Measuring Degrees

“University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” —  Henry Kissinger

While the context of Kissinger’s statement is clearly much broader than printmaking, there is a relevant truth. Future generations of printmakers often find their way to to the field as an academic pursuit and the discipline shares many of academia’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you want to start a heated debate, ask a room full of printmakers which printmaking graduate program is the best. The arts’ relationship to the academy has always been a slippery one and the notion of ranking degree-granting institutions even more so. Factors for consideration often include facility, faculty, financial aid, reputation, and location, but what kind of algorithm could average so many disparate concerns into a definitive, hierarchical list?

This question arises because someone does produce a definitive, hierarchical list on a regular basis. March 13th marked the release of yet another edition of the US News and World Report’s Best Graduate Printmaking Programs list and I’ve been thinking about the list intermittently since then. The description offered for what the twenty schools profess and achieve reads as follows: “Printmaking curricula may span book binding, papermaking, and digital printmaking. With an M.F.A., graduates may find jobs in fields including publishing, design, and academia. These are the best fine arts schools for printmaking.” These aren’t good schools, the text says they’re “the best” schools. That is an unequivocally bold statement.

So what makes these schools “the best” and why does it matter to Printeresting? Let’s start with the latter, since it’s an easier question to answer. We get emails from undergraduate students asking for advice about graduate school and we’re flummoxed by the complexity of topic. Somewhere amidst our scrawling and meandering replies, we usually site the US News and World Report (USN&WR) rankings but suggest taking them with a grain of salt. We suggest a grain of salt because there are always some questions regarding methodology.

When contacted with a few questions about the inner workings at USN&WR, Robert Morse, Director of Data Research at US News, emailed back with some short answers. Two deans and/or senior faculty are surveyed at each of the more than 200 eligible schools (can you even believe that there are more than 200 M.F.A. granting programs in the US?). They are given a list of all eligible schools and are asked to give each school a ranking ranging from Outstanding to Don’t Know. They are instructed to “rate the overall academic quality of the M.F.A. program in art and design at each of these schools. Consider all factors that contribute to or give evidence of the excellence of the school’s program, for example, curriculum, professional accomplishment of students, quality of faculty and graduates.” Ultimately, the survey is based on reputation only and no statistical data. It seems like what’s missing in these calculations is an impartial database of something concrete. Ideally, things like artistic accomplishment, job placement, or the commercial success for the graduates of various MFA programs would be included, but those seem at best immeasurable and at worst undefinable. In lieu of these “unquantifiables,” shouldn’t at least facilities, faculty, funding, etc., be factor?

An advanced degree in art by it’s nature is not an easily quantifiable endeavor. As any MFA-holding printmaker will likely attest, the degree is both a momentous achievement and an ambiguous accomplishment. Degree procedures and expectations change from school to school. Beyond having some relationship to print (however defined), one shouldn’t assume that someone with an M.F.A. in Printmaking has any particular skill set. The degree holder may be technically proficient at one traditional print technique or have mastered them all. They may be conversant with digital technology as it relates to print or they may not. They may have a broad sense of art history or a deep, specific knowledge of one aspect of print history. They may have a strong familiarity with contemporary art or they may steep purely in esoteric printmaking lore. In short, an M.F.A. represents something different for every graduate student.

It goes without saying that lots of interesting work is being and has been made by artists without MFAs and lots of terrible work is made by people with MFAs. Obviously attending graduate school isn’t a necessity for being an artist and plenty of learning occurs outside of the academic system. Most community shops offer low cost introductions to various print processes and more general art alternatives are available as well: here and here and read more here. Though for many who do not already possess a cosmopolitan understanding of the art world, it can sometimes feel like an MFA is an expedient prerequisite for entry into a larger professional sphere.

For many good reasons academia is an entrenched and important (though not summative) part of the print community. While USN&WR does what it can, perhaps its time for the print community to look inward to find a way of explaining and evaluating the complexities and qualifiers that are best considered by a student looking for further education at the graduate level. It may be a quagmire, but it’s our quagmire.

by Kyle @TypeTruck via @Craftland

Ed. Note: It’s come to our attention that Prof B. Lyons of the University of Tennessee Knoxville is organizing a panel to discuss this very subject at SECAC. His panel description sites more data: “The fine arts program rankings are based solely on the results of a peer assessment survey of 220 MFA programs in art and design. Survey respondents are asked to rate the academic quality of programs on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (out- standing). Scores for each school are totaled and divided by the number of respondents who rated that school. The most recent response rate for the survey was only 39 percent.” We look forward to hearing what findings may come from this discussion.

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Categories: Critical Discourse

7 Responses to “Measuring Degrees”

  1. Jon Mahnke says:

    Great topic. One thing that always gets me with the U.S. News guide is reliance on senior faculty and deans. It feels like asking a tree in Minnesota what the forrests are like in Florida.

    I think the application process can be so rigorous and acceptance feels like such an accomplishment that many grads get stuck in programs that aren’t serving their needs and end up wasting time and money.

  2. Jason Urban says:

    I like your metaphor, John.

  3. Thanks Jason for mentioning the SECAC session this Fall that I am chairing. The conference will be in Durham, North Carolina October 17-20. . The other presenters for the session will be Joe Seipel from VCU (known as a top ranked program in several arts and design fields), who will present a paper titled “US News and World Report, Just Like Football?” in which he compares the rankings to College Football Rankings. In a second paper, Dr. Catherine E. Caesar from the University of Dallas, which was 206th in the most recent rankings will present the history of their program and the success of their graduates. My paper is titled “Peer Assessment Surveys: Does Perception Create Reality?” It is worth noting that for specialty fine arts rankings, the survey asks administrators to nominate up to 10 programs noted for their excellence. It is only in the overall rankings that the scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (outstanding) is used. In my paper I will trace some of the trends with the fine art rankings since they were first published in 1997, comparing the overall rankings to rankings for specialty areas such as printmaking, ceramics, painting, etc. While specialty areas are generally out of step with multidisciplinary trends in the arts, I will argue that peer assessments may be more accurate in these instances. Additionally, as the rankings tend to drive student applications, are the 2012 results more precise than the initial rankings in 1997? While it is certainly true that the fit of program to student is important, and there are excellent and rigorous graduate programs that do not find their way onto the “top ten” lists, it might be interesting to see if the readers of Printeresting were to submit a list of what they regarded as the ten best printmaking programs and send them to someone to cross reference. Given that the response rate for the 2012 USN&WR rankings was only 31 percent of 460 ballots mailed, their survey results were based on on 143 ballots! Certainly someone can step forward and organize the “Print People’s Top Ten List!”

  4. John Pyper says:

    One other issue beyond media expertise and personal fit is if the program develops teaching chops as much or more than theoretical or olde fashioned printing skills. If so, they benefit in these surveys as they exist– assuming that they are able to place teachers in programs. Ask teachers where is best and they say the school that taught them to be a teacher over the ones that trained those pesky studio artists, writers, master-printers, or print curators.

  5. Luther says:

    I always tell my students that the best MFA programs are the ones they will get full funding to attend.
    I think peer review works for the most part if the peers are actually in the know and paying attention the the broader context of their departments. A good printmaking dept would have excellent facilities but, more importantly, excellent instructors with actual connections to the world outside of academia. I imagine that Yale always manages to get on these lists because they are perceived as being connected to the gallery world (they have great instructors as well but their facilities are small when compared to others).
    When I got my MFA from The Ohio State University the printmaking department was fighting for its place in the epicenter of the art program. While the program kept all of it’s classes, it was moved out of the main art building. What the administrators failed to see (and we failed to point out as a program) was that all of the printmaking MFAs went on to get good jobs which wasn’t even remotely the case in the other areas of the MFA program at the time.

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