Dispatches | October 19, 2011

In late August, Poets & Writers, by far the most respected and well-known magazine in the writing and publishing world, released their September/October issue, ranking all the MFA and PhD creative writing programs in the country. It’s a monster issue filled with not just the rankings, but an explanation of the rankings, compendium articles, pithy quotes, and about seventy pages of advertising for those particular programs. It is probably the most widely read issue that PW has ever published.

It also caused over 200 writers and program directors, from those very same MFA programs that the issue is promoting, to publically denounce the ratings in an open letter to The New York Observer.

How an organization responds to criticism, especially such public criticism, says a lot about its relationship with its audience. The examples are endless, but just think about a recent one. Netflix announced a change in their fee structure, then apologized not for the change but how the change was announced, followed by an announcement that they are splitting into two companies, Netflix (streaming) and the poorly named Qwikster (DVD rentals), and then announced they weren’t splitting into two companies. Neither of these changes went particularly well. And say what you will about why Netflix is doing this (or how poorly their letter was written) but they have been upfront about the changes they are making and the reasoning behind it. And Netflix listened when their audience said “Hey, we hate this!”

How did PW respond to such open criticism? Five days later, PW fired back with an open letter of their own. You can read the letter here. Well, their letter gets off to a rough start:

We are disheartened to hear to have read the open letter written on behalf of creative writing teachers and program directors protesting our publishing the 2012 rankings of MFA and PhD programs.

“Disheartened”? Doesn’t sound like they are really open to these program directors, are they? This isn’t Netflix saying “I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.” In fact, they aren’t:

While we readily consider reasoned criticisms of our work, we cannot in good conscience make editorial decisions in response to outside pressure from those groups and individuals who disagree with our coverage, much less those that threaten to withdraw advertising as a means of influencing editorial content. Our responsibility is to our readers. And we would hope that, as writers, our critics would understand and respect this obligation.

I’d like to think that as a graduate of a MFA program and an employee of a literary journal, I am one of PW’s readers. So too are the MFA students, graduates of those programs, creative writing professors, administrators, and novelists and poets and short story writers years removed from writing programs. All of us are PW’s readers. And we all disagree with how PW is representing MFA programs. Doesn’t PW’s response seem to be missing something? It feels like they are saying they only serve writers who don’t know any better about MFA programs.

Poets & Writers cannot obstinately reject any criticism of their work. They claim that they have a responsibility to their readers. Who are their readers? Because when PW ignores the directors of two hundred creative writing programs, and by extension, all the graduates of those programs and all those students currently in those programs, then I’m not sure who their audience is anymore. Unless they are targeting only those trying to get into MFA programs. People who, one might argue, are naïve and easily persuaded?

I’m being hyperbolic: I don’t really believe that Poets & Writers assumes their readers are ignorant and that they are simply bilking young, emerging writers into buying a magazine. But the tone of their open letter is pugnacious and obstinate. And they do have a conundrum on their hands, don’t they? After all, PW does want people to pick up their magazine, and, on the surface, those are people not yet in graduate programs. I can see why they view it through such a myopic lens.

Who is the audience for Poets & Writers? It’s actually a trickier question than you might think. This point was really hammered home in Julien Smith and Chris Brogan’s book “Trust Agents” when they discussed college websites. Take the University of Missouri’s website, just as an example. Who is the website for? It’s for prospective students. It’s also for current students. It’s also for faculty. It’s also for alumni. Donors. And more. And all of those groups want the website to deliver very different things. Really think about that for a second. It is an incredible challenge to try and make all these different groups happy. The same applies for our writing community, too.

Anyone that has looked at MFA programs online has discovered that college websites are a bit of a mess. Many creative writing programs don’t have very good websites. As an outsider, a person trying to determine what program is a good fit, these poor websites are infuriating. As an insider, I realize how hard it is to get changes when the creative writing department is just a small part (very small part) of a large state university.

So what can Poets & Writers do to make things better for their entire community?

Eliminate the rankings. Rankings of MFA programs are bad for everyone involved.

The rankings are the overwhelming concern, one that has been posted on numerous websites and stated by dozens of writers. PW can’t have a whole bunch of articles and essays saying “Don’t look at rankings” placed directly next to, I don’t know, the rankings? To continue the string of mediocre analogies in this letter and other blog posts on the topic, it’s like publishing swimsuit model calendars and it’s really important to remember the models are athletes and should not be objectified. Sure. Not based in reality, is it?

I swapped a few tweets with my friend Andrew Scott about PW’s MFA issue. I tweeted that we were still waiting for a response from PW—my god, in an information age, how could they wait five days before responding at all? Not even a “Hey, we hear you!” response—and Andrew pointed out that PW benefits from all this attention, positive or negative. I wrote that they should just ditch the rankings. Andrew replied that without the rankings, who cares: all the basic info is available for online. He also suggested that it would be far more useful for them to profile a handful of MFA students’ journeys each year.

Profiling MFA students for one year, or, maybe, for the entire two (or three, or four!) years a student is in the MFA program would be a terrific read. Imagine it: five students at five different programs. A mixture of demographics. Each student gets to blog, on PW’s site, about his/her experience in the program. PW doesn’t have to create the content—the student creates it for him or her. The student, likely unknown, has a built-in audience while working on his/her stories, poems, essays, novel, whatever. The program, which everyone gets picked, gets a ton of attention. Costs? Just the hosting space on PW’s site. It would send PW a ton of traffic. It also would provide a close look at what it would be like to be in a particular writing program. Easy to do, and useful, and insightful for everyone involved.

But I don’t think PW is worthless without the rankings. PW is the authority. Being on the site or in the magazine gives the information strength. But why can’t it work as an aggregator? Isn’t that, really, what Google does? Of course, I’m greatly oversimplifying what Google does. The information PW has needs to be accessible and easy to understand, especially when program websites can be difficult to navigate. Why the website? Because PW claims that is to expensive to list all the programs in their print edition.

Online, their Directory of Poets & Writers claims 9200 authors. How many do you think went through MFA programs? Let’s safely say one third and round down. 3000 authors. If PW asked what MFA program they went to, and then link the answer to the MFA programs page on PW’s site, and even said something like “Prospective students can contact you about the program?” that writers could opt-in or out of … well, isn’t that a ton of information that could really serve a prospective student? It looks like PW has half-heartedly started doing this – there are links to some writers on some of the program pages – but it is incomplete at best.

Also, it would help if there was a really good filter. Look at PW’s MFA Database: There are two filters: degree and state. Given how much data PW has collected, this is pretty useless. Click on the first program listed. That’s Abilene Christian University. Their posting has a website and a contact name. That’s it. Couldn’t that be a much more interesting and dynamic page? Of course it could!

This seems to be left up to the programs to add this information: I noticed that American University, Bowling Green State University, and Hollins (to just name three) have better pages, but they are still aren’t all that useful. Indiana University has a Lynda Hull Fellowship in Poetry. That sounds great. But it doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

Here’s another excellent idea from the comments section of PW’s open letter. It’s posted by “Rachael C”:

I’d also remove numerical values in other parts of the rankings and simply use general categories, just as you do with other aspects like “program size.” For example, with funding, you could have “Excellent,” Good,” “Fair” and “Poor.” Or with selectivity, you could have “Extremely,” “Very,” “Moderately,” and so on. Basically, by removing the numerical values, you’d be removing the impression that there are enormous gaps between particular programs, while at the same time still providing applicants with the exact same information.

There isn’t one simple solution about how Poets & Writers can better serve the community. These three ideas – eliminate rankings, get current students to blog, a better and more informative web listing – are ideas that, frankly, might have more holes than Swiss cheese. They do, after all, still have a print publication to sell. As an organization, Poets & Writers has been around for forty years and done remarkable work, and their commitment to us – that’s all of us, all of us writers – has always been steadfast. So maybe changes are in the works and we just don’t know it: the next MFA issue is, presumably, a year away. I don’t know. What I do know is that many of us in the writing community are feeling shut out and ignored, and the stakes here are very high: getting emerging writers in the right place to work on their writing for two to three years. Let’s hope they hear us.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye