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Tier One Graduate Study in Education

I received a pleasant email from an education doctoral student at a tier one university. Her comments are similar to those of other graduate students. She described without these words what many of us found in our first year of advanced study: the initially uncomfortable then liberating fact that top university curricula appear to have less coherence than in other schools. Here’s an edited version of my reply.

Congratulations for returning to grad study after so many years as a teacher. How fortunate you are to have been accepted by top thinkers in the world. You may never have more time to listen, read and analyze what others know. You’re not too old for doc work. I know you know that without me telling you. I want to support your judgment.

Your have valuable background for contributing to education in a more rare way than many younger and less experienced doc students. Stick with it.

Given your comments, I like your approach and expect to learn something from you as well as you from me.

Anthropology has much to offer ed and other public policies. We need better descriptions of how people’s interests (e.g., power, money, tenure, investments, religious beliefs, ambitions, etc.) influence policy development and implementation. Such descriptions establish an empirical grounding for understanding what to expect from public policies and policy studies.

I’d argue that faculty want you to see beyond what you know, not break you down and then remold you in their image. There’s a difference.

Yes, the best faculty will draw and analyze a pint of your intellectual blood in order to decide where you fit in the sorting out of future colleagues. They started the draw and analysis when reviewing your application to study with their program. They offered you to stand on their shoulders, so you can see further than they can.

Each faculty member wants you to know what he and she knows, so you can extend it. To do so, you must out perform your earlier (that’s progressive, not static) expectations. Stay intellectually open. You cannot know your potential contributions yet, because you don’t know what they know.

Your job is to learn it all. That’s a common goal for doc students at top schools. That’s one key factor that distinguishes top tier from other schools. We all expect that should be your goal, impossible as it is to meet. We want you to fix the world where we couldn’t.

To learn it all, consistently try to use technical answers to this question in its many forms: Why did he or she say that?

Here are other forms of that question: How much confidence should I have in that statement? What empirical indices fit that statement? What model was used to lead to that conclusion? What strengths and weaknesses exist with that model, and thus with what was said?

To learn it all, class attendance and assigned preparation are only about 1/3 of what you need to know in order to assemble a sufficient, critical mass of information about processes and content of public policy development, implementation and relevance (validity) that others will miss. What you know and they don’t will influence your and their professional contributions.

That means you should prepare at least 4 hours for each class hour. For example, read full assigned articles and books as well as those cited in assignment footnotes, and in those footnotes, etc. as long as they’re relevant to your assignment for that day. If you do this, you will assemble a unique, critical mass of information. That’s good. You’re probably already seeing that many students and faculty have difficulty keeping up with this pattern. That means you’re on the right track.

Let me preach further: Stay focused. Others will try to side track you, to their benefit.

Only publish positive statements on you blog. You never know who might read it. Figure out how to say something that others can do about something you think is incomplete or inaccurate, when they so decide. Your job is to add your insights to theirs. Use rational, objective, empirical means to gain and add insights. That’s how knowledge advances. That’s how public policies and learning at all levels evolve.

Many faculty members and researchers are afraid. We know that none of us knows everything about anything. We know some students see us as controlling gateways to their future positions. We try to live up to their highest expectations, but underneath the bravado runs a steady stream of uncertainty. That’s why as professionals we think, talk and write in conditional terms, using probability tree models. (I know, I’m declaring now.)

Given your insights about your program, keep notes of your observations about how your policy studies program operates. They may help you identify soft spots in your studies that you need to harden. Maybe you can publish them later in a professional article.

Anyway, congratulations. Keep going. And best wishes. I look forward to learning of your progress.

As an after thought, if you don’t already have one, get yourself a mobile PC, so you can keep your notes, recordings, drafts, and documents in a searchable form. Your program seems like a natural setting for using either a Tablet PC or a Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC).

On 5/3/07, Nancy Flanagan wrote:
I sincerely appreciate your concern. I am probably
too old to be a graduate student (I am a retired
teacher, w/ 30+ years in the clasroom, at least
two decades older than anyone in my cohort). I
went back to learn more about research, and my
two years have been spent in an anthropological
fascination with the culture of academia. What
I’ve learned about research in the social sciences
has not led to a high level of confidence in their
“scientifically based” neutrality.

I am also familiar with the “you know nothing,” break-
down-to-build-back-up syndrome of doc school,
and the my-advisor-is-God thing. All of it strikes
me as being even more dysfunctional than the
K-12 culture, and I never thought I’d see that.

BTW, I tried to post a response on Tablet PC to
your great questions on TL. I do have a google
account. Perhaps it’s just in the queue. Excellent
site. I’ll be back, and will link.


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