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Grad School Boot Camp

For the second time in as many weeks, I feel that I am going off to some final, epic battle. Epic in terms of my life - not in terms of the cares of the universe. A sort of combination between the Last Samurai and Real Genius. It is not a pleasant feeling.

You see, big research universities pride themselves on their rigor. (That word brings to mind apt phrases like rigor mortis, by the way.) And that is one of the major arguments such universities make against the less traditional but more adult-friendly ways of providing advanced degress - that somehow, the traditional, residential path has more rigor than the adult-friendly programs that encourage commuting and even distance education.

So, I have been looking for this prized rigor this year as I suffer crushing loneliness and a nearly impossible schedule to experience a traditional, residential doctoral program.

Is it in the classroom? No. I have now been at (combining undergraduate and graduate programs) 5 colleges, and I see about the same percentage of professors who teach really well and who merely phone in (unfortunately NOT literally) their classes. In fact, the professors who taught at a distance did a better job of teaching, using a variety of modalities and giving critical feedback on assignments.

Is it in the advising? No. A friend of mine has spent 4 years floundering about without guidance from her advisor. 4 YEARS of time, that while not wasted, is tribute to the fact that anything humans do can be done badly by someone who doesn't care. Most programs take students at least 5 years to complete. Not because the programs actually require that amount of time to instill knowledge but because of confusion over what should be studied. My advisor, who I believe to be a concientious person, has actually been able to meet with me once about my process this year.

Is it in the research? Possibly. Here is place where workiing from a distance would be a challenge. Although working face to face is also not at all efficient. Face to face meetings over three months have not yet gained us any progress toward completion of a presentation due next month - unless you want to count a presentation about the difficulties of the process as progress toward an unrelated goal.

Informal community building and apprenticeship? Well, yes, that does happen and is valuable. Book reading groups; group data analysis; learning what journals, books, conferences, and professional organizations are valuable; and brown bag presentations are all part of the process of becoming a member of the academic club. And if you've read anything about apprenticeship into professional organizations, then you know how important these mundane activities are. And yet, can we point to this as evidence of rigor??? It is the equivalent of a garden party, which can be seething with import and meaning, but is not something we want to point an accreditation board to as evidence of how good we are as academics.

No, the answer occured to me this morning. The rigor is in the boot camp sort of atmosphere that lies under the surface. Except that the military is smarter and works to ensure that recruits who have any shred of ability are given the tools to make it.

Or maybe, it is more of a prison without walls. Consider.

Even before you arrive here, everyone is working hard to gain resources in the form of access to faculty, labs, offices, printers, libraries, etc. There is no straight-forward method to do this. You need to find out who knows what and whom - and convince them to either give you information (such as the next person in the chain who might know something) or to grant you some artifact such as a key to a door. Time is a precious resource bartered over, especially with faculty. You have to give them something in order to get their attention and aid.

You arrive not knowing the rules and need to figure them out slowly and carefully. Status as the student of a certain faculty member grants you priviledges, but you need to figure out what they are - and with whom that status cuts any ice. Some things appear magically, and some you need to scramble to get. There seems to be no rhyme or reason, as with any system in human society. You need to figure it out. Orientation? Forget it. Actually, yes, boot camp would be preferable to this insane asylum sort of atmosphere.

Expectations shift - often at a whim - and you are literally at the mercy of your advisor. I have worked hard to meet challenging deadlines only to be told after the fact she'd changed her mind and I should have done something else. Or, I'll prepare for a meeting to have the focus of the meeting change, and I'll find myself playing catch-up because I was not at some private meeting with another student and didn't know that plans had changed. Favored students spend lots of time in process and are praised for how hard they are working while those who actually achieve something are often censored - especially if they dare to voice what they need in order to achieve objectives, which is usually time spent actually working on those objective.

It is the constant flux and shift, along with the oft capricious play of power, that I think sends many grad students off to find a world in which plans are actually completed. The completion (or rather the drop out) rate - along with the number of years to get a degree - that many institutions point to as evidence of their rigor. They only graduate the best - see the evidence in the number of failures that they managed to cut out of the pack.

Those who remain have, boot-camp-like, been broken and reborn as academics. They think, value, and act in certain ways. It is a traditional way of taking people from one sort of life and suiting them for another. But the cost is high in terms of mental and emotional stability. Even the Army is beginning to reconsider its methods of bringing new recruits into its fold, recognizing that its traditional methods do not result in the kinds of people it needs in the modern world.

Maybe it is time for the academy to do some soul-searching as well. I think it is clear that the formal schooling system will change in the near future, from kindergarten on up. We will need different ways to train the people who run these systems. And it may be high time to rethink what we value in teachers and academics. I can only hope that in this overhaul, we take a good look at what our search for "rigor" in the academy has cost us.