Transformation vs. Transaction, Value & Convenience in Higher Ed.

There’s a graduate student in my masters program, let’s call her Luisa. Luisa is from Spain, and she’s come all the way to New Mexico to pursue a graduate degree. By her own account, and by the standards of work produced and commitment made, she seems to be glad she did.

However, with one more semester to go, she’s lobbying quite intensely to be allowed to do her final semester (grad seminar plus 6 hours of thesis) from Spain. Generally speaking, when students do their final semester from farther than 2 hours away, it doesn’t go well- they don’t get the advisement they need, they lose momentum, and faculty interest wanes as well. Out of sight/mind is a real thing when you’ve got 30 other students demanding your attention IRL/IRT.

But the goal of my public institution is to help students graduate, and to avoid placing additional obstacles in their path to degree completion (these tenets directly from our university admin).

What then, would it mean, to give her permission to do her fourth and final semester elsewhere? For one thing, it addresses value. It says that while she says that there has been value in attending the program, it no longer weighs against what she feels would be the value of being elsewhere. She came from europe to attend school in a small town in northern New Mexico- the culture is foreign, the town not especially warm and welcoming, and thanks to instabook & co, she’s hyperaware of what she is missing. It seems she’s saying- I’ve got what I believe is a sufficient amount of skills and knowledge, I can take it from here.

This seems reasonable. But it is not the program as it was designed. So, either our design is flawed (always consider that a possibility) or we just aren’t delivering value. It feels less transformative and more transactional. more of “I got what I needed, I’ve got this now”, as opposed to “I’m going to squeeze every last drop from this experience, especially the support of my peers and the access to faculty.”

(I understand people have always left schools and tranferred for years for reasons of preference, finances, proximity. But that is not what I’m addressing here.)

There is also reason to believe that she’s homesick, or feels unsafe in this unfamiliar environment, and has not made enough connections to make the compromise feel worth it. I think that all comes in to play.

I’m struggling, then, with my role as professor and advisor. Do I make this accomodation, knowing it is a slippery slope, and opens up the door to other grad students (and undergrads eventually) choosing at what point they can disengage from our department community? For those that don’t need to be on campus, per se (like student athletes), when can they choose that they’ve had enough in-person, in-class time? If we make a policy, it’s still going to be arbitrary, since with so many degrees being offered exlcusively and mostly online, what are we holding on to, anyway? In our case, it’s mostly specialized equipment and software.

WIth the robustness of the network, it’s easier to find the groups, the answers, the how-to videos, the meet-ups, and the networking opportunities with like minded others. It’s easier to get advisement (maybe). Or maybe I didn’t work hard enough to get her engaged in meaningful research. What am I holding on to, anyway?

I’ve resisted for years having an online-only graduate program. Primarily, because it seems boring to me, not having the in-person interactions that make teaching meaningful and surprising. In my little research lab, a group of 4–7 of us are at any time developing new technology solutions for museums, for clients, for community members or partner organizations. Sitting around the conference table or in our dingy lounge, drinking coffee while reviewing a schematic is a great way to spend a snowy morning (that was yesterday). I don’t think anyone wished that two hours were spent differently.

I started writing this tonight, to see if after 10 or so paragraphs I would be closer to a comfortable solution. What I’m seeing now, is that for some students, the cameraderie of coffee cups and wireframes is worth some inconvenience, of missing out, and of being in a location that might not be ideal. But for others, an eagerness to gather skills quickly and get back to a prior existance or move on quickly, is a more urgent goal. I suppose I can make room for both, and not feel insulted (perhpas even pleased?) that Luisa feels confident to take the next steps on her own. Does her departure diminish the remaining students in her cohort? It’s a small program, so it’s a possibility.

If anyone else out there in higher ed is confronting something like this, I’d absolutely love some comments.

{My lab is the Cultural Technology Development Lab}

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