Monday, October 12, 2009

No Really, Red. Let's Go.

"Hello, Dr. H--?"

It is well understood that going through a doctoral program takes some combination of brains, motivation, and persistence. I'd tell you it's one of those "pick two" problems, but for my money, it's the last category that is really the indispensable one, especially considering that persistence can look like a lot like inertia or procrastination when you get down to it. A high tolerance for criticism (constructive or otherwise) is helpful too, and extremes of humility or arrogance can be fine defenses against this sort of thing, and are always essential traits in any field. Brains may or may not include any ability for life-planning ability or street smarts, depending on how the opportunity costs weigh against how well you expect to live afterward. As for me, I've been lucky that my scant brains have generally kept pace just barely ahead of my even more unassuming motivation, and I've managed to Peter-Principle my way farther in life than I ever had a right to expect. The gratuitous self-loathing that comes with all that high-level underachievement is just a bonus.

Anyway, what I'm getting at here is that I don't put very much stock in the honorific. I certainly don't use it outside of professional settings, where it might make a proposal or report an iota more professional-looking (and I'm suspicious of people who wave that crap around, including and maybe especially physicians), and no one calls me "Dr. H--" unless they're trying to sell me something. Of course this was no exception.

"Can I help you?"

In certain situations, I don't obligated to control my emotions with a great deal of maturity. This line was delivered with my best Squidward impression.

"Hi, this is Smiley McCutiepie, class of '11, calling from the RPI alumni association--"

Of course you are. "RPI" has been coming up on my caller ID for a month now, and the odds weren't good that they wanted to offer a paid interview for Rensselaer magazine. Incidentally, I don't know when they went back to going by their initials again, but I am glad that they have.

"--and if it's okay we'd just like to verify your contact information--"

Well, it gets me the aforementioned magazine, which indeed gives me some fine distraction as the girls pound on the door.

'--and if you are interested, I can tell you about some of the exciting things that are happening on campus."

RPI, which of course you know, is a small-ish, somewhat respected science and engineering school in a region that's only "upstate" New York if you live in the city. It was made famous by the accomplishments of its old, great civil engineers, and by opening up and expanding to engage a host of technically-awakened GIs after the war. I'd say the engineering programs are (or were) more academically oriented than comparable ones, sacrificing a little of the hands-on, and (I am sorry to say) a little of the graduate research effort. It has enough character of its own to avoid calling it a second-string MIT, but such a comparison is probably inevitable anyway. RPI students seem to maintain a sort of geeky joie de vivre that I'd seen stamped out of MIT students. (Of course i saw it stamped out of my fellow engineers too, in real time, but those guys were decent enough to still hang out and drink with us.) I was pretty happy there. If piling higher and deeper had to be in the cards, and given that I seemed in tune with some of the chemistry staff, I should have stuck around. (I just wasn't into the idea of hanging out with the faculty after avoiding them so successfully for four years.)

Smiley explained that the campus happenings of interest to alumni included (1) the gigantic new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) building, and (2) a brand new athletic village.

As for EMPAC, I have to admit it sounds impressive in principle, and a performance center and huge panoramic displays are great assets, even if it lacks that charming shoestring nerdiness of showing recent movie hits in the big lecture hall. And there's never a bad excuse to buy a supercomputer. I'm biased that they sought to erect this behemoth on a piece of my own personal collegiate nostalgia--I used to like to read on that hillside when the weather was nice--and you know, I can't shake the feeling that it's such an obvious knockoff of MIT's Media Lab. Better than MIT's, the press releases argue, but to argue that admits the comparison. The building tempts ass-ugliness too, more because it actually has an ass (note the photo), than by dint of sheer garishness. (No, that honor also goes to MIT, for the famous Tim Burton Stata center, that is now getting Frank Gehry sued. Evidently the architect--not RPI trained, I'll add--thought long and hard about how to make that monstrosity stand up, but didn't account for where the water would go when it rained.) I also don't like that EMPAC fails to match the odd-but-functional marriage of nineteenth century brick-and-ivy and 1970s brutalism that makes up the central campus, and in all, it's just a damned expensive bit of prestige. Maybe those kids who study there, if any do, will all go on to be CGI animators. I think that's something America still produces.

RPI is also not an Ivy League school. It does have a sports tradition, with a hockey team that performs well above what you think a geek school should (some players were athletes and geeks--Joe Juneau, to take the best example, makes us all look bad), and in addition to the quality facilities, there's a whole slew of local rinks, and all the intramural games were even more fun for the general incompetence of the rest of us. Hockey's great. And the mixture of hockey and engineering has character. There are other sports of course, and in recent years, RPI has taken it on itself to become a football school as well, and for the life of me, I couldn't tell you why. Have the alumni been secretly jealous all these years of the gridiron programs in corn country? Of the elite rivalries among the august Northeast institutions? I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I suspect there is a sizable population of bright kids whose well-roundedness has been thwarted by football all through high school, which may even have steered them away from state school in the first place. I think the sport's okay, mind you, but I see the effort as another expensive proposition to loudly trumpet that the alma mater is trying to be just like all the other ones, only not as winningnessly. (We is enjineers; English was already a casualty.) Have they thought this through?

(Also, I'll add more unwarranted bias. I remember the football fraternity as a bunch of douchebags back in the day.)

"Uh, yeah, Smiley, when I think of RPI, I have always"

Less Squidward now, and more joking. I won't let her off too easy, but she seems so nice.

"Ha ha. Also, would you like to pledge--"


"Oh, I understand. But even if you just donate $20 a month..."

You know, I don't send money to NPR either, and I actually get a service, of sorts, out of those pitiable bozos.

What a harsh mistress is prestige! It cost a lot of money to send me to college, and now, with this not-entirely-convincing donor-baiting, it's going to cost the next group of kids that much more. Even with all the education, I'm not so steady on my feet that I can go and throw cash around to everyone who asks. Apparently some of the alumni contribution goes to scholarships (I was told--I never saw evidence of it when I went to school), and, what is supposed to convince someone of my meager status, the more donors a school receives, the better it looks when US News and World Report comes along and does the top 50. That's pretty amazing too, if you think about it. Here's a magazine that can't stand up to the journalistic might of Time or Newsweek--talk about your runners-up--almost single-handedly, through the tyranny of a scholastic rating system ungenerous enough to include an evaluation of the old-boys network in the university equation, driving up college costs for the masses, and directing generations of kids into a lifetime indebted servitude. For that sort of investment in the American Dream, I don't know why anyone would be foolish enough to become an engineer.

"We can give more information in email if you like. Would you be interested in that?"

"Oh, all right."

I've already gotten the electronic notice that I've "pledged," and I suppose that means I'll have to break my "word," but the reminder is easy to ignore. I'm hoping that the emails will at least get them to stop with the phone calls.


Schmutzie said...

You're forgotten to mention my favorite reason for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's widespread fame.


College Bowl quiz show.

RPI was in the top row, and RPI student Rick Moranis was constantly offering to fix the shorting buzzers, and driving quizmaster Eugene Levy insane.

It killed.

Besides academics (and football) that is what RPI will always mean to me.

Keifus said...

That's awesome.

(No doubt the SNL gang would have gone with MIT in a similar skit. But who's funnier, really? See what I mean?)


twif said...

well, i'm calling you dr. k from now on.


i've moved enough to throw the moneygrubbers off the scent.

Keifus said...

Don't you dare.

Keifus said...

Oh, and it took 'em years, but a few years of domestication helps 'em catch up with you. It might be some consolation to know that it took longer for our beloved state school to find me (and my wife).

switters said...

NPR? "[P]itiable bozos"?!?

Good day, sir. I said good day!

(I'll just add that the best way to cure oneself of the love of music is to go to music school, if that helps.)

Keifus said...

Pitiable? Those pledge drives are an endless parade of kicked puppies, and you know it. I'm a big listener, and as you know, a big fan of some of their programming, but getting ten straight minutes of sob story and passive-agressive threats to delay David Brooks' and E.J. Dionne's Thursday "dialogue" if I don't pay up, isn't quite the right tool to inspire me to blow the dust off of my creaking billfold.

My sincere condolences on the music thing. It's true that science and engineering attracts some fraction of arrogant, hypercompetitive motherfuckers, but it's not actually a requirement.

twif said...

yeah, i can hear the homing beacon in my diploma acting up again.