Open Enrollment

Open Enrollment | A Community of Engaged Amateurs

Every time I get a student loan statement in the mail, I wonder if I’ll still think getting a master’s degree was worth it ten years down the road. Nina Simon, champion of the “Participatory Museum” and household name to most museum grad students, once wrote a post about the trouble with museum graduate programs, going so far as to (jokingly) compare them to zombie factories. Am I condemning myself to a lifetime of zombie-ness, in addition to my already established loan payment servitude?

It’s not surprising that Simon is suspicious of grad school for those interested in careers in museums, for two reasons: a) she made a name for herself in the field at a young age simply by starting on the floor and working her way up; and b) she is an avowed critic of schooling and proponent of informal education. She has several reasons for distrusting the programs she talks about, but the most salient one is that a standardized course of study homogenizes the skills and perspectives of the workforce, thereby making radical change much less common in the field.

Like Simon, I’m wary of any degree program that threatens to rob me of my distinct perspective or set aside my diverse interests for the pursuit of a predetermined skill set. One of the main reasons I chose to enroll in my current art education program was that it required relatively few core courses and encouraged multidisciplinary work and study. Still, I have become frustrated on several occasions with the lack of breadth in course offerings and the lack of support offered to students interested in extending their academic experience beyond the classroom.

It is in these moments of frustration that I regularly rediscover what has become for me the most unexpected pleasure and the most vital part of graduate school: my fellow students. I am surrounded by a community of bright and tireless amateurs, and my practice is incredibly enriched by their energy and ideas. We are not like-minded and we often disagree on polemical issues, but we have certain ideologies in common and are determined to work together to shape a learning environment that benefits our individual and collective needs. We revel in the unknown and the experimental, and try on each other’s perspectives and pastimes whenever we have a chance. My peers are my greatest source of inspiration, and I would not have made half of the progress I have in grad school if not for them.

This past November, I collaborated with a group of fellow second-years in my program to plan and facilitate a week of art education-themed events and happenings called PAnT (Pedagogy, Art and Thinking) Lab. The goal of this week was to increase the visibility of our program within the greater school community, and to create a space for inspired experimentation with the ideas we work through all the time, in class as well as over coffee. One of the events that I participated in, Small Talks, was based on a Toronto barroom lecture series called Trampoline Hall. The premise is that three people speak about something in which they have no expertise for around ten minutes, and then participate in an extended Q&A session with the audience.

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My friends graciously invited me to be one of the speakers, and after extended reflection and considerable fretting, I decided to write a short lecture on the pleasures and perils of idiomatic phrases. Preparing for the talk was strangely exhilarating: I had the freedom to shape the scope and sequence of my research without the pressure to present a comprehensive, airtight dissertation on the subject matter. My fellow presenters spoke about occupational jackets and album covers, respectively, and I sensed that they had discovered the same joyful spirit of investigation as I did while preparing for the event. My friends who curated the talks moderated a follow-up discussion the next morning, in which they explored questions of expertise, knowledge, and the artist as public amateur. While I did not have a chance to attend, I heard fascinating reports of the resultant dialogue, and I sincerely hope to repeat this program several times in the coming months.

I may never completely dispel my anxiety over the financial implications or the credibility and necessity of my degree. Still, when I think about all of the opportunities for self-reflection, experimentation, and collaboration that my fellow students have offered me, I cannot help but conclude that coming to graduate school was the right choice for me. Have you had similar experiences in school, or found a comparable source of ideas and inspiration in a peer group outside of the academic world? Please share them in the comments!


  1. Nina Simon says:

    Thanks for a really thoughtful post. I think you’re right – building a community of practice is incredibly important, especially if you want to take risks and forge new ground. I was really lucky to find work environments early in my career with great folks who encouraged my development, challenged me, and pushed me… but it was still kind of lonely. Now I have that community through the blog and all the friends I’ve made from it, but there’s no question that’s a special case.

    When I teach or work with grad students, I’m always struck by the positive energy that can be generated through working with a good group. Grad school wasn’t for me, and I’m still dubious of its overall value, but I see how it gives incredible value to some students.

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