Thursday, 14 June 2007

nostalgia misgivings

Rambling thoughts: I wonder what my undergraduate institution is like now? It was such a perfect fit for me all those years ago, and yesterday, when they called to ask for money for the endowment fund, I gave it willingly. But I give, of course, based upon an image of the place that is quite out of date: I got my BA in the 80s.

There was a conversation moving around the blogosphere a couple of weeks back, concerning the impact of graduate school and contrasting the experience with one's undergraduate years. One distinctive thing about the education I received at my undergraduate institution is that I learned a skill one usually acquires only in graduate school: how to ask an interesting analytical question. During the whole of my undergraduate experience, I never once was assigned a textbook or a book of short, collected 1-2 page source extracts. We always read original sources in their entirety -- and not just in History classes -- and then analyzed them closely. We brainstormed together as a group in the classroom, throwing out ideas, responding to one another, and slowly building up interpretations (plural -- often several strands of analysis would be spun out in tandem). We learned critical thinking by challenging one another and being forced to look to the texts again and again. Often, the debates continued beyond the class hours: one thing I remember fondly about the place is the lack of a strong boundary between in-class and out-of-class conversations. Furthermore -- and this is key -- I very seldom was assigned a paper topic: we were required to come up with our own angle of analysis.

When I got to graduate school, there was quite a difference between myself and my new peers. I never had read a synthetic presentation of the Middle Ages, been asked to memorize facts, or taken an exam about the period. As a result, I knew next to nothing about Angevin Kingship, the Crusades, or the basic names-and-dates trajectory of the period. I did know a little about the Investiture Controversy, but that was the only Big Event I had in my repertoire at the time. On the other hand, I knew lots of texts: I was the only one who had read all of The Murder of Charles the Good, The Autobiography of Guibert of Nogent, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, lots of Icelandic Sagas, and nearly all of The History of the Franks, among other texts. Because I never had read a synthesis, I was used to setting my own research agenda. Graduate school, for me, was about learning facts and skills: languages, palaeography (largely self-taught), a body of historiography, and, lastly, the textbook-style synthesis that I lacked when I enrolled. I used to compare it to a trade school: I learned the ins and outs of manufacturing professional-grade essays about things that excited my curiosity. As an undergraduate, I learned how to pose questions; as a graduate student, I learned how to answer them.

My undergraduate SLAC was also an apt fit for me socially, with many slightly oddball types. Though, come to think of it, I may have been one of the odder ones around: once SweetCliffie and I met a former professor of ours at a big national conference, and he stated, affectionately, that we were "the flakiest man and the flakiest woman, making the flakiest couple, during [SLAC]'s flakiest years." Does this mean that it is no longer the freaky, yet intellectually-challenging place I remember so fondly?

It could well be. I did have occasion to spend some time with a recent graduate of the place a little while ago, and it was a rotten encounter. I came away with a negative impression of vapidity, narcissism, and entitlement. I know s/he's only one individual, and thus that his/her example is quite anecdotal. And of course not every graduate of an institution can be congenial: surely there were people there I did not like back in the years I was enrolled -- I simply avoided them and hence they do not form part of my lasting memories of SLAC. Nevertheless, if I'm honest I'll admit that s/he soured me a little on the place. It's funny how one event, one encounter, can color one's attidues so completely. I experienced nostalgia misgivings, a terrible thing!

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