At first blush, this article from AWP in regards to program rankings seems smart to me, and it does do a good job of trying to address the problems in determining such rankings. I'm honestly skeptical that there are any valid methods available to do very good rankings of MFA programs, so I appreciate that they highlight the bad methods used by others and that they try to provide a framework for making that decision in place of rankings. But I am upset by what seems to be the underlying message of the page--not only the "Haha, you clicked here for rankings? Well we don't do rankings here" misdirect, but the notion that everyone's MFA decision should be based solely on a private determination of "literary affinities," which is, to me, a ludicrous one.
This young writer receives one-on-
one attention in her professor's
What's more, AWP forgets that most MFA seekers do not have the benefit of a complete list of programs, an AWP membership, or a solid source of MFA program knowledge. You'd think the Internet would help, but university websites are notoriously bad about having accurate and up-to-date information, particularly about their teachers. AWP gives an example you couldn't possibly research:
If you plan to write a historical novel related to the snubbing of women's careers in science and medicine, for instance, you should probably choose a program where a strong practitioner of the historical novel is in residence along with those writers who are experts in feminist narratives and criticism.
A professional writer
makes a chart.
Robert Frost does not know what to say to these
The AWP advice seems to me self-serving at best. MFA programs shouldn't be zoos that you tour, looking for which one houses the writers you like the best. While it is important to seek out a program that honors your writing, not heading to a strictly traditionalist program when you want to do experimental writing (though, oddly, programs with a focus on experimental writing seem to help traditional writers just fine), AWP aims to make the decision all about established writers and not forming writers, ignoring the fact that the best teachers are not always the best writers. The best teachers can get beyond their own work and their own "affinities" enough to have something to teach anyone. AWP asks, "Whose advice do you think would be most useful to you in helping you shape your first book?" Well, sometimes I feel like I really identify with Aimee Bender's writing, says the young writer. Sometimes I wish I could write sentences like William Trevor. And then I really think that Alice Munro is the greatest living writer. Whose advice do you seek? Probably you won't get to study with any of these people, and even if you did, is it fair to ask William Trevor to William Trevor-ize your book? I'd much rather have the advice of someone who gave good advice--not someone who just wrote a good book. What's more, any established writer will emphasize that they are not simply giving themselves good advice all day--they go to other people too, to help them change or grow or get outside themselves. As if their style, their books aren't hard for them. As if established writers never struggle to make choices, as if they have all the answers they need.
The big truth of MFA programs that I feel gets ignored is that you are not really there for the teachers at all. Yes, it's important to study with other writers--but the other writers you get the best opportunity to study with and learn from are your fellow students. I think you learn the most from the people who are at the same stage as you, who have goals they haven't reached like you do--goals that likely lead in any number of directions. It's amazing to find out who you're writing with and to help them do what they want to do. In being "young" and changeable and eager together, you can influence and shape each other. Everyone is still in a position of figuring themselves out, which means they are learning millions of new things all the time--things they can then share with you. I have learned far more from my fiction and poetry colleagues than from my teachers, and I hope that doesn't surprise or offend. Because teachers, particularly at the grad level, are tasked not with dispensing knowledge, but with promoting good discussions and creating a good environment for learning from one another.
In few other fields is teaching imagined to be about the teachers. It's always about the students, but the degree to which any given program espouses this attitude is something a prospective MFA student can very rarely judge. Better to make the decision based on practicalities and the best information you can find. Better to find a program that meets your needs--financial, aesthetic, location, or career-wise--and then to be open to the teachers you find and the students you have the opportunity to learn from, and learn with.