The cooled

Brint and Karabel made the phrase “cooling out” famous in their book about community colleges. The two-year colleges they looked at lured students in with promises of transfer degrees, then “cooled them out” into vocational programs – if they weren’t persuaded to drop out altogether. Those of you not in academia may have seen this phenomena at work in the persona of William H. Macy in The Cooler, where his presence blows a chill air on the luck of gamblers on winning streaks.

Cooling out has been written about a little bit at the baccalaureate level, primarily about students who got bogged down in remedial courses that stretch out their time to degree intolerably. But here the literature tends to refer to this as an unfortunate by-product rather than as the desired result.

At the post-baccalaureate level, you don’t hear anything about it at all, except for the legendary “look to your left, look to your right” speech of law schools. But the dirty little secret of academia is that graduate schools are just like community colleges – except instead of cooling students into associates in air-conditioning repair, they toss them worthless consolation masters degrees.

Here’s how it works: So a crop of us new students come in, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. About half of us are fully funded. (At least that’s how it worked in my department. Your mileage may vary.) Those students are the ones faculty are betting on to succeed. There’s usually one or two rich dilettantes who don’t need funds. The rest make it by on a combination of TAing, working at the local coffeeshop, and taking out loans.

But as the years go on, students gradually lose their cushy funding, since it’s only guaranteed for three or five years. Average time to degree? More like eight, but ten isn’t unusual. Financial pressures cause a few to drop out.

The money isn’t the biggest part of it, though. It starts in seminars, where the professors make you feel like idiots for not having read all of Bourdieu yet. Some students get singled out. The kinder professors tell you in their office, in private, that they don’t think you have what it takes.

“I understand, –, that your background is in some ways deficient. The program at your undergraduate institution is, to put it mildly, not up to the level we usually expect here. But that is no excuse for you to coast. Frankly, you’ll have to work twice as hard just to get up to speed. If you want to make it, you’ll have to step it up.”

This, after laboring over a seminar paper, when my roommate had dashed something off – “Levi-Strauss isn’t that bad. And the professor still loves him, so you just have to say the right things.” I still didn’t know what the right things were.

Most students were roadblocked by one or two professors, but for a couple of us it happened over and over, like a rejection montage: Knock on door; it opens; it slams. Slam. Slam. Slam.

Here’s something I learned from a friend in ed psych: People with intrinsic motivation take this to heart and work harder, but the system is set up for them to fail. It breaks them, and they end up with the self-esteem stripped right out of them. People with extrinsic motivation recognize the system is failing them, and they let it. They don’t know how to fight back, and they get cooled out too easily. Which is worse?

Then come exams. Due to a loophole in our rules, there is no limit on the amount of times you can take them, although your committees get increasingly unhelpful. But not all failures are equal. Some students, their advisor sits down with them and says, “I know you can do this. For next time, you’ll need a better grounding in old dead guys. Matthew Arnold, for starters.” Others, they sit you down and say, “–, I don’t think you have what it takes. You’re allowed to take your exam again, but frankly I wouldn’t advise it.” Some students take the advice and slink away.

I am not only dumb but stubborn. If I was going to leave, they’d have to make me leave. (And besides, if I had left then, I’d never be able to pay back my student loans.) So I trudged along while the other students, some of them smarter or better prepared than I, dropped out one by one. Cue another montage.

It took me three tries to pass my comps. The last time I got smart and put a brand-new prof on my committee. They warned him I wouldn’t pass, but he wasn’t inclined to make his first exam a failure. Besides, students weren’t exactly flocking to work with him.

I finally passed – in year six. My professors were still telling me to get out. “–, I doubt you’ll be able to find a job,” they said. Meaning, their recommendations would poison me. At this point, it wasn’t about a job for me anymore. It was a war, and I wasn’t going to lose. I even had theme music, at least in my head – Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor on Humanity,” which you’ve surely heard in Kill Bill. I was like the 300-pound male version of Uma Thurman, in my mind.

Year eight, my proposal passed. My chair was the same prof in charge of that troublesome area exam. I had in hard time assembling a full committee, between those that would yes to sink me and those that would just say no up front. But I managed, although I had to convince the department head that the Latin American guy from the nearby state school was an acceptable outside member: “–, I’m not sure his expertise and recommendation will get you very far in our field.”

So, now it’s year 12. I’m 34 years old. My family has given up on me ever having a real job. But – guess what – I defended last week. I’m Dr. — now. And I have a job for next year, even if it is temporary. That outside guy liked me a lot better than my own department did, and next fall I’ll be a visiting assistant professor at local state U.

You can’t cool me out.

The author is enjoying his time at Local State U., and he just R&Red an article in a pretty good journal.

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About almosttruetales

The stories contained herein are entirely fictional. Any resemblances to persons living or dead are entirely coincidental. Anyway, what seems like a unique story probably plays out dozens of times in other academic departments each year. I don't know if that's consoling or depressing.
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