It's official, I've accepted Stanford's offer to attend their Learning Sciences and Technology Design PhD program starting next fall. Initially I'll be studying under Roy Pea and Hilda Borko, both - since we're talking about, you know, Stanford - renowned researchers and well-respected in their field. I know Roy from my time as a Master's student, during which my friend and co-conspirator Coram and I consulted Professor Pea as often as we felt we could get away with while working on our project. As a result, I'm certain I'll be able to work with him and learn from him.
Ultimately, this decision was not an easy one, even though Stanford is an "obvious choice." To the common layperson, the name Stanford alone is worth so much that, when I have posed my conundrum to certain people the response has been a resounding, "you mean there's actually a question?" My answer is, yes, there is (or was) a question. You see, PhD work is less about prestige and more about fit. My decision, then, was not about trying to find the "best" program, but to find the program that most matched my own learning style, research interests, pedagogical biases, and general outlook on the world in general.
The Communications department at the University of California, San Diego matches me very well in almost all of those areas. Their pedagogical model is highly discussion driven, the amount of reading and writing that students do their lines up well with the amount of reading and writing I do of my own volition, their conversations are lofty and philosophical, and the people are quirky, critical, and equal parts cynical and optimistic. In short, a lot like me. Indeed, had I chosen to attend UCSD I'm sure I'd be having a number of conversations with a variety of people right now in which I would be pointing out exactly that: I definitely fit at UCSD, and that's the most important thing.
So why not UCSD? Well, I also fit at Stanford. In fact, I think I fit better at Stanford.
While the people at UCSD are a perfect match for me, and while I would have the freedom to pursue my research interests, I'm actually not convinced that the general outlook of the department matches my own and that, even more importantly, the pedagogical bent of the program would suit me. I don't mean to say I think there's anything wrong with the outlook or pedagogy at UCSD, I just think they wouldn't work for me.
As a graduate of St. John's College, I come from a strange academic tradition. I'm a student of the so-called "Western Canon" at a time when a lot of the academic world - and places like UCSD in particular - seriously doubt whether there really ought to be such a thing as a canon. The questions at the heart of this objection are valid, and look like this: How can you determine which books are Great, or even if there is such a thing as Greatness? Isn't that a hegemonic, colonial tool to marginalize the values and cultures of all of those people who are not white male Europeans?
By themselves, these are important questions that, frankly, St. John's probably doesn't do a good enough job answering.* The problem, to me, is the double-reversal jiu-jitsu that comes next. Because those are good questions, the answers are assumed to be, basically, that there is no such thing as Greatness, that the Great Books are a total sham, and that any curriculum that reads them and takes them seriously on their own merits (instead of through alternative cultural and contextual lenses) is itself an instrument of intellectual and cultural tyranny. The result, of course, is the laissez-faire, anything goes attitude towards ideas that pervades the post-modern world. That attitude says, "your ideas and my ideas are equally valid, because they each come from our own perspectives. Right and wrong are relative, and meaning is personally constructed, and if we all just agree to disagree and get along the world will be all right." To me, that's a shameful intellectual surrender. Maybe this is a hegemonic idea, but I like to think that there's more value in consensus - and, even more so, the effort to get there - than there is in tolerance.**
* Of course, any graduate of the college who continues in academia will inevitably have to confront these questions anyway, and will be - I think St. John's would argue - equipped to do so because of the critical thinking skills they've gained as Johnnies. I suspect a great many St. John's graduates end up being heavily critical of the curricular content of the Great Books program precisely because it is so Anglo-European centric. So it's hard to criticize the college for picking a narrower curricular goal that it can achieve in four years, instead of trying to bite off more than it can chew when it knows students will get there after-the-fact anyway. That's just good curriculum design.
** That the position of tolerance for differing ideas is also held be many self-proclaimed radicals - many of whom are only actually tolerant up to a point - only serves to remind me of this Eva Brann (St. John's Dean, not wife of Hitler) quotation: "To the radicals we might say: you don't begin to know what radical is; we are the ones who go to the roots."
Now that's not to say that I know anything like enough about UCSD to say where the institution as a whole stands relative to this issue. In reality, I'm sure there are a range of opinions. I did, however, get the sense from the brief time I spent there and the one class I visited that I would likely end up very frustrated by the "make connections" instead of "find meaning" model that goes with their post-modernist academic culture. That each week's reading on the syllabi I saw included multiple and intentionally disparate authors in order to build background and force cross-cutting interpretations rubs against my Johnnie sensibilities, in which those things are not exactly bad, but nevertheless can undercut the effort to actually understand a given text's content, instead of just its context or impact.
Again, I'm not sure that there's anything wrong with the way UCSD is doing things, I just don't think it's right for me.
Now you might be thinking that Stanford is vastly different. It isn't. If anything, it's less discussion and dialogue oriented than UCSD, and it is just as much concerned with post-modernist questions and processes. The difference, then, is that Stanford is not just talking and reading and dancing around the theories and philosophies of these issues, but is, in fact, actually out in the world doing. My experience as an LDT student was one of project-based classes and practice-oriented learning, which lines up well with modern learning theory. While not every professor I had was a brilliant teacher using the more cutting edge pedagogy and technology, many - including Roy, incidentally* - were just that. For all of its stuffy, privileged, businessy, ivory tower reputation, Stanford really does strive to practice what it preaches.
*Or not incidentally at all.
Being political (in the root, Greek sense of dealing with society) has its drawbacks. It can be frustrating to try to make a difference. But as much as I'm sure I'll have days and nights when I feel like I'm just a small, insignificant part of a broken system, and I can't do much to improve the situation, I think that Stanford will encourage and support (and, really, actively enlist) me in fighting the good fight. The potential for myopia at UCSD, on the other hand - the ability to remove myself from the world and just do whatever I want - frightens me much more than the frustrations I'm sure I'll feel at Stanford sometimes do. I am, despite myself, equal parts idealism and practicality, and I feel like Stanford understands that dichotomy (and supports both sides of it) better than UCSD does, at least in my case.
There are, I suspect, a great many other things I could say about what draws me to Stanford (including my previous experience there compared to the relative unknown of UCSD), but they would be variations on the theme from above. The truth of the matter is, both programs were the "right decision," but in different ways, and I was fortunate to have an opportunity to pick between the two, even if it meant the decision was a difficult one.