Speedschooling

Last week I met with a very bright student who had transferred to Western from Illinois. She has enrolled in our teacher education program and is thinking about graduate school, so I explained some of the patterns in English studies which many students don’t know (where you can teach with various degrees, etc). I’m always glad to have this talk with first or second year students as opposed to juniors or seniors; given what I wrote a few weeks ago, not that everybody needs to start actively “professionalizing,” but generally I think the earlier students are made aware of their options, the better. And “made aware” in this case includes quite a bit of information which is potentially life-changing but surprisingly little-known (at least here at WIU): it’s possible to attend graduate school largely on someone else’s dime; there’s no requirement for going “straight through” from BA to MA to PhD; you don’t have to have a dissertation prospectus in hand when entering an MA program.

More than anything this student was concerned that her transfer would cause her to get behind, particularly given the extra requirements of the teacher education program. “Get behind what?” I asked. “Four years, I can’t take more than four years to get a degree. It looks bad on your resume. My dad said so,” she explained. “And how many graduate school applications does he reject each year based on that?” I asked. None, of course. But as I explained to her why time-to-degree really shouldn’t matter for someone who hasn’t seen her 19th birthday, she kept insisting it should. This went on longer than I care to tell. I hope eventually I made my point (along the way, I made analogies galore and even sketched out a cost-benefit analysis). But I’m sorry to say I’m not sure she left my office ready to register for “only” five classes for Fall.

Why do so many undergraduates believe taking longer than four years to earn a degree is a sign of weakness, stupidity, and sloth? This belief isn’t restricted to English majors considering graduate work; no, students from law enforcement, the sciences, and engineering in my professional writing and general education classes all seem to buy into the need for speed. There’s a widespread assumption that employers, graduate schools, and God all carefully vet transcripts and resumes for time-to-degree and toss any which aren’t traditional four-year degree plans.

I can understand students being sick of being in school and ready to move on. No doubt, I felt that my last two years at Florida: while I still loved the place, and had settled into a very productive groove of scholarship, I was ready to take the next step. In particular, I’m sure nontraditional students (who are a considerable demographic here and especially in professional writing) get to the point where they are ready to stop juggling school, work, etc. And I’m sympathetic to those who point to economic reasons for wanting to finish sooner rather than later, and doubly so to students whose parents are pushing them to get done to keep a line on costs.

However, the numbers just don’t add up for many students, in many ways. Quite a few work 25+ hours a week and take four or more classes. Some don’t work at all but take six classes a semester. Some take classes while the kids are in school and pray they’ll have time to study at night after they’ve put them to bed. None of these situations enthrall me: let alone time for finishing coursework, rushing the degree all but excludes the extracurricular study which is critical for intellectual development. Not to mention the work required to make a successful run at graduate school or the (academic) job market. By cutting off a year or so, students trying to save on the cost of college might save $10K. But does that sum really matter if it’s the difference between a scraped-by four-year 3.2 or a five-year 3.9 with a strong undergraduate thesis, excellent bonds with professors, and an internship?

It’s not hard to understand some of the reasons behind speedschooling. Anti-intellectualism encourages getting things done as quickly as possible. The valorization of speed in American culture goes without saying: cars, food, and sports, the faster the better, right? The projection of a consumer mentality into higher education is also to blame, and I cast this one right at my doorstep. Programs like Western’s GradTrac (love the name) bring this transactional logic into the university, not only by setting a speed limit (15hrs/semester minimum) but by trumpeting “This program is absolutely free!” and attaching a contractual agreement to students’ selection and completion of courses.

I don’t want students to needlessly drag out their schooling, especially not in fields like English where jobs with $55K starting salaries aren’t waiting to sweep away student loan debt. That’s doubly true for graduate students; in no way should anyone support the eleven year PhD. But I feel obligated to repeatedly advise students against fetishizing speed and to help them stand up to the pressures–some ideological, some from parents and peers–which threaten to make their degrees quickly obtained but damned useless. Suggesting that slowing down allows learning more is a very tough sell (if not downright impossible) but given the realities of the job market for both undergraduates and graduate students, I think we’re obligated to advise students to do what’s best for them, whether or not it helps boost our US News rankings.

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