Quantum cynics

    Portland State is the third university I’ve attended, and I would be fooling myself if I said that this school had the same kind of reputation that the others do. And you know what? I don’t really care.

    Back in the 1960s, the car rental company Avis adopted the slogan, “We’re number two, and we try harder.” In a way, this is how I feel about going to a non-boutique college. If you go to an Ivy League school, it’s easy to think that the hard work – getting in – has been completed, and you can coast on the vicarious prestige of the school’s name. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of hardworking people at these schools, just that it’s all the more tempting to be complacent.

    Though PSU has a few programs that are distinguished in their fields – urban studies and book publishing come to my mind – the PSU “brand” doesn’t carry the kind of weight that some schools do. In a way, this can be a very good thing. If your school’s name doesn’t come with the kind of reputation that sets you apart, then you have to set yourself apart. Work harder, build a portfolio, assist professors, publish articles, go out for student government or take part in a capstone that makes a difference in the community. You’re here to learn, aren’t you? Don’t just take classes – design and teach one through the Chiron program.

    On average, my classes at PSU have been less demanding than classes elsewhere. But just because I often don’t have to work as hard as I used to, there’s nothing stopping me from pouring more energy than I have to into a class if the material inspires me. I really believe that you get out of a school what you put into it. Rather than using all my strength and energy just to keep my head above water, I can choose to put some of that energy into contributing more to class discussions, or polishing my assignments to the point where I could include them in a professional portfolio.

    I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It’s good news for the average undergra    duate, though it may be bad news for those of you planning on pursuing advanced degrees in preparation for a career as a professor. The Vanguard reported last year that PSU has significantly fewer graduate assistant positions than other schools of similar size. Tough news for graduate students trying to make ends meet, but good news for undergrads wanting to be taught by actual Ph.D.s.

    According to the Princeton Review, PSU has a student-faculty ratio of 18-1, with approximately 5 percent of classes taught by teaching assistants. The student-faculty ratio is the same at the University of Oregon, but TAs teach 22 percent of all classes. I have nothing against TAs. In fact, I would like PSU to offer more graduate teaching fellowships, if only because I want one for myself. But if you were offered the choice between a professor with a Ph.D. and a grad student with a couple years on you, what would you choose?

    Take, for example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I studied library and information science. UIUC is ranked number one in the country for library science and other programs. It’s also ranked first among undergraduate programs in agricultural, civil, and materials engineering, as well as graduate programs in accountancy and condensed matter physics. Unfortunately, according to the Princeton Review, it’s also number one for number of upper-division classes taught by teaching assistants.

    The other bad news for tomorrow’s professional academics is that it’s harder than ever for freshly minted Ph.D.s to get tenured teaching positions. Ivy League graduates who in past decades could have counted on getting jobs with elite universities are taking jobs at less prestigious schools, which is good news for those of us at places like PSU. In my time at PSU, I’ve had professors with doctorates from Princeton, Duke, the Sorbonne, the University of Chicago, Cornell, Berkeley, and other brand-name universities. Some of them may have felt that they were slumming by teaching students who – heaven forbid – had jobs and families, but you know what? They work for us now, and the difficulties of the academic job market have resulted in more democratic access to professors from top universities. Not only that, but at PSU we’re actually being taught by these professors, and not just by their students.

    The bottom line is the same whether you attend Portland State or Oxford. The most important factor in your academic success – and by success I mean not just grades and a diploma, but the whole package of learning, experience, and, yes, even enjoyment – is not how much you pay or how many books your professors have published. The most important factor is you – the effort you invest, the enthusiasm you enjoy. Maybe classes at PSU won’t kick your butt the way they would at an A-list school bent on weeding out the weak. This just places the responsibility for your education on you. So get out there and make the most of your time here. The butt you kick may be your own.