Friday, April 23, 2010

Get Out of Town

Three students, imagine. Two are nearing graduation.

One was thinking of leaving the area, and with good reason. Student A doesn't fit and isn't happy in the conservative midwest. But Student A is taking a class from the grad director, and she happily announced in a meeting recently that he'll be enrolling in our MA program.

One has applied to several grad programs, and was thrilled to get into the school geographically closest to us; we're not quite in the back yard, but it would be a reasonable commute where I'm from. Student B is thrilled because s/he doesn't want to be far from home, and besides, the school closest to home must have the best program.

One wants to work in theater (or a similar field that also requires numbers of people to make an economic go), but resists my encouragement to apply for internships in one of the nearish cities with great theater traditions. Student C can't imagine moving to a bigger community; it's just too scary. Student C also insists that community theater in the small communities around here is just like professional theater. (See Terminal Degree's recent post about the big fish in the small pond.)

Each of these students should go away, at least for a couple years (or a summer internship) to get challenged. But somehow, they aren't reaching out for the challenge.

I know the grad director is an ethical person, deeply committed to our grad program, and convinced we do a really good job for our grad students. I'm not at all convinced. If you were to read the grad director's blog, you'd get a different point of view, and maybe be convinced. But I wonder why Student A isn't getting out. Student A hasn't consulted with me about things, so I don't really feel it's my place to step in and step on the grad director's toes.

Student B really needs to challenge him/herself, really needs to see that there's a big world out there. Some of our students do challenge themselves, and even if they go to regional grad schools, I don't worry at all because they've reached out all along. But Student B hasn't (though Student B is a fine student). When Student B first talked about going to grad school, I gave my usual statistic-laden talk. But Student A made it clear that things would be different for him/her, and that I should back off, so I did.

But I really, really don't want Student A to write a blog in five years talking about what a piss-poor job I did, and how I wasn't honest enough or something. I don't seem to do a good job balancing honesty (the job market sucks, and you're enthusiastic and capable, but you're in a very tiny pond here) and encouragement (you're enthusiastic and capable, yay!).

Student C just worries me. It's not the small town thing. I had a friend in the Peace Corps who'd grown up in a town of about 300 in the middle of a big squared off state, and who begged to be reassigned to a new site when she learned she'd been stationed in the capital. The thing is, my Peace Corps friend, even though she wanted to be in a small town, was doing that in a foreign country, working in a foreign language. My friend has since gone to a top notch graduate program and found her way back to a very small town where she does good work. Small towns aren't the problem here.

It's the bi-annual "let's talk to English majors about grad school" meeting today. I have class, and so won't attend. I know the person arranging the program is fairly realistic about grad school in talking to the students, but I also know that Student B is going to be there, and enthuse about grad school and such. And the grad director will be there and enthuse about our grad program. And students are going to think that grad school's a great idea, and that staying close to home where things aren't very challenging is a great idea. And for most of them, it's just not.


  1. Oy, so many of our students are like this. It's one reason why I've been very glad that for the last two years our MA program has had only 1 student each year from our own undergraduate pool. As grad director, I actively discourage our undergrads from applying to our MA program. "Go down the road or over the border to the other regional public MA programs if you insist you're place-bound," I say. At *least* they'll get different professors if not a different region.

    We get a lot of students from elsewhere who were big fishes in small ponds and are shocked when they don't get in anywhere else. And I think we do them some good -- they're the most likely to realize what they have to do to get in to PhD programs (having had the slap in the face of reality of rejection) and work their butts off, and finally do get in somewhere after us. Also, we're not in a huge city, but for some of our students from the tiny towns and tiny LACs, we are the big city. (Having lived 15 years in NYC and LA, this amazes me.) So we do them some good that way -- ease the transition.

    But otherwise, your students A, B, and C sound so much like many of ours. So many of them really need to get out of Rust Belt and get a larger perspective. Can you teach perspective? How do you gently say, "You're an excellent, anyway," without sounding like you're putting down our institutions (especially when you're an outsider in many ways, no matter how long you've been at the university)? How do you help them realize the competition out there?

    I had a former MA student contact me awhile back about how she wanted me to know she was applying to Cornell. She said it such a way that she *assumed* she'd get in. (?!) She wasn't even one of *our* best students, and she thought she had a shot at Cornell. I told her their admission stats. That didn't dissuade her; she still thought she was competitive with the tiny percentage who get in.

    I'm starting to think I should say things like, "Honey, *I* didn't get into Cornell, and I was a Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude Ivy League grad with a year at Cambridge University." Maybe that will convince them to aim a little lower?

    And then there are the students who might have a chance at a high ranked grad school, but you can't get them to leave. Argh! So frustrating!

  2. Can you send the grad director a statement to read?

  3. Anonymous7:29 AM

    i like the idea of framing it as a challenge. My undergrad advisor gave me the big fish/small pond speech but he more or less told me I had little or no chance to get it anywhere (and when i did, he announced that is a coup. um, okay?) and that if I did, I would struggle and be the bottom of the heap up against my better prepared classmates.

    That wasn't quite my experience but he wasn't completely wrong about how different it would be, how prepared my peers were and the like.

    I wonder if I would have heard it differently if he's encouraged me to challenge myself. Even just that phrase. And acknowledging that being in a different region, in a different city or town was in itself going to be a challenge. I think that would have been useful for me to hear and it would have allowed me to contextualize the ways I did struggle positively.