Creative Writing Profs Dispute Their Ranking–No, the Entire Notion of Ranking!

Almost 200 creative writing professors have signed an open letter to Poets & Writers, criticizing its 2012 rankings of MFA/PhD

Almost 200 creative writing professors have signed an open letter to Poets & Writers, criticizing its 2012 rankings of MFA/PhD programs. Poets & Writers is the bi-monthly magazine of the non-profit organization of the same name.

According to a statement attached to the letter, Poets & Writers first offense is that it does not take into account a program faculty’s reputation (reputation being the only thing a university or a career in creative writing have to offer anyway).

The rankings are based on polls of prospective creative writing program students about where they’re planning to apply, as well as the scholarship and financial aid money the schools offer.

“It’s analogous to asking people who are standing outside a restaurant studying the menu how they liked the food,” said Leslie Epstein, novelist and Boston University program director.

“If the Poets & Writers list were entitled ‘MFA Programs Most Frequently Applied to by Readers of One Blog’ that would be accurate. I’m puzzled that Poets & Writers, a fine publication, continues to publish this misleading list,” said Deborah Landau, a poet who is unlikely to win the Jackson Prize this year.

It’s perhaps not surprising tensions are high. Poets & Writers, the journal of author interviews and prize application deadlines, is mostly circulated among creative writing students and professors that make up the list. However, most of the top ten programs are represented among the undersigned.

Full letter below.



The people who have signed this letter have all taught as creative writing program faculty. Many of us are now program directors and serve as members of our admissions committees. Most of us also hold MFA and/or doctoral degrees. We hope our collective experience and expertise will provide good counsel to anyone thinking about applying to writing programs.

To put it plainly, the Poets & Writers rankings are bad: they are methodologically specious in the extreme and quite misleading. A biased opinion poll—based on a tiny, self-selecting survey of potential program applicants—provides poor information. Poets & Writers itself includes on its website a disclaimer suggesting the limitations of these rankings, recommending that potential applicants look beyond them. Regrettably, the information appears on a separate page.

What’s worse, if a program decides against encouraging a bad process by choosing not to provide information, P&W’s process insists on including that program as though the information was negative, a procedure we think is unethical, as well as statistically misleading. The P&W rankings, in their language and approach, labor to create the impression that the application process between applicants and programs is adversarial. It is not, as any proper, sensible survey of MFA students and alumni would indicate.
Instead of asking such students and alumni about quality of instruction, or anything else about actual program content, P&W’s rankings are heavily skewed toward viewing a program’s financial aid offer as the final arbiter of that program’s overall quality. We agree that financial aid must be a serious consideration, but a student’s relationship with his or her faculty—what and how one learns—is at least equally as important.

In economic times like these, there is no immediate correspondence between any degree and employment. This is particularly true of the MFA in creative writing and PhD in English with a creative dissertation. While we work hard to help our graduates find jobs, it is essential to understand that creative writing for the vast majority is not a profession. Some writers earn their living as teachers, but others are lawyers, full-time homemakers, doctors, editors, business owners, sales clerks, and mechanics. No applicant should consider pursuing a creative writing degree assuming the credential itself leads to an academic job. And no applicant should put her or himself in financial peril in order to pursue the degree.

Our best advice is to do your research through the programs you’re considering. If you are able to visit those programs, ask to sit in on classes and for the contact information of current and recent students. Talk to people you respect about different programs. Read work by the instructors.

Most programs have basic academic and financial information available on their websites. But don’t hesitate to ask questions of the program directors, admissions committee members, and students presently attending the programs. This kind of commonsensical research will help you find a program suited to your hopes and talents.


Jonathan Aaron, Emerson College
Lee K. Abbott, Ohio State University
Jonis Agee, University of Nebraska – Lincoln
Marla Akin, University of Texas Michener Center for Writers
Julianna Baggott, Florida State University
Sally Ball, Arizona State University
Aliki Barnstone, University of Missouri – Columbia
Steven Barthelme, University of Southern Mississippi
Jocelyn Bartkevicius, University of Central Florida
Robin Behn, University of Alabama
Erin Belieu, Florida State University
Karen E. Bender, University of North Carolina Wilmington
April Bernard, Skidmore College
Mark Bibbins, The New School
Mary Biddinger, The University of Akron
Scott Blackwood, Roosevelt University
Robert Boswell, University of Houston
David Bosworth, University of Washington
Mark Brazaitis, West Virginia University
Lucie Brock-Broido, Columbia University
Ben Brooks, Emerson College
John Gregory Brown, Sweet Briar College
Andrea Hollander Budy, Lyon College
Janet Burroway, Florida State University
Robert Olen Butler, Florida State University
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, University of California, San Diego
Scott Cairns, University of Missouri – Columbia
Kara Candito, University of Wisconsin – Platteville
Kevin Canty, University of Montana at Missoula
Mary Carroll-Hackett, Longwood University
Michelle Carter, San Francisco State University
Alexander Chee, Columbia University
Alan Cheuse, George Mason University
Jeanne E. Clark, California State University Chico
Brian Clements, Western Connecticut State University
Mick Cochrane, Canisius College
Michael Collier, University of Maryland
Gillian Conoley, Sonoma State University
Bob Cowser, St. Lawrence University
Jennine Capó Crucet, Florida State University
Kelly Daniels, Augustana College
R. H. W. Dillard, Hollins University
Chitra Divakaruni, University of Houston
Jim Dodge, Humboldt State University
Timothy Donnelly, Columbia University
Michael Dumanis, Cleveland State University
Camille Dungy, San Francisco State University
Karl Elder, Lakeland College
Leslie Epstein, Boston University
Elaine Equi, New York University
David Everett, Johns Hopkins University
Kathy Fagan, Ohio State University
Andrew Feld, University of Washington
Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Florida State University
Ned Stuckey-French, Florida State University
Forrest Gander, Brown University
Eric Gansworth, Canisius College
Steve Garrison, University of Central Oklahoma
Maria Gillan, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Michele Glazer, Portland State University
Tod Goldberg, University of California, Riverside Palm Desert
Eric Goodman, Miami University of Ohio
Jaimy Gordon, Western Michigan University
Carol Guerrero-Murphy, Adams State College
Corrinne Clegg Hales, California State University, Fresno
Rachel Hall, State University of New York at Geneseo
Barbara Hamby, Florida State University
Cathryn Hankla, Hollins University
James Harms, West Virginia University
Charles Hartman, Connecticut College
Yona Harvey, Carnegie Mellon University
Ehud Havazelet, University of Oregon
Steve Heller, Antioch University Los Angeles
Robin Hemley, University of Iowa
DeWitt Henry, Emerson College
Michelle Herman, Ohio State University
Laraine Herring, Yavapai College
Sue Hertz, University of New Hampshire
Tony Hoagland, University of Houston
Janet Holmes, Boise State University
Garrett Hongo, University of Oregon
Ha Jin, Boston University
Arnold Johnston, Western Michigan University
Diana Joseph, Minnesota State University, Mankato
Laura Kasischke, University of Michigan
Catherine Kasper, University of Texas at San Antonio
J. Kastely, University of Houston
Richard Katrovas, Western Michigan University
Christopher Kennedy, Syracuse University
Richard Kenney, University of Washington
David Keplinger, American University
James Kimbrell, Florida State University
David Kirby, Florida State University
Binnie Kirshenbaum, Columbia University
Karen Kovacik, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
Stephen Kuusisto, Syracuse University
Deborah Landau, New York University
Jeanne Larsen, Hollins University
David Lehman, The New School
Dana Levin, Santa Fe University of Art and Design
Lisa Lewis, Oklahoma State University
Catherine Lewis, Purchase College, State University of New York
Samuel Ligon, Eastern Washington University
Robert Lopez, The New School
Denise Low, Haskell Indian Nations
Kirsten Lunstrum, Purchase College, State University of New York
Patrick Madden, Brigham Young University
Megan Marshall, Emerson College
Michael Martone, University of Alabama
Cate Marvin, College of Staten Island, The City University of New York
Gail Mazur, Emerson College
Janet McAdams, Kenyon College
Shara McCallum, Bucknell University
Karen Salyer McElmurray, Georgia College & State University
Heather McHugh, University of Washington
Sarah Messer, University of North Carolina Wilmington
Jennifer Militello, River Valley Community College
Wayne Miller, University of Central Missouri
Debra Monroe, Texas State University
Dinty W. Moore, Ohio University
Brian Morton, Sarah Lawrence College
Rick Mulkey, Converse College
Brighde Mullins, University of Southern California
Antonya Nelson, University of Houston
Ian Blake Newhem, Rockland Community College, State University of New York
Thisbe Nissen, Western Michigan University
Daniel Orozco, University of Idaho
Pamela Painter, Emerson College
Alan Michael Parker, Davidson College
Jeff Parker, University of Tampa
Oliver de la Paz, Western Washington University
Donna de la Perriere, San Francisco State University
Joyce Peseroff, University of Massachusetts Boston
Todd James Pierce, California Polytechnic State University
Robert Pinsky, Boston University
Kevin Prufer, University of Houston
Imad Rahman, Cleveland State University
Ladette Randolph, Emerson College
Marthe Reed, University of Louisiana Lafayette
Nelly Reifler, Sarah Lawrence College
Frederick Reiken, Emerson College
Paisley Rekdal, University of Utah
R. Clay Reynolds, University of Texas at Dallas
Kathryn Rhett, Gettysburg College
David Rivard, University of New Hampshire
Richard Robbins, Minnesota State University, Mankato
Mary F. Rockcastle, Hamline University
Robin Romm, New Mexico State University
Michael Ryan, University of California, Irvine
Benjamin Alíre Sáenz, University of Texas at El Paso
Martha Serpas, University of Houston
Bob Shacochis, Florida State University
Brenda Shaughnessy, New York University
Aurelie Sheehan, University of Arizona
David Shields, University of Washington
John Skoyles, Emerson College
Tom Sleigh, Hunter College
Casey Smith, Corcoran College of Art and Design
Maya Sonenberg, University of Washington
Gregory Spatz, Eastern Washington University
Brent Spencer, Creighton University
Sheryl St. Germain, Chatham University
Les Standiford, Florida International University
Domenic Stansberry, Vermont College
Thom Tammaro, Minnesota State University Moorhead
Alexandra Teague, University of Idaho
Daniel Tobin, Emerson College
Mark Todd, Western State College
Ann Townsend, Denison University
Peter Turchi, Arizona State University
Paul Vangelisti, Otis College of Art & Design
Sidney Wade, University of Florida
Jerald Walker, Emerson College
Rosanna Warren, Boston University
Laura Lee Washburn, Pittsburg State University
Joshua Weiner, University of Maryland
Lesley Wheeler, Washington and Lee University
Richard Wiley, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Ann Joslin Williams, University of New Hampshire
David Wojahn, Virginia Commonwealth University
Gregory Wolfe, Seattle Pacific University
C.D. Wright, Brown University
Robert Wrigley, University of Idaho
Steve Yarbrough, Emerson College
Stephen Yenser, University of California, Los Angeles
C. Dale Young, Warren Wilson College
Matthew Zapruder, University of California, Riverside Palm Desert
Lisa Zeidner, Rutgers-Camden, The State University of New Jersey
Alan Ziegler, Columbia University
Leni Zumas, Portland State University

Creative Writing Profs Dispute Their Ranking–No, the Entire Notion of Ranking!