Friday, January 2, 2009

The Ten Percent Situation

26. The Ten Percent Situation

As a generalization, 10% of Ceramics I students end up in Ceramics IV. Of those in Ceramics IV again 10% go on to graduate school. Once in graduate school, a further 10% fail to complete their degree. And of those receiving the MFA degree, perhaps 10% end up in tenure-track college teaching positions. Now, you may well wish to argue the exact percentages in each case and for each ceramics program in the country. I don’t actually know the precise numbers for any program. I’m more interested in the broader implications and social truths revealed by these general conditions.
First, large numbers of students in Ceramics I classes may bring in extra tuition dollars but they don’t really bring the department or its faculty much in the way of prestige or satisfaction. If graduate students are available to teach these classes they can be valuable opportunities for the graduate students but mostly all those Ceramics I students are just a strain on the system. They are ignorant, messy, and lazy. They also fill the shelves with “bad pots.”
Ceramics IV students, on the other hand, are usually art majors and often ceramics majors. Numbers of majors can be a very important statistic for the prestige and political clout of a professor and a department. They also have the skills and habits to make themselves good “roommates” in a shared studio. Ceramics IV students cheer professors up.
The problem is that aside from the occasional transfer student all the Ceramics IV students started out in the Ceramics I classes. The quality of treatment going to those Ceramics I students seems to improve when numbers are low in Ceramics IV. When enrollment in Ceramics IV is high, the professors may treat the Ceramics I students more roughly, being less concerned about any need to “recruit” further ceramics majors. Also, during a low enrollment cycle for Ceramics I, the 10% who would normally continue on to Ceramics IV aren’t enough and the professor feels compelled to flatter and woo students to get them to continue, just to keep the department’s numbers at respectable levels. One mark of a new faculty member’s success in a program is the increased number of majors in that program.
The stakes in graduate school are similar, both to acquire and to retain graduate students. A program which receives few applications may well have to accept students they would not be interested in if the pool of applicants were larger. Further, once accepted very few graduate students seem to drop out, no matter what contortions the faculty have to go through to push the student through the process.
I think that every graduate (or undergraduate) program prefers that its graduates flourish and excel in the outside world. But what they keep score on is how many degrees are awarded. Thank you, good-bye, good luck.
Which leads to the final 10% who actually get appropriate teaching jobs. Granted, some students never intend to go into teaching and are perfectly successful as working artists. Further, the number of graduates getting teaching jobs will always be limited by the numbers of jobs available. Still, the fact that only one in ten graduate students will be getting a teaching job after graduation is not something that anyone mentions much when they’re trying to get undergraduates to commit to a graduate school.
What’s even more disturbing about the practicalities of graduate school is the 10% (at least) of degree earners who never work in clay again. Either the entire endeavor was a mistake to begin with, or the process of being “educated” was so exhausting, abusive, or expensive that the grad student’s career effectively ends upon graduation. Even if the period of detoxification is only a few years, it calls into question the choices we are making and the methods we are using.
I bring all this up not to throw stones but as a double warning. For perfectly understandable reasons, faculty may shortchange some students while over-encouraging others. And a student’s decision to declare an art major or a ceramics major, to apply to graduate school, to go to graduate school, and to earn the MFA degree, all benefit the egos and finances of other people. That student needs to be as clear-eyed as possible about their own motives, expectations, and concerns. Be sure that you, too, will profit from all the time and effort spent on your education. Be more than just a number on someone else’s tally sheet. Be an artist because it’s a good choice for you.

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