Friday, April 27, 2012

Day 2, Road Trip, April 25, 2012

Road Trip, Day 2, April 25, 2012

No driving today, thank the powers that be, just a day to do whatever we wanted in the cool college town of Morgantown, West Virgina, seat of the two main campuses of WVU, West Virginia University, the town's biggest employer and whose student population of about 22,000 undergrads and about 8,000 graduate, post graduate and professional school students are equal to the about 30,000 non school Morgantownians.

It turns out that our hotel is just across from a building housing the WVU administration office. And the kid who drove me to Walmart yesterday so that I could buy the belt I forgot to pack--don't ask--as hotel service and who was a senior at the university suggested we take a college tour. So at 10:10 am after having roused myself from my lair--changing history is tiring; and, it seems, it's not made in a day--and before my breakfast I sauntered into the admin office and signed up for the 2:00 pm tour, deciding that the 10:30 am one just wasn't doable. 

So breakfast was had and I'm stunned at how healthy it was: hot oatmeal garnished with dried red cherries, egg whites, a plate of fruit, and then less healthy a side order of burnt bacon. I felt squeamish telling our black waiter that I wanted the bacon so crisp that it was as black as night. But I went for it. And it was good. We then walked briskly on an ascendingly warm and sunny day on pathway running alongside the Monongahela River, quite the other end of the river spectrum from, say, the mighty Mississippi River, for at least Morgantown's portion of it. Polluted and fetid it was and host to only one item of wildlife, a solitary duck who seemed quite downcast and alienated from his habitat and wishing for clearer streams and maybe a few female ducks to make things lively. 

At a certain point, we climbed from the path up a steep walkway to the street where were immediately adjacent to the university. Afternoon tour notwithstanding we walked up to the campus, wandered about a bit, found the bookstore which housed a Starbucks, got some $8,000.00 drinks and sat in the sun observing life's passing student parade.  I started a conversation with some kids sitting near to us and rediscovered that it was "dead week," a week of no classes before exams to allow for studying and finishing due papers. Rediscovered because my Walmart driver had mentioned it the day before. I also had a copy of the student newspaper, The Athenaeum, which I believe is a daily.

One of the articles had it that dead week is the most stressful week of the student year and that:

...Several classes are administering exams this week, even though the WVU dead week policy forbids it. Since most finals are comprehensive and worth more of a student's grade than previous exams, there should be ample time for preparation. Studying for a comprehensive exam takes more effort and time as compared to regular exams given throughout the semester... 

 If students are having trouble during finals because of exams, quizzes and major projects being due the week prior, then more students will perform poorly and will be more likely to drop out. If the University were to strictly enforce a dead week policy it would be for the benefit of the students and WVU. Students don't need to be babied and given special treatment; they just need a fair opportunity to succeed...

An argument ensued: my position was, "You've got to be kidding me, complaining about other academic things going on during this week. You've got all semester to do all your studying and get your essays written. What's with leaving things till the last minute and then complaining that the last minute--isn't pure enough free time for you? Think of how much time you waste during the school year partying and what not and then tell me about the unfairness of some work and test piled on during "dead week.  I told them that when I was in school we had no dead weeks and not only that but I walked 10 miles to and from school without shoes in the rain and and snow, and that was for courses I was auditing, so much did I love learning. My disputants really had no answer to my substantive point and rather believed my story about my barefoot trekking.

We hustled back to our hotel after that intense polemic just in time for the two o'clock tour led by a heavy set, black junior named Charyssa, who spoke so quickly and indistinctly that it was very hard to understand her. We took a two hour tour of the two campuses about a mile between them and I must say the student amenities, athletic facilities, libraries, department diversity, and school spirit were most impressive.

A preponderance of students were waring sweat or tee shirts adorned in the school colors, gold and blue, many of them celebrating the twin princes of football and basketball. West Virginians, having no  professional teams, make a religion out of their college teams and sports has a royal place of pride in the university's pantheon of what is prized.  I occasionally read articles in the New York Review of Books about the blight on academics of college sports, how non academically performing athletes are pampered and greased through their schooling, how sports drains away valuable dollars and resources, how they're a distraction from the university's core academic mission. 

Clearly these authors have never been to WVU and like schools where sports reigns supreme. For all their arguments, the sheer and overwhelming reality of sports on campus means "like there's no way" their arguments will see the light of any foreseeable day. And I must say after a couple of hours of immersion in the intensity and pervasiveness of school sports and the school spirit it generates, the articles, their arguments and their authors seem somewhat desiccated to me. 

An interesting topic on the tour was college costs. West Virginia, a very poor state, has in state tuition for undergraduates of about $6,000.00 a year, with out of state tuition at triple that. Just by comparison, UCLA resident tuition is $12,686.00. Maryland in state tuition is $8,000.00. Princeton tuition, a private school, is $38,650.00.  I've been to Ivy League campuses and there's no seeming comparison academically to what's available at a Princeton and a WVU.  But for my money, barring near to full scholarship or something so extraordinary about my kid that only a Princeton or a Stanford or a MIT or a Cal Tech would do, I'd pick a state school in a New York minute, and I'd pick the school of the state I was in to avoid the trebling cost. Graduate school or professional school may present different considerations. But for an undergraduate education, private school costs radically to my mind outweigh their rather intangible benefits. 

So, in a nutshell, I came away impressed by WVU and what a small poor state could put together and on offer. I remember once being on of these trips to Rhode Island, which has Brown University as well as its state university. WVU reinforces my impression of what a wondrous American thing it is that all 50 states have their state schools, each with tremendously trained faculties of scholars an teachers spectaculourly offering the enlightened diverse wonders of the world to their state's and other states' and really the world's youth. For all the problems with American student debt and with all the challenges coming from the on lining of higher education, I still think what's on collegiate offer in America is a miraculous achievement.

Tour ended, hotel bound we were.

She who must be obeyed stayed put and I met an on line commenter from The New Republic, who lives in Morgantown, for a pleasant dinner filled with intensely interesting conservation, which my energy level compels me to leave simply at that. Tomorrow it's on the road again heading for both Wilkesboro North Carolina for Merlefest and and Boone, North Carolina, half an hour away for a place to stay for the next four nights.  

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