Help me decide if I should drop a course at grad school
November 5, 2019 8:57 AM   Subscribe

I am enrolled in a master's programme for history, I applied to this particular programme for its focus on a particular region. Now the professor who usually teaches a survey course (that provides a sweeping overview of the region) is a bit of a superstar in his field and he's away this year -- so the course is being taught by a youngish prof who as nice as he is doesn't really know how to lead discussion seminars.

The "lecture" is a complete waste of time as his area of expertise is quite different from the superstar professor's area (they overlap a little but the operative expression here is little). I don't feel like I gain anything from his classes. The discussion in class doesn't focus on any of the primary and secondary assigned readings; instead, it revolves around vague issues that are only slightly related to the topic at hand.

I feel frustrated because I LOVE this area and while I am highly motivated I feel like attending classes twice a week is just draining me. The superstar prof is back next year and he may (no guarantee) offer this course. In any case, he will offer another course, a highly specific course with a focus on a particular period that is of deep interest to me so if he doesn't offer the aforementioned survey course not all is lost.

I cannot decide if I should drop this course. Any thoughts? I am not the only one who feels this way, lots of people are dissatisfied.
posted by bigyellowtaxi to Education (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you should drop, but what are the repercussions of dropping at this point?
posted by DarlingBri at 9:01 AM on November 5, 2019

Best answer: What is the argument for not dropping the course? You hate it and aren't getting anything out of it; what's the down side of dropping?
posted by gideonfrog at 9:05 AM on November 5, 2019

Response by poster: darlingbri- I don't think there should be any repercussions. We have had no assignments yet (it is a completely exam-based course). But yes, should check with the course admin.

gideonfrog- A sense of guilt, as in I came here to focus on this area and now I want to "give up" (so to speak) because the classes are a disappointment. I can still write my thesis on this topic so not sure why I feel this way.
posted by bigyellowtaxi at 9:13 AM on November 5, 2019

Hm. Having both taught and attended many seminar classes, I'm going to give you a slightly different response.

Here's the thing: seminar classes succeed or fail based on the students in the class, as much as the professor. You can be the best teacher in the world, but sometimes you just get a set of students who can't/won't participate, and it sucks. If this class is not going well, there are some things that you and your fellow-students can do about that.

- If the professor asks a question in class, are you asking for clarification when you don't understand what they want?

- If another student is talking too much, or otherwise being a pita, are you doing your part to call them on that? Do it respectfully, but you are all responsible for each other when you are in the room and you often have more power to call each other out than the prof does.*

- Have you gone to talk to the professor in office hours, to ask specific questions you have about the material that are not covered in the seminar discussion? This is what office hours are for.

- are you engaging with what other people in class are saying? Responding to them -- by asking clarifications, building on what they said, etc -- rather than directing all questions and answers back to the professor? Sometimes it only takes one student in the class changing the dynamic, to spur everyone into having a better conversation (rather than a tired Q&A session).

In terms of the professor, here are some things to consider before you write him off.

- Academic superstars are not necessarily great teachers. Teaching and research are different skills. The ego that often comes with being a superstar can make you an arrogant teacher. I once sat through a packed, but utterly useless, seminar course taught by Bruno Latour, so believe me when I tell you that unless you have other evidence that superstar prof is a fantastic teacher (rather than just a fantastic scholar and/or mentor), you might not be better off.

- The new professor might not be teaching an area of his expertise, but he still knows more than you. He still knows how to read and analyze texts and sources, how to situate readings in their wider context in the field, how to construct arguments at an academic level. He has learnt all this in his PhD, and you haven't yet. He therefore has something to teach you, and will be able to teach you more about this material (or any material in the field) than you could learn on your own.

- have you considered how something about the professor himself, as a person, may be unconsciously biasing your evaluation? This would not necessarily be your fault: plenty of research shows that professors who are women, people of color, people with marked accents or from non-middle-class backgrounds, etc. are perceived as less competent by students.

If you've tried all you can to make the seminar better; if you've honestly given the new professor the benefit-of-the-doubt; if you have solid evidence the superstar is actually a good teacher, then sure: drop the class. But if you are already into the semester and there's a chance you can change how its going, it might be worth sticking with it.

*Within the parameters of gender/race/nationality/class/ability of course. Don't put yourself in a position to be attacked, if you feel vulnerable. On the other hand, if you are a guy, white, come from a position of privilege, then it is even more your responsibility to call out other people being dicks.
posted by EllaEm at 9:26 AM on November 5, 2019 [11 favorites]

Best answer: As someone who has taken graduate classes that were really hit and miss, I feel your pain. Unfortunately, it's not quite as simple as "just drop it". Some issues to consider:

1) are you within the window during which you can withdraw but outside of the window during which you can add another class? If so, and if you drop this class, will you have to have a heavier semester later and/or add another semester to make sure you get in your hours before your thesis (or take a class concurrent to thesis writing, depending on the structure of your program?)

2) if you're in the window where you can add another class, is your program offering anything else that does you any good?

3) if you're out of the window that you can add another class in, are you on assistantship? Will you be less than full time if you drop? What are the financial ramifications of dropping?

In other words, you have to decide if it's better to suck up the crappy class and get what you can out of the readings for the sake of getting the credits on your transcript and keeping your sequencing correct (again, this depends on your program structure and your goals re: time to graduation, if it's a cohort based program, etc etc) or if it's better to drop now, potentially have to have a heavier semester later, etc. When you're in grad school, dropping a class gets a lot more complicated. Please, please go talk to your advisor or chair about the ramifications in your particular program for dropping a class.
posted by joycehealy at 9:29 AM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The only things I ever got from the many grad seminars I took from MA to ABD were: (1) being forced to do the reading and (2) being forced to write the paper and (3) sometimes great insights from the other grad students who had unexpected perspectives (often out of seminar, over drinks)

The professor was never the thing, and the superstar professors were always worse than the young faculty.

Maybe this is just a philosophy thing, and it's different in history? But if the texts cover an area you are interested in / will be important for your thesis, then it will be good to have to read them well enough to produce a paper.
posted by dis_integration at 9:55 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all these insightful posts. Lots to chew on.

This is an MA only program, I could head on to a PhD if I want to later on, but as of now, I don't think that's my path. I am studying this MA for the love of it, which is why a poorly run course is frustrating on so many levels.

And sure I get that grad school is all about independent work and seminars are determined by students really. There are a couple of students who hog the class discussion, but unfortunately, it's a situation of them going off on a tangent that really doesn't add to the discussion. And I could and should intervene but I am too shy. And the prof is mostly silent.

Just to make it clear, I am paying for this MA so there are no financial ramifications if I drop this course. Secondly, I will graduate on time; I will have to do extra credits next year but it is doable.

PS: in reference to EllaEm's comment: I am a woman who would qualify as a person of colour (I dislike the term because it is such a eurocentric way of looking at things, an umbrella term for all things non-white -- but that's neither here nor there) and my prof is of European heritage as are all my other profs (who are brilliant and run excellent seminars sessions) this semester, so I don't think I have any sort of unconscious bias. Thanks for bringing it up though, I really didn't consider this.
posted by bigyellowtaxi at 10:36 AM on November 5, 2019

Are you certain there are no financial ramifications? At my university there are "tuition liability" deadlines. This late in the semester, you would have to pay tuition for the whole class even if you drop it.
You would also have a W on your transcript (which may or may not be problematic to you).
Is the course listed as repeatable or not? At our university students who drop a course may not re-enroll in the course until the very very end of the registration period. If it's a very popular course here, withdrawing may mean you are unable to get a seat in a later semester.
Best to you, it's a hard choice.
posted by avocado_of_merriment at 11:28 AM on November 5, 2019

Best answer: If it’s for your enjoyment and you’re not enjoying it, mystery solved. Although you might consider using it as a low stakes way to practice being assertive, if you want to.

Being guilty over things that cause no one harm is basically a waste of time. If you want to continue this and try to get more out of it, do so. If it’s a boring waste of time, fuck it. You get to do what you want. You own your own time. Instead of being hard on yourself, admit that the class is a disappointment, you deserved better, and you are entitled to acknowledge their failure without punishing yourself for it.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:38 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'd drop, there is no upside to sticking with it.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:58 PM on November 5, 2019

I also think you should stick it out. That way you can take whatever class superstar prof offers next year. This is just a survey so muck through it.

And, yeah, superstar profs are often terrible teachers. I also agree that this current prof knows a lot more than you.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:54 PM on November 5, 2019

Response by poster: I most definitely don't think I know more than this professor. Far from.

It's just that in comparison to other classes this one sucks and is a complete waste of my time even though I love the subject area. And I'd like to get my money's worth.

Thanks for the useful responses, everyone!
posted by bigyellowtaxi at 8:48 PM on November 5, 2019

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