Way to Show Off Those Research Skills Your $45,000 Education Got You

The argument in this article in Slate starts off pretty well, it seems to me, but rather rapidly takes a turn toward Confusedville with a brief stop in Strawman Heights.  Should Poets and Writers factor tuition cost into their rankings?  I dunno.  But Scott Kenmore isn’t arguing that they shouldn’t, just that they are doing it wrong, and that’s where his argument goes off the rails.  Basically, it seems to me, he’s saying that he, and other graduates of Columbia’s MFA program, are the hard-headed realists (unlike graduates of other MFA programs) because their degree pays off.  No chapbooks with readerships of 20 or 30 for them, no sir.  They’ll make back that $45,000 in no time, because he and “many of his colleagues” have published 6 or more books.  Well, there you go.  Someone with an MFA from Columbia published some books; just about all the evidence you need.  You can bet no one from any of those lesser MFA programs banged out 6 books.

What, you want more evidence?  Well, so does Mr. Kenmore.  He wants Poets and Writers to add a “manuscript placement” column to their annual rankings, to show “What percentage of fiction graduates secure a publishing contract worth at least four figures within 10 years of graduation” and “What percentage of poets win a prize that results in the publication of a book within 10 years of graduation”.  Now, leaving aside the rather obvious point that Scott Kenmore could have done some research into the kinds of contracts Columbia MFAs earned himself and made some really iron-clad points, did such points exist to be made, this calls for a bit of unpacking.  First off, a four-figure contract – let’s call it $5,000.  Let’s further say that these folks who do earn those contracts get two of them every ten years, rather than just one – an average of $1,000 a year, earned off the back of that degree from Columbia.  Do I really have to keep doing the math, to compare this to the tuition of $45,000?  Seems like someone bloody well ought to.  And don’t get me started on those poor poets, who presumably aren’t earning such princely sums from their books.

I’m not the one who brought grubby capitalism into this, mind you.  I’m perfectly happy to let MFA grads of any stripe tell me that they live a life of elevated creativity, impossible without their degree and worth every penny they paid.  But once you decide to board the math train to do a cost/benefit analysis, you’ve got ride her where she goes, because the Queen of Sciences running that train cares little for your gut feelings on how things should be.  For instance, if you discovered that the typical Columbia MFA is out there earning $1,000/year from their writing, while the typical MFA from some less prestigious program that costs $20,000 in tuition is earning a mere $500 a year, then guess what – they win.

I hate to say this, but I begin to wonder at the math skills and business acumen of Columbia MFAs, actually.  Before this article, there was the fact that Johnathan Frey apparently concluded that he could get away with offering Columbia MFA students $250-$500 and a small percentage of profits for completed manuscripts (that’s 3 figures, if you’re keeping track), and quite a few of them actually thought this was going to work out for them.  After writing that very amusing post, by the way, John Scalzi wrote an open letter to MFA writing programs and their students, suggesting that a class or two on the business of writing might be a good thing to include as part of a degree.  That got him into an exchange with Elise Blackwell, director of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, and it sort of shows me a bit where Scott Kenmore is coming from, because apparently there really are people out there who think that MFAs are above commercialism.  I could see them slamming Columbia simply for being expensive, rather than too expensive to be worth it (after all, if you’re above commercialism, you might as well be cheap).  Interestingly, John Scalzi is nominally on Scott Kenmore’s side, or at least closer to it, because he does believe that there is some benefit to more expensive degrees, even if there shouldn’t be.  He has a slightly better grasp of arithmetic, though, and he therefore agrees with Elise Blackwell that Columbia’s MFA is wildly overpriced.

I always thought that the articles that just insist this sort of list of rankings in meaningless were sort of boring, but it turns out they are preferable to someone ineptly battling for a better place on them.

~ by smwilliams on September 20, 2011.