DEBATE: MFA rankings, fact or fiction?

It’s that time of year again: when publishers begin their sandy-footed migration back from the Hamptons and MFA students and applicants rush to newsstands to scour Poets & Writers rankings of writing programs.

It’s also, then, the time of year when MFA students, applicants, faculty, and alumni clamor about inaccuracies, irrelevancies, and flaws in the Poets & Writers system.

Not one to sit on the sidelines, Electric Literature posted a question to its Facebook page: “Are MFA rankings inaccurate, or is that alumni & students don’t like the results?” Among the responses, people pointed to the “insecurity of writers and the irrational metrics they use to rank programs,” were glad they hadn’t attended Columbia’s MFA (ranked 47), and were disappointed that Sarah Lawrence didn’t make the top 50.

Enter Seth Abramson, creator of the ranking system, who stepped up to the podium to join the debate.

Abramson defended the methodology behind the ranking system and his attempts to eliminate observer bias. P&W gather data by surveying the opinions of MFA applicants, rather than the biased members of the MFA community. “Students can’t be polled because the value of their pedigree is at stake (as well as school pride, a desire to justify their own matriculation decisions, &c &c); faculty and administrators can’t be polled because they may actually enjoy a direct pecuniary or professional benefit if they self-report their employer into the highest echelons of the field of creative writing,” wrote Abramson.

Halimah Marcus, Managing Editor of Electric Literature, replied, “The real problem as I see it, is that P&W doesn’t use professionals to evaluate MFA programs, presumably because MFA programs don’t lead to hiring the way law school does, for example.” As a solution, Marcus suggested considering publishing credits of graduates in lieu of polling applicants.

But as Abramson was quick to point out, all magazines aren’t on the same scale: “Would all publications be weighted equally — a New Yorker publication treated no differently from a publication in Bob’s Fuzzy Pants Online Review?”

The debate continues. Click here to weigh in.

— Benjamin Samuel is the Online Editor of Electric Literature. He’s staying out of this one.

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