Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What's "H-bomb" like?

It's like the name of Voldemort. An "H-bomb" is when one drops the name "Harvard" as if it were to cause a sensation and effect as a bomb. So we don't - instead, we study "at a higher ed institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts". At least, that's my colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which, I believe, is *completely* unlike the rest of the university. I am sure those across the street from us (Harvard Law School) and those across the river (Harvard Business School) and of course, those in the Yard (Harvard College), deliberately drop it ALL THE TIME. Thankfully, my experience at the Ed School was extremely pleasant, with a cohort of colleagues who were humble and passionate about reforming education in the United States and the world. Thinking more about it, it is little surprise - only people who truly care would care to study at this school. The unfortunate reality is that educators make a pittance in the U.S., and they'll likewise make a pittance when they graduate, unlike graduates of the other schools who will be recruited into the elite and powerful institutions of the day.

I remember our first day of orientation back in August 2010. We all gathered early in the morning in the beautiful field that is Radcliffe Yard beside the three buildings that comprise HGSE. Unfortunately, the weather that morning provided torrential rains which made for a very loud pitter-patter on the tent under which we convened. Speeches were made by the Ed school's leadership team. Some facts about our class were given: 620? Masters students (50? Doctoral students), average student age 27 (Masters), coming from X number of countries and 47 U.S. states. Typical stuff. A current doctoral student also gave an encouragement: "Yes, no mistake has been made. You are here at Harvard. Pinch yourselves - it's true." I wonder if the non-Ed school people felt this way!

What did I do? I enrolled in the "Learning and Teaching" Masters of Education program. The L&T cohort was primarily formed of 'veteran' teachers - those who had been teaching for at least 3 years, though the range of experience spanned a wide range. I chose this program because of its extreme flexibility (there are no specific required sources, you only need to choose a number of courses from a very long list) and because my educational portfolio, if you will, was more on the side of teaching, even if it was mainly professional development in a corporate setting. The rest of my courses were in Higher Education, making me a "Higher Ed wannabe" among my Higher Ed friends.

I was quite pleased with my selection of courses, which gave me a sense of the overall issues surrounding education in general (including the many issues currently plaguing the United States and their desire to be more like... Hong Kong (why???)), a little bit about curriculum development (by applying themes from cognitive science), a brief history of higher education in the US, an overview of the various departments at MIT (in a course called "Understanding MIT"), and about the economics of colleges and universities - i.e., why is higher ed so expensive in the US? (not a simple question to answer).

Overall, the workload was quite demanding mainly because there was a lot of reading, including academic articles. Of course, given my non-liberal arts background, I was not accustomed to this and felt that I could have approached my readings much more effectively. I would call the nature of the academic work to be not very academic. Actually, a couple of courses were so fluffy I couldn't believe it - good thing David didn't apply to the Ed school (he had considered) or he would have died. There were many times when I couldn't believe the class discussions, though at other times they were of sufficiently high quality.

There is much talk about the questionable quality of education especially in higher ed -- images of disheveled professors and incomprehensible lectures come to mind -- and it would be quite the hypocrisy if a SCHOOL OF EDUCATION didn't reflect upon this in its own educational delivery. Overall, I thought HGSE to be reasonably reflective and pretty pleasantly surprised with the personal aspect of education. I liked that course evaluations were taken seriously. These were no simple one pager of 10 multiple choice questions; the evaluations were quite comprehensive (of course there were some questions that were too general) and allowed the right amount of space to capture appropriate comments. They were also mandatory. And maybe it's that the people completing these out actually care, the comments gained from previous years' evaluations provided a good picture about the professor and the course. The entire set of course evaluations are available for all to see.

The personable aspect was also palpable. In fact, in two of my classes, by the end, the professors were teary-eyed in their admonishment for us to go out into the world and make a difference. For the most part, professors truly care about their students and their work and for most, it was deeply felt. Actually, for my Learning and Teaching cohort, we actually had two parties at our program director's own house, which completely and positively changes the dynamic and was effective at building community. Probably for this reason, L&T was quite the cohesive cohort, arguably moreso than the rest programs, and this despite not having any common and mandatory courses together. In another course, we also enjoyed a course-end party at our professor's house -- I suppose the Harvard community seeps into the surrounding intellectual neighbourhood.

The HGSE community was largely American (85%?). There were pockets of Chinese students and only one other student from Hong Kong whom I never ended up meeting (I was the second one -- but I"m not *really* from Hong Kong!) There were a handful of Singaporeans who were fun to be with, especially since they were also married with their spouses here. I felt that I should have spent some more time with my colleagues than at home and erred a bit on the side of caution. But this is not a major matter and I'll definitely connect with people here and there. Oh, and I did play Ultimate once in a Harvard grad school tournament so at least I can say I did!

The one year program is truly only about 8 months, which definitely flew by. Before we knew it, it was time for graduation. The day before the ceremony, Harvard Yard was transformed into the "Tercentenary Theatre" (pictured below). It was quite the experience to be amongst all Harvard graduates that morning in our very heavy gown with cap. Our diplomas were handed out back at each respective school and we came full circle to the Radcliffe Yard where we sat in our first day of orientation.

I expect to be mulling over what I learned in the year to go. And I've got more readings to do.

Until next time, this is Gladys Yam.

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