Monday, October 06, 2014

Down and Out in Santa Clarita

Or: How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Part One

Art school is another country. They do things differently there.

My mistake, in hindsight, was ignoring the warnings. There were certainly plenty of warnings - books and movies, full to the brim with cautionary tales. But how could you believe them? Surely Art School Confidential is satire. There's no way there can really be places like that in the year 2014. With how expensive college is, it was inconceivable that any school could remain so blessedly insulated from the plague of accountability infesting the education industry, from Kindergarten on through the last years of graduate school. As strange and terrible as it can, college at least makes sense . . . right?

I'm an academic, you see. I'm a student and a teacher, and at every level of my career I am cocooned by dozens of layers of bureaucratic obscurantism. I've been in school for the last seven years (just now beginning my eighth) and I've been privileged to attend large land-grant public universities. I really like my job, and I've also come to appreciate all the levels of red tape that protect me on a daily basis - from the whims of instructors, professors, administrators, and students. I had never really thought of red tape in this terms before. I was never so grateful for a functioning bureaucracy as I was after I experienced - second-hand, but still - the registration process at a private arts college.

The school states that they don't want an oppressive bureaucracy interfering with students' freedom to craft their own academic destinies. Some programs graciously list the courses necessary to complete certain programs on time, others do not. You can probably guess which programs are better organized than others: those programs involving computers in some way almost inevitably function in a smoother capacity than those representing the more traditional fine arts. Cultural stereotypes regarding the types of people who like to paint and sculpt and those who manipulate pixels on a screen appear at a glance to be self-fulfilling prophecies. The students involved relish embracing these role-types.

The school has been trying to switch over to online registration for a while now. Much of the registration process is successfully conducted online. But there is a strong constituency who resists the conversion: the professors themselves. So while there are some classes for which the student can register online, there are many others for which the student must report to school on an assigned day and stand in line in large hallways in order to ask certain professors to sign permission slips to register in certain classes. The professors appear to love this.

On the face of it, this is an odd situation. This is how students registered for classes in our grandparents' time, before computers or even the creaky, labyrinthine phone registration systems that were still in place when I first attended college. If you told the professors in my department - any department at a state school like Davis - that they would have to sit at a table in a gymnasium all day signing permission slips to manually register students in their classes, they'd rightfully revolt. But then - I'm talking about professors at a large department who often teach large lecture classes with hundreds of students. A University of California campus serves tens of thousands of students. A small arts college - and regardless of how prestigious (and this is a very prestigious school), we're still talking about a very small campus - has few enough people that they can almost get away with maintaining an archaic system seemingly designed to test the patience of each participant.

The professors like being the center of attention. Scratch that - you aren't supposed to call them professors. They don't receive tenure. In any other university environment, non-tenured instructors are the most conscientious faculty possible. But in art school, the rationale is that the lack of tenure provides (supposedly) greater freedom for artists to practice their craft. In reality, ;ack of tenure does nothing to stop instructors from practicing the kind of behavior that would threaten even a tenured professor's job security. They do things differently in art school.

(And as for those kinds of behavior? You don't need to scratch very deep to hear rumors - rumors which, incidentally, are often immediately confirmed by experience, or a quick Facebook search.)

But it all makes sense, really it does. Graduate school in any field is about professionalization: you should leave the program ready and able to take a job as a working professional in whatever field you've studied, be it English literature or medicine. Obtaining a Masters of Fine Arts is also a kind of professionalization. It's just that the professional expectations of a working artist are radically different from those of a professor, a doctor, a lawyer, or a social worker. You have to become accustomed to dealing with unbalanced people with unvoiced expectations and invisible biases. The same basic social skills that serve you well in the rest of society - punctuality, conscientiousness, courtesy - don't carry the same kind of currency, and in fact can be seen as signs of weakness. You have to project an aura of imperturbability at all times, because that is the means by which you communicate your confidence to the world. Confidence is absolutely necessary, even if - especially if - it's completely fraudulent. Better to say nothing and be assumed wise than to open your mouth and be perceived as weak. Even if everyone in the room has the same question, they will castigate you for having been sufficiently weak to ask.

Art school - studio art school - is designed to train young artists to accept the inherent arbitrariness of the art world. Animators get job fairs, painters get nervous looks.

After the appropriate professors sign the paper indicating that they accept you into their classes, you must obtain another signature from the dean of the school. The Dean of the School of Fine Arts doesn't speak to you, doesn't look at you, merely signs the paper you place in front of him without breaking his conversation. Why did he have to sign the paper if he wasn't even going to look at it? Is there any difference between a man signing a paper he doesn't read and simply eliminating the need to sign the paper?

Once the paper has been signed by the necessary parties, it needs to be taken to the library. The library is where the IT people who are responsible for inputting the information on the papers into the system are located. The librarians aren't pleased with this occupation, and neither are the IT personnel pleased with having to fill out forms for students who could just as easily do it for themselves if the system were automated. No one at all seems happy about having to do this except for the art faculty who get to sit at tables and receive their audiences. It helps, slightly, to commiserate with the computer jockeys: everyone involved sees right through the system's insufficiency, but it nonetheless persists. Certain statements are made implying that the old system is on its way out, and that the process is as awkward as it presently is because the proponents of the old system are doing everything they can to postpone the implementation of a new all-digital registration model. But there don't appear to be any timetables for this changeover.

After a few hours of this, registration is completed (this won't be the last time the schedule needs to be changed, however). Every problem of any kind that occurs within the next few weeks will be blamed by faculty on the difficulties of the new registration system.

Next: Dennys and IHOP are friendly places.

1 comment :

j said...

The thing I hate most about Santa Clarita is that there are too many damn vampires.