technorati tag: grad carnival
Welcome Inside Higher Ed readers. I know we all love a good bitchy post — and this is one of those — but if you want to read my positive advice and take on graduate student “professionalization,” see my current post here. This blog isn’t bitchy all the time.
Before I present the following conversation, I want to say first off that a) I really, really dig being Graduate Director and I’m finding that I’m not only good at the administrative thing, but that I also actually like it, and b) as a group I dig our graduate students and want to help each of them get what they want out of the graduate studies (which is a variety of things in our program). Sometimes they have very rigid — and often misguided — ideas of what they want and need, but I’m pretty good at convincing them otherwise, or of teaching them how to use the requirements that seem unrelated to their interests and make them useful.
BUT, when I have a conversation like the following, it makes me think, “Why bother?” Without further comment, a more or less accurate transcript of a conversation I had with a first-year graduate student who came to me seeking advice.
Student: I wanted to talk to you about strategies for preparing for the MA Exam.
Me: Oh, good! You’re thinking ahead. Great! What do you want to know?
Student (pulling out the suggested ways of studying and thinking about it, as posted on the web site): Question 2 here talks about themes….
Me (interrupting to clarify): Just to be clear, that’s not going to be Part II of the exam. The four parts of the exam are below that. The list you’re looking at is just some suggested ways of making connections between the works on the list.
[Note: we have a rather old-fashioned comprehensive exam, although we keep it pretty short. We don’t pretend that the works on it are “must know” works in some Bloomsian Closing of the American Mind way, but are at least representative of major periods, genres, and movements. This might seem rather a rehash of a typical English major, but many of our students are coming to us because they weren’t English majors, so the exam is one way we give some of the background English majors have. To give you an idea of its short-comings and also it shortness: the entire Middle Ages is represented by The Canterbury Tales. At least it’s a collection of many genres, and of course, sometimes that’s all an undergrad English major has, but I’m a little annoyed that English literature seems to start in the 14th century. Sheesh, let’s at least get Beowulf on there! Right, item for the agenda of the next grad committee meeting! Now back to the dialogue…]
Student: Oh, OK…well, here’s what I’m really wondering: do I have to read all these works?
Me: (Stunned. Blinking. Searching for non-sarcastic tone. Trying to sound cheery.) Yes. All thirty-three. Which, when you think about it, is less than two books a month if you start now and then take the exam your last semester!
Student: But I’m not interested in most of these texts. Doesn’t the exam allow you to talk about what you’re most interested in?
Me: No, not exactly. You can play to your strengths, but it expects breadth. It expects you to make connections. [I then proceeded to show him a sample exam and to show him how even with a choice of questions, there’s no way one can get by with just the texts or period one is interested in.]
Student: Fine, fine. I guess what I want to know is whether I can just read the Spark Notes and some critical articles and get by with that for the texts I’m not interested in.
Me (giving him the look of death): No, Mr. Student, you can’t. You will fail. (Pausing) And a graduate student shouldn’t even being saying that out loud.
That wasn’t really the end of our conversation. There was more about what he was interested in, which he claimed we didn’t offer (making me wonder why he came to our department) but which turned out to be something that one of faculty members actually does active research in (which then made me wonder if he’d bother to look at our web page at all). That’s just naivite, though, and I can understand and forgive that. But to openly say to your Director of Graduate Studies, in hardly veiled language, that you would prefer to find an easy way to a degree and not have to do the work, seems so self-destructive as to be utterly incomprehensible to me. He’s lucky that I’m not the vindictive type who would then tell the rest of the graduate faculty to look out for him (no, I only blog it on my anonymous blog – te-hee!), or who would judge his work in my course according to his attitude. I will judge his work on his work’s merits. But he just lost my benefit of the doubt. And all of this is especially vexing after we just spent the first two weeks in my “How to do Grad School Right” course (aka my methods and professionalization course) reading Gregory Colon Semenza’s Graduate Study for the 21st Century, in which he says, twice, something along the lines of ‘any English graduate student not willing to read a Victorian novel on his own shouldn’t be in graduate school in English,’ and also has repeated advice about how not to shoot yourself in the foot.
Well, I guess I can lead graduate students to good advice, but I can’t make them take it. And that’s what I learned in school today.