September 14, 2011 § 3 Comments
You’re The Man Now, Dog
Because I blogged about this a little over a year ago, I figure I might as well add my tiny voice to this year’s MFA rankings kerfuffle, although there’s not much I have to say that hasn’t already been said more articulately by the following folks:
Samuel Amadon’s “Letter to an MFA Applicant” over at Coldfront is personal & urgent. It shifts the attention, in way that’s long been necessary, away from questioning the methodology of the rankings (who is polled by whom) & towards questioning the necessity of the rankings altogether (what is “best,” anyway?), without making everything seem so subjective as to be just plain anarchy.
Jake Adam York’s “Something Rank in the State of Writing Programs” picks up where Sam leaves off, seconding the kinds of decision-making he advocates in his letter re: choosing where to spend one’s MFA years, & broadening that advice to include a few cursory but true things about writing programs. “Mostly, I’ll say, the workshops blew.” Yeah, probably. Or, at least, I don’t know anyone whose writing I respect who can’t cop to having been in some shitty workshops with excellent teachers. Etc.
If there’s one thing that’s consistent among all of the pieces that have come out recently, whether that piece concerns itself with the integrity of the ranking’s methodologies (who to poll, whether or not to value funding or teaching so highly, etc.) or with the more inspiring, rousing “you’re going to live in poetry or fiction, not New York or Arkansas” kind of talk, it’s that choosing where to go for an MFA is a highly individual, highly nuanced & hugely important decision for many people. Forget, for a second, in this flurry of blog posts & open letters, that blog posts & open letters about whether or not MFA programs are the end of American literature as we know it are what dominate the discourse for the other 11 months of the year. At least this little controversy gives us a break from all that, although I suppose even Anis Shivani could use a break from Anis Shivani, if for no other reason than he gets to spend some quality time sharpening his knives on the stone of the rest of this bullshit.
Which is to say, it isn’t bullshit, & that’s what I appreciate the most about this conversation. Everybody cares—a lot—about where & how to spend their time, once they’ve decided to make a commitment of some kind to their writing/education. I agree with everyone who’s pointed out—including myself, a year ago [snaps suspenders like a douche]—that the rankings respond to a very real necessity to have everything an MFA applicant needs in one place, information that wasn’t so easily available before The Suburban Ecstasies blog existed. I met someone who would become a close friend on that blog, when we both discovered we’d be going to Houston together, & I know we were both grateful for many aspects of the blog, from the way it tracked programs’ response times to the way it connected prospective & newly accepted MFA students with one another. We were all confused & wanted answers & answers were, to some degree, provided on that website.
But in my own search for MFA programs, conducted mostly from my cubicle in the Department of Social Services where I barely worked as an administrative assistant, I can say that I had very little knowledge of good/better/best when I determined the programs I wanted to apply to. What I did know was that I loved Mark Doty, Mark Doty taught in Houston, Houston wouldn’t make me pay if I got in. I also had a sense, from god knows where, that no one in their right mind would want to move to Houston, so I thought maybe no one else noticed Mark Doty was there, that he was a little secret I’d figured out, so maybe with my willingness to move to a terrible place to work with this awesome poet I’d be able to sneak into the program somehow. It wasn’t until after I’d mailed my applications that I saw the old US News & World Report rankings, in which Houston was still ranked highly, & I kicked myself for thinking I’d discovered something great that I thought no one else knew about.
This may not have been the smartest way to go about things, but it wasn’t the dumbest, either. I ended up in Houston with an amazing cohort of people who changed my writing and, because writing is for the moment how I make my living, my life. And because at the time the most recent rankings were about a decade old, most of these people were there not because the last time the world checked in with MFA programs Houston was highly ranked, but for the same reasons I was: faculty, funding, conversations with alums, etc. I’m sure there are other programs for which I am suited. There is no best program, probably, there is only the program that’s best-for-you, & even given that, there are probably a handful of those. But as a graduate of an MFA program who didn’t have the rankings in front of me when I made my decision, I can say I haven’t once regretted it. Houston is the #1 ranked school in the List of MFA Schools I Attended.
I think most of what there is to say about the P&W rankings has been said & I agree with those folks whose posts I’ve linked to above. Anything else I’d have to say would be advice from my own experience, or criteria that come from my own set of values, that just continue to further support the thesis that choosing an MFA program is an important & nuanced decision, & that one’s responsibility to oneself is to be well-informed & self-aware when choosing a program.
I’ll say this much, however. If I were advising an army of little me’s, I’d tell them that being willing to go into debt for one’s writing is not synonymous with caring about art; that being in debt is a financial & psychological commitment, & one should be honest with oneself about whether or not the reality of that debt will be harmful for the writing life that will have to exist post-MFA; that there is no reason, in a world with more programs than Mr. Shivani can shake a sharp stick at, one can’t teach one’s way through a program that also offers the kind of until-the-sun-comes-up, whiskeyed, fervent stimulation of the more glamorous programs one pays for. I don’t think anyone will ever make an argument against Columbia or NYU so compelling that those institutions will fall in anyone’s esteem enough that they cease to attract the bright, invested students that make an MFA program a good place to be in the first place. But there are bright, invested students in the programs that supplement a less hard-hitting faculty with the offer of some (albeit meagre) financial stability, too, & your decision to go to one of those programs, Little Me, will help insure the future of that program as a place where bright, invested students can have a positive experience.
Seriously, guys, you’re making an investment in the program you attend when you attend it. Your presence will make that program better, and will make other good, serious, thoughtful people want to attend it, too. Keep choosing your programs wisely, using an individualized set of criteria, & you will end up with others who have done the same, working with a faculty you value & that has chosen your work & values you. And that’s really where you want to be.