Open Enrollment

The What? The CUNY Graduate Center? Is that, like, part of NYU?

I’ve really been enjoying reading the posts from my fellow Open Enrollment bloggers over the last month, but Stefan’s post on his current experience at the Courtauld in London caught my imagination in particular. As students protest the UK coalition government plans to shatter the status quo on university fees, I’m a Brit abroad in a country where it can cost an insane amount of money to get the most basic four-year degree, and where extortionate MA programs routinely pay for PhD fellowships. In both countries, college rankings systems often sink to competitive jockeying rather than transparently assisting potential students to make meaningful choices. Successive politicians exacerbate rather than excoriate existing holes in the education system. As I ended my last post bemoaning the hoops one jumps through in an American PhD versus the relatively exam-less and shorter (but differently rigorous) European doctorate, I became more curious about how and why we choose our graduate programs. We choose the “best” one, right? But as Stefan and his commenter, Ben, intelligently highlighted, the choices we make when it comes to a graduate program in our shared field of Art History are much more complex than that. Do we choose our graduate program based on how we think it might affect our future job prospects? Is cost the biggest factor? What is in the power of a “name” at graduate level — even one that elicits a “what” and a double take?

Nick Clegg alienates a generation of potential Liberal Democrat voters with his screeching U-turn on tuition fees.

These may sound like very elementary questions, but they run through the head of every grad school applicant and none are answered without compromise. How did I pick my graduate program? Like Stefan, the city I study in was a big factor in my choice. Deciding I wanted to stay near New York because it offered unrivaled access to museums, galleries, and art professionals, I did a year of slow exploration and narrowed my choices down to Columbia, NYU’s IFA, and the CUNY Graduate Center. I spoke to students at all three institutions (all very articulate), asked for reassurance that the classes were rigorous (they all had eye-bags and wan expressions, check!), researched the professors who taught there (all very impressive), and most importantly of all, asked about funding. This is where I made my choice, and it was affected by the educational experiences I’d had up until that point. In the UK, because I was the child of a single parent and the first in my family to go to college, I didn’t pay tuition fees for my undergraduate degree. The government did. Having excelled academically at undergraduate (or at least made good on the government’s investment in me), I was able to get a competitive academic scholarship to cover my MA program. Until Nick Clegg reneged on his election promises, the fantastic thing about the UK and its institutions like the Courtauld, Oxford, Cambridge and other premiere “Russell Group” universities, like my alma mater in Glasgow, is that their tuition fees had a “ceiling” of roughly $6000 per year. While this slightly more democratic approach to education is also riddled with problems (sustaining free education for all nationals who seek it engenders massively high taxes, and Oxbridge still turns a blind eye to the disproportionate amount of undergraduates it admits from UK private schools), it means that anyone prepared to study hard can aspire to the kind of higher education pinnacles that Stefan describes at the Courtauld. If you so desired a place in the Courtauld Mafia, or any other mafia for that matter (there were plenty of less-refined ones to pick from during my time in post-industrial Glasgow), you could apply in the knowledge that, unlike Scientology, membership always cost the same. I’m desperately sad that this system of semi-affordable tuition fees is soon to change. Thanks to Cameron and Clegg, both of whom enjoyed a relatively hurdle-free path to their university study, barriers are being put in place in centers of higher leaning that will hobble students from humbler backgrounds.

The CUNY Graduate Center. Reenact "Sleepless in Seattle" every time you leave class.

This was why, in the end, I only applied to the CUNY Graduate Center. Although I’ve happily shed the bad cuisine, cold fog, and class culture of my homeland in my move across the pond, I feel passionately about socialized medicine and education and I couldn’t shake this when applying to graduate school. So the questions I asked myself when I wrote out my application were not based on what my potential school looked like (ex-department store refurbished as office-lite) or who went there before me (Guggenheim Chief Curator Nancy Spector is the only “name” I know). Like Stefan — like most grad students — I was romanced by professors I admired (Geoffrey Batchen, Claire Bishop, Kevin Murphy), who were welcoming and responsive when I had pre-application questions, who would teach courses that would demand commitment and thought. That part was important. But equally important was the fact that there would be students from all walks of life, and many of them, as at 200-strong the Graduate Center Art History PhD program is one of the largest of its kind in the country. I would also be within a consortium community that allowed me to take amazing classes at Columbia or Bard or the IFA if they were appropriate to my course. And I would be attending an institution that had a similar mission to the essential aspects of my British education that I find non-negotiable: CUNY commits to “educating the children of a whole people.”

Like Stefan, the stock response is always “the what?” when I tell people I study at the CUNY Graduate Center. Unlike him, it’s often not clarified by further questions, even from those inside the field of art history. That’s ok. I definitely envy his study halls in the lip-smackingly gorgeous Somerset House. As I read his post, I imagined myself as a student walking along The Strand each day to go to class in the historic interiors of the Courtauld. However, perhaps the most precious thing in a long list of very precious attributes the Courtauld possesses is not its alumni, nor its facilities, but as I mentioned above, the presumed openness to its nation’s students. I don’t know what the plans are when the new tuition fee regulations come into effect, but the Courtauld’s worth as a cultural bastion would be multiplied ten times in my eyes if it resisted the temptation to price out future students for whom the “cost” part of the cost-benefit graduate equation reigns supreme.

Whether or not we’re shelling out thousands of dollars in loans and fees during our graduate years or riding a little more comfortably, we’re all certainly shedding blood, sweat, and tears. To justify it all, whichever institution we study at, whoever pays for it, doesn’t it need to be something more than just the sum of its very expensive, very privileged parts? If we extol the virtues of our temples of learning — the Art History programs at the Courtauld and CUNY being among the best and the brightest — without questioning their established narratives, we lose perspective on the very project every art history graduate student should be engaging with. We are tasked not just with immersing ourselves in our subject, a delicious dive-bomb into never ending pools of thirst-quenching knowledge, but thinking about new paradigms for old orders through our original contributions to our field. While not every art history student has to be a raging iconoclast (Bishop Serenus has that covered) we should leave old laurels where they belong, on display, for observation not perpetuation. More than this, I think that it’s our duty as graduate students in a field that is routinely criticized and dismissed as mere connoisseurship to lead the way in thinking reflectively on what really makes a good graduate program. Class size? Professors? Location? International rankings? Alumni? Name recognition? I’m genuinely interested: what do you think makes or breaks the worth of a graduate degree program in the arts?

Next post: the aftermath of my first conference presentation at “The Now Museum” in early March, being held at The New Museum, and co-organized by the awesome Independent Curators International (ICI). I’m terrified, but at least this time it’s not an exam.

Contributor
Michelle Millar Fisher is a doctoral candidate in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research centers on social histories of architecture, contemporary art, museums, and the pedagogical turn. She is currently an adjunct lecturer at Parsons The New School for Design and Baruch College. She is the 2014 recipient of the Field Fellowship at the National Building Museum, Washington D.C.
  1. Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin says:

    Cheers Michelle on opening up a dialogue!

    Reply

  2. Beth says:

    “More than this, I think that it’s our duty as graduate students in a field that is routinely criticized and dismissed as mere connoisseurship to lead the way in thinking reflectively on what really makes a good graduate program.”

    Yes, but will anyone listen? Or care?

    I think the problem goes deeper than the graduate schools–the entire field is in jeopardy because it seems irrelevant to many. You mention the stock response but fail to mention that for many people, simply saying you’re an art history major gets “a what?” in response. (Perhaps it’s different in New York than the Midwest, I’ll grant you that.)

    While I believe that the arts are an absolutely fundamental part of our society, I know very well that many people do not share this view, nor feel that art history programs (or art education programs, studio art programs, etc.) are at all important. Perhaps a factor in deciding whether a program is worthwhile is to look at its impact: how the graduates it produces help to keep art relevant and beneficial to more than five scholarly experts in a given field.

    Reply

    Michelle Jubin Reply:

    Hi Beth,

    Thanks so much for your response. You make a very good point, and I hope I addressed some of it in my response to Ben below (I got his comment first somehow) when I spoke of teaching. I strongly believe a good teacher can make art relevant to more than the five scholars (or zero, in the case of most of my papers!) you rightly speak of. Museum educators do it routinely, I currently teach art history at a primarily business-focused school, cross-disciplinary colleagues of mine in museums teach surgeons close-looking skills using art and exhibition, etc etc.

    That’s one answer to your question, but not entirely a satisfactory one which is why i wrote in the first place as I’m really curious about what others think.

    Reply

    Ben Street Reply:

    Beth -

    I think you raise a very good point here. As a teacher I’m often having to explain what the subject I teach actually is, and why it might be worth studying. I’d defend art history BECAUSE it doesn’t have any tangible effect within the real world – BECAUSE, like philosophy, history, literature and other humanities, it’s something that ought to be studied for its own sake – as sheer intellectual indulgence.

    Ben

    Reply

    Michelle Jubin Reply:

    Hi Beth,

    I tried to leave a reply to your comment yesterday but apparently it hasn’t been approved by the moderator so I’ll try to remember what I said. Maybe you’ll end up with two replies! First, thanks for your response. I hope my reply to Ben below re: teaching and the relevance of art history across disciplines goes some way to answering your very good point. I currently teach business student a required course in art history, former colleagues taught surgeons close looking skills – both situations demonstrate the cross-disciplinary skills that can transfer relevantly. I think the impact of powerful teaching in the arts can go much, much further than the scholarly conversations that you rightly suggest connect a much smaller audience.

    Reply

  3. Ben Street says:

    Michelle -

    I think undergrad tuition fees in the UK are now in line with those in the US, aren’t they? (No to defend them, obviously). Like you, I didn’t pay for university, having graduated before tuition fees were introduced. I had a grant and four student loans to cover my time at university, and worked part-time as a life model (no joke) and waiter to get by. However – and this is a broader question than the one you’re asking – many people I know would struggle to say why they went to university in the first place, most of whom were being bankrolled by mum and dad. OK, perhaps this is a slightly different question, really, but it is relevant: aside from employment prospects and sexual misadventure, what is the point of further education in general? I realise that intellectual development, etc, are what many people would say, but for the vast majority of people that simply isn’t the case. And it’s postgraduate study that allows for the intellectual indulgence (I mean that positively) that undergraduate study ought to provide.

    The question of why choose certain institutions for art history will now be absolutely dependent upon a particular place’s ability to slide you into a plum job in a museum. Which is why the Courtauld will be fine (plus, I’m sure there’s a healthy endowment from alumni). What it threatens is other, smaller, just as good programmes in less well regarded institutions.

    I’m interested in your penultimate paragraph about what graduate students ought to be doing. Hate to sound like a git, but what’s the difference between the intellectual indulgence you describe and the ‘thinking about new paradigms’ – I always thought that was part of the same thing. And what are the ‘new paradigms’? Surely it’s not only about this very kind of conversation?

    Thanks and sorry for the epic response, much of which makes very little sense. Be kind.

    Ben

    Reply

  4. Michelle Jubin says:

    Thanks for the comment Stefan and glad we have been able to start a small exchange :)

    And thanks so much for your comment Ben, I appreciate the response as your previous comments really got me thinking. We may have more in common – I, too, waitressed and life modeled my way through undergraduate.

    For a start, UK fees, even when they are raised in the near future by Clegg and Cameron, will be as I understand it at maximum $15,000 per year to attend undergraduate. They will also still be means-tested so students from lower-income families will not have to pay as much as those who can better afford to pay. As I said above, there is no perfect science for socialized systems of education – deciding exactly who can “better afford to pay” – but I support them as the alternative is depressing to say the least. Compared with the high end of the US spectrum – the Vanderbilts, Bards, Columbias of the world – where tuition runs in the mid 50K per year, the UK is still a bargain for home students, and the floods of international students who still pay less for both undergraduate and graduate programs than they would in the US.

    A further comparison – the CUNY college I teach at currently costs approximately $5000 per year for tuition for in-state students and under $10,000 for out of state. I’m not qualified to do a comprehensive comparison of US/UK tuition pros and cons, but even with these highly selective figures, the UK system seems to invite participation in higher education from closer to “a whole people” – and the important bit – at a really great institution if they work hard enough and achieve good grades.

    Your question is definitely broader than I am asking. I agree with you that I attended university with people who were there for many more adventures than just the ones found in library books. Even those who were committed students funded by mum and dad didn’t have the same drive as some of the students I see in my classes who are holding down three jobs and looking after a family while trying to get their undergrad degree. There’s a much broader spectrum at undergraduate which is why I focused my question about what makes a good program and why we chose our programs as graduate students in the arts. As grad students, we’ve all pretty much decided by this point that further study has no applicable benefits to our bank balance or love life. In fact, the severe lack of sleep common to graduate life can compromise both ;)

    And so to answer your question about “new paradigms.” This is a tough one, as I’m certainly not getting a graduate degree in general practice medicine, human rights law or something more “concrete” in terms of hard-and-fast benefit to my fellow humans. However, I applied to graduate school because I believe very strongly in the power of teaching – across all disciplines – to inspire and excite. Thanks to blind luck and a supervisor willing to take a chance (thanks Ryan Hill) I worked at the Guggenheim in the Education department for three years before going back to grad school at a time when several other out-of-this world adult museum educators worked there too. As we’re all completely aware, Art History, art objects, and experiences in-and-around the arts really can be very powerful when in the right hands. Teachers create new paradigms not always through their own research and production, but by creating spaces for others to do that for themselves. I’m *just* beginning as a teacher and will work for three years in the CUNY system of city colleges, so I’m *definitely* not yet near to being any of those teachers who so inspired me throughout my education and at the Gugg, but that’s what I meant by new paradigms. I hope the research I do is fruitful, but I put equal emphasis on the importance of learning how to teach meaningfully (I have a long way to go!).

    So, I applied to CUNY knowing it was the only graduate program in art history in NY where I would learn solid real-world teaching skills during my program. My application essay stated I wanted to learn how to teach, and part of my research focus at present is on pedagogy in art history and contemporary art (the topic of my paper at the New Museum next month is artist-educators). My choice of graduate program is based on my belief that excellence in teaching isn’t always bought for the highest sum, but exists in colleges across the country that are perhaps lesser named, less expensive, but no less for it.

    Thank you for your epic response, and please forgive mine!

    All best.

    Reply

  5. Ben Street says:

    That’s a great and comprehensive answer. (By the way, I think we may actually have worked at the Guggenheim at the same time, too – I was a lecturer there about 6 yrs ago).

    another quick thought on tuition fees before I get into costume. A friend of mine was defending them to me the other day, saying that (and I don’t know how this applies to grad school) they will encourage students to think of higher education as a commodity, so that there’s a customer/service provider relationship – thus forcing institutions to do better in the “customer is always right” mould … ie, students will be more inclined to put their foot down if they’re not being provided with the service they require. I can see some logic in this – I went to a well-regarded university and had some truly terrible lecturers in art history, to the extent that I was nearly completely put off the subject (and that’s why I became a teacher). I think I’d be more inclined to assert my opinion if there’d been an even greater stake – like, say £27,000 for a BA.

    What do you think?

    Reply

    Michelle Jubin Reply:

    Interesting point Ben! I was actually in a meeting a few weeks back where it was decided (on what empirical research I don’t know) that instead of making a graduate event free, it would cost $2. The nominal cost, it was suggested, would make sure that once the students had RSVP’d they would show up having paid, however small the cost, rather than ditching because it was free and their presence or absence would be of no financial consequence to them.

    So, I actually agreed with this. I, too, am more likely to take something seriously if I’ve paid for it. But, there’s a huge difference – psychologically, practically – between charging $2 a ticket and $2000, which is the difference between schools that charge 50K and those that charge 5K. My argument is that the financial breakdown is shady at best when you think about what you actually “get” from paying through the nose fo a name – and what our education system “gets”, what our larger society gets – when that kind of disparity is in play.

    Reply

  6. Elizabeth Wolfson says:

    Hi Michelle,

    Great post. You raise salient points for all grad students of art and visual culture. The calculus for choosing a graduate program is indeed a delicate one, one that I have been negotiating myself in the past few weeks. As resources within the academy and cultural institutions dwindle from low to lower, the stakes of such decisions, on a personal level, become higher and higher. I think as long as we continue to ask these kinds of tough questions of ourselves as scholars and the institutions that we’re a part of, there is hope yet to sustain the legacy of Raymond Williams and others who pushed so hard in the ’60s and ’70s to make meaningful higher education opportunities available to a broader segment of the public.

    A quick question about the Now Museum conference (which looks fantastic): do you know offhand if any of the proceedings will be made available online either during or after the conference are over? I’m sure there are students and scholars spread across the globe (such as myself) who can’t make it to NY for the conference, but who are invested in the topics that will be discussed.

    Cheers!

    Reply

  7. Michelle Jubin says:

    Dear Elizabeth,

    Thanks so much for adding to the discussion! In terms of the conference proceedings, I don’t know whether they will be recorded but I am guessing it’s a yes as the project is being partly overseen by Chelsea Haines at ICI who is very committed to making documentation like that available to the widest audience possible (she runs the great Curator’s Perspective series at ICI and always films it for the web). You might want to drop her an email to find out – haines@ici-exhibitions.org.

    All best wishes, Michelle

    Reply

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