This past December concluded my first quarter as a PhD History student at the University of California, Davis. I handed in my final papers the first week of December, and I went on a short-lived winter break, from which I have already returned. Even though I had been on the dreadful “quarter system” (as opposed to the more ideal “semester system”) for my undergraduate studies at DePaul University, the timing was a little different there. At Depaul, students had a lot more time off for winter break. Our classes ended before Thanksgiving and returned after the winter holidays, during the first week of January. This gave students over a month off. At Davis, we did not get out until the end of the first week of December, leaving us about three weeks of break. But this really becomes more like two weeks because you have to discount the final week of break, which students spend doing homework in preparation for the first class of the next quarter. Sigh.
But now that I have a full quarter of PhD school behind me, I am feeling more confident. I wanted to start a new series of blog entries that would chronicle my ongoing reflections of life in graduate school. This post is intended to be the first installment of that series. I plan to follow-up with more posts throughout the next five years. Yes, that’s right. It will take a least five years for me to obtain a PhD in History, even though I already spent two years in a master’s program at Loyola University Chicago. By the time the whole process will be over (in the spring of 2020?), I will have logged 11 total years of formally studying History in institutions of higher learning. 4 years at DePaul, 2 at Loyola, and 5 at UC Davis.
The first thing that surprised me about coming to UC Davis was the difference of being at a public school, rather than a private school. To tell the truth, I have not attended a public school since I graduated from Daniel Wright Junior High in Lincolnshire, Illinois, in the eighth grade. Even my high school was a private school. It’s hard for me to know which characteristics of Davis are the result of its public-school status, but at least I can say this: there are a lot more people here! In 2014, the student population of UC Davis was 35, 417! This is approximately 12,000 more than DePaul University, 20,000 more than Loyola University, and over 35,000 more than my high school. (It was a very small high school; my graduating class was about 70 students.) Moreover, DePaul University was a commuter school, so you never saw the entire student body on campus together. It’s safe to say that UC Davis is by far the biggest institution I have ever been a member of.
I am reminded about the size of UC Davis on a daily basis. I am trying to save money (a topic for its own post, to be sure) so I don’t spend any time in line at the school cafeteria getting coffee or food. But I am not sure that I would want to either. The lines are very long if you try to go at the wrong time and, even though there are several rooms for seating, it can be hard to find an empty chair. There are times when I sat on the concrete divider because I simply could not find a seat. On the flip side, the campus feels like a ghost town when students are on break. I began spending time on campus during the summer. I was meeting with a Spanish tutor at the hub of Memorial Union. During these days, school was out-of-session, and we often felt like the only ones there! In other words, UC Davis has its peak times, and its population tends to swing dramatically from over-crowded to almost desolate. In contrast, DePaul University never felt this desolate because more students took courses over the winter and summer breaks, and the school blended seamlessly on its outer edges with the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park. Loyola University did feel this desolate on the off-months. I remember working at the reference desk of the Information Commons on break and not getting any questions all day.
Another notable difference about UC Davis is the corresponding town of Davis revolves completely around the University. Davis has a small, grid-shaped downtown area filled with single-story boutique shops, restaurants, and a few bars (I mean a few. You can count the ones people prefer to go to on one hand). This downtown area mirrors the transient populations of the University. When school is in session, the downtown is bustling with students walking down the sidewalks, eating on the patios, going to the movie theater, and shopping in the store fronts. But when the school is not in session, the downtown can be very quiet, and the demographics of Davis’ permanent residents stick out like a sore thumb. Only middle-class or wealthy older people can afford to buy property in Davis, and these are the kinds of people that hang around the downtown area year long.
Of course, this is so different from the atmosphere at DePaul and Loyola. Both of theses schools were located in city limits of Chicago (which, I believe, is still the third most populated city in the country). Even so, these campuses had their differences. DePaul had very porous boundaries and was nestled right in the heart of Lincoln Park: one of the most gentrified, wealthiest, and whitest neighborhoods of Chicago. Anyone could walk onto DePaul’s campus fairly easily. Likewise, only seconds after leaving a class, students could walk onto Fullerton Avenue and blend into a sea of anonymous people who had nothing to do with the University. It took less than a minute to go from a room full of college students to a street packed with working-class people from the service industry and middle-class people commuting from the downtown offices. There was a distinct anonymity to Lincoln Park. You could live only a train ride away from campus and expect that you wouldn’t see anyone you knew when you weren’t at school.
Loyola University was a little different. The boundaries were far less porous. While the University was located off Sheridan Avenue, a main street, it was also secluded by the urban landscape and the natural geography. The curving route of the ‘El’ tracks, the gates on the north and west side, the apartment complexes and beach on the south side, the curving route of Sheridan Avenue on the north side, and Lake Michigan on the east side all created the effect that Loyola was a protected outpost or a fortified bastion. This created in me a feeling of discomfort because the surrounding neighborhood of Rogers Park was not anything like Lincoln Park. In fact, in the year 2008, a study from DePaul University called the Chaddick Diversity Study called Rogers Park the most diverse neighborhood in all of Chicago. This is amazing considering that there are more than 200 neighborhoods in the city! While the neighborhood of Uptown was named the most racially diverse in the city, Rogers Park was given the title of most diverse when all factors were accounted for, including economic and age diversity.
So the closed off feeling of Loyola University’s campus always disturbed me a little bit. I could see why the University wanted to insulate itself from the culture and residents of Rogers Park (even if I could not agree with it, which I can’t). The neighborhood does have a reputation for gun violence and poverty, and the school is primarily interested in catering to wealthy and white families from Chicago’s North Shore. These families have a lot of money, the tuition at Loyola is quite expensive, and the school wants to ensure the “safety” of these students, many of whom are leaving their homes for the first time. At any rate, it can be a very strange and enlightening experience to spend a day on Loyola’s pristine, manicured campus fronted by the glistening Lake, and then go on a twenty-five minute walk south to the relatively rundown, brick low-rises and endemic poverty of Howard Street. There could not be a more stark contrast between urban landscapes. I do not feel like I am exaggerating when I write that Loyola’s campus and the heart of Rogers Park at Howard Street represent two distinct images of America.
But Loyola’s campus is beautiful and there is no denying that. The sheer beauty of the campus was what attracted me to the school in the first place. The back wall of the main study center, called the Information Commons, is made entirely of glass. It overlooks the pale-blue Lake Michigan, and the horizon line separating the water from the sky is only a faint shift from one shade of blue to another. Sitting in one of the plush beige chairs in the back of the Information Commons, it feels like you are reclining at the side of an infinity pool. It is the kind of view that you can get no where else in the city of Chicago. In all of my years in the Windy City, I have never seen a view quite like it.
I have yet to find the same kind of views at UC Davis. The land in Davis is entirely flat and, unlike Loyola and Chicago, you cannot walk endlessly amid urban or suburban landscapes. If you walk for long enough in Davis, you will come face to face with wheat or corn fields. (I don’t know what is actually in the fields; but let’s go with wheat or corn for the sake of the imagery). In other words, the campus and the city are huddled together in a rural setting. This keeps the culture of UC Davis contained, especially during the months that school is in session. Just to give you an idea for the kind of smallness I am talking about, the first day Emelie and I arrived in UC Davis, we ran into a group of graduate students that we had met during recruitment weekend outside a bar downtown! The very first day! Unlike both DePaul and Loyola, this is not the kind of town where you can disappear. You will probably see someone you know every time you go out of the house.
The class sizes are another surprising fact about UC Davis and its public school status. I had heard of teacher’s assistants at Loyola University (not at DePaul because the History department didn’t really have a strong graduate program), but I never fully understood why they were necessary. The class sizes at Loyola were usually pretty small (maybe 10 to 40 students), so why would any teacher need an assistant? At UC Davis on the other hand, class sizes for History resemble the giant lectures you see in movies about state colleges. There can be as many as 150 students in one lecture hall! (There can probably be a lot more than this, but 150 is a number I have heard thus far). With 150 students in a class, teachers definitely need TA’s. They need teacher’s assistants to run smaller sections of the course on a weekly basis so that each student has an opportunity to discuss the course material in person. Students cannot really discuss the material with the professor, or even each other, during class time because there are just too many people! 150 voices would leave no time for the teacher to run their lecture and get through the required curriculum. Teachers also need assistants to grade assignments. If the teacher spent all of his or her time grading 150 assignments each time that a paper or an exam is due, they would never have time to prepare their lectures, work with graduate students, or engage in their own research.
But these giant class sizes are not my experience. I am on a fellowship for the first year, so I do not have to be a teacher’s assistant. My job is to concentrate on my graduate studies, work on my career development, and obtain good grades (which I am doing, by the way; I was fortunate enough to get A’s in my first two courses; thank you professors! You were too kind!). So far, none of my class sizes have exceeded 10 students, and I have met in the exact same seminar room every time. Yes, that’s right. All four of my courses have met in the same room! I even sit in the same seat every meeting! Can a psychologist please tell me why?
At any rate, this room that I now live in is #2202, the Roland Marchand seminar room on the second floor of the Social Sciences and Humanities Building. Moreover, the exact same group of students, give or take a few people, have been in all of my courses. This makes sense though. I am generally in a room with my cohort of first-year students (known both condescendingly or endearingly as “first years” by other graduate students; once again, the hierarchies of graduate school life are a topic for another post entirely).
There are about 75 students in the History department at UC Davis, but you wouldn’t know it by attending my classes. Most of the time, I see only students in their first and second years in the History program. Most students after their third year in the program–when they have entered the stage of the process known as “candidacy”–only come to campus infrequently, on an “as-needed” basis. At this point, students are researching and writing their dissertations, and you do not have to be on campus to do this work. In fact, many people head back to their homes to work on their dissertations with less distractions.
Anyway, the little word-count number in the bottom-right hand corner of this page is telling me that I am approaching 2,300 words. I think that that is probably far too much for a blog post in the year 2016, so I will sign off for now. In the future, I will continue to offer my periodic reflections of life in graduate school. There are so many specific topics that I want to share my thoughts on. So many, and so little time. Only five short years…
Thanks for reading, and best wishes.