Creative Writing MFA program rankings are an annual touchy issue. It’s a tradition that inspires folks to put their fists down with varying degrees of forcefulness, from measured and firm to frenzied and firm. The reason for all the hullabaloo is because MFA programs’ very existence prompts all types of reactions (see here here here here and here), so, one might argue, attempting to objectively rank something of dubious worth is like extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers.
Apparently, Scott Kenemore thinks so. He’s a Columbia MFA grad who’s particularly upset about Poets & Writers‘s ranking of Columbia on their list this year, and has used a Slate article to rip into all types of things in reaction to his alma mater’s plunge in the rankings. His central point: “Columbia seems to launch writers successfully. At least that’s what it did for me and for most of my friends in the program.”
Kenemore argues that P&W‘s ranking puts too much emphasis on things like funding and teaching placement and not enough on a school’s track record for pumping out successful writers.
Let’s take a look at the Poets & Writers Top 10 schools alongside Columbia (size refers to total number of students per matriculating class: XS [2–9], S [10–19], M [20–31], L [32–49], XL [50+])
1. University of Iowa in Iowa City (1936), Size: L
2. University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (1987), Size: M
3. University of Wisconsin in Madison (2002),Size: XS
4. Brown University in Providence (1990), Size: S
5. (tie) Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (1967), Size: XS
5. (tie) Syracuse University in New York (1992), Size: S
7. University of Virginia in Charlottesville (1981), Size: XS
8. University of Texas in Austin (Michener Center) (1993), Size: S
9. Washington University in Saint Louis (1978), Size: S
10. University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (1996), Size: S
Columbia University (1968), Size: XL
The one thing that really sticks out about the Poets & Writers Top 10 is program size: 3 programs are “XS” (2-9 students per matriculating class), 5 programs are “S” (10-19 students), one is “M” (20-31), and Iowa is “L” (32-49). Clearly, P&W places a lot of importance on small programs, and objectively, if there’s one thing Columbia isn’t, it’s small. In fact, Columbia is only one of two programs in the Top 50 with an “XL” class size classification (50+ students); the only other is the New School, which is five spots ahead of Columbia at #42 in the rankings. To take the class size point even further, there are only three programs with an “L” classification (32-49 students): Iowa (#1), New York University (#16), and Arizona (#41).
Clearly, there has to be something about class size. But what? Well, a school that only takes three or four students per year is going to treat those three or four students like Gods Blessed With The Gift Of The Golden Pen. They’re likely going to get full funding and more attention and babying than a Westminster terrier.
Another criticism often directed at Columbia’s MFA program is their massive course load, which is significant because, if you’re going to school to write, but you’re always going to class, when are you actually supposed to write?
But let’s get back to Kenemore’s point about putting more emphasis on the number of successful writers a program puts out. If you take a look at the “notable alumni” links for the Top 10 and Columbia above, you’ll see that with the exception of Iowa, no school really separates itself from the others in terms of big name graduates (whether MFA programs actually produce good, successful writers is a whole new argument that we won’t get into). But, it’s fair to say that Columbia’s alumni isn’t any more impressive than any other school, and really, it should have more successful writers because, proportionally, it accepts more students per year than almost any other program. Couple this with the funding issue as well as other unhappy claims about the school, and suddenly #47 doesn’t seem so shocking.
This post isn’t meant to be an attack on Columbia. Kenemore’s suggestion that a “manuscript placement” column be added to P&W‘s rankings is a very good one and would give prospective students insight into how successful alumni are in actually publishing, a crucial aspect (correction: THE most crucial aspect) that somehow often gets lost in all the academic writing talk in the MFA discussion.
But an MFA experience comes down to the writer. The school has ridiculously little to do with whether a writer will become successful, so all of this bellyaching seems beside the point. Writers are blessed because, unlike fields like law and medicine where rankings mean everything, what matters for them is not the number your school has in a ranking but keeping your nose to the grindstone. Less time complaining means more time writing.