As an educator, I’m approached by students, alumni, colleagues, administration and outside parties through email…a ton. In fact, a big part of my after hours is spent on replying to all sorts of issues. Some big. Some small. Never anything in between, interestingly enough. But, the big ones are the ones I’m really proud of because it’s usually a moment where I can address a significant issue that relates to the professional development of my students…
…emails that provide a teachable moment that happens out of class, out of the designed curriculum and with no current place in my class itinerary: teaching in real-time, as I like to say.
I put a lot of care into every thing I do and, although trying to be informative, my secondary intention with these well considered emails is to impress upon my students the power of words and the value in articulating thought through written form. EMAILS THAT KICK ASS are a collection of such correspondence…cut and pasted directly from my Outlook box, but with names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty!
*HINDER* started as an attempt to seek opportunities to strengthen our graduate program by way of scholarship; to shake branches within the financial offices to find ways of enhancing the number of applications to our program and competing with comparable MFA programs. The argument is made that when a learning institute holds back in supporting quality students, the institute also holds a department back from developing quality programming...that issues of ‘who’ is there or not there has a direct relationship to ‘what’ is able to educationally take place.
The emailed conversation enabled me to articulate how valuable the MFA candidate is as an educational tool; that they aren’t just students, but extensions of the faculty that help develop and enhance the value of the program in highly unique ways.
I left several excerpts of the correspondence out involving business-related conversation, but think the following is important for young people who are considering an MFA experience to know about; to introduce a broader context in which educators are looking at (and measuring) their value as applicants...and, of course, why.
I thank you for the conversation on scholarship so far…especially you outlining the perspective on scholarship from your Office’s point of view. I'd like to use this opportunity to outline the culture of MFA programming in a material studies department and why the current RIT model of scholarship compromises our educational goals.
A misconception I'm learning about how administration views our graduate program is that they think an MFA in Glass is open to anybody. It's not. It's open only to applicants who have an undergraduate degree in Glass. Sometimes we will make an exception if an applicant's portfolio indicates relevant glass working experiences or – at the very least – indicates an interesting glass-based thinking in their work. But to study glass at a graduate level here (or anywhere else) you have to have a competent understanding of the material, its rules, and its processes already. You can't just start from scratch and earn a terminal degree in this program within 2 years. Literally speaking, it's impossible for a student to develop a graduate-level relationship in that short of time without previous experience. Just on issues of technical awareness in one’s studio practice, the graduate experience is not open to candidates with a blank slate of understanding; it’s an opportunity to build on or challenge what a candidate already knows. It’s a standard based on technical prowess, but it’s a big one. Yet, aside from issues of skill and experience, there are other reasons that flooding our graduate program with candidates new to glass is an idea we'd never be willing to accommodate; for a variety of ethical and educational reasons:
One big reason is that we need our graduate students to bring something significant to the table once they're here. We want to work with great people...people with some really diverse backgrounds in glass who are already doing interesting work, but show potential to grow. We have great faculty, great facilities, great opportunities for graduate teaching experience and professional development, great glass resources down in Corning, and great non-glass resources here on campus and in the surrounding region. How can we sweeten the pot to have the best of the best come to our Program and redefine the field?
We lose many awesome candidates year after year to programs who have similar attributes mentioned above and then some: full tuition waivers, 4- to 5-figure yearly stipends, and access to 5- to 6-figure student grants. If you'd like, I can forward the emails my colleague, Professor Michael Rogers, and I get from glass faculty from places like Virginia Commonwealth University, The Ohio State University, Alfred University, Ball State University, Tyler School of Art, or University of Wisconsin-Madison asking us to advertise their MFA programs to our undergrads year after year; and these are just a few examples of what we’re up against. How can we compete? ...especially under your Office’s 30% of tuition rule-of-thumb? …especially when GA hours or GTA hours given to our grads can’t go towards their tuition because they have to cover their costs of living during their graduate experience with us?
Another reason we need great grad students in our MFA program is because they are considered extensions of the faculty. There was a time in our program when people came in with an advanced relationship with glass, a diversity of professional backgrounds and experiences, and a level of maturity and confidence that just doesn't exist in the same way today. Tuition has gotten higher since then and scholarship under the current model has become harder and harder to allure prospective MFA candidates. The threat of debt back then wasn't anything like the threat that it is today for anybody looking at RIT Glass…and it shows in the number of applications being submitted, let alone the number of candidates who actually matriculate upon acceptance. Our program is built, as most Glass MFA programs are, relying on a consistent graduate student body not to just teach and mentor, but to help us manage our educational goals.
From a faculty point of view, graduate students are not just students: they are conduits to the entirety of our Department. They set the tone of what professionalism looks, feels, and sounds like to the undergrads. They set the tempo for the kind of work ethic that needs to take place in studio day and night. They illustrate the standards of excellence to our undergrads that our program is known for...and they hold them accountable to it. They help us maintain the studios and keep the equipment in proper working order from week to week. We need good, experienced grads to help us maintain a quality program overall...and good, experienced grad applicants go where they not only feel they can grow as professionals, but to schools that are the most financially generous. We live in an era where good, experienced graduate applicants aren't as willing to risk student debt for a kick-ass educational experience as they used to. And most (if not all) of our major competitors can alleviate that worry...
I know this issue that I’m putting forward isn’t something that can be solved overnight. I know, also, that there are bigger logistics at play if/when it comes time to address these concerns regarding our MFA program. I look forward to those conversations. In the meantime, I hope you find something insightful from an educator's point of view regarding scholarship in relation to the educational goals of our Glass Program.