I’ve really been enjoying reading the posts from my fellow Open Enrollment bloggers over the last month, but Stefan’s post on his current experience at the Courtauld in London caught my imagination in particular. As students protest the UK coalition government plans to shatter the status quo on university fees, I’m a Brit abroad in a country where it can cost an insane amount of money to get the most basic four-year degree, and where extortionate MA programs routinely pay for PhD fellowships. In both countries, college rankings systems often sink to competitive jockeying rather than transparently assisting potential students to make meaningful choices. Successive politicians exacerbate rather than excoriate existing holes in the education system. As I ended my last post bemoaning the hoops one jumps through in an American PhD versus the relatively exam-less and shorter (but differently rigorous) European doctorate, I became more curious about how and why we choose our graduate programs. We choose the “best” one, right? But as Stefan and his commenter, Ben, intelligently highlighted, the choices we make when it comes to a graduate program in our shared field of Art History are much more complex than that. Do we choose our graduate program based on how we think it might affect our future job prospects? Is cost the biggest factor? What is in the power of a “name” at graduate level — even one that elicits a “what” and a double take?
These may sound like very elementary questions, but they run through the head of every grad school applicant and none are answered without compromise. How did I pick my graduate program? Like Stefan, the city I study in was a big factor in my choice. Deciding I wanted to stay near New York because it offered unrivaled access to museums, galleries, and art professionals, I did a year of slow exploration and narrowed my choices down to Columbia, NYU’s IFA, and the CUNY Graduate Center. I spoke to students at all three institutions (all very articulate), asked for reassurance that the classes were rigorous (they all had eye-bags and wan expressions, check!), researched the professors who taught there (all very impressive), and most importantly of all, asked about funding. This is where I made my choice, and it was affected by the educational experiences I’d had up until that point. In the UK, because I was the child of a single parent and the first in my family to go to college, I didn’t pay tuition fees for my undergraduate degree. The government did. Having excelled academically at undergraduate (or at least made good on the government’s investment in me), I was able to get a competitive academic scholarship to cover my MA program. Until Nick Clegg reneged on his election promises, the fantastic thing about the UK and its institutions like the Courtauld, Oxford, Cambridge and other premiere “Russell Group” universities, like my alma mater in Glasgow, is that their tuition fees had a “ceiling” of roughly $6000 per year. While this slightly more democratic approach to education is also riddled with problems (sustaining free education for all nationals who seek it engenders massively high taxes, and Oxbridge still turns a blind eye to the disproportionate amount of undergraduates it admits from UK private schools), it means that anyone prepared to study hard can aspire to the kind of higher education pinnacles that Stefan describes at the Courtauld. If you so desired a place in the Courtauld Mafia, or any other mafia for that matter (there were plenty of less-refined ones to pick from during my time in post-industrial Glasgow), you could apply in the knowledge that, unlike Scientology, membership always cost the same. I’m desperately sad that this system of semi-affordable tuition fees is soon to change. Thanks to Cameron and Clegg, both of whom enjoyed a relatively hurdle-free path to their university study, barriers are being put in place in centers of higher leaning that will hobble students from humbler backgrounds.
This was why, in the end, I only applied to the CUNY Graduate Center. Although I’ve happily shed the bad cuisine, cold fog, and class culture of my homeland in my move across the pond, I feel passionately about socialized medicine and education and I couldn’t shake this when applying to graduate school. So the questions I asked myself when I wrote out my application were not based on what my potential school looked like (ex-department store refurbished as office-lite) or who went there before me (Guggenheim Chief Curator Nancy Spector is the only “name” I know). Like Stefan — like most grad students — I was romanced by professors I admired (Geoffrey Batchen, Claire Bishop, Kevin Murphy), who were welcoming and responsive when I had pre-application questions, who would teach courses that would demand commitment and thought. That part was important. But equally important was the fact that there would be students from all walks of life, and many of them, as at 200-strong the Graduate Center Art History PhD program is one of the largest of its kind in the country. I would also be within a consortium community that allowed me to take amazing classes at Columbia or Bard or the IFA if they were appropriate to my course. And I would be attending an institution that had a similar mission to the essential aspects of my British education that I find non-negotiable: CUNY commits to “educating the children of a whole people.”
Like Stefan, the stock response is always “the what?” when I tell people I study at the CUNY Graduate Center. Unlike him, it’s often not clarified by further questions, even from those inside the field of art history. That’s ok. I definitely envy his study halls in the lip-smackingly gorgeous Somerset House. As I read his post, I imagined myself as a student walking along The Strand each day to go to class in the historic interiors of the Courtauld. However, perhaps the most precious thing in a long list of very precious attributes the Courtauld possesses is not its alumni, nor its facilities, but as I mentioned above, the presumed openness to its nation’s students. I don’t know what the plans are when the new tuition fee regulations come into effect, but the Courtauld’s worth as a cultural bastion would be multiplied ten times in my eyes if it resisted the temptation to price out future students for whom the “cost” part of the cost-benefit graduate equation reigns supreme.
Whether or not we’re shelling out thousands of dollars in loans and fees during our graduate years or riding a little more comfortably, we’re all certainly shedding blood, sweat, and tears. To justify it all, whichever institution we study at, whoever pays for it, doesn’t it need to be something more than just the sum of its very expensive, very privileged parts? If we extol the virtues of our temples of learning — the Art History programs at the Courtauld and CUNY being among the best and the brightest — without questioning their established narratives, we lose perspective on the very project every art history graduate student should be engaging with. We are tasked not just with immersing ourselves in our subject, a delicious dive-bomb into never ending pools of thirst-quenching knowledge, but thinking about new paradigms for old orders through our original contributions to our field. While not every art history student has to be a raging iconoclast (Bishop Serenus has that covered) we should leave old laurels where they belong, on display, for observation not perpetuation. More than this, I think that it’s our duty as graduate students in a field that is routinely criticized and dismissed as mere connoisseurship to lead the way in thinking reflectively on what really makes a good graduate program. Class size? Professors? Location? International rankings? Alumni? Name recognition? I’m genuinely interested: what do you think makes or breaks the worth of a graduate degree program in the arts?
Next post: the aftermath of my first conference presentation at “The Now Museum” in early March, being held at The New Museum, and co-organized by the awesome Independent Curators International (ICI). I’m terrified, but at least this time it’s not an exam.