Professors Protest MFA Rankings

September 14, 2011

Poets & Writers magazine has released its annual rankings of M.F.A. programs -- in the face of an open letter from 190 faculty members in writing programs who are questioning the methodology behind the effort. The rankings feature some factual data (on such issues as job placement, fellowship availability and so forth). But the main ranking -- of popularity -- is based on a survey of prospective applicants on where they plan to apply.

The open letter takes issue with this approach. "To put it plainly, the Poets & Writers rankings are bad: they are methodologically specious in the extreme and quite misleading. A biased opinion poll — based on a tiny, self-selecting survey of potential program applicants — provides poor information," says the letter. Leslie Epstein, one of the organizers of the effort, and a novelist who is director of the Boston University creative writing program, said the idea of letting applicants rank programs was "analogous to asking people who are standing outside a restaurant studying the menu how they liked the food. Why wouldn’t you ask those who’ve actually eaten there for an informed opinion?”

The magazine is standing behind the rankings -- while noting that it shares its methodology, and urges potential applicants to look at a wide range of information in deciding on programs to consider. Mary Gannon, editorial director, released a statement in which she defended the use of an applicant survey and rejected the idea of focusing on faculty quality, as some have suggested. "To continue the analogy Leslie Epstein used to describe our approach in the press release, that would be like asking diners who only frequent their favorite restaurant to assess the quality of all restaurants," she said.

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