Archive for the ‘Grad School’ Category

I’ve a trip to New York City in my near future.

Tomorrow afternoon, I’m taking the Bolt Bus to New York. While I will be doing fun New-Yorky things like going out for brunch and visiting the opera, the ostensible purpose of this visit is to participate in the admitted student activities for Columbia and NYU law schools. I’ve been blessed to gain admittance to both institutions, and both are having “admitted students days” this week. I believe they mean to show off their respective qualities in such a manner as will permit me to make an informed decision. I also hope that they will try to recruit me to their sides by means of free meals. I will no doubt return to Boston with a broadened view of what is possible for an ambitious idealist (like myself) in the world of the law. I’ll let you know how it goes. I already have a few guesses.

Of the two, Columbia has definitely been the more vigorous in its recruitment efforts. I have been mailed a whole shelf of booklets, magazines, and bound materials aimed at persuading me to go to Columbia–all of them with huge pretty pictures of the campus on high quality paper: lots of granite columns, bronze statues, and climbing vines. Columbia’s materials come on heavy cardstock, and are always sealed with their crown emblem. It’s all very impressive and ivy league, if you (like me) are easily impressed by that sort of thing.

Columbia also emails me on at least a weekly basis, and has done things like have a current student call me to discuss how great Columbia is and answer any questions I might have.* Their admitted students day looks like it will be very thoroughly organized. They have already assigned me homework for the mock-class (fortunately, I’ve read Brown v. Board before). They were also intelligent enough to put together this system in which current students volunteer to host admitted students who come to visit, which means I will actually be able to afford the long week I’m about to spend in New York (and maybe I’ll make new friends!**).

NYU, on the other hand, earned my affection early by being the first school to accept me–with a personal phone call, no less. The bulk of their admitted students materials came in a cardboard box designed to resemble a pizza box. In fact, the whole Admitted Students Day brochure is designed to look like the menu of a pizza place, with a red and white checkered pattern and the title “A Taste of NYU Law.” The torch insignia shows up frequently, but the post-its they sent (how thoughtful!), and the majority of their other materials, have a rather goofy “CLASS OF 2015” logo in purple. There is also a promise that actual pizza will be served at some point, which as far as I’m concerned is likely to be the highlight of the weekend.

Because the two admitted students days inconveniently overlap, I’ll be spending two days at Columbia but only one at NYU. This is because I’m currently a little more inclined to go to Columbia (I like those bronze statues, and I also like the slightly higher rate of students going into legal academia and supreme court clerkships). This inclination could very easily change, however. So come on law schools, woo me.

*I should add that this student wasn’t just some haphazardly selected first year. She was actually a really delightful girl with an MFA in poetry, and was apparently selected because of our common background as graduate students of English. I couldn’t really think of any questions for her, but I certainly appreciated the gesture.

**I picked my new Columbia buddy based on the fact that he comes from California and is interested in wine. Further internet stalking has revealed that he has a stylish beard (pro), has spent some time traveling in southeast Asia (pro) and owns a cat (con). He’s agreed to house me for two days with no information from me other than an imploring email, which means he’s probably a better human being than I am.

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In last week’s post on for-profit education, I failed to link to this excellent October 2011 article in Harpers, in which very articulate writer Christopher Beha goes undercover at the University of Phoenix and points out a few of the more notable failings of a clearly failing system, while also talking a little bit about the appealing elements which make that system so damned difficult to change. His central point, and it’s a simple one, is that for-profit colleges gain something like 80% of their money from the federal government, but have drop-out rates that exceed any other set of schools except the (much cheaper but also government-financed) community college system. Which means that the government is subsidizing a set of programs that gives degrees of questionable value to two out of every ten students who enroll, and leave a great many of those other unsuccessful students with nothing to show for their experience but an egregious amount of debt.* Universal education is a noble goal, and universally-available education is also a valuable objective for the state, but there is no reason that everybody should earn a bachelor’s degree, especially when for-profit universities make it difficult to understand what the term “bachelor’s degree” even actually signifies.

*My experience with online instruction, in which maybe 30% of my classes tends to drop out or just stop doing the work after the first assignment, bears out these observations.

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Digital futures

Some good stuff on das internet this week.

First, Larry Summers made some bold but also weirdly plausible claims about the future of higher education, the central point being that even though we’ve been teaching people more or less the same way for the past fifty years (with semesters, classrooms, and other increasingly obsolete fixtures), there are plenty of other ways that we might teach things and those (other ways)  might be better. My favorite part is when he speculates that students of the future will all listen to podcasts of the world’s elite lecturers, while all the rest of the teachers everywhere just answer questions and lead discussions and grade papers. That sounds good in some ways (except for those of us who love to lecture), but it also sounds a little like 99% of PhDs of the future are going to be adjuncts. Which, I guess, how is that any different from the way things already are?.

Then, Stanley Fish posted yet another article in a series of columns which have (1.) explained what the “Digital Humanities” are* and (2.) suggested that they are in fact the future–the Next Big Thing–in literary criticism and theory. There must have been some confusion here (I know I’ve been confused), because Fish has written several increasingly specific columns on the subject, of which the latest is by far the best because it includes a Practical Demonstration of Fish Fishing around in Milton’s Areopagitica. It’s a persuasive and a fun essay about why computers will Change Everything, and why the people who are concerned by that possibility (Philistines who want to preserve the integrity of interpretation**) should stop worrying and learn to love the internet.

All of which he says better than I can: “whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.” Apparently, it’s the death of the author all over again.

*Which has been helpful for me because I don’t really know anything about the field, although I did attend a very interesting presentation by Franco Moretti in which he retold the story of Hamlet through diagrams like this:

and talked about what happens when you try “mapping” the story rather than “reading” it. I should add that these maps are also great for graduate seminars and classroom presentations, because you can put them up on the projector and give everybody something to look at. It has always been my suspicion that computers will serve much the same purpose in scholarship as they have elsewhere: entertainment.  You can read some more of Moretti’s work on this subject, including a very excellent essay called Network Theory, Plot Analysis in the New Review, but only if you have access through a University or through your very own private subscription. Or if you just want to shell out a stupid amount of money◊.

**My words, not his.

◊Not surprisingly, there are some who have speculated (just last week) that the internet has the answer to this problem, too.

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Because it’s all a numbers game. Emphasis on game.

As a somewhat jaded veteran of many grad school applications, I think I know a little bit about the process. When applying for doctoral programs in the humanities, acceptance hinges upon a number of factors: your undergraduate GPA, your recommendations, your GRE Subject test, and probably especially your statement of purpose and writing sample. Those top two are supposed to say something important about your abilities and ambitions and also just about who you are; what your style is. As such, they are very difficult to evaluate objectively (unless you have a lot of misspellings or something, and I doubt that even that would be fatal).

As a package, your application is designed to give the admissions committee an impression that you will “fit” in their program. Sure, being a super genius doesn’t hurt, but when it’s common for graduate programs to receive 500 applications and accept 10 students, it takes more than impressive statistics or even impressive writing to be admitted. Instead, your success depends on whether the department wants to work with you, whether there are faculty members in these relatively small and often-underfunded humanities departments who not only think you show promise as a scholar, but also want to be their scholar.

The subjectivity of the process entails a great deal of work on the applicant’s part. Some schools want a 25 page paper, some want twenty pages, and some bastards will actually ask for two ten-pagers. Different schools will also want different things from your statement of purpose, and they actually mean it when they ask you to talk about your goals, or your leadership experience, or whatever random thing they come up with. One or two ask for both a statement of purpose and a personal statement, meaning you need to take that well-crafted statement that you labored over for weeks and dissect it, dividing it into its component parts and building new essays like Frankenstein’s Monster from the pieces (UC Berkeley is particularly notorious for its statements, I believe, though I’ve always preferred to spend my time and money applying to LA and Irvine).

In the end, with PhD applications, the odds are absurdly against you, it’s difficult to understand what is expected, and mostly all applications end in pain and disappointment–for two years running, in my case, although I did get a good MA as a consolation prize.

After a particularly humiliating round of rejections last March (not entirely attributable to matters of fit, I suspect; my sample on Oscar Wilde’s Salome was a little undercooked at the time of its submission), I decided to try something new and apply to law school.  Law School! The last refuge of directionless humanities students. The place where you can study for just three years, get a respected degree, and then go out and use that degree to get a real job (with paychecks and everything)!

I was feeling particularly optimistic about my odds of admission because I happened to have in my files a (if I may say so) pretty excellent 25 page paper which used legal theorist Robert Cover’s concept of jurisgenerative communities to explore the (spoiler alert!) death of Ralph Marvel in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. It would, I thought, make a great writing sample to go with my applications.

As it turns out, however, law schools don’t really care about your ability to write a publication-length academic paper. There is no writing sample in a law school application. In fact, the only items that really seem to matter to most top schools are your undergraduate GPA  and your LSAT score. Personal statements, recommendations, and extracurricular activities might be used as tiebreaker items. Pretty much nobody even cares what you write about in your personal statement. The prompt is, more or less, “tell us something about yourself in 1200 words” (which is, admittedly, probably somewhat equivalent to an invitation to shoot yourself in the foot).

A word on the LSAT: This test is a difficult test, but it’s also extremely easy to study for. About a million people take it each year, which means that there are about a million copies of actual LSAT exams available for purchase on the internet. I have nine or ten LSAT books (some loaned to me and not returned, some bought online) sitting in my room, and each has hundreds of actual test questions. For comparison, there were exactly Two sample tests for the GRE Subject Test in Literature when I took that exam, meaning nobody had the slightest idea what to expect**. When you take the LSAT, if you’re at all serious as a test taker (and man, I get into my test prep), you know to within six or seven points how well you’ll do before you ever sit down.

Next, three weeks later, when you get your test scores, you have to decide where to apply. Is it like literature, in which only one in sixty applicants is accepted? No It Is Not. In law school, everybody and their mother applies everywhere, and many of them post their statistics and results online. That means you can go to websites like lawschoolnumbers.com and get an extremely good idea of how likely you are to get admitted to a particular school. There are even websites that will do the work for you; just type in your scores, and they’ll tell you whether to bother applying. Since applications cost a hundred dollars a pop, this means that you don’t have to spend your fortune (as I have many times in the past) applying to ten schools that won’t accept you. You can pick safety schools that are actually safety schools (I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as safety in literature). You can forego schools at which you really don’t have a shot in hell, because you know how many people with numbers more or less exactly like yours made that shot and missed (yeah, a part of me wanted to apply to Yale anyway. But NO! I resisted! I’m spending that money on new shoes instead!).

This is where the game part comes in. You can screw around with different statistics, play the odds, and start mapping out your future based on the numbers. If you get ambitious, you can even create an excel spreadsheet, like I did in one of my more idle and obsessive afternoons, using assorted methods to determine your probability of success at assorted schools (how many people with my scores got in last year? How many people with lower scores were still accepted? What percentile are my statistics?)◊.  It breeds compulsive behavior, but it’s really fantastic.

I thought this numbers addiction would pass once I finished submitting my applications, but if anything it’s gotten worse. While you’re waiting for a response, you can go and see whether other applicants have heard back yet, and whether their results were favorable. You can toy with hypothetical scenarios (if School X and School Y accept me, do I go the the one with the higher US News Ranking or the one that gets more Supreme Court clerkships?). I’ll remain on the edge of my seat, I expect, trying to guess the answers (with science!) until they arrive (which, according to my calculations, should be in early March for the majority of schools).

Oh, also, on a separate note: Tonight’s wine is Santa Ema Carmenère, and it is really pretty great. Dark garnet color ◊◊, and dark fruity flavors like maybe cherries and something heavier. Chocolate, it says on the label. I get chocolate. And a strong taste of pitch (in a good way!). Plus I could afford it, so you know it’s cheap as hell.

* I mean this as no denigration of English programs, by the way. The study of literature is not a hard science (and my friends in physics tell me that at a high enough level even the hard sciences get a little squishy), and any effort to make admissions to literature programs rigorously quantifiable would be both counterproductive and impossible. Moreover, many of my very good friends are PhDs and PhD students, and all of them are among the smartest people I know (well, for a large enough list of smart people, I mean. They’re all in the top 30%, I guess I could say). Clearly, these departments are doing something right.

**Though, to be fair, the GRE Lit test is a stupid exam and I’m pretty sure most admissions committees must know that. It’s my strong suspicion that they only require you to take it in order to weed out the uncommitted.

◊According to my only half-scientific methodology, odds of acceptance are about 70% at Columbia, 70% at Chicago, and 35% at the Big H here in Boston. Thus far, my spreadsheet has been validated by one (extremely fast) acceptance from NYU, where I gave myself a 90% chance of admission. I haven’t however been able to predict my chances at UCBrkly, because it seems to be one of the few schools that actually does care about what you’re like as an individual. Curse them!

◊◊That’s right, I’m using words like “garnet” in my descriptions. Give me a glass or two, and I get pretentious as hell.

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