Thursday, November 12, 2009

I love you. Now scram.

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.

25 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

I might be totally misremembering this, but did you once mention that you did your BA and PhD at the same school?

Flavia said...

You are so not misremembering. B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Never said I wasn't a hypocrite.

A White Bear said...

I did my MA at my undergrad school as well, and for me I think it was a reasonable decision. There were drawbacks, like not being able to reinvent myself for new professors the way I did in my PhD. Some of them remembered me as an underachieving student, some as a really bright undergrad who was failing to live up to that promise. That was frustrating.

But overall, the personal reasons I had for staying in that city ended up being really important. It was a different life, in that I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment with other friends pursuing Masters degrees, so it gave me a very different perspective on the city and a different relationship to campus. As a teacher, I knew what my students were going through, and knowing the city helped me make friends with my new classmates.

By the time I finished my MA, I had the confidence in my work to go somewhere else and immediately throw myself into serious research. I don't think I'd have been able to do that right out of undergrad.

One of the nice things about being in a big city now is that I can easily advise students to go to an MA at a different school without that meaning they have to give up their whole lives. I'd generally recommend making some kind of change of state between the two; if they live at home, they should try to get into an apartment during the MA, etc. But staying at the same school doesn't have to mean that they prevent themselves from developing as scholars.

DDB said...

I agree, Flavia. When I was at my institution, I actively discouraged current undergraduate students who sought graduate school advice from enrolling in our program. One reason was because I was a firm believer in broadening one's horizons and seeing how different places do things. Another reason was that our graduate program was really rather weak, and didn't compare well with a lot of standard things other programs offered.

My graduate institution (or at least my program within the institution) wouldn't allow a B.S. student to directly pursue a higher degree right out of the undergraduate program - they had to go and do an M.S. somewhere else or work or do something in-between coming back for a higher degree.

I had many a fight with the other members of the graduate admissions committee (which I served on) and even the dean about the wisdom of harvesting your own students for the graduate program. They always argued that these students were a known quantity and could raise the profile of the program. While true, I generally advocated for the student; if they were that good, they could do much better than our program. I always thought that sending out good undergraduates to prestigious graduate programs (and I sent many!) was a better way to do reputation-building, though I do admit that it takes longer to pay dividends, perhaps.

In any case, I lost more times than I won, and I was always disheartened to see when a particularly excellent student stayed on when I knew they could have been in a much better program...Oh well - sometimes they just have to choose for themselves...

P.S. I am going back to adjunct teaching in the spring...keeping my feet wet, so to speak.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

I've had very similar misgivings about students at my institution. The majority of our MA students (and, yes, PhD students too) are "in house," came through our BA program. And the majority stay in the area after finishing their degrees, often become our adjunct labor, and certainly do not go on to shining national careers. So, I also wonder whether we're doing something good by educating them or just trapping them. Like you, I vigorously encourage anyone who gives me a chance to go elsewhere, but few do.

I do understand why, for many of them, getting a degree locally is the only option. But, for many, it seems like a very safe choice -- with long term consequences.

Bardiac said...

Your post really struck home for me.

We have an MA program, but it's not a strong one, and we don't have nearly enough offerings to make it strong, nor enough students to really create a community that can learn from one another.

I always advise our students to go elsewhere, and get real experience.

And we, too, have students who just can't seem to go elsewhere, and who get stuck as eternal adjuncts, never realizing how much they've missed, really.

RS said...

if she decided to apply for an M.A., to do it at a doctoral institution.

I'm curious about your thinking on this. If I encourage students to pursue first an M.A. in my own field (Classics) I strongly suggest that they do so at an institution where the M.A. is the terminal degree.

This way they won't get treated as "lesser" students, the funding for M.A. students at such programs tends to be much better, and from there they can jump to a good Ph.D. program.

Interested to hear your thinking behind your own advice, however.

Thanks!

Flavia said...

AWB (and, I think, implicitly, Miss Self-Important):

As Bardiac and DDB suggest, it's not so much the staying in the same place/at the same institution that I object to, although I do object to that: it's the fact that I don't think our M.A. program is the best preparation for students who want to go on to get a Ph.D.

We have talented and well-pedigreed faculty, most of whom are no more than a decade or so out of grad school, and we're making changes to our curriculum that I think will strengthen the program. But although we have had M.A. students get admitted to decent, funded Ph.D. programs(flagship state schools in both the cases I'm thinking of, but not those in the top tier(s)), our population of students is so mixed and often uncohesive, and in the past so many of our courses have been combined undergrad/grad classes, that I think the M.A. program just feels like an amped-up version of the experience our continuing students had as undergrads rather than quite the experience they've have if they went somewhere with classes that also included doctoral students, and/or with faculty who also taught doctoral students and advised dissertations.

My perception is that our students who have gone on to Ph.D.s have done so because they were so clearly talented they got a lot of individual faculty attention. And I wonder whether they would have gotten into better doctoral programs if they'd gotten their Master's degrees at a school with more name recognition than RU.

Miss Self-Important said...

I do understand that aspect of your concern--there is a difference, at least in reputation if not actual quality, between doing all your degrees at an obscure school and an Ivy League school. Fair enough, though this often means that it's perfectly fine for Ivy League undergrads to stick around forever where they're comfortable and connected, whereas everyone else has to drop everything and move to these lands of broad horizons.

However, I am a little skeptical of what seems to me to be an imperious and self-justifying attitude in academia that, in order to demonstrate that you really deserve to be a scholar, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything, move anywhere, live in dismal conditions, postpone marriage and family indefinitely, and generally be utterly miserable. And if you're not willing to undergo this kind of hazing, you're clearly not morally cut out for one of the few hallowed tenure track positions.

I also wanted to go back to my undergrad institution for grad school for what I thought were perfectly legitimate reasons--my family and many of my friends live in the same city, I'm getting married and wanted to start a family there, I liked the school and the faculty interests matched my own (unsurprisingly, since I cultivated them there in the first place). And in my case, the program's reputation and resources were not problematic. But I encountered the same kind of opposition--"Try something different! Meet new people!" And I found this to be incredibly patronizing, as though I was a child with no legitimate preferences or ties to other human beings who could be shipped off anywhere indifferently according to the wishes of my professors.

I'm perfectly willing to grant that I'm naive about what an academic career demands and my professors are wiser. Nonetheless, I still don't think I was wrong, nor do I see any important benefits from the exciting! new! things! on offer in the program I'm in now that I wouldn't have gotten at my alma mater. I understand that broadening horizons is a valuable undertaking, but the way this is talked about, it's as though there are no costs and that grad students--who are by and large adults--are just floating minds to be cultivated and have no significant human characteristics or attachments that might outweigh or at least balance the benefits of broader horizons.

Flavia said...

I think I'm on record as decrying the ways in which academia disrupts lives and leaves one with no control over one's future, requires putting things on hold, etc. I do not see moving to a new city or state as an inherent good--but I do see attending a different institution as usually better than returning. This is much, MUCH less true when one's alma mater is big, with a varied faculty, and when students are thereby exposed to a wide range of experiences, expertises, and backgrounds within a single department (and within allied or affiliated departments); there are surely still benefits to going elsewhere, but I don't feel particularly strongly about those benefits, and neither do I think they outweigh the possible advantages of returning to one's alma mater; it would have made sense for you to return to yours for any one (much less all) of the reasons you mention.

But my institution is not a research school, and as great as I think we are at teaching undergraduates, we have serious limitations in the preparation we can provide master's candidates who want to go further: my department has 19 ladder faculty, including creative writers; in many cases, just one person covers an entire subfield/century/continent. My institution does not offer language study other than (mostly intro-level) French, Spanish, and Italian. Even if our M.A. program were stronger than it is, those things disadvantage students who want to go on to get PhDs. Period.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I don't know about "imperious and self-justifying," Miss S-I. These aren't attitudes. These are facts. They are descriptions of the competitive state of the field and they are exactly as fair as they are accurate.

I understand your frustration with the sacrifices academia demands, but it is not hazing in the sense you imply. It is not willfully imposed by the leaders of a group as part of an initiation rite. It is an effect of market competition, and therefore imposed upon us by our peers.

No one is asking you to demonstrate anything, Miss S-I. And no such demonstration will suffice. You can "sacrifice everything, move anywhere, live in dismal conditions, postpone marriage and family indefinitely, and generally be utterly miserable" and still not get a tenure track job. And if you can compete successfully for such a job without doing those things, your professors will be happy for you.

But here's the thing: there are a lot of people who are willing to make all of those sacrifices, and they will all apply for every job you apply to. And in the end, search committees will always hire the person they think best for their own department and their own students. And they will, of course, hire people who are willing to move to where the job is.

If you feel it shouldn't be that way, fine. I agree. But it is that way, and keeping that a secret from students infantilizes them, depriving them of the information they need to make their own choices.

It is a fact that my students who want to be tenure-track college professors will need to leave our city in order to do that. Fair? No. True? Yes. You can get a PhD in my field in or near town, but the universities in the area will largely not hire each other's PhDs for the tenure-track. And the department I teach in has no faculty who got their terminal degrees in this area.

Being a college professor is a good thing. Living in the town where you grew up and having Sunday dinners with your folks is a good thing. But the world has decided that my students can't have both. That's not because I want students to prove their moral worth. It's because that is what the world has decided.

Miss Self-Important said...

Dr Cleveland - All true, but my point is that there is nothing clearly demonstrative of your scholarly commitment and potential in your willingness to go anywhere for graduate school. None of the personal sacrifices that some grad students are willing to make have any necessary bearing on the quality of their scholarship, and it's by no means obvious that your graduate career will be better or more productive by virtue of your having moved across the country for it (except in the cases Flavia points out--where the undergrad institution is substantially weaker than a potential graduate institution). This is a bias of academics, not a condition of the job market. Anonymous market forces are not sitting on hiring committees looking askance at applicants with BAs and PhDs from the same institution or from one nearby--faculty members are.

Of course, moving may be required for an academic job, depending on where you start out, but you seem to be suggesting that one needs to get accustomed to that imperative early by being shuffled around indiscriminately for the entire period leading up to this move, as though he'd joined the foreign service instead of something much more like a corporation that occasionally relocates executives.

Flavia said...

I'll just add that I have no idea what Miss Self-Important got told by her mentors, and I'm more than willing to believe that there was an element of imperiousness, and possibly self-justification in it; the infantilization of grad students is one of my major beefs with the academic apprenticeship model (and, ahem: if memory serves, Dr. Cleveland, you've made similar complaints about your own graduate school experience); it's easy for those with tenure at a top institution--regardless of whatever genuine sacrifices they may have made along the way, and whatever genuine wisdom they may have--to forget that students are adults, with complicated lives, and that they're capable of making informed decisions about their lives and careers.

Flavia said...

Oh, and RS: I didn't explicitly answer your question, but perhaps this series of comments has done it. I do think that mixed terminal M.A. and Ph.D. programs can be problematic, for the reasons you note--I have a number of friends who went to such programs and report all the ways in which M.A. students weren't taken seriously.

But the resources of a masters-granting institution are just so limited--as are the kinds of demands we can make on our students. My colleagues include an Anglo-Saxonist, a Biblical scholar who is also a Classicist, and one specialist in African literature and another in Russian literature. Everything they teach is in translation, and though they're great scholars and beloved teachers, no one doing an M.A. with us could possibly continue in any of those fields because they haven't had (and can't get) the language training.

Janice said...

Flavia, I hear you. Within my sub-specialty, I pretty much force students out the door since I'm the only faculty member teaching this early modern Britain (indeed, the only faculty member teaching anything pre-modern on the Anglophone side).

Our program is designed for students pursuing modern history in mostly regional topics. M.A. students can get a bit of variety within that focus, and we've prepared many students who go on to doctoral studies and shine. But the vast majority of our M.A. students are stopping with that degree. Then they combine it with a B.Ed. or a M.L.S. or just take the degree and work in a provincial or federal research capacity.

I've taught in this program for almost twenty years and have yet to have a graduate student work in my specialty. I've had grad students, but I've often met them halfway or better, finding topics in 19th century history that I can supervise and they can receive additional guidance from other faculty. I wouldn't be sad to retire without every having a grad student in my own subject unless the U goes crazy and hires a few more pre-modern historians!

Sisyphus said...

Mmm. Yeah, I did mixed MA-undergrad classes at my MA program (have I mentioned how I hated my MA program?) and felt they were lacking --- they possibly were helpful for the undergrads in that they raised the bar, but you just don't get the same push when you are far ahead of the other students in the room as when you are one of the weakest and are struggling to keep up with the level of discourse. You don't feel any need to push the envelope in your research when there are kids around you who can't even write a thesis statement, you know what I mean?

As to the regionalism thing --- I don't know if you necessarily become a better scholar by moving between institutions, but it would worry me if you're talking about a fairly remote or rural location where the students had never really traveled or left home before --- Flavia at least moved away from home to go to her BA/MA/PhD and was forced to interact with people from very different locations/backgrounds etc.

The big advantage of going to different institutions for grad school and more grad school is that you get to see for yourself that there is not only one way to do things; your institution will tell you otherwise and you have a bit more power if you recognize that X is a local custom, not a universal of grad school.

The other big worry, as people have mentioned, is that letting students into your local program might lead them on that there will be worthwhile local jobs for them afterwards --- sure, they'll be allowed to adjunct, but if these students are expecting full-time work at a living wage at their home department afterwards, they are being sold a crock.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Miss Self-Important: I will concede, pace Flavia, that I have no idea whether your own undergraduate mentors were imperious or self-justifying, and I really haven't given too much thought to the problem of an elite school's alum feeling urged to apply to other elite schools; this problem is pretty distant

But I'm uncomfortable when you generalize about an "imperious and self-justifying attitude in academia." And as far as the bias of academics you decry, I haven't experienced it. I've never heard anyone say, "This person got her BA and her PhD from the same Ivy League university, so that's trouble."

Actually individual faculty members aren't "sitting on hiring committees looking askance at applicants with BAs and PhDs from the same institution or from one nearby." Again, I've never heard anyone express a complaint about someone having a BA and PhD from the same place, and I certainly haven't heard anyone express a bias against hiring locally.

The reason PhDs from my city don't get hired in my city isn't that academics deduct points for being local. If we had a top-10 PhD program nearby, I'm sure its graduates would place very well. The problem is that students from those top 10 places, and from the rest of the top 50, apply for jobs here and the locals can't compete with them. That's pretty much the definition of a market force right there. Students like mine (and like Flavia's) need to grasp that situation before they spend seven or ten years in one of the local PhD programs. If they make the choice knowingly, it's their choice.

I do actually believe that it's helpful to change schools for graduate school, and to study under new faculty with new perspectives; I willingly got three degrees at three places and never applied to my (perfectly prestigious) BA institution again. If you don't find that helpful yourself, you know your own mind best.

But I suspect that your mentors' advice might not have been about your, or what was good for you, at all. It doesn't hurt someone to have a BA and a PhD from the same elite school, but it does hurt a top school to have a PhD program full of its own BAs. The top schools are, in fact, in the business of circulating their students to one another, partly as a check against any one place becoming too inward-looking and partly as a way for the programs to gain validation from each other. Whatever your old professors' motives, you brought their program more credit by getting in somewhere else, and by thriving there, than you could have done by staying. They're in the business of placing their BAs in other good places, and attracting other places' brightest BAs. It's at the core of their business.

Flavia said...

Dr. C: you do go on.

I treasure you. But please don't harangue my other commenters.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Miss Self-I-

Apologies. My bad.

irina said...

Hey, this strikes a chord!

I'm on team "move." I actually had the opposite situation as an undergrad, in that one of my mentors wanted me to stay. I had grown up in the city, my friends and family were all there, the program was top-notch (and recognized internationally as being so), and the prof I would have worked with is brilliant and supportive. It took some emotional effort to leave, but I was glad I did.

The main reason is intellectual. Like it or not, ideas and reading lists and accepted approaches and presuppositions and intellectual trends change geographically. One can get some of that effect by going to conferences, by spending summers away, etc., but attending a different institution is particularly effective. Going somewhere else allowed me to experiment with approaches that would have been frowned on in my home uni. It also meant I had experience of two very different kinds of colleges: the huge but research-heavy public school, and the elite, small, private one. During grad school I spent substantial time at two other schools (one nearby, one overseas), and I really think those experiences helped to open my mind. There's a reason the German system encourages students to attend different universities and to study with different profs.

A practical advantage to moving is that you get to know more people, you gain more networks. And that also means that the faculty from your undergrad institution can be people you go to when you want to bounce ideas off someone you trust, or people who can support you through the rough parts of grad school.

So, yes, I really think it's a good idea to go, and to encourage students to go. It's not without emotional sacrifices, and I feel that every time I go to my hometown and see the way my college friends still hang out every week. There is definitely something I lost by leaving. But the kicker is that I would have had to leave anyway when I looked for a job. I've known people who resolutely avoided even the bare possibility of studying at a second institution and leaving the comforts of home; in that case, I think it's fine to do a PhD, but one should know there is even less of a chance than usual of getting a job in the field. This is not, incidentally, just a function of academe. There are many other professions in which you have to be willing to move if you want to work at the most specialized, advanced, and prestigious levels. If you want to work at a top law firm, practice a specialized kind of surgery, work in high-level politics, or become an executive in a major corporation, your job will determine where you and your family live.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Turning Sisyphus's comment on its head, from the department's point of view, it's a good thing to hire people who have experience in multiple departments because of the perspective it gives. Even people who have been at the same institution for a long time (never mind how many schools they went to or taught at before) can fall into the frame of mind that says "But we've always done it this way . . . there is no other way to do it." People from other institutions can say, with authority, "Here's another way, possibly a better way, it works well at XU, let's try it." We look for cross-fertilization not just in scholarship but also in teaching and service/administration.

Digger said...

I applied to do my MA at my undergrad institution. They told me they'd love to, but that I needed to go elsewhere. I was heartbroken at the time, but it wasn't too long after I started at the other university that I realized they were right. But they were right. OUT! Out of the nest and into the world.

Pamphilia said...

I agree with you Flavia, but I also think it's a tough thing to say. I encouraged some super smart seniors in my small dept. to apply to other (better) outside MA and Ph.D. programs in addition to our very-good but not excellent MA program, and unfortunately this information reached our graduate chair, who was, I think, a little miffed. I think he may have taken it as me suggesting that our program wasn't good enough, and by extension that I thought I was *too good*, which wasn't the case at all- I simply wanted my undergrads to have the chance to work with different people, and perhaps to work with MA programs better known to the doctoral programs they'd next apply to. Oh, well. But what can you do? It seems that sometimes whatever I do or say can be "spun" this way.

Flavia said...

Thanks, all, for these additional comments, which have taken the discussion in some new and really interesting directions.

I particularly like Irina's casting going somewhere new as a way of increasing one's scholarly networks, and of transforming one's undergrad mentors into trusted advisors (but advisors who are outside the drama of one's grad school experience)--and Dame Eleanor and Sisyphus's observations about the value to the institution that admits or hires one of having been at multiple institutions, and having a broader sense of what's possible.

Renaissance Girl said...

Well, after reading Flavia's post, I clicked eagerly to leave a comment, but it seems the Pamphilia left mine. Except that I would characterize our MA program as decent but not very good or excellent. And I want my great or excellent students to go the hell away, already.