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Obviously there are real advantages to going away to school.  If you can afford it, through scholarships, parental contribution, or relatives, not living at home and changing the environment you are in can be a life-changing experience.  If you come from a small town, suddenly being in a place where people look different from you, speak different languages, where you can see a concert by someone who has only existed on your radio or ipod, where you can hear a full orchestra of world-class quality, watching a television program or a movie film down the street from your dorm or apartment, can be incredibly exciting.  You suddenly feel like you are part of a world that hasn't existed outside of your imagination, and it is exciting.  

I was thinking about this last weekend as I went with a couple of colleagues and a couple of students to a major disciplinary conference in New York.  The students came from St. Louis, and both had been in New York for a day or so before, but they had not spent a whole week there and it was exciting for them.  In addition to the conference, where they spent much or their days, they visited museums and important architectural buildings (such as Grand Central Station and the Empire State Building; the Guggenheim Museum hit both categories with aplomb!).  One of them interviewed in person for a graduate school place while she was there.  Oh, and one evening we went for a walk and ended up (on purpose) at Dylan's Candy Bar, where we saw dresses from the last round of Project Runway (original flavour).

 photo projectrunwaydressesatdylanscandybar_zpsfeebba29.jpg

Needless to say, it was exciting for them, and they saw lots they had never seen before.  So did I.  I like visiting large cities and in New York I do feel as if I am in the center of the U.S. even though where I come from is much closer to the geographic center than anywhere on the East Coast.

So with all of that, why would I argue that they were better off coming to a small town to go to a small university?  When going to New York provides as great a contrast with St. Louis as does a town of 17,000?  Why would I say we, with our limitations (not much in the way of public transportation, no large department stores, no art museums or natural history museums, not much in the way of celebrity sightings or restaurants, certainly no "Project Runway" or "Amazing Race" locales), can offer a superior experience to what these students might get in NY?

Our state legislature would argue it is cost.  It is cheap to come here, and that has been recognized nationally by many rankings where my university comes in as a "best buy" and is almost always tops among midwestern publics.  But the best students can often get scholarships for private universities, even on the coasts.  Yes, there is not much here to distract students or for them to spend their money on, and the concerts and plays and lectures are all free for them, so the living expenses are less, even aside from the actual cost of tuition and room and board.  But there is more than that.

It does, essentially, come down to the students themselves, and their interaction with faculty and other students.  I once was asked by a prospective student's father "Can you honestly say that my daughter can get as good an education at this university as you did when you were an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr?"  (He had asked where I had done my undergraduate degree so I answered him, and this was the next question).  My answer was quite honest: "There are people who went through Bryn Mawr with me who didn't get as good an education as I did at Bryn Mawr."  It does depend very much on the student.  I know that a student who works hard, goes above and beyond the assigned minimum, and gets excited by the material will do well.  And they would do that here or elsewhere, at Harvard or at any big or small regional university they could choose.  Even the weaker, non-major students in my large lecture classes do not slip through the cracks here.  My large classes are 45; my small ones are under 20.  I can take the time to work one-on-one on a student's writing, and I have office hours (and outside of office hour times) that are accessible to students.  The university I teach at says that teaching is the top priority and so, while it does "applaud" research (sometimes not enough emphasis is on that, many faculty would argue), it does give us time in building our promotion portfolios to talk about teaching.  If you don't focus on teaching here, you won't be happy and your evaluations will be really low -- not just those from students, but those from faculty review committees.  Our research is often in tandem with undergraduates.  In our labs, we have very few graduate students and undergrads do original research, present at national conferences, and often are co-authors of published works before they graduate.  One of my students last week was asked (by a grad student from a big city university) if she had ever presented her research.  The answer was that she had already (she is a junior) presented at three conferences. The questioner said in response "Oh, I meant have you ever presented in class?"  Almost all disciplines at our university have extensive capstone projects through which students demonstrate their individual research and creative abilities.  That is the advantage of a small university where teaching is a priority.

No, we don't have medieval tapestries and Renaissance paintings in our collections.  We don't have buildings over 5 or 6 stories in town, and those are (frankly) pretty boring buildings.  But when I was just outside Philly I went to one concert and two plays off campus, went to a couple of museums a year, and traveled to other cities a couple of times.  I didn't take advantage of the location too terribly much.  I focused on classes, and research.  What I got there I try to provide my students here.  Close reading of their writing, challenging questions in class, an introduction to methodology and history of the discipline.  

So if you can get it there, why get it here?  Wouldn't those museums make the difference, provide the inspiration?  Well, maybe.  But my students last week went to New York and had an intense week.  And now they are back in an environment where they don't have to worry about a daily commute (they all live within a couple of blocks of campus and there is a grocery store in walking distance as well as doctors' offices and hospital and other types of stores), a meal out doesn't have to be McDonald's to come in under $10, and they don't need cars.  In addition, I don't have a long commute -- when we had 8 inches of snow, I could walk to campus and the classes were not cancelled.  Some faculty didn't make it in (those who live in the country) but they were the exception.  Even if you couldn't get your own car out of the garage, if you lived in town, someone could come and give you a lift and you could make it in to work.  That is the advantage for a faculty member of living in a small town -- out of your way is ten minutes' drive in my village.

It is a quiet place, but you get to know the community in ways that are more challenging in a larger city.  The town/gown thing, while it is as much of an issue here as anywhere, is easier to break through.  You volunteer at the schools or humane society, or work at the swimming pool or the movie theatre, or go to auctions for kitchen material, or sell baked goods at the farmers' market in the summer, or are a server in one of the restaurants, and you become a part of the community.  Students often spend a summer here, and one studying abroad, and find they like both opportunities for different reasons.  We provide them with real options.

And because we are not in a larger community, we do not have a pool of educated underemployed faculty in town and the staff at the university are about 90% full time permanent employees; almost all of our classes are taught by tenured faculty.  So the horror stories you hear about adjuncts don't apply here (which means we are not as flexible as sometimes we need to be, but no matter).  Faculty come back to campus in the evenings for lectures, student groups' meetings, the "Stitch and Bitch" club, etc.  When the campus was yarn bombed last year there were a couple of faculty in on the event.  I have had student groups over to my house several times this past year, and I will have the final exam for one of my classes held here because the exam falls over the lunch hour and we are studying London, so a luncheon of English food sounds like a good experiential opportunity for the end of the course.  

So yes, there are opportunities in a big city, but the students who come here are well-prepared to go out and compete in graduate school and professional settings.  They have had extensive feedback in writing, challenging research experiences, and opportunities to work closely with faculty in a variety of disciplines.  You can get that at any good university that values undergraduate teaching.  But there are intangible benefits to being a part of a community where you can talk to the mayor at the local coffee shop, tutor foreign languages at the schools and teach English in the community, walk to and from the grocery store, and still have money saved up to do a trip to a really big city once a year.  

I had a great time last week in New York.  I saw colleagues at the conference and at the big museums.  One of my friends from undergrad with whom I had lunch at the Met told me "You have always struck me as the happiest Egyptologist I know."  That was nice.  And I am happy.  I like my job, and I like my students, and although I don't have access to a teaching collection of stelae and wall paintings, or statues to use in my classes, I do have access to online databases and creative ways of communicating such things as size of tomb walls.

 photo benihasanwalltoo_zps86e5bfee.jpg

I like my job (of course I wish I were paid closer to the national average for someone of my rank and experience).  I like my students (most of them, the vast majority of them).  I like my town (the area is really red, but they are generally nice people anyway).  I am really really really lucky.  I think my students generally are too.  

Those are my thoughts from a week at a conference.  The papers?  I didn't hear a bad one, and some of the best of them have got me thinking about really exciting things.  But I am still processing those, and catching up on grading is occupying my time.  Next week, maybe, I will have a more pedagogically-thoughtful essay.  At the moment, though, I had a lovely time in New York, and now I am glad to be back home.

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 11:22 AM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  We went to the Cloisters when we were there (27+ / 0-)

    I had never been, nor had my colleague or the two students who came with us.  It was well worth the excursion uptown.

     photo cloistersvieworacloister_zps2aee9cb0.jpg

    The building from inside (above) and the Unicorn tapestry (below):

     photo unicorntapestry_zps74793235.jpg

    Because I can...  

  •  I dunno; I went to small religious college (8+ / 0-)

    undergrad but to larger universities for grad work.  Youngest daughter was in one of poorer schools in state which is at bottom of list for quality schools but she worked hard and in 10th grade qualified for Governor's School which meant boarding school for her.  She went to university at large university though not her first choice. At 18 she was financially independent.

    Grad work meant Stony Brook and learning about NYC after coming from a background where her nearest neighbor was a mile away.

    Next stop for her?  With luck, doc and post doc in Washington state or CA.

  •  I think your university sounds terrific (8+ / 0-)

    I attended small, private colleges and loved them; my daughter ended up at UC Berkeley, and hasn't been all that impressed.  But it's clearly a very individual thing, and finding the right school as an undergraduate--or even as a professor--takes some research and self-knowledge.      

    "Teachers are the enemies of ignorance. If the teachers win, Rush and his allies lose." Stolen from Sidnora, 12/15/12 with thanks!

    by kmoore61 on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 12:05:03 PM PST

    •  I have heard that UCB is good for graduate school (7+ / 0-)

      but not so good for undergraduate.  That "info" is worth every bit you paid for it!

      ...Son, those Elephants always look out for themselves. If you happen to get a crumb or two from their policies, it's a complete coincidence. -Malharden's Dad

      by slowbutsure on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 02:22:13 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Undergrads are viewed as a necessary evil (4+ / 0-)

        At most prestigious national universities. There are exceptions, but there's also a lot to be said for strong small colleges for one's undergrad education, just as community colleges can be useful for the first year or two of college.

        The further up the food chain your school is, the less undergrads matter.

        •  Land-grant colleges in the Midwest... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          mamamedusa, ladybug53

          They were created by the Lincoln Administration so that the children of the working and middle classes could get a college education in science, engineering or agriculture.  In many states they have evolved into R1 institutions, in which the teaching of undergraduates, particularly of freshmen and sophomores, is of low priority.  In theory, the gigantic courses in calculus and psychology are cash cows for the university, which subsidize the junior and senior courses whose attendance may number 12.  

          The problem is that legislators send what they see as large sums of money to these universities, under the expectation that their main purpose is to teach undergraduates.  The universities propagandize the same whenever it's time for funding.  

          "Politics should be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage." -- Lucille Ball

          by Yamaneko2 on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 10:47:21 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  did undergrad and grad at UCB (0+ / 0-)

        Wildly different experiences. It's a huge school, and the undergrad experience reflects it. Classes in auditoriums that seat hundreds with teleconferenced spillover rooms. Not much interaction with instructors. But there's a huge breadth and depth of different courses and it's an interesting place to live. You can get swallowed by the size, though. It's large enough to be a bureaucracy (especially College of Letters and Sciences.) It's also a great deal (or it used to be...tuition more than doubled in the years I was there).

        Grad school classes are an order of magnitude smaller. You know the name of the admins and they know yours. Grad school converges on a common experience in general I think, so it becomes the quality of research and your interactions with your advisor that shape the experience. Berkeley's an amazing research university. It's this whole other experience. If I could go back and tell the undergrad me to seek it out and engage in it (there are opportunities, but you have to initiate them yourself. Ask your GSAs if you can volunteer, go to seminar series' that are advertised in elevators of LSA...professors notice!) I think I would have had a richer undergrad experience.

    •  The fit of student and college is a very (0+ / 0-)

      individual situation.  My kids picked very different universities for their own reasons and all were happy with the results.  We were blessed that they were able to attend the school that they had their hearts set on.

      “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day.” Gloria Steinem

      by ahumbleopinion on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 05:00:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  My experience (8+ / 0-)

    My undergraduate school was Northwestern.  At the time, my major was very small. and as a first year student, I had professors with national and international reputations.  I had a TA who was writing on his dissertation on Saul Alinsky which turned into a book.  He was at a Netroots Nation.  In one of the few huge lecture classes I deliberately took (it was taught by Christopher Lasch), the TA has gone on to become one of the dirty dozen at a UC campus.  I had a good undergraduate experience at one of the better universities in this country.

    (I must acknowledge that someone I was in high school with went to the University of Chicago after finishing her junior year.  Her education was much, much better at the U of C than mine at NU.)

    I did my graduate work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was a great for a graduate student, but it would have been awful to have been an undergraduate there.  I taught freshman writing to students who were considered at risk.  (I had a choice of going there or Northwestern.)

    I now teach at a comprehensive university in Missouri (it started out as a normal school in the 19th century). I have a feeling it is a much better match for the first-time students and non-traditional students than a major public research one institution.  Most of the faculty really do make an effort to have one-on-one contact with their students.  

    If a person is prepared, a small liberal arts school can be an excellent fit. The university where I am now is relatively affordable and can be a place for people who are not quite sure what they want to do.

    [Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security] do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

    by MoDem on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 12:05:17 PM PST

  •  Manhattan used to have a lot of cool boutiques. (5+ / 0-)

    Now there are just chain stores; the boutiques cannot afford to be there.  That part is sad.

    On the other hand, I did get mugged and have my apartment robbed.  Both of those were pretty pathetic as I was poor, poor, poor back then!

    Kidlet competed in Dayton Ohio (Winterguard) and it was hard to find vegetables there.  No good Indian or Ethiopian or...  On the other hand, everyone was very nice and the facilities were very good.

    ...Son, those Elephants always look out for themselves. If you happen to get a crumb or two from their policies, it's a complete coincidence. -Malharden's Dad

    by slowbutsure on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 02:20:26 PM PST

  •  If it's about getting an education... (7+ / 0-)

    Then it's definitely something about which a student's attitude makes a huge difference.

    People seldom stretch themselves to take full advantage of what's right at hand. Part of the experience of going to the big city/big institution is to expect more from it just because of size. But.. even there the student who doesn't make the effort is not going to do that much better.

    If it's about all the other things, the reputation of the school, the connections to be made, the entry into business and politics that increasingly seem to depend on going to the 'right' school, then that's a whole 'nother story.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 06:00:47 PM PST

  •  I think this was a very good point you made. (4+ / 0-)
    It does depend very much on the student.  I know that a student who works hard, goes above and beyond the assigned minimum, and gets excited by the material will do well.  And they would do that here or elsewhere, at Harvard or at any big or small regional university they could choose.
    I saw many students over my years of teaching who applied themselves well at smaller lesser known schools, and the opposite. It does boil down to the motivation of each person. Yes, some places offer much more. But, if the student doesn't care, meh.

    I grew up in rural western IL, an area named Forgottonia back in the 70s...not far from that little white dot on the map. I attended the state school there, WIU. It has a top quality physics education program at the time. For my masters, I went to EIEIU, again for the physics education. I never regretted it.

    Predicting is hard...especially the future. ~ Y. Berra

    by jim in IA on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 06:31:26 AM PST

  •  I went to Longwood College (now University) (3+ / 0-)

    in Farmville, VA (current pop around 8,000)

    And yes it was exactly like that. I was in a small major so my average class size was under 10. I think my largest class had 25 people in it. All of my professiors were  full-time tenured professors and they were there to teach. I knew everyone in my graduating class and many people in the classes above and below me.

    We had interactions outside of class (I have a fond memory of sitting at a prof's house watching Jmmy Carter win the presidency - Gosh am I that old'?)

    I've kept in touch with some of those profs through the years and yes now they have students doing orginal research and presenting at conferences - undergraduate students. There were all the cultural events you could want to attend for free and there was always something to do.

    We were close enough to DC that we went there for some class events. I went to the Watergate hearings as part of a class trip.

    I got a far better education there than most people I know who went to larger, more famous universities.

  •  I went to a large state university (4+ / 0-)

    for my undergrad.  Although by the time I got to my upper division major classes I was with a small group of students that I really got to connect with, the majority of my classes were huge and I didn't get to connect with any of my professors.  I'm currently looking at grad schools, and am starting to think that choosing a really small school where I can get to know and connect with the students and professors on a personal level rather than a larger prestigious university might be the way to go this time.  Your school sounds like a great place!

  •  Your experience (0+ / 0-)

    My answer was quite honest: "There are people who went through Bryn Mawr with me who didn't get as good an education as I did at Bryn Mawr."

    While this is true, and while it must be awfully tough to give an "honest" answer to prospective students, the truth is that a prestigious college or university will give you a better education than a non-flagship state university.

    I know lots of mid-level colleges that have faculty that studied at some of the most prestigious colleges in the country, and that makes for good opportunities for the students. But I honestly think the faculty themselves would probably recommend their own colleges above the ones they were actually teaching at, if the student has that option.

    •  I think it depends on the college or university (0+ / 0-)

      And it also depends on what you mean by education.  Around Cornell they still joke about how little Carl Sagan ever actually taught his undergrads, and there were huge classes for my friends at Harvard and Yale when we were going through.  Their networking opportunities were obviously better going in, but what they got out of it was a combination of luck and making opportunities for themselves.  The student from another university who couldn't believe mine could recognize print techniques in an interview for a museum internship because she had never actually looked at items with a printmaker hadn't benefitted from the prestige of her university's name.  And her education in this was not superior to those from my university.

      As to whether I would recommend Bryn Mawr over my own university, it depends so very much on the student.  Not automatically, certainly.  But for some yes, and for some no.  I think many of the faculty who went to really large top-tier R1s would argue that the undergrad experience here is very different, but generally better in the classroom, although the diversity is much much less.  It depends very much on the student, again.  But I would not have been happy at Michigan, for example, which was my second choice university.  Although the opportunities would have been greater it would have been too easy to get utterly lost in the crowd.

      •  Differentiating (0+ / 0-)

        The differentiating factor is more about "small school/big school". Some people might do better at Big State University than Prestigious Liberal Arts College or do better at Anonymous Liberal Arts College than at Prestigious Private University, but be realistic-- I don't think that professors who went to MIT who teach at Directional State University would tell a high school student to choose that school over their alma mater if they were accepted to MIT. But for most applicants, that's not an option in the first place.

        What would help is if more state universities managed to replicate the small liberal arts college experience for students other than the ones who make it into the "honors program" at the flagship state university. Hardly anyone can afford the tuition at a Small liberal arts college, but lots of people aren't temperamentally suited to studying at a large state school.

  •  Preferences (0+ / 0-)

    I prefer, for undergraduate work, colleges over universities. In a university setting the college is skimped in favor of powerful graduate programs, and too much of the undergraduate teaching faculty is graduate students.
    I also prefer non urban settings, since I believe they compete less with college interchange and intensity. For me, half of what I learned came from my bright fellow students, who ran endless bull sessions about their studies. Places like Amherst, Williams and Swarthmore seem ideal.  (And there are lots of less stellar places that still have that kind of wonderful atmosphere and student dedication.) However, my son who went to Reed 20 years ago says that the students of his time talked mostly about music.  I hope that's not still true.

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