Saturday, July 6, 2013

Stanford


Last night, I sifted through several Stanford websites looking for the contact info for an administrator, and I was at first sickened as usual by the pretension of the institution and their lists of accomplishments, Nobel laureates, etc.

Then I had this epiphany: I've had this bad attitude about Stanford because I went in there relatively unprepared for and uninformed about the competitive and rigorous reality of major academic institutions, and I was pissed that I did not get very good advising and did not have an exceptionally successful academic experience there. Now that I'm teaching and seeing the other side of things, I realize that there's only so much that schools and faculty can do about students who are not fully ready to take advantage of the resources offered.

Deeper than that, I now appreciate how difficult it is to find people who are truly smart and motivated to break new ground and do absolutely excellent work. The Stanford mission, which I've heard hundreds of times but never believed, is to gather these people together and create an environment that supports insanely good work. Someone has to do it, right?

The reality is that most professors working at that institution are striving every day to be the best at what they do, and they have no incentive to molly-coddle unprepared or lazy students; they are better off holding their students up to rigorous standards so that the best ones can stand out and have opportunities thrown at them, which ultimately expands the faculty's and university's network of high-level academic talent.

From that point of view, the question of undergraduate readiness takes on a different meaning. Because the university is dedicated to the serious and challenging pursuit of leading the world and competing against other institutions for excellence, they don't have the time or incentive to nurture every student to maturity. It's much more efficient to bring in a steady stream of promising undergrads and then let the best ones succeed by their own drive. People like me who come in unprepared, regardless of what their potential may be, are just chaff that gets passed through and expelled after four years. Ouch!

But I can't blame them. They try to screen out unprepared students during the admissions process. And they do provide a good deal of support to their undergrads; if that is not enough for someone, it's likely because the student needs a lot more time to develop. That's what post-bac programs are for! In the end, students, faculty, and the institution benefit when students are challenged at the level of difficulty and rigor that is to be expected in the arena of serious academia.

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