Are MFA Student Editors Legit?

Recently, a friend and colleague drew my attention to a blog post on Passages North’s website. In this post, editor Jennifer A. Howard makes a point of assuring submitters their manuscripts are never, under any circumstances, accepted or rejected by MFA students at Northern Michigan.

Here, at Indiana Review, our editors, genre editors, and associate genre editors are all MFA students. We, as a journal, are committed to ensuring that our acceptance process is as painstakingly meticulous, exhaustive, and democratic as possible.

What does this process look like? Well, each week, our staff of MFA student editors spends hours combing through hundreds of submissions—reading, re-reading, and making difficult decisions as to which poems, stories, and essays to select for further consideration. Then, graduate students—first-, second-, and third-years alike—are responsible for reading and giving careful consideration to the work selected for discussion. At the end of each week, we gather together to engage in a thoughtful, thorough conversation about this work. After a piece has been discussed at length, each reader casts his or her vote as to whether she or he would like to see the piece in Indiana Review. Majority rules.

While Howard does emphasize the importance of a collective readership at Passages North, saying that, no submission gets “sent back (or accepted) based on any one person,” she makes it clear that those who have the final say are the “actual editors,” rather than those MFA “kid[s].”

As someone who is so fortunate as to meet each week to listen to the intelligent comments and questions contributed by a group of invested, passionate, and informed readers, I can’t help but take issue with the notion that graduate students are incapable of making informed decisions. I believe our ideas, aesthetics, and opinions matter; I believe we can—and should—play a significant role in shaping the contemporary literary world.

Readers, what do you think? We’d love to hear what you have to say!

5 Responses to “Are MFA Student Editors Legit?”

  1. Matthew Siegel

    I have no problem at all having MFA students edit. It is a great chance for them, and they were admitted to the program because they have a particular body of knowledge which qualifies them to do this work.

    I love Passages North and IR and trust both methods.

  2. Alessandra

    The journals speak for themselves, I believe. The high quality work being published by journals staffed entirely by MFA students shows that yes, MFA students are as legit as other editorial boards. (I am in no way biased.)

  3. Heather

    I’d agree with Alessandra that some of the most reputable journals in the nation have an MFA editorial board. If it wasn’t for MFA programs half of anyone’s favorite journals wouldn’t exist (let’s not even get started on university presses) and for the ones that would, their readership at least would drop significantly. MFAers (students and alumni) help sustain this beloved literary community; whether you think the degree is worthwhile or a total waste of money, you can’t ignore that fact.

    And who’s to say that independent journals are edited with any more precision? There’s certainly not (automatically) the checks and balances system that you get with the large, ever-changing boards of editors at MFA journals.

  4. D. A. Powell

    Every art needs a healthy mix of voices. Having MFA students choose work for publication allows them to enter the mix; to be a part of the conversation. I respect a program that invites its students to grow in numerous ways. Editorial experience is an effective means by which students can grow and make decisions that affect the complex and fascinating world of literature. The work that students do is often thankless. We should commend them for providing their vital support and candid opinions. Literary magazines are classrooms just as the world itself is a classroom. If a desire to learn comes knocking, open the door.

  5. Roxane

    There are arguments to be made on both sides of the issue but undoubtedly students can and should have a voice and a significant role in shaping the aesthetic of university-based literary magazines as well as contributing to and shaping the literary world. As an MA student, I was a reader for Prairie Schooner and my input was always valued. I learned so much about how to read work and make decisions because of that experience. At the same time, I readily acknowledge that I didn’t really know my head from my posterior and so it was good to have another level of vetting. I was decently read and understood, in theory, what to look for, but I didn’t know everything. I certainly did not have enough sophistication to recognize the value of experimental and otherwise nontraditional writing. There is something to be said for students acknowledging that guidance can be useful. At the very least, editorial guidance was invaluable for me.

    There is ample evidence that magazines where graduate students make the final decisions, are outstanding (ahem) but there is just as much evidence that it can be useful to have faculty mentorship and decision making. There’s room for everyone.