Thursday, September 26, 2013

Seven Years at Catholic University: A Retrospective

It's been a just over a year since I defended my dissertation before a panel of professors and received a diploma stating that I am now a Ph.D in political theory. At this point, I think it is useful to take a few minutes/words to reflect on my time at The Catholic University of America.

Between August, 2005 and September, 2012, I was a graduate student, an adjunct professor (2007-2012, intermittently), and an office manager in a dorm working for residence life (2005-2007) at CUA. In other words, I've seen pretty much every side of graduate student life at Catholic- student, faculty, and staff. And, well, it was definitely a... unique experience.

Disclaimer: I won't be using any real names, for obvious reasons.

The Good:

The academics at Catholic University are quite frankly fantastic. Whether considering professors, my fellow graduate students, or the undergrads, I have been nothing but impressed with the academic quality of those associated with CUA.

During my first semester at Catholic, the rigorous standards were even something of a shock. Now, to be fair, part of this was probably my fault. I regularly took four or five courses (the standard graduate course load is three), and my very first graduate course was on a philosopher named Martin Heidegger, who is a notoriously challenging thinker. What's more, I was somewhat unprepared for graduate study in philosophy, since my undergrad political theory prof--though a wonderful man in many ways--wasn't a terribly good political theorist (not his fault--he was a psychologist by training and really the only one willing to teach political theory at all).

Once I got over being utterly lost, it was great. The professors by and large are excellent lecturers who possess that necessary combination of a solid command of the material and the ability to convey it well. Far too often college professors are brilliant enough as writers, but wretched speakers; or they are great speakers but only deal in drivel. If Catholic has any professors of either sort, I haven't met them. And that is also true for the professors in classes I've taken outside of my field. Even more, the professors expected a high level of performance on our end of things as well. They were exacting in what they demanded from us both in our written work and in our in-class discussions; they expected nothing less than the same level of attention and commitment that they themselves offered.

The other grad students were likewise a bit of a surprise. My fellow students at Catholic were informed, articulate, and hard-working. They came to class having read the material (or at least having done a decent job of skimming it) and had thoughtful contributions to make to the discussion.

Of course, we had the regular spectrum of students, from "the quiet ones who never speak" to "those who never shut up." (I suspect that across my graduate career I moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, but you'll have to check with people who had class with me to be sure.) Whatever their levels of introversion or extroversion, I have yet to come across a CUA grad student who hadn't done the work and come up with useful and interesting thoughts that were worth hearing. Even more than that, I have yet to meet at CUA grad student who was anything less than kind and friendly. Sure, some of us may be arrogant jerks at times (me maybe a little more than others), but it's never in the kind of petty way you hear about in horror stories from other schools. I've received nothing but support and encouragement from other students--even when they think I'm wrong (and I certainly hope that's been a two-way street). I've heard horror stories--especially out of a major Midwestern university--about graduate students sabotaging other student's research, undermining each other with professors, and generally being nasty. I experienced absolutely none of that in seven years at Catholic.

I should also note that given its unique nature, the graduate student population at Catholic is fairly diverse. In my own courses we had everything from grandparents to people barely out of their teens. Around campus, you could encounter everyone from nuns to Presbyterian pastors to staunch atheists all working towards their Masters or PhD.s. Again, across this whole spectrum I never encountered anyone who was less than polite, intelligent, and generous.

Before commenting on the undergrads, I should point out that in the past few years I have taught (as an adjunct) at one of the most academically rigorous schools in the country, and at one of the biggest community colleges in the region. In other words, a school for the academic elites and a school for students who... aren't quite so elite, and maybe even struggle a bit. Catholic undergraduates fall in between those two extremes, but they are certainly closer to the higher end of the spectrum than the lower. Sure, there were the slackers who just refused to come to class or do their work--every school has those (I've been known to be one myself at times)--but by and large the undergraduates at CUA were pretty darn good. I can honestly say that I looked forward to the in-class discussions and homework assignments in a way that I know is not always the case in higher education. As with the professors and graduate students, the quality of undergraduates CUA attracts regularly impressed me in the classroom.

Clearly, I really can't stress this part enough: Catholic University has fantastic professors; engaged, intelligent, and friendly graduate students; and quality undergraduates. And all of that without mentioning what I actually learned: which was a lot. Maybe I'll do another post someday on the content of my graduate education, but that's for another time...

The Bad:

Catholic University is expensive. I mean, really expensive. I could have bought a house where I grew up for what I paid for my education in DC (where housing costs just add to the price of an already expensive tuition rate), and I can unfortunately expect to be spending a significant portion of the rest of my life paying the government back for the loans that financed my education. Unless the Democrats keep winning and my student loans get canceled...

What's worse is that despite the quality of the education, the name "CUA" doesn't carry with it the reputation of a big-name university. Which means that I've paid Ivy League prices (or at least Georgetown prices) without the Ivy League job prospects. This of course isn't completely Catholic's fault (they would love to be uttered in the same breath as the University of Chicago or Columbia), but it's a negative nonetheless.

The Ugly:

The administrative bureaucracy at Catholic University is simply atrocious. I mean, levels of Dante's Inferno bad. I would say that every single experience I've had with the CUA administrative apparatus has been negative, but that's not quite true. There was one (1) office which I found to be friendly and efficient. And by one "office", I mean "a single administrator and their assistant."

A few bureaucrats in this world are competent and friendly. Most are either are either incompetent or rude. Catholic, however, seems to have gone out of its way to hire the handful of bureaucrats who are both. This of course might be an unfair statement--it might be that CUA tries to hire people who are friendly and competent and the nature of the job just grinds them down. I can't speak much to that, since I only worked within the bureaucracy for a couple of years, and was most likely either incompetent or rude (or both) myself to begin with...

Now, I say this with the full understanding that every institution has its bureaucratic difficulties. I've been associated with several universities now and to be sure they all have offices and programs that are less well run than others, and staff who just can't get the whole "being nice to people" thing down. If CUA were the same as every other school this would hardly be worth mentioning. But CUA is not the same: so far as I can tell it is much, much worse. (And I am certainly not alone in this complaint--my time working in Housing and talking to other students suggested that my bad experiences seem not to be unique.)

And, well, I don't want to run this into the ground so I'll end my "the Ugly" section here. Just let it be said that for reasons unknown to me, this school's bureaucracy is horrendous. Is this a phase all universities go through? Is this something inherent to a Catholic school? Is it because of CUA's unique position as a conservative, religious, private institution in a fairly liberal city? I don't know, I'll leave those questions to the experts.

The End of the Matter

So what can I say about all of this? I'm sorely tempted to compare my graduate school with my undergraduate, but I think that's probably unfair on a couple of levels. First, they simply don't lend themselves to comparison as schools (private/religious/liberal arts/smallish/urban vs public/state/broad-ranging/largish/small town-based); second, the graduate experience is inherently a different beast from the undergraduate experience; and third, I've changed quite a bit myself so that even if I were to go back and do either of them over, it likely wouldn't be the same experience.

I think perhaps the best place to end is by noting my gratitude for both the quality of education I have received from The Catholic University of America, and for bringing me to Washington, DC, where I met both my church and my wife (in chronological order, not necessarily in order of importance).

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