For the past few weeks - since my resignation at NALU - I've been mired in a search for an appropriate PhD program. If you know anything about academia, you know that my timing is particularly awkward, because most programs put their deadlines smack dab in the middle of December, which is, you know, very soon. So I've been exploring research angles, having conversations, browsing websites, sending emails, and doing all the legwork I need to do as quickly as possible.
The result is that, as of today, I've made my decision as to where I'm applying, and for what. I don't think it's a perfect list, but it's a list, it's actionable, and I know - or at least strongly suspect - I would be happy in any of the programs I've narrowed my search down to. So, without further ado, here are the five programs.
Stanford University, Learning Sciences and Technology Design
I'll be applying to LSTD for the third time, and from a third completely different angle. When I was accepted to LDT I applied at both the Master's and PhD levels, but my application was broad and vague to a degree that made me an undesirable PhD candidate. Last year, I wrote a more specific statement of purpose, but unfortunately my specific interests didn't align with anyone at the University. This time, and now that I know the Professors better (and they know me better), I feel I can write an even better statement of purpose, and potentially latch on with a suitable advisor.
In short, the question I'm pushing will be this: what is the most effective design in terms of providing students access to secondary, tertiary, and contextual sources? There are more than a few angles here, including whether it's better to simply let students surf the Internet for contextual information about the books they're reading or the history they're learning, or whether there are ways to specifically limit that vast set of information. Likewise, one might focus on the difference between learning from primary source materials alone versus learning from primary source material supplemented by secondary sources, interpretations, and contextual information. Regardless, it is vital to consider pedagogy here, as well, and what kind of teaching goes best with what kind of information.
So yeah, that's jargony, I know. But it's also the kind of focused question that not only might help me get into a school that I do love, but also would set me up to be a successful doctoral student there, with a sufficiently nuanced, but also sufficiently broad research question.
University of Chicago, Committee on Social Thought
Now I haven't really chosen a specific research focus here yet, but the program is fascinating to me. Perhaps the most appealing part of this program is its breadth, and its inherent similarity to the St. John's education I received as an undergraduate. Indeed, the program shares common roots with St. John's and the "Great Books" curriculum - as well as the dialogic pedagogy - they use.
The Committee on Social Thought website states that students are encouraged to come without a specific dissertation topic already in mind, but rather a broader area. The purpose of the first two years, then, is to study a variety of works in that area, to select a dozen-ish of them, and then to begin laying the groundwork for doing a dissertation on the confluence of themes and ideas in those dozen books. So, really, it's like a Johnny's dream.
The broader area, however, is something I still need to think about. The application asks me to check a box: philosophy, literature, history, classics, or art history. I'm inclined towards literature and/or art history, and perhaps even the combination of the two. Peter Quince at the Clavier is, of course, an example of that intersection, and something I felt compelled to write about for fun. I'm leaning, however, towards an explicit study of art history in the form of music. That would be in line with my undergraduate thesis, on the one hand, but would allow me to reach far beyond the narrow scope that I began to explore in my paper about Beethoven's 3rd and 9th Symphonies.
Needless to say, this won't be as specific and jargony an application as my Stanford one will be, but I dare say it's not supposed to be. Rather, this program would signal a return to my educational roots, but at a much higher level of sophistication. And, armed with some knowledge of education and technology design, who knows what fun ways I'll come up with to synthesize my learning.
University of California Santa Clara, History of Consciousness
Besides having an awesome name, this program fulfills the requirement of being sufficiently cross-disciplinary and creative for my liking. The website notes that the program is "in transition," and that the next cohort will be a smaller-than-usual one, which doesn't necessarily bode well. But, on the other hand, that means that if I am not a good fit, it's extremely unlikely I'd get in.
I'm applying, however, because my intuition says that I am a good fit. Unlike Chicago, UCSC asks for applicants to have a fairly specific project in mind, and of the faculty research interests they list perhaps the most interesting to me is "global capitalism and cultural process." Now, I have almost no economics background, but culture and I spend a fair amount of time with each other, and the relationship between the two is the kind of question that I could easily get lost in for a few years.
That said I'm also intrigued by the possibility of formulating some of my own questions about culture and learning. More than any non-education program, it strikes me that I might be able to formulate the intersection of my questions about culture, learning, and technology into a single actionable research path. The question, of course, is if anyone at UCSC is interested in that kind of thing. If not, well, that's why I'm applying to five schools. If so, then maybe this is the place.
University of California San Diego, Communications
Yes, that is half of a green telephone at the top of their website.
The program here was described by someone I trust very much as "the only good communications program in the country." So I figure it's worth an application. Back before I enrolled in the LDT program, I looked long and hard at communications as a field that I might want to do graduate work in. I think that education ended up being the right choice in the short term, but now that I have at least some education background, branching out into a cross-disciplinary communications program makes sense.
One of UCSD's Communications listed sub-genres is, in fact, "mediational theories of mind and of learning." UCSD might be, for that reason, the perfect place to pursue something along the lines of a study of how people learn music, and in what role "communication" plays in that learning. That would be an outgrowth, in some ways, of my undergraduate studies combined with my graduate work at Stanford. In short, it would be wonderfully synthetic of what I have already done, meaning I can write a compelling application, and I would enjoy the hell out of studying it because I could go so much deeper into the issues at hand than I had an opportunity to as an undergraduate (or Master's student).
University of Hawaii, Educational Foundations
Perhaps the least "ambitious" of my applications, I nevertheless feel as though there are significant benefits to potentially staying in Hawaii and receiving a PhD from the School of Education at UH. For one thing, if Jericha and I want to live and work in Hawaii in the long term, I could do worse than getting a degree from UH. It's hard to explain, but I honestly believe that a PhD at UH will get you further in Hawaii than a degree from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or any other school. That's just the way it is here.
Beyond the practical, however, I'm happy to note that UH has a very interesting School of Education. Like all of UH's programs, the Educational Foundations program is cross-cultural. And, moreover, it strikes me as fairly interdisciplinary as well. That is, the goal is to understand what is at the heart of education, and how to build meaningful thought and learning processes that serve as a foundation for further learning. The question "How do we learn?" may be too broad for PhD work, but it's a good entry point, especially coupled with the cultural question: "In what ways do different people's learning differ, and what do various cultures and peoples have in common?"
In summary, I am legitimately excited about the possibilities in all five of these programs. What's more, the geography is agreeable as well. The three California schools are, of course, in the good parts of the state (two in the Bay Area, one in San Diego), the Hawaii school is, well, yeah. And the University of Chicago may be in Chicago, which would test my anti-Cubs patience, but is also the location of the Baha'i National Assembly for the United States, which would make Jericha very happy. Plus, a lot of people do swear by Chicago, and it does have a good reputation as big cities go.
Unfortunately, deadlines loom, and so I'll be holed up working for the next couple of weeks. Then, once I'm done, I'll be waiting for a few months. Ah, academia.