quality-indicative rankings is because applicants report that their application decisions rest on countless factors--Location being a top-three consideration. In your correspondence with me you conceded that Arkansas may lose many applicants because of its location (I have no opinion on that; I'm just repeating what you've said), meaning that by your own reading of the situation Arkansas performing worse in Popularity than in the cohort-quality-indicative categories is _exactly_ what you would have expected. This is why I keep saying I think you are misreading the table; it is _not_ because I intend to condescend to you, it is only because... well, because you are misreading the table. --S.

Caterina says...

Now that some other people have chimed in: I still haven't read the rest of the longer postings; I've seen on several other sites where that type of exchange can lead, and they're too time-consuming for me.
*****
The program named on my diploma is in the top 50, and I wasn't raising a point about specific details of where any ONE school fell on the list (I was told by a source I trust that the suggestion was made that I was merely complaining about "my" program's position on the list--and if that was a misreading on the other person's part, then I apologize); what I'm concerned about is HOW my alma mater and other schools got there, and about why certain schools weren't even close when they keep producing especially good writers. I know that many schools are chosen by applicants because they're considered easier to get into (and I've already commented on my problem with equating acceptance rates with selectivity--and by the way, among Columbia's most recent graduates, another Stegner Fellow was chosen last spring). On Amazon, someone (an Iowa grad) angrily remarked in his rating of the first edition of Tom Kealey's book that Kealey obviously had something against Iowa and that Kealey's opinion was probably the result of Kealey's being rejected by that program. (Personally, I would be much prouder of a Stegner than of getting into Iowa, which is why I believed that Mr. Kealey truly chose not to apply to Iowa and why I saw no basis for concluding that sour grapes were involved in his reservations at the time about that particular program.)
*****
In any case, I worry that these rankings will become self-perpetuating; I knew and know too many prospective MFA students who did very little research before they started applying to programs.
*****
C/L

P.S. Funding at Iowa:
http://www.uiowa.edu/~iww/admissions/financialaid.htm

umass76 says...

Sam, I'm sorry to hear that. The rankings make up less than 2% of the annual content of the magazine (one-tenth of one-sixth), and the other 98% of what P&W (a non-profit) publishes each year presumably includes a lot of material you enjoy, if you originally subscribed prior to the introduction of the rankings in 2009. I think it would be like cancelling a subscription to Poetry Magazine because you truly detested 1.7% of the poetry published there annually. But that's my take, and of course I respect the fact that you obviously feel quite differently. --S.

morescotch says...

This is why I canceled my subscription. If you were wondering where your fifteen dollars went.

-Sam Amadon

maggle says...

Another way in which these rankings work is that they provide MFA applicants with a springboard for research. Before I came across an earlier version of these rankings, I had a difficult enough time finding a somewhat comprehensive list of potential schools.
Now, I can scroll through this .pdf and in my spare time do some program googling in order to complete my own spreadsheet. I am initially interested in funding and location, but I move on to things that these rankings couldn't possibly take into account (such as potential for obtaining degrees simultaneously in both fiction and film studies). And this in a nutshell is what the rankings provide: I don't have to spend too much time looking for GRE requirements on a school's website, and instead, I can focus on the things that would really make a program attractive to me.
Anyway, I was just hoping to see if we could get a conversation started on how other applicants use this list.

umass76 says...

SA8609, I'm going to take that advice. --S.

starvingartist8609 says...

Sorry, guys. You both sound petty and pretentious. Why don't you use some of that motivation for your next masterpiece?

Caterina says...

Hi. I just posted links to a couple of articles on selectivity (in academe in general, not just pertaining to MFA programs), for anyone interested in that topic. (One article's very short, the other is on SpringerLink.) There's no traffic on that page, so it's nice and quiet:
*****
http://www.pw.org/content/the_2012_rankings_of_graduate_programs_in_crea...
*****
Thanks,
C/L

Caterina says...

Of course you don't.

C/L

umass76 says...

Hi Caterina, I'm afraid I don't have anything to add to what I've said previously. Best, --Seth

Caterina says...

[I compiled all of the very few recent emails I wrote to Seth, and I did so in my attempt to illustrate to him how decent they generally were, though I don't know if they'll ever get through--literally or figuratively--to him. I'd like to end the stupidity of this exchange for good, but when I hear that he publicly mis-portrayed what I privately wrote to him...]
*****
Someone informed me today, Seth, of your posted comment that some of my emails to you were "very aggressive." Therefore, I did read that posting of yours this evening (while avoiding the rest). These emails from me are aggressive? Really? Included are all of my recent messages to you (and my few earlier ones were at least as polite as most of these). You pat yourself on the back for using your name on the P & W site (and I hope you would for these articles!--you're under contract with them), but you deeply mis-characterize the tone of our very few email exchanges, none of which I want to post (though I'm damn tempted to) because I don't want to, for example, publicly "dis" another program to which I compared my own.
*****
You're either being disingenuous about the content of my emails or you're too emotionally/egoistically invested in this project to fairly read what I wrote. Now that you've revealed part of my identity, I resent even more your description of my mostly EXTREMELY nice emails to you. Unfortunately, I'm not in a position where I can really defend myself on that count.
*****
You want to talk about aggressive? How about when you responded online to someone who disagreed with you by saying to that person (and not as a joke), "you little jerk!" (I'm not going to bother looking up the site so that I can provide the link, which I bet you can easily locate--others who are curious will have to do their own exhaustive Google searches--but I'll agree that you've at times taken similar abuse online, though none of it ever came from me). I have never said anything even remotely as hostile to anyone online (and I certainly didn't say anything as disrespectful in my emails to you).

In response to one's critics, blatant name-calling is neither a professional nor intellectual form of "discourse," as some PhD-level folks in the humanities love to put it. Neither is reporting on private written conversations that the other party might have reason to keep private, and I don't deserve to be painted as someone who rabidly opposed you when I didn't.
*****
I was SO hesitant, initially, to post my views on this page, but I now see that I wasn't nearly hesitant enough. Ye gods.
*****
C.

umass76 says...

Hi Caterina, I'm sorry my responses struck you as condescending (or hostile) -- I don't agree with that representation, but I do know it was never my intent to condescend to you or to get personal with you, so I do regret hearing that you feel that way. For my part, I felt your comments here were often couched as personal attacks, including several references to aspects of my personal life (and other things which have nothing to do with the only appropriate topic for this space, the ranking methodology), but I know you don't agree with me on that -- and I respect your right to disagree on that -- and at this point it probably doesn't suit either of us to continue this back-and-forth. I think (and hope) you've had an adequate chance here to present your opinions; my guess is that anyone reading this thread will readily see both your position and mine. It's part of my job, in my view, to correct misimpressions people may have about the ranking methodology; I can't promise folks will always admire or appreciate the way I do that, but I do it as professionally as I can and just hope for the best. I don't harbor any ill will toward you, and hope you feel the same about me. All I can do now is sincerely wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors. Regards, --Seth

Caterina says...

Online, Seth feels often works to "disabuse" others of notions (of him or his work) that he believes are inaccurate.
*****
I need to do the same, now that I've reread his initial response to me. (I haven't read his most recent postings and don't intend to read them, or any new ones, very soon; starting with his first posting, he made this topic personal when he referred to the small number of emails I wrote him over the years--as if he thought I was trying to pretend I'm someone I'm not and he was going to publicly expose me by referring to those emails--and I felt his responses were likely to get only more hostile.)
*****
1) I was very polite in my email exchanges with Seth until I finally got annoyed by his email to me on July 2, 2010, which was a response to another concern I had expressed to him about these rankings and which he opened by saying "I see where your confusion lies." I didn't consider it appropriate for a non-statistician to suggest that I must simply be confused about his statistical methods (it came across to me as very pedantic--not the way any professor of mine ever treated me).
*****
Prior to that, the last email I'd gotten from Seth was on May 28. It was a mass email promoting "Northerners." I also emailed him (and Tom Kealey) about the rankings on January 17, 2010.
*****
2) I NEVER said that I felt my professional opportunities were being hindered. I took a long time to finish my now-287-page thesis (which was 347 pages at the time of my thesis defense) because I didn't want to defend it until I felt it was closer to "finished"; though I completed my coursework in 2003, I didn't defend my thesis until last December, so I actually completed my MFA at the end of the fall of 2010; thus, I didn't even start applying for full-time jobs that might be compatible with an MFA until January. For two and-a-half years in the interim, I worked as a newspaper reporter (writing feature stories, mainly).
*****
I DID, however, express concern that these rankings COULD unfairly affect graduates' prospects for employment.
****
Now that I've had a chance to clarify the content of my most recent emails to/from Seth Abramson:
*****
In June I finished editing a sizable portion of a book collection that's under contract with a well known academic publishing company (which I won't name because I don't want to drag them into this)--a job I got in large part because of my MFA.
*****
I don't want to be misrepresented. I also don't want to subject myself right now to any more "explanations" of why I just don't understand Seth's rankings. I do understand them. I just don't agree with certain of his conclusions, and I made a reasonable case for why I don't.
*****
As I mentioned yesterday, my brother is a statistician--his PhD is in mathematical statistics, and his dissertation, in which he disproved a well-known lemma, heavily utilized game theory--and he knows how tricky it is to interpret "hard data" of the sort on which this ranking system is based.
*****
Laura/Caterina