One of my very favorite students--a student I had last semester, who I have again this semester, and who is already signed up for my 400/500-level class next fall--just asked me to write a rec letter for her when she applies to grad schools next year.
Of course! I said. I'd love to.
"Well," she said, "I thought I'd ask because I'm applying to INRU." She laughed and added, "Of course, I'm also applying to [INRU's Big Rival], and I don't know how you'd feel about that. . ."
I smiled and said that I could probably bring myself to write a letter for both institutions--and, since she was running out the door, I simply added that she should definitely bring her writing sample and personal statement by me when the time came.
But when she left I closed the door and thought, Jesus Christ. I sure hope she's applying to a few other schools, too.
Because--and I probably don't have to spell this out here--even the best students at RU are unlikely to go straight to a top-10 Ph.D. program. It's not the world's rarest occurrence (I've heard of a few students who have, and I've even met one of them), but it's unlikely for reasons both of preparation and of institutional snobbery. My best juniors and seniors are strong students, but their work bears the marks of people who blossomed intellectually only rather recently. They write well, but their writing usually doesn't have the fluency and sophistication that you see, sometimes, even among freshmen and sophomores at a certain kind of college--those students who grew up devouring books and travelling abroad and who graduated in the top 5% of their well-funded suburban high schools.
I'd defend to the death the ability of many of my students, but their training is patchier and they've had less practice applying their skills. They've also, usually, not been pushed as hard--I know that this particular student wants to be pushed, but I also know that some of my colleagues give her papers As and tell her how great they are. Her papers? They're definitely good work, but they're not As, not yet. They're more like very promising B-pluses.
I would never tell my student not to apply to a couple of top Ph.D. programs, but what I strongly believe is that she should apply to terminal M.A. programs, go to the best one she can get into (and I suspect she could get into a very good one) and refine her skills there. Get her ass kicked. Read more widely and more deeply. With that experience and that degree, admission to a top Ph.D. program would be a very real possibility.
But she's not asking me for that advice. And I certainly can't tell her that her skills aren't there yet--there's no way, really, of saying that without her hearing "you're not smart enough," which I don't mean and don't believe. I also don't think that I can tell her that Ph.D. programs like INRU's are often snobbish and don't tend to admit students from regional comprehensive universities. I like RU, a lot, and I think my department is every bit as strong as many a department at, let's say, a lesser research school--so I resist giving the impression that I'm participating in that kind of snobbery.
The real problem here, I think, is one of a lack of perspective. This student is friends with nearly all of my smartest students, and they all hang out together; they're an awesome, funny-intense group of students. But they are, basically, The Smart Kids. There aren't many other students who have the quirky geeky intellectual interests that they have, and there aren't many students who do better than they do in classes. So on some level they think of themselves as the smart kids, just as my friends and I did in high school. There's nothing wrong with that, but they haven't yet been fully challenged or fully humbled by all the other kinds of smartness out there.
I guess that that's a beautiful thing in many ways. I spent most of college (and, oh yeah: graduate school, too) consumed by academic self-doubt and the belief that I wasn't remotely the intellectual equal of half of my peers. But I worry that my student's expectations are unrealistic, and that her disappointment could be the more extreme because of it. If she truly wants to get a Ph.D. in English--and you'll notice that I've completely sidestepped, for the moment, the question of whether I ought to be encouraging her to go to graduate school at all--I may be able to help her do it. But I think that one of my colleagues in particular is giving her some bad advice, and I'm uncertain how to counter it without making her feel that I don't believe in her abilities.