Yesterday I went to Grad School University for the first time since my PhD convocation in February. (I know, February - weird.) A student of mine from the last time I TA'd there - two years ago - has been in touch, and really wanted to see me if ever I was on campus. So I planned a visit there since I also needed to use their library to get some articles for my winter term teaching.
It was a strange feeling, walking the crowded trajectories of that institution I'd spent so very many years at. On one level, it is so familiar that it's in my muscle memory. I walked like an automaton through corridors I'd passed through probably thousands of times. It took conscious effort to remind myself that I wasn't the same person I was when I was there, that the me on these paths had grown away from this place, that I wasn't on my way to the lecture for the course I TA'd for, or to buy myself a banana bran tea biscuit at the coffee shop or whatever else I used to do there. But if I wasn't doing any of those things, if I wasn't really here any longer, what was my relationship to it?
I went to the library - again, the almost oppressive sense of familiarity closed in - and then made my way to where my PhD program lives. Things have changed so drastically there that when I stepped off the elevator, I felt immediately lost, was convinced that the offices weren't there anymore, and almost gave up. I spent a few disoriented minutes wandering around the hallways before I got to the office.
I sat and chatted with the program's admin assistant for half an hour. I emerged with the clearest sense of liberation from this place. The assistant told me endless tales of the woes that have beset the program and the institution. Add to that what I heard from grumpyabdadjunct at our blogger meetup the other day (she is there, too!) and the vicious fighting that takes place among students on the departmental email list (which I am still on - though not for much longer, thank god). Frankly, it seems like it's going to hell in a handbasket. I can't express the relief I felt about being gone from there. It seems to me as if the institution's current direction crystallizes everything that is wrong with higher education today. And the grad program - that ultimately unfriendly program populated in part by self-righteous, emotionally stunted twits - is just as bad, though it styles itself as the opposition to the institutional disaster.
If I were starting there now, I realized, I don't know if I would finish. I think I'd be out of there within the year. Ouch.
So I left that chat profoundly relieved, but also sad. I went to find my former student, Antonio. We had a lovely lunch in a sunny window. Antonio remembered minute details of our course. Things I said, things other students said, the details of arguments he made in a paper on a text he'd fallen in love with, one that I love too. The way I'd come out to him - he is a very openly and flamboyantly gay man - toward the end of the year, shocking him. What I drank (cider) when I took a few of them out to the pub after our last class! He told me, "You were the best TA or prof ever!" Which was so nice to hear from him, a student I respeted greatly. I told him - and it was true - that he'd been perhaps the principal reason our class had succeeded so well; it was his commitment, his work ethic, but also his openness to ideas and willingness to cooperate, that set the tone. Last year I very happily wrote a letter of recommendation to that effect, for the concurrent education program. He got in. He will be a great teacher.
The time with Antonio mediated the earlier, rather distressing time I'd had. Even as the institution loses its way, there will still be people like Antonio, who will forge bonds with people like me, and those relationships will be precious. What is terrible is to realize that they will increasingly be lived under duress. And that should be fought against very hard.