Friday, September 16, 2011

Rankled About Rankings

So I signed a letter recently against the way that Poets & Writers Magazine ranks creative writing programs. As someone who's taught in creative writing programs for the past ten years, and who has recently directed a program (which, in case you were wondering about any potential sour grapes on my part, ranks in the top five PhD programs in the nation according to P&W), I think it's important to shed a little light on the pitfalls and problems of rank when applied to writing programs, especially as application season starts to loom. I know many of you out there probably aren't interested in this and just want to know what the hell I've been doing with all that grant money besides spending it on bad apartments and wheels of cheese. To you, I apologize. Please come back in a few days.


First, as an ex-program director, I'd like to apologize for NOT filling out the annual Poets and Writers' survey. This was not why I was stripped of my title (the directorship at Utah is a revolving duty and my time thankfully just revolved) and likely this will discount my following remarks on the grounds of administrative laziness (which, frankly, it initially was), but my decision was ultimately based on what I thought were good reasons. The first reason was that the survey was mostly based on three distinct sets of questions that all revolved around numbers. Roughly paraphrased, the questions boiled down to the following categories. First: How many students apply each year to your program, and for which degree and in which genres? Second: How many students do you accept in each genre and for each degree? Third: What is the fellowship amount awarded to each student?

These are good questions to ask, I think, because it gives the potential applicant a sense of her competition, as well as a basis for understanding just what--monetarily--she is competing for. It's something any applicant would want to know. But sadly, I didn't have accurate enough numbers to keep track.

Why? you ask. Because every damn year these numbers change.

For instance, one year we'd have over 300 people apply, another year over 400, another year in the high 200's. (Lately, and I think you can guess why, our numbers have been increasing.) In terms of genre, the numbers are all over the map and show no annual consistency. Even the fellowship numbers change, as our MFAs are funded less regularly than PhDs, and occasionally with different packages. (Our MFA program at Utah has a Modular MFA that allows students interested in Book Arts, Environmental Humanities, and the American West Center to take graduate courses in these fields rather than in English, which means these students have different funding streams based on their interests.) We also have new fellowships constantly being added to the list, and as the budget crisis continues to tornado through the university system, it's not always clear just how many overall fellowships we'll have, nor how many applicant spots we can finally offer.

Essentially, our program--like many--is dynamic, and the numbers (useful to have, I admit) are annually unreliable.

Ah, you say. But why not just give the roughest estimate you can while still indicating that it's all in flux? Cave applicantor and all that?

Well, there's the laziness problem, which is significant. But more importantly, outside the funding numbers (which I think are hugely important), I didn't think the other numbers were useful ways to rank programs. Good questions to answer for applicants, but bad questions to use in ranking programs.

Graduate degrees in creative writing are weird beasts-- weird even for the humanities, which are chockablock with looney tune research fields. I sympathize with students trying to pick the right program, considering the variety and amount of information they'll have to process. Generally, they should look to their counterparts in literary studies at the MA or PhD level to see how a successful applicant approaches choosing a program. This is how it goes:

1. The applicant figures out what her discipline is, and likely knows what her speciality is going to be. She learns who the people publishing in this particular speciality are, where they teach, and what kind of graduate courses they offer.

2. The applicant starts to ask the directors, faculty members, alumni and enrolled students of her programs of interest about the program's pedagogy, social life, publishing and mentoring possibilities. She emails frequently. She risks, frankly, being a bit of a pest.

3. The applicant then makes a list of schools that specialize in her field, with the funding package numbers for each of them. She applies to a variety of these schools. She understands she will be choosing her school based on personal interest, financial opportunity and faculty-student mentoring possibilities.

Which is all a very dull way of saying: SHE MAKES HER OWN DAMN RANKING SYSTEM.

Leaving aside for the moment some of the obvious differences between literature and CW degree seekers (organizational skills and the ability to lie effectively being the main two that distinguish the successful lit applicant. Can I tell you, seriously, how many students approach me about getting a PhD in poetry who confess they don't like to read poetry and have never taken a workshop before? Seriously?), the problem with the P&W list's fascination with numbers is that, ultimately, it treats all MFA and CW PhD programs as the same without allowing for formal and aesthetic specialties. This is NOT the expectation we would have with, say, other literary studies degrees at the graduate level. Certainly, there are ranking systems for graduate degree-conferring universities, including those in English literature (is Yale still #1? Go bulldogs!), but people pursuing graduate degrees also know that this ranking system doesn't capture the full picture. If you're a medievalist, it's nice to go to Yale, but you REALLY should go to Notre Dame.

The same works for creative writing. If you are a formalist narrative poet, you would be wasting a reading fee applying to Brown. If you are an experimental fiction writer, likely Denver is your place.

In general, public ranking systems of degree programs exist for a variety of good and bad reasons but, increasingly, I think they largely remain in place to help settle internal college disputes. During departmental hiring debates, it's notable how often ranking numbers come up, and certainly a highly ranked program gets the lion's share of budgetary attention come crunch time in the College of Humanities. But in terms of its public value, ranking systems exist to assure future employers of the status of job candidates' particular degrees. Thus, what these rankings systems--whether for literature or for creative writing--implicitly measure is the degree-holder's marketability.

And therein lies the second problem for me about the P&W ranking system.

Because it's implicitly NOT being used as a method of evaluating the best place to become a writer and artist, but as a measure of particular creative writing degrees within the university and literary marketplace. This is a problem because--and let's all take a deep breath here and reach for a shot--as programs contract and teaching lines dry up, there is no university marketplace. And the literary marketplace doesn't much care about degrees.

I've been on many hiring committees, and we have never, NOT ONCE, looked askance at or more seriously over the application of a candidate based on where she did her MFA degree. Hiring is about the quality of the publications, not the school. And no school, no matter how good or highly ranked, can ensure good publications.

I want to take a moment here to admit that my complaint goes beyond what the P&W list is trying to do and is more about the changing use-value of ranking lists in a university system on the verge of collapse. P&W isn't responsible for that, of course, and I do think the attempt to bring some kind of order to the chaos in which we are all working is a noble one. But I wonder, if numbers are important, whether we are looking at the right ones. What--and who--should we really be quantifying? In short, what DOES the P&W list really tell us?

Here's something that struck me about the list. Each year I noticed that the program I was directing kept ending up in the top 5 for the PhD degree, yet disappeared off the charts for the MFA.

Well, you say testily. It's because you never wrote in the damn funding packages your MFA students receive on that survey. And while people know about Utah as a PhD program, they aren't interested in the MFA program.

OK, I say. That makes sense. But there's still a little problem in the ranking system.


Seriously. Same workshops. Same faculty. Same students in the classroom. Same reading series. Same books and paper requirements and mentorship and publishing opportunities. Same focus on studio time. Even some of the same funding packages.

Maybe that's the problem. Applicants want their PhDs to be PhDs and their MFAs to be MFAs. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around that. Really, if the instruction is so good at one level, why is it not valued at the other one? Why the big discrepancy?

Because the ranking system is primarily based on the numbers generated by applicants themselves. Basically, the more people that apply to a program, the higher that program is ranked in the P&W list.

Which means that if people coming out of the gate are primarily applying to MFA programs they've heard of before, those programs get consistently high numbers. It seems that students do know about Iowa and Michigan and Syracuse and USC and Houston (which the school ranking numbers imply) and a host of other schools maybe from the ads in P&W or their time at AWP. So the students go there, and their reading list expands, they get more professionalized, and now they know to apply to Denver and Utah and FSU for a PhD because other people have applied there. What these rankings track, therefore, is less what a student may want or need in a graduate program than what information that student already has available to her when she applies. It's more about program advertising--or lack thereof--than the program itself.

This kind of ranking model seems to me a little like rating McDonalds a great restaurant because over 6 billion other people were once served there.

Something else worries me about the P&W ranking system and what it tells us. The numbers for certain schools are extremely high (given the number of respondents to the P&W questionnaire): disproportionately higher, maybe, than what we might expect in a rational admissions system. (Aside: These numbers aren't UNWARRANTED. That is, the highest ranking schools are all indeed excellent; the question is whether they are disproportionately represented.) These numbers might make sense if everyone applying was of equal ability and schools made no effort to distinguish based on ability: we just take what comes our way. But we don't. We have a system that admits people based on talent and demonstrated ability. Think about this: Does every person apply to MIT? No. Only students who are interested in the subjects that MIT specializes in, and who recognize themselves to be of the caliber of student that MIT might admit will apply. This limits the number of applicants through appropriate self-selection. There's a spread for sure (some people do get lucky or are related to famous people, so why not?) and more people will apply to MIT than Dumspville College, sure, but will more people apply to MIT than Cal Tech? Or MIT than Loyola?

Maybe it's because this is the arts, and we think that art schools are more subjective, thus the kind of self-selection I'm talking about (which depends also on great GREs, a strong GPA, great letters of rec, not to mention fabulous critical writing samples) isn't so necessary to consider as the creative sample. We all want to believe we are great writers so we all apply in great numbers to all the best programs, hoping for the best. But the fact is that there are better and worse students of creative writing, as there are better and worse students of any subject in any field. TO REALLY RANK THE MERIT OF A PROGRAM, YOU NEED TO RANK THE QUALITY OF THE ADMITTED STUDENTS, NOT THE ASPIRATIONS AND NUMBER OF ITS APPLICANTS. Which gets me to my last two points:

1. What the P&W ranking system accidentally reveals is that people applying for MFAs, unlike people in almost any other academic discipline, aren't appropriately self-selecting. This is kind of interesting and kind of worrisome at once. Rather than focusing on what their own strengths and weaknesses and interests really are, students are turning into admission lemmings and looking at the MFA system as little better than a lottery. And we're letting them do it.

2. The P&W list isn't responsible for the lack of appropriate self-selection, but I think it helps encourage this kind of McDonaldsy applicant behavior. It can't help but do this because the numbers it relies upon are so limited and so endlessly self-reflexive.

We don't have many ways of monitoring "excellence" at the university level--inside or outside of MFA programs--which may be why we fetishize lists of this sort. It suggests someone's done the heavy lifting to ensure that the product we are all clamoring for and serving up to each other in great steaming piles is worth the cost. But to me, the numbers that matter are largely financial: Does the program offer up a fellowship large enough for the student to live on for two or three years? These are numbers that absolutely have to be taken into account, as almost everything else about the degree--including the value of the teaching and the workshops and the writing time itself--can only be individually quantified.

So, as you can see, I have some issues about ranking systems. I understand the need for them, and I'm certainly sympathetic to the compilers of lists and the students that use them. With over 200 programs to choose from, demanding that an applicant research each and every one is a little, well, insane. P&W provided a quick and dirty approach to a system that itself has turned quick and dirty, as the popularity of the creative writing industry in the academy now means that we have two terminal arts degrees duking it out at the MLA every hiring season.

Perhaps now is a good time to remind everyone that a graduate degree in creative writing means, sadly, nothing. It won't give you easily marketable skills. It will take years away from specializing in something more lucrative, perhaps in something even more enjoyable. It doesn't assure that you will get a teaching job in anything anywhere ever, nor that you will be published. It gives you time to write and the opportunity to learn how to do it. That's it. Whether you went to Iowa or Dumpsville, the degree gets you nothing more than this. WHATEVER STATUS IS INHERENT TO A PARTICULAR MFA DEGREE IS IMAGINARY BECAUSE THE DEGREE ITSELF HAS NO POWER IN THE MARKETPLACE. Any ranking system, even when well-intentioned, merely tries to whitewash this reality of the post-MFA landscape by implicitly suggesting that there IS something quantifiably of value, something that can later be translated into capital power.

Maybe agents or editors or future employers will care that you got your MFA at this school and not that one. But in my limited experience, agents and editors and employers care about the writing. They care that you wrote a kick ass story or novel or poem; they don't give two shits if you came from a school that was once on the top of a list. (And if they do, maybe you should consider running.)

So this is what I suggest be the "ranking" system, and I propose it knowing full well that Utah won't come out on top. Considering that the only useful and truly quantifiable data for a program is the fellowship information, I propose that P&W simply list the programs, in alphabetical order, that offer money and what amounts they offer. That, to me, is the only series of numbers that means something in the marketplace, and it's a good starting place for students thinking about spinning the wheel of fortune with this degree.


  1. If you have an MFA, you can teach on a college level. As someone who does not have an MFA, this may not be "quantifiably of value," but it seems valuable to me.

  2. You can teach at the college level with an MFA, but the teaching jobs are so few that you will likely not get a teaching position without a lot of publications. And then, universities are known to hire folks with lots of publication regardless of whether or not they have an MFA.

  3. There are five creative writing PhD programs now? That is, perhaps the disparity in PhD / MFA status for your institution has to do with the different number of competitors in the two categories.

  4. What C. Dale said. P., I agree especially with your point about MFA students not doing that crucial self-selection work. I wonder if it's in part a consequence of how creative programs are sometimes viewed within the humanities, within English departments, even: as less intellectually serious pursuits. If the institutional atmosphere itself suggests a view of creative writing as NOT challenging, NOT critically reflective, and NOT requiring a broad and deep knowledge of the literary and literary-critical traditions, why should the applicants think otherwise? (And for the record, I don't think the fault lies entirely with the lit side of the English department divide; I think that AWP is egregious in its perpetuation of such delusions.)

  5. RG: Totally agree that it's really more a problem of how CW programs and CW public "institutions" like AWP sell ourselves to ourselves. I was thinking all day about why lit degree program rankings do continue to mean something while CW rankings increasingly don't, and I think it's due in some small part to the laziness some (certainly not all) our CW teaching colleagues bring to the CW classroom. The teaching of writing IS and CAN BE a rigorous field in and of itself, which would go a long ways towards preserving "ranking" systems regardless of whether CW grads start publishing huge amounts. But I don't think this is the way some of us are approaching the field inside the field itself.

  6. Also, to Brian: There are way more than five PhD in CW programs now. (Hard to believe, right?) I can't remember the exact number, but there are at least 15 of them (as the P&W list ranks up to 15). Regardless, your point about the way a program such as ours can disappear in one list and reappear in another might indeed be explained by numbers: there are well over 100 MFA programs out there in the country, and probably around 20-25 PhD programs. Still, if the PhD program ranks in the top percentile, you'd still imagine the MFA to fall into a comparable, if not exactly the same, percentile if the rankings were actually based on similar criteria.

  7. OK, you prompted me to research this. corroborates the P&W footnote that there are 32 places in the US that offer creative writing doctorates -- so congrats that yours is (tied for) #4!

    The data: in their top 50 MFA programs, only 3 are at institutions that offer a CW PhD.
    Cornell is #5 MFA, didn't make their top 16 PhD list
    Houston is #19 MFA, #4 PhD (tied with you)
    UNLV is #36 MFA, didn't make the PhD list

    Going the other direction, of the 16 in the CW PhD list, 7 offer masters, and of those only Houston made the top 50 MFA list. Also, it seems that CW PhD institutions _without_ MFAs did uniformly well (by the questionable P&W methodology).

    There are several provocative questions one could pose; here's one. How much do the factors that make a top MFA program and a top CW PhD really overlap?

  8. Good question: this is something that I'm wondering about too. It seems to me that the MFA and PHD candidate must be (And should be) distinctly different degree seekers, and that the interests that define the candidate interested in a PhD would be different than those that define the MFA. This would make sense: the MFA could do something besides teach in the university, but the PhD would kind of get stuck in that particular market. So this certainly explains much.

  9. From Page 1 (first section) of the methodology article Poets & Writers published one year ago for the 2011 MFA rankings:

    "In reading the rankings and this methodology article, several principles should be kept in mind: (1) MFA programs are not for everyone, and many poets and writers will find their energies better spent elsewhere as they attempt to explore and augment their existing talents; (2) no poet or writer should feel that they must attend an MFA program, whether such a concern is related to employment, networking, or personal artistic improvement and achievement; (3) MFA students must remain on guard against sacrificing their unique aesthetic, political, and cultural perspectives on the altar of consensus, as MFA programs are ideally for an exchange of diverse opinions, not hothouses for groupthink or aesthetic dogmatism; (4) an MFA in no way guarantees one postgraduate employment, as the MFA is a nonprofessional, largely unmarketable degree whose value lies in the time it gives one to write, not any perceived (and illusory) advantage it may offer in the networking, publishing, or employment arenas; (5) in view of the preceding, it is unwise to go into any debt for an MFA degree; (6) holding an MFA degree does not, in itself, make one more or less likely to be a successful poet or writer, nor should those with MFA degrees consider themselves in any respect better equipped, purely on the basis of their degree, for the myriad challenges of a writing life; (7) the MFA, as an art-school degree, is not time-sensitive, and many poets and writers will find the experience of an MFA more rewarding if they have first pursued, for several years, other avenues of self-discovery and civic engagement; (8) the MFA rankings are not intended to increase applicant anxiety, reduce applicants' application and matriculation decisions to a numbers game, or define prestige as a function of pedigree rather than program factors that genuinely enrich the lives of real poets and writers (e.g., funding, a strong cohort, strong teaching, a vibrant and welcoming location and community)—instead, their aim is to maximize the information at applicants' fingertips."


  10. P.S. This was in re: "Any ranking system, even when well-intentioned, merely tries to whitewash this reality of the post-MFA landscape..." All of the above items have been conventional wisdom in the applicant community since at least 2006; I was merely synthesizing that wisdom in the essay above. Perhaps these things were not well-known in the MFA faculty member community? I don't know. --S.

  11. Hey Seth:

    Thanks for posting the info from P&W. These things are well known in the faculty community. My point was that there's a weird circularity to this whole thing. We all know and remind ourselves that the degree guarantees nothing concrete (as your own list above so succinctly articulates), but the statement that the rankings then "maximize the information at applicants' fingertips" returns us to the original problem. What does this information mean, exactly, except that these are the most popular programs to apply to? No one--certainly not you or P&W--is telling students that they need to get the MFA, and certainly not only from these institutions. But why rank them, as the term "rank" and "ranking" implies that merit has been evaluated for others to rely upon? Why even call this a ranking system, if what this ends up being is a straw poll about which programs are appealing to the largest numbers of students to date? Perhaps if P&W simply called this list "The Top 50 Programs Students Are Applying To," this would clear up much of the rancor and confusion. And no one could argue with that: it would be exactly what it is.

    And again, I'm very sympathetic to the compilation of information that you, and P&W, have done. I agree it's important, and extraordinarily helpful for students thinking about going to grad school. But compiling information is different from what P&W has marketed this as, which is an implicit examination and quantification of programs' "value" in a literary and academic marketplace.


  12. Hi Paisley,

    I agree with what you've said above. Because over the past few years there wasn't much confusion in the applicant community about what the rankings meant or were measuring (e.g., among applicants it was generally felt [correctly] that the much-discussed "overall" ranking was merely a measure of which programs the rankings' primary consumers were expressing the most interest in applying to; I've always felt that no ranking system anywhere could ever measure program quality, as rankings only can measure what they claim to measure and what is measurable, which program quality is not)... in any case, because of what I was hearing from applicants, I didn't realize how much confusion the rankings were causing in the non-applicant community. A lot of people felt the methodology was trying to gauge something I didn't think it was trying to gauge -- and that concerns me enough that I suspect in my own research (and speaking only for myself here, and only as a guy who has a website and posts things on it) I will be moving away from rankings and toward simply providing any/all information that's available, unglossed and unsynthesized, and letting everyone judge for themselves what should be done with it, if anything. My hope is that as long as the information is just the information, i.e. is clear about where it came from and what it is, individuals old enough to attend graduate school and make important life decisions for themselves will find a way to be empowered by accurate and timely data, even in raw form. I have an enormous amount of faith in young poets and writers -- some say too much -- but I honestly believe that it's always been about the data to them more than the rankings, so as long as the data survives, that's what matters. Here's hoping the next chapter in all this -- for programs, for applicants, for everyone involved in this discussion, including me -- is better than the last one. I honestly am optimistic it will be. In the end we all believe in Art, and in the dignity of individuals, and so it's hard for us to ever stray too far from one another, even in times like these.


  13. Hey Seth:

    All this I wholeheartedly support, am encouraged bym and agree with: in the end it is about Art, and folks out there are smart enough to start wade through the necessary info. And there is a lot of it. Compilations of raw data are a good start, and I look forward to what you come up with next as a way of helping assemble this insane amount of information.

    All best,