Tina K. Russell

May 1, 2009

School of hard knocks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:41 am

Op-Ed Contributor – End the University as We Know It – NYTimes.com
… Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

It’s not a dirty little secret for me; it’s been a terrifying transition, from community college to a state university, to find how many classes are taught by disinterested grad students racking up chits.

In a community college, professors (and they are all professors) are essentially volunteering, since they’d get more pay and prestige at a “real” college. This means, in my experience (in Portland, land of the free) that the teachers are really good (they volunteer their time, so they care deeply about what they do) or really bad (they couldn’t get a job anywhere else). Community college was a complete crapshoot for me in this way, and any class could be the best experience of my life or two and a half months of hell, with little in between.

At the University of Oregon, this experience has been thrown out completely. Most general classes, like trigonometry or microeconomics, seem to be taught by grad students (Graduate Teaching Fellows, or GTFs). I don’t want to disparage the profession except to say that every single class I’ve taken, led by a GTF, has been one hundred percent abominable. It breaks my heart because I took first-year economics at Portland Community College and it was taught by a man who cared deeply for his work and got the class excited to learn about comparative advantage and bond maturation. When I began second-year economics at UO, taught by a graduate student, it was so horrible that I wrote this lengthy post that has become one of my most popular ever. (In short, the GTF made economics not only painfully boring, but abstract to the point of irrelevance to us, and so I feel a little bit vindicated now that this financial crisis has happened in large part due to the over-abstraction of finance. …Even if I’d rather not be in a financial crisis.) I dashed out a quick drawing to teach in five minutes what he failed to teach in two hours, and I’m heartened to read comments from people saying it helped them grasp key early concepts of microeconomics.

And so, when I look to sign up for classes, I now vet the names given, not at RateMyProfessor or somesuch but in the faculty directory. When I thought I might want to re-enroll in second-year economics (it wouldn’t be that hard for me to get an economics minor, and maybe then I could make millions by giving bad advice with conviction on my own cable TV show), I looked up the teacher and found that he wasn’t even listed in the faculty directory. I could find his official university page using a Google search, and he proudly provided links to his curriculum vitae and his personal website, both of which were broken. (Since then, he is now listed in the directory, but those links are, hilariously, still broken.) Needless to say, he was a GTF, and I didn’t take his class.

I didn’t take his class because those things confirmed my worst fears: that he didn’t care. The hallmark of any bad teacher is thinking of his or her work with students as perfunctory, a second job, something to do before getting back to research and boinking freshmen. I’m always annoyed with the way undergraduates tend to be referred to in a dismissive sort of way, the undergraduates, not, you know, the reason the school exists. We’re the ones paying for the experience, and yet, we seem to be treated as though we have not reached the requisite level of cynicism for the ultimate goal of academia, which is to pass that cynicism (I’m sorry, critical thinking) onto a new generation of students. We’re barely out of high school. What does our opinion matter?

That brings me to the other tragedy of leaving community college, which is no longer being treated as an adult. I always loathed that, in community college, everyone else had someplace else to be (work, kids, etc.), and I was actually going there for my intellectual and personal formation. There is an advantage, however, in dealing with professors used to dealing with students who have work, or kids, or other obligations: they treat you like an adult out of habit. I developed the habit of acting like an adult, since that’s how teachers treated me back in Portland. At UO, that’s welcome to some and an affront to others.

I’ve learned to avoid teachers (and people in general) who see me as being like them when they were young, and so they want to mold me into the chiseled warrior they are today. If somebody acts rough to me, expecting me to cower in response (or to sass back, so they can rough me up more, in a coming-of-age basketball-movie sort of situation), I tend to sidestep the passive-aggressive initiation by saying “please don’t do that. I just don’t respond to it.” I already know what I want. I’m a grown woman. I have no obligation to entertain others’ fantasies of who I am. So, being told of hoops to jump through, initiations to fulfill, rightful destinies to claim usually makes me sick. I want to improve my writing. I want to improve my art. I want to learn about the world. I want to make sound judgments. You can help me do that or you can stuff it. I’m the one paying to be here.

The truth is, though, that life consists of compromises, and all this has made me a profoundly unhappy person. I’m majoring in history—history—because of how incredibly mean the school’s art department was to me, and how much I want to get out of college. I love history and it’s a good subject for me to study, and that’s why I had so many credits in it already, which is why I chose it for my major. Taking either writing or art, my two real loves, would have exposed me to a culture of people who want to break me and mold me in their image, and anything else would have involved GTFs who just don’t care. (History professors, in my experience at UO, are actual professors.) But, in writing or in art, I’d be doing what I love, and as a class and not simply as a side project. And, I wouldn’t want to punch someone in the face whenever they ask me the standard icebreaker of “what’s your major?” (Then they ask, “what sort of history?” and I say “world history” but I want to say “history that happened in the past, you numbskull.”)

When I do what I love on my own, though, it means I can buy whatever books I want and keep whatever hours I want and focus on whatever areas I want. …But, I have no one to mentor me, no one to guide me around the usual pitfalls and express pride in my development.

I did take art classes at the community college. Do I ever have stories from that, obviously, but I should limit it to just one.

When I took a painting class, I was afraid of what I was turning into. I love art, but I want to ensure that I never become the sort of person who does art for the sake of prestige; I want to ensure I’m always making art because I feel it in my gut, because I can’t not make art, not because I want to deconstruct the fundamental didactic of human existence or related nonsense. I want to make art for myself, and through myself, for the world, not for any immediate circle of high-minded friends. I want to make pictures worth a thousand words, not a handful. I want to show, not tell. I want to be my art.

Art class can be fundamentally lonely, given that we’re all on painful personal journeys while surrounded by others. So, when we watched a film on a sculptor whose work seemed more aimed to shock than to reveal (or to provoke responsibly), I tried to start a discussion, asking a man nearby if he had any thoughts on that artist. (If you’re reading this, I’m sorry.)

“I don’t care much for her,” he said, and shrugged. I concurred… “she reminds me of everyone I don’t like,” I responded.

Later he walked up to me and said, “gosh, Tina, when you said that… I hope I wasn’t included in those you don’t like.” I told him not to worry, but I was flabbergasted and went home in existential crisis, pouring my feelings out to my parents later on. You see, he was exactly the sort of person I was thinking of, right down to the fundamental belief (from my perception of him) that art should shock people not by being brutally honest, but for the sake of being shocking. I wailed to my parents, “oh my God! Vapid people don’t know who they are!” And if they don’t know who they are, how do I know I’m not one?

And how will I ever tell if I become one? What if my personal defense mechanisms wear out, and spending too much time around art students will suck me into my own vanity? What if someday I start breaking mirrors or putting chairs on their sides and calling it art, and don’t realize how soulless I’ve become, how little I have to say? I’ve always described my creativity as a sort of lonely island I want to share with others… what if my island becomes a solitary, ragged life-raft that I’ve tricked myself into believing is a beautiful cruise liner? What if my art goes from being that which burns in my soul to that which glistens on my social résumé? Will I ever know?

As a result, there is some element of relief. Perhaps not going into art education has resulted in me not being devoured by the vanity and pointlessness of the modern art world. But perhaps I’ve missed my life’s calling… perhaps I would have learned something I never could on my own, perhaps I would have met people who would have guided me through me life, perhaps I would have been pushed in directions I truly need to go. Perhaps I have become cynical myself in fear of those who are cynical, and wish me to be the same. Perhaps I really am vain, protecting my precious sense of self via the path of least resistance.

Thoughts?

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3 Comments »

  1. I may be biased, given that I have no formal education in what I do, but I firmly believe higher education is the best way to kill your creativity and curiosity and mold you into just another worker drone with no sense of art in your soul. I’ve seen it happen so many times to my fellow computer programmers that practically nobody, including the programmers themselves, are able to entertain the idea of software as an art form. And that really breaks my heart.

    This may not apply at all to a study that actually comes right out and labels itself “art”, mind you, but I suspect that, semantics aside, the end results might be comparable. So, whatever you do, please don’t let yourself be pressured into getting a piece of paper certifying you as an artist or writer or historian or whatever just for the sake of the piece of paper.

    There, I think I just spent two long-winded paragraphs saying “I agree with your post.”

    Comment by Bodil — May 1, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

  2. I agree with the squashing your creativity thing, at least when you’ve got four classes and papers due in all of them and you’ve just GOT to get to the bottom of the illusion of chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by 3am! How are you supposed to come up with a poem of your own with all that on your plate? But when I walked into the first session of my last class for my major and the professor played “Rape Me” by Nirvana and incorporated that into a class on Shakepeare’s B-movies, I was like, “DAMMIT! You mean I don’t get any more of this?” I’m not a writer, but I loved the absorbing and processing part of school…just not the papers. My old roommate somehow got to the end of college with her creativity still in tact and wrote a novel for her honors thesis. Yeesh.

    I don’t know, I had a couple of cool GTFs and TAs. I had a Hebrew TA who went through parsing verbs with me up until I was genuinely wasting her time. I had an English GTF during our modern section who was a modernist, so he got really excited about the material. He was a poet and I stalked him on blogger for a long time. I had a chemistry TA who I camped out with at the OSU Pride Week campout and the group of TAs for that class organized at least two study sessions to help us before each exams.

    I didn’t like the creative writing GTF who told us that we were not to use jargon in our stories, but when we called her on hers in a story that she made us read, she got all in a huff. I think that was really the only class I had that was TAUGHT by a student, the others were just the people who graded papers so teachers didn’t have to. Maybe they have more students teaching art and writing because there are all these basic techniques and practices and things to get exposed to that expand what you can do when you’re creating stuff, and the professors are the ones doing it, so they’ve got a limited number of techniques that they use. I’m not the creating type…I’m more of the engineering type when I end up making something. “Here’s the problems I have to tackle with this thing, this is how I want it to look, now, what measurements do I have to have?”

    As a history major, you’re going to have people ask “So what do you want to dooooo with that?” (with the drawn out oooo, I swear) I always told people that with my English degree, what I would do would be to have a broad prospective on the world. Or just say I was going to be a super hero.

    Comment by Hannah — May 11, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

  3. Good God, that was a long comment!

    Comment by Hannah — May 11, 2009 @ 9:27 pm


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