Something Smells Rank.

August 20, 2010 § 2 Comments

Because I think Sam Amadon’s comment at the bottom of this article deserves some visibility, I’d like to alert my two readers (Hi, mom!) to it.

First of all, there’s a stymieing circular logic to a ranking system that is largely determined by the votes of the people it is designed to inform.

That said, information’s good.  I’m all for it being transparent and available.  Anyone who’s spent any time looking into or applying for grad school knows it’s tiresome to visit Financial Aid pages that haven’t been updated since 1998, and wade through details about funding, selectivity, teaching load, etc.  We’ve all made one too many Excel spreadsheets in our cubicles to make sense of these things.  So if there’s a positive impact these rankings have had, it’s to put the very basic answers to those questions all in one place.  Why not stop there?

These rankings satisfy a clear impulse to ascribe some order to a difficult and highly personal decision based on a paralyzing number of factors—location, faculty, community, size, funding, teaching load—as if there’s a way we could ever make the exact right choice.  I’m just not sure that’s the case.  We should be informed consumers.  We shouldn’t be deterred, however, from going to a program that may be right for us because of its relatively lower rank.  Prospective students who see University of Houston’s #24 may choose to take out loans and take the chance on NYU’s #9 instead.  Now UH is out a student, & the student is dollars in the hole.  I don’t see how this helps anyone.

To be sure, programs should—and do—have reputations.  Some programs are better than others or, more realistically, some programs are better for certain things than others, and we want to know who’s better at what.  But reputation is nuanced, and a school’s reputation should be able to develop alongside the reputations of other schools.  This chart’s sub-rankings (9 in poetry vs. 34 in fiction, etc.) are a mysterious attempt to add some nuance, but they also suggest that the 1-50 rankings are only nominal.  Which is what happens the more nuanced this becomes.  And isn’t nuance what’s necessary to make a decision like this?

There’s a need here: to make our choices easier, to make our options clear.  These rankings trick us into thinking our need is being satisfied, when what we really need is a well-developed aggregate, the master of all Excel spreadsheets, from which to begin.  Then, we need to determine our own needs, buckle down, and do our own research.

[Note: An hour or so after writing this, I read this.  So now you don’t have to take my dumb word for it.]


§ 2 Responses to Something Smells Rank.

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