Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ambition / Rethinking

Yesterday I wrote a post about a student advisee who told me she was planning to get a phud in English, and then in another field. Mostly, I focused on my amazment (in the Spenserian sort of sense) that anyone would want to, or that phud programs would want a student seeking a second phud. Partly my response came directly out of how miserable I was dealing with some aspects of my own grad program.

And thanks to my commentors, I stand corrected. There are, indeed, as Jo(e) and Marcelle Proust pointed out, good reasons for some people to get a second phud, and this student may end up being one of those. (And can I just say, isn't it cool that Proust comes to visit; now if only Chaucer would!)

On the other hand, as others noted, this student, being an undergraduate and all, doesn't really know what graduate work is about. NegativeCapability mentions that my advisee probably thinks of grad work as a sort of second major. And indeed, this student is planning to double major in the two fields.

The student, when she came to talk to me, was in her first semester of college work. She'd already declared her majors, so I do indeed get the feeling she's very focused, or focused and anxious. And who can blame someone for being anxious! But also, she's just beginning her undergraduate career, and at a place without phud programs, so it's really unlikely that she has even the smallest idea of what a graduate program looks like. We have tons of first generation college students. How could they know what they're getting into?

Reading the responses made me think back to my own starting out in college. I, too, declared my major during my first term, and terrified went to meet with my advisor as mandated. I had NO clue what college was about because college is pretty much like a visible secret society. There are colleges and universities all over the place, but unless you're in one, you probably don't know much about how it works. And if you're in one as an undergraduate, you only see one level of how yours works.

I was thinking, it's like being arrested. I've never been arrested. The closest experiences I've had with being arrested are watching TV shows (yeah, that's realistic). So, if I'm ever arrested, I really won't know how to act, except that my deep-seated fear of guns and people with them will probably make me meek and obedient. And then I'll ask to get a lawyer. But I don't actually know any criminal lawyers, so I guess I'd call a friend and hope s/he could find someone decent?

When you're an undergraduate, you mostly see the effects of other people's decisions, but not the decision making process at all. You see that you can't get into certain classes because they're already full; you buy books someone ordered; you fulfill requirements. There's lots of information available about the decision making, but hidden in archives or discussed in meetings you're not even aware of, and if you were, you'd be too busy with just trying to do your thing.

When you're a grad student, you may do some book ordering, and teach classes, so you begin to see how those decisions are made. If you're lucky, someone mentors you about writing your syllabus, planning a semester/quarter, and so forth. If you're really lucky, someone mentions FERPA to you, so you don't do something illegal because you're clueless. But you still fulfill requirements, can't get into some classes, jump hoops, and mostly don't see how decisions are made. (Some schools are more open than others; some allow grad students on hiring or grad acceptance committees, or on curriculum committees.)

When you're on the market, seeking to move to a faculty position of some sort from grad school, you likely become really aware of how little you know about how hiring decisions are made, contracts negotiated, and so forth.

When you're a new faculty member, you probably become way more aware of how curricular decisions are made, start learning about budgeting and scheduling decisions, and so forth. You begin to get a sense of the inner circle workings, if only because you see the effects more closely.

I, for example, don't see the big wigs on my campus talking to legislators or the board of trustee types, but I hear about those discussions. I don't know the exact numbers (I could look them up), but I know that my department's decisions about hiring adjuncts, the college's decisions about tenure lines, and whether we can actually add this or that class or program are driven by budget issues. I don't know without asking how many of our students are on probation, or how the dorm housing "works." I have vague ideas about how decisions are made over at the library, but the student health center's a cipher. I doubt many people really have a great grasp on the interweavings of how even a smallish campus such as mine works.

And unlike if I'm arrested, I at least have a clue about who to call or email here to ask questions of whatever sort.

There's a mystique to colleges and universities; I think we faculty folks sometimes embrace that mystique. But in the larger sense, it's a mistake because the people who really have power don't like feeling left out or uninformed.

In the Northwoods, the state government, especially the legislature deeply distrusts the university. Supposedly, if you talk to local representatives, they all say that their local Northwoods campus is doing great work and is the exception; they trust the local campus. But they don't see the system as a system of local campuses, but instead as the SYSTEM, and the system is untrustworthy.

If we were more transparent in our activities, our decision-making, would the elected folks see that we do indeed do good work in all sorts of ways? Would they budget accordingly, and make fewer rules for the sake of making rules?

And would our students come in with more realistic expectations?

We don't explain ourselves well to the public, but when we try, we're competing with so many other voices and advertising that we seem drowned out. I don't know how to solve that. People only have so much time, energy, and attention, and we're all pulled in myriad directions.

I'm being pulled to Love's Labors Lost at this very minute!


  1. In a general sense I've been thinking for some time about some of the ideas you've brought up here. I've especially been thinking "How did I know what I knew" when it came to dealing with life in college. I think a lot of it came from having been to a decent, if not stellar, college prep high school, where the AP classes really were like the intro-level classes in college, where we wrote literary criticism papers of all types in AP English (including the research paper) and learned how to *do* history in AP History, and ran lab experiments in AP Chemistry, etc. But the rest came from knowing people who'd been to college and generally being curious about it. I remember way back in junior high having a music teacher who said she had to finish "3 hours" of her MA and I asked what that meant.

    So many of your students -- and mine, who are very much like them (only less into the hunting!) -- are at a distinct disadvantage, and it's very much a class disadvantage because so much of the coping and survival skills we learn are picked up informally from those around us.

    Which brings me to your musings about openness and transparency. I wonder if universities like ours should have the kinds of "days on campus" that fancy places have for their alums, only in our cases, we should have them for people who have never been to college or who have never been to ours, at least. You know -- just to see what it's like for a day. I know I could certainly teach a "sample English class" on a poem or two -- I do it all the time on the first day of the semester, when no one has read anything, and I know you do, too.

    Hmmm...I may run with this idea at my university. Our new president would probably *love* it, and then he'd find out that the arts and humanities people do it *much better* than his beloved scientists and professional school folks! Te-hee!

  2. What a great post.

    To focus on the idea (which I realize is only one aspect of your post) that students don't know how college works:

    I agree that it takes time to learn how to "do college." I was a 2nd/3rd generation college student, but I had no idea what to call a professor who didn't have a PhD, for example. Nor did I understand the classification of assistant/assoc/full professors, or of adjuncts.

    Financial aid is still a big mystery to me (it was done weird at the school I attended for my undergrad, and the scholarships I got in grad school canceled out the financial aid I would have gotten, so I was advised not to bother with FAFSA forms).

    FERPA training wasn't even covered in my most recent faculty orientation. That still blows me away. I learned about it at my previous university, but my colleagues here who haven't been profs before have no idea what FERPA is for.

    So if we profs are clueless, how do we expect the students to have a clue? And yet we DO expect them to figure out college. I try to guide my freshmen through the ropes--how to study for my classes, how to read the texts (and what to focus on), the importance of backing up one's work and of starting assignments sooner, how to find things in the library, etc. We do have a "first generational college student" class here to help students with the process, but I think even some of our 3rd and 4th generation students need this advice.

    I could have benefited from it myself as an undergrad, even though I didn't realize it at the time!

  3. Well I have a daughter who would love to do another PhD. Her first is in 17th century French Lit and she would be love to do one in History. Even with a full time job and a 4 yr old she still takes a college level course in Italian every semester.

    I'm sure any dept would be happy to accept a PhD candidate who already has a PhD, providing funding can be found.