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Should MFA Programs Be Ranked?

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Do you remember the scene in The Fisher King when Robin Williams, totally smitten with the Amanda Plummer character, begins singing, "Lydia, oh Lydia, Lydia the tattooed lady," and you think, "Good luck with that one"? Lydia can't eat with chopsticks and seems completely lost in her world. She even reads romance novels. We know that you can't rate people. Lydia may be Parry's dream girl, but she may not be yours.

We can, however rate a great many other things. Books are rated. The Handmaid's Tale is widely considered Margaret Atwood's best book. The Poisonwood Bible blows everything out of the water that Kingsolver had written before it. Restaurants are rated, movies, plays. There are ratings from critics and ratings by the public, but the general sense is this: in a world of commodities, we can rate things that have an intrinsic value. What are they worth? That experience of the book, the play, the movie, the dinner, what is it worth, and can we put a numerical value on that worth?

Dating a person has no numeric value. You cannot say, "She's a 10 as a date," and guarantee that everyone would agree with you. Even sex, (with the exception of prostitution) is a personal experience. One man's pleasure might literally be another man's pain. One woman's prince might be another woman's toad.

Which brings us to the rankings of the MFA programs. The ranking of the programs has proved controversial. My students first brought this to my attention when I began teaching at the San Diego State University MFA program. Before that, I had never given the matter much thought. I went the PhD route and then went into publishing so the MFA rankings hadn't really affected my life. I have visited many MFA programs to speak on publishing and found students learning how to be better writers and how to build writing community. Some of them get a pay raise in their current job as a result of the higher degree. Most people I talked with felt their MFA program was successful if they enjoyed it and built a community and developed good writing habits. It's very much like joining any community: Church, karate, or being a professional dog person. They each cost money and time, but the benefits are belonging to a tribe of people engaged in an activity that is at the core of who you are.

My students informed me that Seth Abramson, a lawyer and writer, had put together rankings of the MFA programs. Programs like SDSU would never be highly rated because the students get their funding through Cal Grants and that is not considered part of an official funding package. That turned out to be only part of the argument against the rankings.

1. As it turns out, a percentage of the information used to create the rankings is based on applicants. Stop here for a moment because there is no part of this controversy that gets more wrath from MFA attendees. Students are not polled, faculty and administrators are not polled. Applicants are polled and the rest of the information comes from the program websites.

Seth's reason for this is that he feels faculty and staff cannot honestly assess their own program. Faculty are being paid and students would hardly want to downgrade the program which they are attending thus downgrading the value of their degree. However, applicants who have talked to students might have a more honest view of what the program is like. Many argue that's like rating a restaurant based on talking with people who have talked to people coming out of the restaurant. Why not go into the restaurant, meet the chef, talk to diners? If you've never had the experience of the MFA program in question, how would you really know? However, what is asked of prospective students is what esteem they hold different programs in and that esteem is measurable as it happens.

2. Whether or not you like an MFA program is purely subjective. AWP does not rank its programs because their charter doesn't allow for it, but also because they fundamentally believe that part of whether you like an experience depends on you. My husband hates loud restaurants, no matter how good the food is. He wants to think and have a conversation, not shout, but he might be wrong about what you would like. Our kids love noisy restaurants, they feel they are inside a party. Would you like Columbia, Antioch, Vermont, Goddard? Part of that depends on you; however, Seth argues that there are elements most students agree on. One of those is money. How much funding the programs have to give applicants weighs heavily on the rating although this funding does not include state funding.

3. The biggest argument seems to be whether programs should be rated at all. Seth would argue that it helps students to be able to draw comparisons. But, opponents would say that the comparisons are based on faulty data in the first place and it is impossible to measure the overall experience a student could have.

4. Of the many programs I have visited, two come to mind as having a very high degree of student satisfaction. One is the University of Alaska MFA program at Fairbanks, rated 117 in the rankings, and the other is Chapman University in Orange County. It's not even ranked. The reason the students there were successful and happy seemed very simple to me: They were getting what they had wanted and expected. In marriage and family, in job and life, a great deal of our general sense that an experience is successful rests on two principles: One, are you a happy person to begin with, because if you aren't already, you certainly are not going to be happy in Iowa. The second is: what did you think was going to happen? You were going to magically become a genius? People were going to praise every word you wrote? The students at Chapman and Fairbanks expected to have great faculty, be in a small enough program that they could get attention and of course, it doesn't hurt that Fairbanks, Alaska and Chapman's nearby Huntington Beach are two of the most beautiful places in the world. Neither of those programs ranked highly, yet the students are satisfied, they get degrees, they get published and they build networks. This network-building is very important to a writer's life.

We write on our own but it takes a village to get that writing edited and in the hands of the right publisher or editor and then to print and into the hands of readers. I am a writer who works in publishing, and just as Hellenism and the Judeo-Christian ethic are the twin pillars of Western civilization, the twin pillars of my life as a writer and publisher, the organizations that help me make sense of my world and connect the dots are AWP and Poets & Writers. At every writing conference and MFA program where I have spoken, I've recommended attending AWP and subscribing to Poets & Writers. Both of these organizations are helping to keep our fragile ecosystem intact.

The water has been stirred around the idea that students should compare programs before they choose. We should all compare before we choose one experience over another and then make that decision with our heads and our hearts. Poets & Writers has always created dialogue and given us reason to question elements of the writing life we take for granted, and I expect they will continue doing that.

MFA programs can be a wonderful experience. Choose wisely and keep your expectations within reason. I hope as writers we can focus on the two best parts of this whole game: The actual writing and having a few good friends with whom you're having a long conversation about what it means to live a writing life.