Comparing Colleges

A few points of comparison between the school I still consider the one I’m most connected to, my alma matter (Stanford), and the school I’m now attending for grad school (American).

Length of term. The quarter system goes by fast, but that means you have to get down to business fast. There’s no time for dilly-dallying, and it’s not surprising to get to midterms already by week three. On the con side, perhaps you can’t go as far in depth–you can’t read too many Russian novels in a 10-week course. On the semester, time is on your side, which means the pressure’s off–for better or for worse. I’m now in week 5 at American, which would have previously been the halfway benchmark but here feels like the semester is still just starting. I’ve had a few minor assignments due, and certainly a lot of learning has gotten underway, but things feel sleepier on the semester system. No need to rush, we’ve got three months!

Workload. Yes, it’s grad school. But I don’t know how much of this is a reflection of the semester system with more time, how much is a reflection of the fact that classes are only once a week, or how much is just because of the institution, but the work here is really no big deal. So far. Reading, which some of my classmates have complained to me about, is really no more than I might have had for any given humanities class for each class meeting—and those were often meetings that happened twice a week instead of once. The work is different: some of my assignments require things like writing lesson plans or assessment exercises, which takes a different amount of time and a different skill. And at the end of the semester I may reevaluate, as I think I’ll have two 20-page papers due the same week in December (a length I never ever had to write at Stanford). But so far even my higher-than-standard workload has been no big deal. Filling my extra time with a little job might be an option.

Campus. AU looks more like a regular college campus: pretty much all the buildings are arranged around one grassy quad, with outlying high-rises that serve as dorms and whatnot. No comparison in terms of attractiveness and scope and grandness, though, with Stanford.

Being a part of things. I wonder how much of this is due to any grad school vs. undergrad, or how much is due to my particular situation, but I feel very little real connection to AU so far. I, along with all the students in my program, commute to class in the evenings, and then head off when it’s over. The only other times I’m on campus is for when I have some additional time to kill at the library or am grabbing food or whatnot, and I haven’t met anyone, undergrad, grad or other, besides the students in my classes. Many of whom I like, though. Perhaps being a PhD student would also be different–one might be more invested in getting invested knowing that it’d be home for the next ~5 years. Fortunately, I’m enjoying the city and my apartment and my friends outside of school enough to make that feel like home, and make me feel a part of things in greater DC, if not specifically at American. Totally different thing being at a school in a city in comparison with being in a school that basically is a city unto itself.

Cohesiveness. So far the evidence have all come out in favor of Stanford, but there is one nice thing about AU and my coursework worth highlighting: there’s a cohesiveness of my program of study here that is really nice, in comparison with the higgledy-piggeldy nature of the classes I took at Stanford. Besides the linked-up two quarters of iHum freshman year, I never took even two different courses at Stanford that specifically went together. In retrospect, this makes for an education that is a little piecemeal: I know a lot about certain historical periods, certain authors, certain movements of this or that nature, but a lot of it kind of stands in isolation. There’s something to be said for the overarching Western Classics agenda, or for the SLE (Structured Liberal Education, an optional freshman program) perspective, and a sense of connection that I never much got. Even within my major, due to the way classes and their classifications worked out, my focus was defined as the nebulous “prose fiction” instead of even a single period or theme. So it’s a welcome contrast at AU to have classes that go so well together. Sometimes I forget the origin of a certain topic I’m thinking about because it could have come from a couple of different classes, all of which teach topics that go together and often overlap. What this means is that, even for all the aforementioned “faults,” I feel like I’ve already learned a lot since I’ve been here, since all of that knowledge builds on itself. Which is pretty neat.

* * *

There is a girl in most of my classes who is from Russia, and with whom I’ve participated in class discussions, etc. When she does any reading for a class, she takes her own notes on it in colored pens, even drawing out charts from the books, etc. She is fascinating/horrifying to me.


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