Friday, May 06, 2005

Hmm, in retrospect, it did look like pledging and hazing

I read Nicholas Hegen's column in the April 15th edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education with the title "M.A. Students as Pledges." You can likely find it online, but I read it in print since my library carries a subscription to it, and I can get to it as time allows. I included the link, with the usual caveat about access for periodical articles online.

When I was a high school teacher, I used to joke around with a couple of my colleagues that running a school was like running a mob family. Think about it. The principal would be the Don, his assistants something like the Consiglioris, the teachers could be the caporegimes. The students, depending on how they lined up, could be family members or those that needed to go sleep with the fishes. Ok, so we did not quite get it pinned down, but one of these days I will likely revisit and refine the idea. At any rate, comparing processes in education to other processes, whether the workings of a mob family or of a frat house is not new, but it is interesting to see when someone puts a new spin to it. So I read with interest the article by Mr. Hegen about his experiences in an English M.A. program in terms of pledging a fraternity. That Higher Education has often been viewed as a medieval guild is not new; after all, universities started mostly during the Middle Ages. So the idea of graduate students as pledges is not far off since very often graduate students are basically trying to earn or work their way into the guild.

He opens the essay by telling us about sitting at a bar with a representative of the Graduate English Students Association where they talked about the usual complaints graduate students have: course load, money, the work load, and overall disenfranchisement. Like him, I worked my 20 or so hours a week. In my case, I was a teaching assistant outside the English department at my institution. As luck or fate would have it, the fact I was fluent in Spanish meant I could be a graduate assistant for the Spanish department, thus getting a break on my tuition. Money was still short though, but what else was new? I had a heavy course load, and I had to prepare papers for conferences, not to mention apply for doctoral programs. Between work, I did read tons of theory as well, some more relevant than other, graded tests and other assignments, and so on. At the time, I have to admit I did not give it much thought, why would I? At the time, I was pursuing my idea of a dream: to become a professor in literary studies so I could share my love of literature through teaching. However, as time marched on, I did see that all this effort was often nothing more than a ritual, a way to get into the fraternity (or the guild) if I only worked hard enough. Seems easy enough, but things are not often as easy as they seem.

Mr. Hengen does give a nice picture of what it is like to be a graduate student in a Humanities program. English is not that much different than fields like History, Foreign Languages, Arts, Philosophy, and so on. I think anyone considering it should read his piece. I wrote previously that my Master's in English served me well when looking for a job as an academic librarian, but I probably could have gone for my MLS sooner rather than taking the extra time to stop and pursue the doctoral degree I left for that MLS. And I mention this because Mr. Hengen writes that "almost everyone from my cohort ended up somewhere they could have just as easily been without the master's degree: law school, publishing, journalism, teaching, coffee slinging." I was one of those who ended up somewhere else. In my case, it took me a bit longer to get there. He writes that doctorals and master's are different. I would argue that is not necessarily the case. Both end up with large amounts of debt given that there is no such thing as serious financial aid, and they both end up doing a lot of the departmental grunt work so the department can function.

I recall shortly before leaving to pursue my MLS that many of my own cohorts had ended up heading in other directions. Sure, a few went on and finished their doctoral, but many either stopped after the master's and took adjunct teaching jobs on the same campus, or they left to do other things as well. I remember vividly one of my classmates who seemed very brilliant; if anyone would finish it would be her, who said when asked about her progress how she had simply dropped off not seeing any meaning to it. She taught as an adjunct in the meantime, and she worked on her playwriting. This was before I had my epiphany that I would go to library school, and I remember wondering how was it she did it, how could she be so peaceful about it? Having made a similar choice to leave and pursue what became my career as a librarian, I can see the peacefulness of it all. Joseph Campbell wrote that we have to follow our bliss. I decided, with a bit of encouragement from a librarian I used to work with, to follow that bliss. I thought it would bother me to have left that graduate program in English, but you know what? It has not bothered me one bit. In fact, I know I made the right choice for me. It is a system, a very feudal system they got going in those graduate schools, and not just Humanities, all disciplines have it in one form or another, though Humanities seem to display it a bit more. Sometimes, once in a while, you have to buck the system. Instead of pledging, why not choose not to pledge in the first place? There are other ways to be popular, or to do something you like. I found I can teach and work with students in higher education in a practical and fulfilling way, and while I learned some from all that theory, I could have likely let go off some of it sooner. But, as writers I used to work with often said in workshops, no regrets and no claims about the work, just read the draft. So, I make no claims and have no regrets. I learned a bit along the way, and I am still learning. Yet, the piece did make me think for a moment because for a moment, it just took me back.

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