Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Colleges and carnivals

David, a high school friend of mine, went to the same small college that I did. He and I had different reasons for going to there. In my case, I'd attended four high schools in four states in four years, and I wasn't much interested in going to yet another new town. Luckily, there was an excellent liberal arts college near my home, and so that's where I went. David's father had actually been a religion professor at the college, before he left (at the same time that David graduated from high school) to pursue a second career in architecture. So this college was, for David, already home. I didn't want to move; David's parents moved out from under him.

It didn't work out very well for David. It turns out that there are some disadvantages in taking college classes from people who knew you when you were four years old. And every time he visited his academic advisor -- a prince of a guy, actually -- the first words out of his mouth were, "Hi, David! How are your folks?" After a couple of years of this, David transfered to a state university to study journalism, a happy change for him and the beginning of a fine career.

(Note: I've told this story often enough over the years that it probably qualifies under the Obsolete Anecdote Retirement Project. See here for details and background on this benevolent program.)

So my wife and I have been advising my daughter -- now a junior in high school, just at the beginning of the college-selection game -- to consider other schools besides the one where we teach. For the last week, my daughter and I have been traveling around to various other small colleges in the Midwest, taking the college tour at each and chatting with students and admissions people. My daughter also got to sit in on a few classes. This has served to help her get used to the whole idea of college -- a big step -- and let her "try on" a few possible academic futures. Also, it let me take a look at the competition.

After six days and 1400 miles on the road, I have a few observations. I note that some schools want to be a cool global international school, so they put lots of money and effort into bringing foreign students to campus and sending their students to other countries. (These are the schools that always show you a world map with lots of pins stuck in it.) Do the foreign students study off-campus too, or would that be cheating? Other schools have other emphases -- career-boosting internships, undergraduate research, etc. My favorite question to ask admissions counselors was, "What makes a student thrive at X College? Or better yet, if a student does not thrive here, why not?" The answers ranged from clueless to thoughtful, but in all cases were revealing.

Also, I am irritated by schools with a "Peace and Justice Institute" or some such. This irritates me because, first, you can with 100% reliability tell the ideological orientation of such a program, which to my mind explodes any claim to academic objectivity. What are the chances that any scholar affiliated with such a program will ever argue that the goals of peace and justice are best served by a strong US military and expanding free markets? (And is such a hypothesis substantially more ridiculous than other theories that certainly will be argued?) The other reason that these programs irritate me is that their titles are blatant attempts to steal rhetorical ground. After all, who can be against peace and justice? At least "History" or "Biochemistry" or "International Relations" do not implicitly assert that the goals of their practitioners are especially moral.

The practice of having campus tours led by students is a good one, not least because the students are quite candid and informative. I don't mean that they badmouth their alma mater. On the contrary, they are almost always very happy with their colleges. But if you listen closely, what they choose to say reveals a lot about the general attitudes on campus, and who they are reveals a lot about what sort of students are very happy at that college. The sample size is small, of course, but I think that the tours and their guides are real sources of insight.

Finally, I came back with an increased appreciation for my own college, which I think has a more beautiful campus, a sharper and more academically engaged student population, and a more interesting faculty than any of those other places. Oh, those folks are all right in their way, and sometimes they have a nice facility or some stand-out feature, but in most things I like us better.

Hmmmm. My wife and I may have to rethink our advice to my daughter.

All of which is to preface an apology. Because I've been on this college tour trip, I haven't yet pointed you in the direction of Storyblogging Carnival XL, which is being hosted by Trudy over at Desert Light Journal. It's a small carnival this time, but it does include Part II of The Pasadena Rule from me and several fine stories by storyblogging regulars. Also, the current plan is that the whole crazy Carnival will be right here on Zeroth Order Approximation, parked on my front lawn as it were, in about ten days' time. I guess I'd better stock up on the sawdust and the cotton candy!


Blogger Alison said...

You are absolutely right about campus tours run by students. I would be willing to bet that an official staff- or faculty-run tour of your particular Small Liberal Arts College would not include specific mention of 50-cent Market Dogs. And yet, they seem to be the highlight of the tour for some.

8:55 AM  
Blogger lemming said...

Have you looked at Williams College? I think she'd be a great fit... and I oughtta know! (grin)

Drop me an e-mail and I'll tell you why.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father taught at the same small liberal arts school that I attended. While I got along and still do get along with my father, looking back I probably would have (should have?) gone to a different school. My experience was similar to your friend David's experience and if I could advise your daughter I would recommend that she look at going somewhere else. My decision to go to the school was strictly financial. The school gave me a basically a free ride, covering almost all my tuition and rooom/board; hence, it was too good to pass up. I could go free or take out loans to go to school and being a rational person I decided that I didn't want to be in debt up to my eyeballs when I was 22. Anyway, I always felt that there was some sort of shadow over me during my time at school. While I made some great friends during shool I was never quite comfortable there.

At the very least I would recommend that your daughter go somewhere else for at least her first two years of college and then if she does not like she could attend the college where you teach.

2:49 PM  

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