Seth Abramson posted a reasoned & nicely-toned response to my little recent bellyache about the professionalization of poetry; my first impulse was to respond in the comments box, but I think he deserves to be heard above the fold:
Mark,And here's how I'd respond:
I think it's important to remember--as I always say, in nearly every article I write on the MFA degree--that the MFA is a "largely-unmarketable, non-professional art school degree." Consequently, the purpose of the rankings is to encourage programs to fund students (and do other things that applicants care about, like emphasizing studio work and a three-year flexible curriculum) not to help anyone get a job because (say) they went to the #11 program instead of the #42 program. That's really beside the point -- the rankings are intended for applicants only, i.e. to help them understand which programs are best at offering applicants what applicants report they care about, not for the benefit of professors, employers, &c. I realize everything in life has contained within it the possibility for its misuse and misunderstanding, but that doesn't change the fact that the rankings are not conceived of, nor designed as, the sort of cultural artifact you seem to presume they are.
all your points are well taken, & I'm totally supportive of the extent to which your lists really are designed to help applicants find a program that will give them what they need, without saddling them with lifetime debts.
And I'm not presuming anything about how the rankings are "conceived of" or "designed." Alas, in this sublunary world of
And as I implied in that previous post, while the MFA ideally would be an "art school" degree, the vocational training that comes with the program – teaching undergraduate courses, working on a magazine or a book series – is directed either towards a career teaching in the academy or a more vaguely defined "being a professional writer" within the various networks that make up the biz.
In the end I suspect it's a bit of a catch-22: despite the listing's laudable intentions, & its very real orientation towards applicants rather than institutions – as opposed to the program lists Lingua Franca used to run, ranking PhDs in various sub-disciplines – it's inevitably being taken in ways you didn't intend. And its very existence, as a kind of Rough Guide for those who are about to insert themselves into the MFA & all it entails, is a mark of this "art school" degree's sliding into professionalization.
Thanks for responding so thoughtfully,