As my previous post suggests, I've been thinking about RU's graduate program lately. Not only is this spring the first time I'll be teaching an all-grad class (rather than a mixed grad/undergrad one), but I've also been writing a heck of a lot of recommendation letters.
I've written before about my ambivalence toward encouraging students to pursue an M.A. in English, but lately my ambivalence is centered, specifically, on the number of very good English majors I see turning around and applying to our own M.A. program.
This is something I absolutely do not encourage. It's not that I think our graduate program is particularly weak; it's uneven, to be sure, in part because it serves a very mixed population. Traditionally, we've served public school teachers seeking the M.A. in order to get their permanent certification, but we're increasingly getting younger students who have different ambitions; many talk about and some even go on to pretty decent Ph.D. programs.
But although recruiting our best recent graduates would seem to strengthen our M.A. program, I don't think that staying at their undergraduate institution is in the interests of those who are considering doctoral work; heck, even from a personal-growth perspective I don't think it's in their interests: go somewhere else! Do something new!
I know that many of our students have strong ties to this area, and either can't leave or can't imagine leaving; I know that sticking with the known--a campus they're comfortable with and professors they like and look up to--has what seems an irresistible logic. But it's not irresistible. It's just easier.
Last year I had a long conversation with a former student who's among the two or three smartest I've taught in my four years here, and the one I'm most confident could handle doctoral work. She said she was considering graduate school, but wasn't sold on it, so I told her to take a few years off and just live life--and, if she decided to apply for an M.A., to do it at a doctoral institution. When she left my office, she seemed relieved and happy that graduate school wasn't the only option for an articulate, intellectually curious person.
A month or so later she was back after having apparently decided (or, ahem: having been advised) that RU's program was really an ideal way to get her feet wet and "try out" graduate school. I wrote her a letter, she got in, and she's back.
Am I thrilled that she'll be taking my M.A. seminars? Yes. Do I think she raises the level of discussion in every class she's in (and provides an important intellectual model for her peers)? You bet. Am I disappointed that she's here? Absolutely.