Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Academic Follies

My twin girls, who with two of their artistic friends helped me digitally color WHTTWOT, will be graduating from college next year and are now applying to grad schools. I think they're doing it because they noticed their Mom and I still have some money left.

In any case, they're busy submitting applications, sending transcripts, wrangling recommendations, and writing essays. One very large, well-known public institution to which they're both applying (in different programs) requires them to write an essay in response to a prompt that really rubs me the wrong way everytime I read it:

Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information on how you have overcome barriers to access higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities, and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups.

I've got no beef with the first sentence. They want to know who you are beyond your transcript. Great. The rest seems utterly, fatuously, ridiculously irrelevant. What does any of that have to do with the quality of your intellect or your fitness to contribute to an academic field? Could Einstein or Salk have cleared that hurdle at age 21? Could the university's own faculty?

What if you instead spent your time fighting forest fires, rescuing stray animals, writing novels, caring for the elderly, discovering comets, starting a company, playing championship tennis, working on the family farm, serving three tours of duty in Iraq, flipping burgers to pay tuition, or sailing solo around the world? Or, heaven forbid, studying? Couldn't one be a good citizen, interesting person, and outstanding scholar ready to contribute to an academic field without "advancing equitable access . . . (to) groups that have been historically underrepresented?" Doesn't that seem overtly, inappropriately political in that it assumes such efforts are the best, highest uses for one's time, or that everyone worth admitting would find them worthwhile?

My wife tries to calm me down by pointing out that the school is trying to build an academic community, and has the right to seek qualities that it thinks best contribute. I get that for a private institution; if you apply to a Christian Bible college, you'd best be ready to praise the Lord. But this is a public university. Should it really be judging applicants based on their commitment to a very narrow vision of social justice?

If I were in my daughters' position, I'd be tempted--seriously
tempted--to answer the first sentence as earnestly as possible, and the rest with one of the following:

1. I've overcome no significant barriers because I was raised by parents who worked hard, saved their money, made sacrifices, and provided guidance so I wouldn't have to. I tried to be prepared for changing circumstances, and planned ahead to meet academic challenges and solve problems before they arose. It worked.

2. I have tried to "advance equitable access to higher education for women" by being one of them and working extremely hard for the last 16 years. (Since the large majority of U.S. university graduates are now women, my efforts have succeeded. You're welcome.) I did nothing to discourage any member of any underrepresented group from working just as hard.

3. I have in fact done much community service work, but I did it in the spirit of charity, with the belief that such aid is a private matter between me and those who receive it, without any expectation that I would materially benefit from it myself. To honor that spirit and out of respect for those on whose behalf I worked, I respectfully decline to respond.

4. I didn't have time because I was doing other things I thought were more important. If you want to ask me about them sometime, I'll be happy to tell you.

5. None of your damn business.

Do you think I'd get in?


Anonymous said...

I'd accept you. :)


Mike said...

The fact that the school is willing to give you such a clear look at where academics fall on their scale of values is a bit of a gift, don't you think? Isn't that better than getting in and learning it after you've paid your tuition and started piling up credits that might not transfer?

Think of the application form as a blind date. Isn't this the part where you start looking at your watch and saying, "Hey, this was really fun ..."?

Your kids are good at what I've seen them do. They don't have to settle for this bunch of goofs.

Mike Lynch said...

Another piece of academic shit to try to dance around. When people wonder why college tuition rises at more than double the yearly cost of living, this is why: the deadwood at the top spending hundreds of hours, at catered meetings, coming up with this drivel.

I was a career college administrator for a decade and the amount of absolute (a) baloney and (b) politics was stifling. Most of the people who were in charge had no real life experience and no understanding of anything above and beyond their myopic departmental agendas. I'm so glad I have made thousands of dollars spoofing them in cartoons for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Education, at its best, impacts a student and can change his/her life. At its worst, education teaches you to conform, to play by the rules.

This application is education at its worst.

sligo said...

the second sentence is one of the longer run-on sentences i've seen in a while, with nary a semicolon in sight.

sadly, think of all the hours youngsters will spend inflating sentences and, to a degree, making-up stuff because they really, really want to address these issues as best they can.

oy vey.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Let me guess: a University of California campus?

If so (and really even if not), I didn't think my graduate alma mater could surprise me in this arena, but I'm surprised by this. I'm surprised because it's for graduate school applications in different programs.

What this says to me is that the assignment has been forced on all programs' applications by the faculty senate (or similar body) and not initiated by the programs themselves. Since graduate programs admit students pretty much independently, my bet is that any response to this part of the application is ignored unless it's really outrageous (like being written in blood, for example), or is for a graduate post in something like Intercultural Studies.

If either of your daughters is going to go on to a career in academia, my advice would be to take a deep breath, hold her nose, write a short, perfunctory response, and then forget about it and go on to parts of the application that programs actually will pay attention to. She's going to have to get used to this sort of silly self-importance in academe sometime, so she might as well start now.

I wouldn't discard a university's graduate programs (which must have something going for them, or your daughters wouldn't be considering applying to them) based only on this, I guess is what I'm saying.

Anonymous said...

You would get in after the last disabled , transgendered, Inuit 2.0 gpa student was admitted but you would be forced to wear a placard around your neck apologizing for everything from slavery to the extinction of the dinosaurs.


ollie oxen

Brian Fies said...

Didn't I mention that we're Inuit?

Such wisdom, thanks all. Lynch, I'd forgotten about your sordid past; sure comes in handy once in a while. Sherwood, you guess correctly and I'll be especially sure my girls see your note.

Nat said...

Wow. I'm taking my time getting out of undergraduate classes and into grad-school, but I've still taken a look at a few applications, and I haven't seen anything quite like this. I totally agree that this question is ridiculous, and Sherwood is probably right that this is something handed down from on-high.

Good luck to both of them though, any university would benefit from having your daughters around.

Namowal said...

What an irritating application question!

As you suggested, if they're seriously using this to weed out people, they risk weeding out a lot of talent too.