CAN YOU REALLY RANK WRITING PROGRAMMES?

penRight now, in faculty rooms across the country, admissions officials are trying to winnow out the next batch of Masters of Fine Arts diploma candidates, America's presumptive writing elite. In his book "The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing", Mark McGurl makes the case that the rise of the creative-writing programme “stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history.” In a country obsessed with branding and status, an expensive graduate certificate declaring that one is a writer seems as inevitable as it is dubious. Louis Menand, in his review of McGurl's book in the New Yorker, recalls Allen Tate, a poet and critic, who complained that “the academically certified Creative Writer goes out to teach Creative Writing, and produces other Creative Writers who are not writers, but who produce still other Creative Writers who are not writers.” That is, teaching creative writing is a scandal that suits everyone. Given so nebulous a mandate, what metric can we use to rank different creative-writing programmes? (Because if there is anything Americans love as much as a certificate, it is a ranking that enables us to understand the value of said certificate.) The gold standard for academic rankings in America has long been set by U.S. News & World Report. In 1997 U.S. News produced the first official ranking of graduate programmes in creative writing based on national reputation and faculty surveys. Their results, republished in 2002, passed the smell test: the venerable University of Iowa Writers' Workshop placed first, followed by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Houston, and then Columbia University (where I am currently enrolled) and the University of Virginia-all programmes with long pedigrees, distinguished faculties and successful alumni. In 2007, the Atlantic Monthly applied itself to the task of assessing creative-writing programmes, producing the first official ranking in ten years. "Each year, some 20,000 people apply for admission to these programs," wrote Edward J. Delaney in the Atlantic. "Those accepted will, at least in theory, have access to skilled teachers, be surrounded by other talented rising writers, be funded in a way that lessens their financial constraint, and earn an entree into the world of books and writers. For all those reasons, the question of which programs are “best” has value beyond just “writer talk,” and the answers—there are many—aren’t always easy to determine." The same schools made it into the top ten (listed in alphabetical order). So when Poets & Writers invited Seth Abramson, a young Harvard law-school graduate turned poet, to rank America’s top-50 post-graduate writing programmes for 2010 (published in the magazine's Nov/Dec 2009 issue), there was a bit of a kerfuffle. In the introduction to his rankings, Abramson addresses the two “erroneous assumptions” that mar U.S. News's results: they polled only faculty to determine a school's “reputation” and ignored “quantifiable data-points”, such as class size, acceptance rates and student-faculty ratios. Abramson's own ranking, which tallied where aspirants were applying, how much aid they were offered and whether or not graduates found teaching positions, looked considerably different. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop again snagged the top slot, which seems fair, given its status as the oldest writing graduate programme in the country (established in 1936), and incubator of literary icons such as Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver. But the rest of Abramson’s list defied conventional wisdom. Traditional powerhouses, such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Irvine, failed to crack the top ten, while Brooklyn College, a relative unknown, and Vanderbilt University, whose MFA programme is four years old, outranked such august institutions as (ahem) Columbia University. The difference came down to financial aid. P&W’s top ranks were peppered with tiny, fully-funded programmes, which often waive tuition and offer stipends to students who will teach composition courses. This is no small thing given that tuition is often staggering ($45,000 a year at Columbia). Yet you often get what you pay for. Many fully-funded programmes offer little instruction beyond a workshop, and teaching loads vary. Regardless, if avoiding debt is a concern, then writing probably isn’t a wise career choice. But given the high stakes and fuzzy math of such assessments, Abramson's ranking provoked some heated criticism. Stacey Harwood, managing editor of the Best American Poetry blog, denounced his list as “utterly bogus”. “Abramson's poll reflects only the responses of self-selected readers of his blog," she writes. "People drawn to a single point-of-view blog are already inclined to agree with the blogger's biases, and even a cursory look at Abramson's blog reveals just how many extreme biases he has.” Other sceptics argue that it is impossible to compare programmes, and that any ranking is a sham. Abramson may have also lost some credibility when he opened an MFA admissions counselling firm. But the last straw seemed to be the publication of an open letter by the Association of Writers and Writing Programmes criticising his methodology ("The tutelage of an artist is a complex and serious business, and it cannot be reduced to a single spreadsheet column sorted in descending order"). About a week later Abramson announced he would end his work in the field. He apparently deleted his popular personal blog and has disappeared entirely from the MFA-applicant community (he did seem a better poet than statistician, and offending his peer-group can't be good for book sales). Regardless of where they end up, tens of thousands of aspiring writers will march valiantly into a programme later this year, braced in the high hopes that such things can be taught. ~ JAMES MCGIRK Picture credit: HIRATA Yasuyuki (via Flickr)