Tom Wolfe on Graduate School

Very sorry about Tom Wolfe’s passing. I loved Bonfire of the Vanities.

Here’s what Wolfe said about going to grad school.

I had just spent five years in graduate school, a statement that may mean nothing to people who never served such a stretch; it is the explanation, nonetheless. I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has. Millions of Americans now go to graduate schools, but just say the phrase—”graduate school”—and what picture leaps into the brain? No picture, not even a blur. Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it. I thought about it myself. No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know. Everyone used to sniff the air. How morbid! How poisonous! Nothing else like it in the world! But the subject always defeated them. It defied literary exploitation. Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it. Try to imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it, or being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run, with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic over boil, and George McGovern sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government. That will give you the general atmosphere.


Why Colleges Are Embracing the #NeverAgain Movement

As high-school students around the country organize in support of stronger gun-control legislation in the wake of the Parkland shooting, many are finding that, at the very least, one thing they don’t have to worry about is the possibility of disciplinary action hurting their chances of getting into college some day. Superintendents in some school districts have warned that students who participate will face disciplinary actions such as suspension. But over 250 college-admissions offices around the country have responded to these concerns, most of them with assurances that students’ activism will not hurt their chances at admission, even if their high schools do take disciplinary action.

Because college applicants must disclose whether they have ever been suspended from school or faced other disciplinary measures, many students have been concerned that colleges might rescind an acceptance or look unfavorably upon future applications. According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), many member colleges have reported that large numbers of students have been calling admissions offices worried about the effect suspensions could have on their admissions prospects.

More here.

How Hard Do Professors Actually Work?

If there were a “10 Things That Piss Academics Off the Most” list, ranking near the top would be the perception that academic life is easy and relaxing. Professors get annoyed at having to explain to their neighbors and family members that their work extends far beyond the lecture hall—and far beyond the seven-month-or-so academic year. They might be seen walking their dog in the middle of the day, but chances are they’re going back home to grade papers or prepare a seminar discussion or conduct research.

Despite broad consensus among professors that their job isn’t for slackers, they tend to disagree, primarily among themselves, about exactly how hard they work. While some scholars say they maintain a traditional 40-hour workweek, others contend they have a superhuman workload. Take Philip Guo, an assistant cognitive-science professor at University of California, San Diego, who on his blog estimated that in 2014 he spent 15 hours per week teaching, between 18 hours and 25 hours on research, four hours at meetings with students, between three hours and six hours doing service work, and between 5 hours and 10 hours at “random-ass meetings (RAM).” That amounts to as many as 60 hours per week—which, he noted, pales in comparison to the 70 hours he worked on average weekly as an undergraduate student at MIT.

America’s higher-education system is under increased scrutiny largely because of rising tuition costs and ballooning student debt; concerns about liberal indoctrination on college campuses, which are subsidized by taxpayer dollars, have also started to bubble up. People want to know where their tuition and tax money is going—are professors working hard for that money?

More here

Why Are Students Still Paying So Much For Textbooks?

After settling into his dorm this past fall, John McGrath, a freshman at Rutgers University, took the campus shuttle to the school bookstore. He waited in line for 40 minutes clutching a list of four classes—including Microeconomics, Introduction to Calculus, and Expository Writing—and walked out later with an armful of books, some bundled with digital codes that he would use to access assignments on the publishers’ websites. He also exited the store with a bill for about $450.

McGrath, an accounting major, pays close attention to his expenditures. He had researched all the textbooks options—new, used, digital, loose-leaf, rental—and knew about the various online venues that compete with the campus bookstore for sales. His plan was to buy materials that he could later resell. But he was surprised to learn not only that he had to purchase digital codes for half of his classes, but also that those codes were often sold exclusively at the campus bookstore—and for a steep price.

More here.

Life and Work

Yesterday, I finished the rough draft of an article that has been killing me for three weeks. The editor can’t look at it for another week, so I have a nice reprieve. I don’t want it to come out until after the holidays anyways, because nobody reads online articles in December.

Tomorrow, I’m going into New York City to watch a video team prepare a short clip on an alternative school. I’m supposed to write an accompanying article for the video, but I won’t have to do much until January.

So, I’m finally able to get my holiday chores in order. I’ll run to the mall in an hour, after the Adobe technical team and I hash out the last issue with transferring my old computer applications to my new computer.

I need this day really, really badly. We’re all off our game here with my work and Steve’s. Steve got a nice promotion this week. Yay, Steve. But he’s had a couple of late nights with holiday parties and all that, so I haven’t had his help with Ian’s homework and kitchen cleanup. He’s going to have more responsibilities at work, so that means more for me at home. Which is fine. It’s not like I have two little kids with one being very autistic-y anymore. I can get a full day of work done in my little office and get to the gym and make dinner.

In the early days of Apt. 11D, I was very frustrated by my inability to make progress professionally while having responsibility with the kids. Poverty made things more complicated, because we couldn’t afford help; we lived in an area that only had very expensive help.

Autism made things even more complicated, because nobody could help. If Ian threw up in the school cafeteria, because of food sensitivities, only I could drop everything to pick him up from school. Only I could go to the IEP meetings. Only I could calm him down when his anxieties got the best of him. Only I could understand his garbled speech. We’re in a whole different place now. Today, he plays with the school marching band.

Steve and I were thinking about poverty this week. When we were finishing off our dissertations and Jonah was a toddler, we survived in New York City on $30,000 for the whole year. Even a couple of years on, when I first started blogging here, we made very little. We’ve been thinking back to the poverty years and how time-consuming poverty was.

Being poor meant some obvious hardships. I had one pair of shoes. I returned Christmas presents in order to buy diapers. We didn’t go to restaurants. No vacations. But it also meant that I had to get WIC to purchase baby formula. That took time. I had to walk twenty blocks to Columbia Presbyterian, talk with a bureaucrat, attend mandatory lectures on health, get the vouchers, walk to a supermarket that accepted the vouchers, haul the supplies back to the apartment.

Doing laundry was horrible. After a week with a kid with a stomach virus, we would have to carry all those stinking clothes and towels down four flights of stairs and around the corner to the laundromat. I couldn’t carry it on my own, so laundry had to wait until Steve could help. We would spend all Saturday afternoon in the laundromat, while pushing Jonah around on the wheelie laundry carts.

We couldn’t afford the fancy pre-school at the hospital, so I had to walk Jonah to the cheaper half-day school which was almost two miles away. Ian would be strapped to my stomach in one of the baby sacks.

I got shingles from the stress.

Why did we do that? We were in our mid 30s. Other people our age had nice jobs in law or business. Many already owned their own homes. As “smart” people, why were we living like that? We didn’t have much choice. We had to dig ourselves out of the hole that we got in by spending our 20s in grad school training for jobs that didn’t exist.

Being bourgeois now has meant that I can buy an extravagant coat for Steve for Christmas and replace my computer without excessive stress. We’re not so rich that we can afford a private college for Jonah or a new car for Steve, but we’re coat and computer level secure. It’s nice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to write about in 2018. I think it’s going to be mostly about people like the 30-year old me, not bourgeois me. I don’t make a lot of money with writing, but I do have a nice soapbox. I’m going to put a laser focus on those issues in 2018. It will be fun.

Friday Randomness

I am working on an article this week, which took a sharp left turn. I started writing about a small problem. I did a bunch of interviews, and the information took me into a whole new area.  It’s like I’ve been writing about tigers for years and suddenly realized that tigers have morphed into turtles. I’m not sure what to do with the information. Sit on it and write the little article? Write it all up now? Who should I tell about this? Do I really have the right story?  I spent more time thinking than writing this week.

Did you know that there aren’t any organizations or groups, with real power or visibility, that represent the interests of college students?

Luckily, we can afford for me to waste time thinking and not constantly churning out words for dollars, like most writers today. Still, one does have to actually produce something eventually. So, I’m shutting down all distractions for the morning and producing a rough draft, even if it is triple the size of a normal article. I’ll divide it up later.

Does anybody feel a little sorry for Al Franken?

Check out Harry’s post on 529s at Crooked Timber?


Price Tags and Service

So, Jonah’s been away at college for two months. Enough time to give some preliminary evaluations.

The good side is that he has totally drunk the kool-aid. Every item of clothing that he wears has the college logo. He proudly tells me that his school is damn tough. The kids are smart enough to go to Ivy League schools. Many of his friends were admitted to Ivy League schools. They just didn’t want to waste their money.

He has nice friends. He never calls home unless I’m sending him all-caps texts that say, “CALL. YOUR. MOM. NOW.”

But I’m pretty appalled at everything else. The advisement office put him in the wrong Intro to Physics class. There are two Intro to Physics classes at his school – one has a calculus pre-requisite. He took him a week to figure out that he was in the wrong class. It was too late to get into the non-calc Physics class, so they put him in the Intermediate German class and didn’t warn him that the class was pretty much only for advanced students majoring in German.

All of his teachers are adjuncts. And they tell the students that are over worked and under paid all the time. One got fired in the middle of the semester and was replaced by a very, very old adjunct who complains all the time about his physical pains. He said that he can’t do office hours, because his wife has to drive to him school.

His bio and calc classes have 400 students.

It can take a 40 minute bus ride to get to class, because the campus is spread out over several towns.

It’s very hard to get extra help for calculus.

A small private college would easily cost another $35,000. So, I still think we did the right thing provided we make some changes. I’m taking over academic advisement for him. I spent two hours going over all the course guides, syllabi, and major requirements for the spring terms. I called Deans. I yelled at some. We’ll pay for a math tutor. After we pick his classes, we going to lean into Rate My Professor and make sure that he gets better teachers next semester.

Perhaps this is why only 58% of students graduate in four years.