Sunday, June 26, 2005

A response to What Now?'s post 06.25.05

I started responding to What Now's post on Chapter Two, but ended up going on and on (and being fairly self-absorbed!), so I thought I'd make this a post of its own. I think some of this responds a little bit to Mel's post, too.

In the comments to WN's post, mshoff asks how to rattle the institutional hierarchy, once we've figured out that it's a construct like race, class, or gender. This is a good question, and I don't have an answer, just a reaction... While reading Hall's book I've been sort of patting myself on the back for already recognizing the artificiality of these hierarchies as constructs; in parts of the book my reaction has been a little bit of, "ho-hum, doesn't everyone know this already?" But I just realized that my idea of "rattling" the hierarchies is to work at a teaching school and to (try to) be a "legitimate" or "respectable" researcher as well - kind of like the supermom myth, I want to try to do it all. Which is not to say that those of us at teaching schools shouldn't/don't do research, but to recognize that I'm not really challenging the primacy of research as the measure of academic worth or legitimacy. Yes, I do believe that it's possible to be an active researcher outside the context of a R1 university, which is a step in the right direction, but I'm still privileging research, despite the fact that I think in general that I am a better teacher than I am researcher.

I do believe that graduate departments bear the brunt of trying to change these hierarchies (although Mel's post cogently points out the kinds of institutional constraints within which departments operate). I say this because it was my experience in my graduate program that made me aware of any of the arguments that Hall makes.

To explain the background to my grad school experience: I grew up in a suburb that placed a LOT of emphasis on going to a name-brand college or university - ideally, an Ivy or baby Ivy. And I went off to a very elite, small, private liberal arts college. When I was applying to graduate schools, however, I was well advised, and while I did apply to a number of Ivies (couldn't resist the opportunity to get rejected AGAIN by Harvard), the schools that best suited my interests happened to be large state schools (the kind of schools I would NEVER have attended as an undergrad. What can I say? I was a total snob and completely bought into the hierarchies that Hall lays out, or at least the undergrads' version thereof). Actually, thinking about it, I suspect it didn't hurt that the grad school advisor in my undergraduate department was one of the few faculty there who hadn't gone to an Ivy (and in fact, he was an alumnus of the grad school I ultimately attended). Many of my classmates didn't quite understand why I would attend a non-Ivy grad school; most of my friends joked about not knowing where grad school state was (somewhere in the generic middle of the country), and when I told one classmate where I was going for grad school, he said bluntly, "Why?!?" (He also went to grad school in history. He went to a name school. He never finished. Heh. WN, I got schadenfreude too!)

In any case, I went off to grad school in Large State School (where the history department was on the 6th floor of a 14-story building; just taking an elevator to my department was slightly mind-blowing, as I'd never even seen an elevator at Small College). The first thing that helped me to disassemble some of the hierarchies I'd grown up with was my graduate cohort: although I believe this has changed a little, at the time that I started there, the department had very few students who had attended Ivies or baby Ivies and few who had come to grad school straight out of college. Most of them had gone to large state schools for undergrad as well as graduate school. This is really embarrassing to admit, but I remember being surprised that there were all these really smart people who hadn't gone to swanky name-brand schools. (At least I was able to get over my shock, however; I started with a fellow who had gone to Carleton, who was just incensed that he didn't get a graduate fellowship, whereas a friend of mine, who'd gone to U of Midwest State, did, and never quite realized how offensive this attitude was. He only lasted a year, though.)

Most of the funding at Large State School was through teaching assistantships, and since I was in grad school for a long time (!) I got to teach quite a lot. This was another step in dismantling some of my assumptions, because the students at Large State School were extremely non-traditional - when I started TAing, the majority of students in any given class were probably my age or older. Again, I'm embarrassed to say this, but these were people that, if I'd gone to high school with them, I would have considered failures (it was just unheard of in my social circle, growing up, that someone could not go to college right out of high school and become a respectable, upstanding citizen). And of course, these students were anything but failures. A lot were working adults, others were single parents, and most who took full courseloads worked an average of 30 hours a week. And some of them were spectacular students. Plenty weren't, but teaching them cured me of the idea that there was some natural correlation between where one went to school and one's intellectual abilities.

So, my experience as a student and a teacher at Large State School was incredibly valuable. Perhaps because my ideas of intellectual success and value were so rigid and unrealistic, there was no way that they could survive the actual experience of intellectual life in such a completely different context, and this helped me be willing to question many of the assumptions I'd grown up with.

Finally, I've said this in a comment over at Prof. Synecdoche's blog, but I'll repeat it here: My grad program was extremely good at drilling it into our heads that were very unlikely to get a job at a school that looked like Large State School. Instead, they emphasized that R1 institutions make up a very small proportion of the total number of schools out there, and that if we wanted to get jobs, we needed to be able to sell ourselves to a wide range of schools - R1, small liberal arts, comprehensive MA-granting institutions, rural, urban, elite, non-traditional, whatever (I think there was a slight neglect of community colleges, partly because I don't think our faculty had much experience with them). Partly, this was convenient for the graduate program because it provided a rationale for getting the students to teach a lot - wide and varied teaching experience is a prerequisite for getting a job at any teaching-focused institution, and grad students teaching a lot allows faculty in the graduate program to focus on their own research. But this approach was part of the program's principle that students should be able to talk about their research to a wide range of people, not just experts in their own field (the department was very big on comparative history and on interdisciplinary/comparative workshops).

So, what were the actual practical things my grad program did?
  • admitted graduate students from a very wide range of backgrounds
  • provided graduate students with experience teaching students from a wide range of backgrounds
  • fostered an atmosphere that encouraged sharing ideas across narrowly-defined fields, by organizing comparative and interdisciplinary workshops in which graduate students participated fully
  • encouraged students to present at conferences and to submit papers for publication
  • held a placement meeting each year, to which all graduate students were invited, which explained the process of applying for jobs and what the typical materials you needed to prepare were
  • had panel presentations/roundtables with recently hired junior faculty, who shared their experiences with grad students
  • held mock interview sessions, asking the kinds of questions that might be asked by a wide range of institutions
  • worked hard to place students in jobs of any kind, especially jobs that matched the students' interests, whether those jobs were at R1 universities or not
Now, I'm not going to claim that the program didn't value research over teaching, etc.; if one of our students got an on-campus with an Ivy, the faculty were just thrilled and the news raced round the department. And one of the things that I know grad students found frustrating was that when our program held searches, they paid no attention to all the teaching skills and experience that they told us we had to have, and hired entirely based on research pedigree (people from big name schools with big name advisors). Obviously, this isn't surprising, but we found it frustrating just the same.

I offer all this up, partly because it helps me to think through some of these issues, and partly to throw out ideas about rattling the hierarchies. But I suppose the pessimistic coda to these comments is that one of the consequences of the conditions of my program was a fairly high average time-to-completion. Since I was there, the program has worked hard to get students through quickly - eliminating some of the opportunities for socialization into the profession and broad discussion along the way. The department has also been accepting fewer students, and more and more of them are more traditional, closer to having just graduated from college, and from more "name" schools than previously. I doubt that this has absolutely transformed the departmental atmosphere, but I do wonder how easily the kinds of things that helped question traditional hierarchies can be reversed.