January 12, 2010

The bitter end

Feeling of academic disappointment grows as college draws to close

Dear Professor Z,

You probably don’t remember me. I’m the kid who would wait unobtrusively outside your office door, when you would poke your head out and flash a signal that you were too busy to see me. My e-mails are probably loitering somewhere in your inbox, or perhaps you’re better at emptying the trash than filling a request for your time.

I remember reading your book in high school, enraptured. When it came time to take the next step, the sure-footed way lead straight to the doors of the anthropology department, I never strayed. The memory is green though the feeling it once kindled has long since faded. Here and now at the end of my tenure, I can see the doors closing, without ever having tasted the nectars—the promised intellectual delights—that once drew me in.

I suppose I was mesmerized by the persuasions of collegiate marketing, for I subscribed wholeheartedly to the fetching promise of having the “best of both worlds”, a distinct, deep-rooted undergraduate college imbedded in a dynamic research university. In the current educational paradigm that bills students as consumers, I wanted to get the best bang for my buck, to buy the essential features: small classrooms, smaller faculty-to-student ratios, and opportunities for undergraduate research and faculty collaboration. The innovative amalgam I imagined turned out to be something of a debased compromise, a nakedly insufficient only-on-paper resolution of antitheses not unlike the spork, a species of tool whose matching inadequacy for spooning and forking even homo erectus would have scorned.

As the old fogies who still champion it will tell you, the College is a crumbling inheritance of old days, when it served as the University’s true locus centris. With its own exclusive faculty of pedagogues and a trend-setting core curriculum evincing pride of place for undergraduate education, the College of latter days bears little resemblance to the gilded ruins of today, where under-prepared and often inarticulate graduate students lead classes that betoken more burden than intellectual benefit, if only to justify graduate aid on a “work done, work paid” basis in satisfaction of a creeping audit culture.

But the patchwork now encountered by bright-eyed first-year students is not enough to dissuade their eager minds from staying the course. Cerebral advertising targets the imagination, but as experiences fall short of expectations month by month, it is the audacity of hope, whose insolence is revealed only in its tragicomic denouement four years later, that sustains forward motion. In the undergraduate life cycle, the Common Core shrinks from the fore just at the moment when praise for the merits of a general education is muted by the frenzied search for a nook or cranny in the academic division of labor. It is then that the hapless encounter with that elusive beast, the department, begins.

As you know, it is a cliché of formalist analysis that form reflects function, and as such, the form of the undergraduate program in anthropology is perplexing but its functions crystal clear. It is a structure whose essence is anti-structure, an order composed of complete disorder, hierarchically arranged only by numbers, as it were, an ordinal series. Students are enjoined to take classes in four opaque categories practically indistinguishable from one another; it is a mere simulacrum of a meaningful plan. Yet, charged by optimism or awed by the department’s illustriousness, undergraduates render one feeble dictate after another, trying to justify the haphazard hodgepodge curriculum that bespeaks little more than long-term neglect. How often I have heard students try to cloak the ugliness of “loose requirements” and “lack of strict determination” with allusions to intellectual freedom, pedagogical innovation, or just some post-modern zeitgeist.

Positive self-talk and the inertia of illusions only go so far, so that as the collegiate hourglass flows near empty, there is palpable anguish at what can only be described as insult to injury, when passivity and neglect are surpassed by active disinterest and disregard by the faculty. Refrains like “it is a graduate-focused department” and “it is a research-driven faculty” become understated euphemisms for professors’ unresponsiveness, indefinite unavailability, or flat proscription of undergraduate students from their classes and their purview.

There is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy hidden in the implicit claim that undergraduates are ill-equipped to be treated as serious students. The treatment of undergraduates so often results, as my friends would tell you, in a kind of mental turbulence and muddle, no doubt a microscopic replica of the curriculum they’re served. Even when advanced undergraduates, having combed and clipped the confusion of classroom experiences, advance into the departmental sanctum, they often find themselves excluded a priori from advanced classes.

I sometimes wonder what I’m paying for, Professor, but then I realize that the lion’s share of University funds go straight into the pockets of its personnel, like you. And when undergraduates help pay the salaries and spread the gospel of faculty celebrity, it seems immoral to ignore the etiquette that a gift received incurs an obligation to give back.

— Marshall Knudson is a fourth-year in the College majoring in anthropology.