Tuesday, August 24, 2010

No Rankings for You

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
breakfast nook.
I think it's impossible to do a good job of determining such affinities when you are searching for an MFA program--first because your literary affinities are almost certainly still unformed. To me it's a gigantic part of the MFA--taking the next step to define yourself next to your teachers, and your colleagues, and other authors. I don't think I'd have been better off if I'd went out and found Jhumpa Lahiri or Helen DeWitt or Edward Jones to directly teach me (all of whom I either know aren't teaching or couldn't pin to an institution through a basic search--the kind people researching MFA programs would perform) rather than just reading them under instructors who knew what they admired in those authors and could speak about it well. Not to mention if your favorite authors aren't represented or are university hopping or are dead--what then? You can't bank on authors you like sticking around. It seems short-sighted to me to encourage young writers to narrow themselves to particular writers when there's very little guarantee they'll get to work with those writers closely. Especially since they probably wouldn't be getting an MFA if they felt that their writing was absolutely formed and influenced, that all that's needed is a quick lookover by a pro.

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.
What program is this? Does AWP know? I can't Google "historical novel feminist narratives criticism MFA program." (Though you can try.) One, feminist narratives and criticism are a strong suit of many English departments and likely not many MFA programs. And it is a good idea to look at what the rest of the English department has to offer. You can get your support elsewhere than writers of fiction and poetry, but that doesn't seem to be what they're indicating here. This writer-centered approach is doomed to failure, especially if you need someone who's an expert on all these things. You can find a program that's especially receptive to the historical novel--though again, this is information generally unfindable on the Internet. You may not find a professor who's written six historical novels, but I guarantee there's programs that have graduated students whose MFA theses were historical novels, or who have gone on to write historical novels. These represent affinities between a writer and a program, too, but very rarely do departments update their websites enough to reflect this kind of information. You're lucky to get one that makes its application procedures clear, let alone one that has an up-to-date list of faculty (come on NMSU).

Robert Frost does not know what to say to these
young enthusiasts.
I'm even less sure that the right teacher for an MFA student is his or her favorite writer. In part this is because I believe that an MFA student needs to learn from a broad range of aesthetics and professional influences, but it's also because no one, ever, is very good at teaching people to write like themselves. Why should they be? If they can tell you how to do things just like themselves, and if they're full enough of themselves to pretend that they know exactly how they got at their best work and can teach you to replicate it, then they should just write a book on that and make a bank. At that point it's not even teaching--it's molding, meaning the purpose of an MFA is to churn out a hundred Robert Frosts. And Robert Frost is getting on in years, and Robert Frost is hard of hearing, and after talking to him, Robert Frost's priorities probably aren't what you thought they were.

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.

Participants in the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference 
collaborate on their writing lakeside.

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.


  1. good post, tracy. proud to be one of your colleagues! also, the picture of the curly-haired girl smiling and writing you chose is random and funny.

  2. Yeah, this is good. It should be required reading for any of your students who hint they may pursue MFAs in the future. Your penultimate paragraph is probably importnat even for casual undergrad writers--when I was in undergrad writing courses I was hyperaware of my professor's comments but skimmed through the other readers'; it wasn't until grad school that I figured out those comments were sometimes more honest and useful.

  3. Amen, Tracy. This is really dead on! And you bring up an excellent point about admired writers leaving to teach elsewhere, take a semester off, etc. It's not something that I think many prospective students consider, but they should. You're right that most MFA students learn primarily from their peers.