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October 30, 2009


The AWP hasn’t done much for rankings themselves. Eh.

I do think the whole “Votes” by applicants thing is completely useless. One only needs look at the MFA blog where they ask where people are applying to see strange lists of schools cobbled together from opposite ends of the contemporary poetic landscape. Can we really assume that students who throw applications in the directions at both highly experimental and deeply traditional programs in the same application season know what they are getting into when they apply? This seems very troublesome to me.

I do think that a ranking of funding and selectivity is useful. Yet, I don’t at all think that the reputation of schools should be determined by how many students ‘vote’ by applying to them. They don’t know why they are applying aside from name brand/funding. The rankings then tell prospective students very little about how well any program will fit their particular style/interests.

Why is a program like Iowa (it does have a tradition/reputation, mind you) in first place when it ranks so low in funding and selectivity? It doesn’t even have the highest post-graduate placement rank… So, a bunch of students who have no idea about what they are getting into throw applications at the most famous schools. Yikes.

Abramson posted his response to AWP on his blog

Thanks for the link JT. If you make it through the response, you will see that he continues to misrepresent his sample: It is not a poll of 500 MFA current and prospective applicants. It is the unverified responses of 500 self-selected visitors to his blog who the pollster claims to be such applicants. The pollster did not identify and recruit subjects and therein is the threshold flaw that makes the rest of the research of no value.

The intensity, convolution, and sheer amount of verbiage of SA's responses to criticism of his survey, both here, on the P&W site, and on his own site, suggest a personal stake in this stuff that is, to say the least, strange. To say more than the least, it is disturbing. I notice that on his own blog, he puts a disclaimer to say he is not reflecting P&W's viewpoint. I would hope that this means the editors of P&W are distancing themselves from a writer whose behavior through all of this has been very unprofessional.

I agree Laura and considering that he's holding himself out as an expert in a field that values language, his responses are even more revealing. He should learn to pick his words carefully. NB

And don't you find it just a tad sexist that he thinks Stacey should be disqualified from using her expertise because of whom she's married to? Really!

I have resisted commenting on the MFA rankings controversy, because Seth Abramson has been trying to pick a fight with me on and off for five or so years, and I haven't wanted to give him the attention he craves; I think of him as a crank, and an ill-mannered one at that. An individual who is quick to give offense should be prepared to receive criticism in turn, but this is not the case with Mr. Abramson. He simply raises the volume, determined to out-shout everyone else. He is long of wind and short of humility and decency.

Mr. Abramson used a methodology that is not only unscientific but a caricature of established procedures. As others have pointed out, he is qualified neither to conduct a poll nor to rank MFA programs. His "research" relied on people who went to his blog. This is lazy -– and vain. And the responses are limited to applicants or potential applicants to MFA programs. It would be good to know what a true sampling of this group thinks, but a real poll would also measure the views of current students, graduates, current and former faculty.

And then there is the issue of Mr. Abramson's consulting service. On the BAP blog a few days ago, it was pointed out that if a rival consulting service announced its rankings of MFA programs, Mr. Abramson would be the first to cry foul.

Poets & Writers is a splendid organization. It has and continues to do many valuable things for practitioners of the literary arts. Publishing Mr. Abramson's rankings (or rantings) is not one of them.

Wow. I'ma I'ma let you finish, but I got a bigger ego (aka penis).

Thank you, Reader. What a blowhard. Was he really a public defender? He has gone from that to public offender in no time flat.

Okay, this is now getting scary. On top of being abusive and monomaniacal, he is obviously irrational and paranoid, and I would suggest getting a virtual restraining order (yes, they do exist) against him.

What a horrible person he is.

We should all start a “Wikipedia War” with Seth and add a big note to his page about how much of a malicious blowhard he is.

Of course, that was a joke. What kind of asshole would do that? Hmmm. Oh, I know.

Based on the comments here and those that have come to me privately, it's obvious that people have strong feelings about the rankings and pollster. Please resist the temptation make personal attacks here. I took down previous comments elsewhere and barred the commenter because the comments were venomous and, frankly, threatening. Readers should know they can express an opinion here without being on the receiving end of such a barrage. Feel free to comment if you can add something new. Thanks.

A friend sent me a link today to Mr. Abramson's blog post and I'm, well, I'm not sure what to make of what he says there. Reading account after relentless account of what he has done (or, frankly, not done) in putting this poll together gets tedious since nothing new or useful is added to what he's already put out there.

The old adage is that even a bad review is better than no review at all. Perhaps silence (about Mr. Abramson's poll, article, claims, and "virtual" behavior) would be the most prudent course of action now, and would likely send a stronger message than continuing to hand over the stage to him.

One point of note, however, is his disrespectful mis-use of Ms. Harwood's name: Why, I ask myself while reading Mr. Abramson's post today, would Mr. Abramson continue to call her "Mrs. Lehman" when she, clearly, does not use that name?

Though I have never met Mr. Lehman, Ms. Harwood, OR Mr. Abramson, I do find my professional and personal "empathy" is inclined towards those who are not falling to personal, covert or overt viciousness. I could be wrong, of course, about Mr. Abramson's tone and tactics, but then I would have to make an even bigger leap to misogyny, which is even more disturbing to consider, particularly since he often claims that he is the one being maligned.

Wait. How could anyone associated with The Best American Poetry possibly object to a survey called the top 50 MFA programs? Or is this an ironic joke I've missed?

Could the editors, etc. of The Best American Poetry truly claim some affinity with arguments like "The tutelage of an artist is a complex and serious business, and it cannot be reduced to a single spreadsheet column sorted in descending order?" Really?

I don't know or wish to defend Mr. Abramson; but seriously, BAP.

If I've misunderstood the context of this argument, I apologize in advance.

The argument was with the faulty methodology of the survey, not the idea of a survey of MFA programs.

I understand that. That's my point. It's a bit absurd for an organization that yearly slaps the label of "Best American Poetry" on the tiny sampling of a single guest editor to then quibble with the methodology for ranking the top MFA programs. One might get the impression that BAP thinks one is a more serious endeavor than the other, worth more thoughtful consideration.

The difference is that no one is presenting the BAP anthology as a way to make a life-altering decision, including taking out thousands of dollars in student loans. Mr. Abramson presents the survey as some kind of definitive aid to help potential students make these kinds of decisions. He also has a vested interest in potential MFA students seeing him as some kind of expert as a researcher in this field, in the form of his consulting firm that advises students (for a large fee) as they apply to MFA programs. He then publishes this flawed and compromised survey in what is essentially the equivalent of the "Wall Street Journal" in the literary world, where writers go for professional advice and insight.

Anthologies are just anthologies, and all editors make selections no matter what they are publishing. Editing an anthology is not the same thing as presenting statistical research as reliable and objective. Choosing and buying an anthology does not have the same implications as choosing a graduate school.

Anthologies are just anthologies

Except when they're called "The Best American Poetry."

This is really the only point I'm making. I don't wish to argue that the methodology in the survey is sound, or that its results don't have serious implications, or that it can't be criticized; only that BAP seems to feel that the project of ranking MFA programs is somehow a more serious enterprise than their own.

It is, for the reasons I wrote above.

I hit "post" too quickly.

Let me clarify and say it depends on what you mean by "more serious." If you look at the poems, well, I do think they are more "serious" than Mr. Abramson's survey, in that they have more lasting cultural and artistic value. However, if you look at the potential for damage, then Mr. Abramson's survey, as presented, is very serious indeed. THAT is the issue.

BAP makes no claims to being anything other than a subjective selection by the guest editor of what he or she sees as the "best" poems published in the previous year. Just as no one has ever been able to retire based on the cachet of being published there, no one either has gone into debt or move across the country or experienced anything more than annoyance at not appearing in any particular volume, or being out twenty bucks for buying an edition that he didn't like very much.

The rankings in this flawed survey are being marketed in a way that is deceptive and unethical. That is the problem, and it should concern anyone who reads "Poets & Writers."

Pardon my butting in here, but didn't Seth Abramson repeatedly state that his rankings were, in his own words, unscientific? And didn't he also say that there are always a number of subjective variables that go into choosing an MFA program that his rankings by necessity cannot take into account? I think you do MFA applicants a great disservice by assuming they'll mindlessly apply to the top 10 schools on the list without scrutinizing these schools through the prism of their own biases and preferences. To do so would assume all of us have the same opinions, life situations, and needs as writers, and I can assure you from what little I've seen that we don't.

I agree with legerdemain's previous comment: Abramson never states or even implies that his rankings are in any way authoritative or definitive. He is very clear about his methodology and its shortcomings, as well as the fact that every single methodology has shortcomings, no matter the field.

I am a current MFA applicant and have found the services provided on his blog to be absolutely invaluable. His rankings, only recently published in P&W, are almost beside the point, as the amount of information that he has personally collected, entirely free of charge, regarding funding, size, selectivity, program length, etc is astounding. And sure, most of that information is entirely accessible to each of us, but to expect each applicant to wade through the (often terribly designed) websites of every single MFA program in the country (or world, for that matter) is asking, well, a lot. And thankfully, we don't have to, because Seth did it, and has done it for years, entirely free of charge.

I have absolutely no qualms with people objecting to his methodology; it is admittedly debatable and unscientific. However, for people on this blog to launch the kinds of unwarranted attacks on him personally, accusing him of being monomaniacal, horrible, malicious, etc is not only uncalled for and entirely inaccurate, but both childish and sad.

Please, disagree with his methods and his rankings, but leave the rest out.

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I left it
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