Awake In The Nick Of Time


I’d like to point out I realized it was just a school stress dream. It had that classic form where I remembered in the midst of helping somebody or other move somewhere or other that the professor said we didn’t have to turn anything in by any particular time. That’s plausible enough for grad school, since the only actual requirement of grad school is “eventually, you have to leave”. It’s the best. But in the dream I realized I had started thinking maybe the second week of class that I could do this stuff later, and now it was way later, and then I realized that of course I was just having a dream, luckily moments before the City Fathers — the giant vacuum-tube supercomputers running the space-travelling New York City in James Blish’s classic science fiction Cities In Flight series of novels — ordered my summary execution. Fortunately, imaginary computers have little power over people in dreams. Also classic science fiction mostly means “it’s probably better if you don’t go back and re-read it while paying attention”.

My Fortune To Be Made: Grad Student Fantasy Camp


After thinking hard about my life, and talking with a bunch of former grad students, I’ve realized, pretty much the sweetest phase of life is being in grad school. Oh, there’s good stuff about being a real adult too, like owning a car that doesn’t need the alternator replaced every four months, and not having to explain to undergraduates that the course textbook is the one listed under “course textbook” on the syllabus, which is the thing on the class web site labelled “syllabus”, but most of the good stuff now was also good stuff then, and back then we didn’t have to pay off student loans. This is what inspires me to open a Grad Student Fantasy Camp.

Fantasy Camps are one of the two remaining growth sectors in the American economy, the other being podcasters doing complete rewatches of Star Trek. Fantasy Camps give a chance to do something great like pretend to be a baseball player or astronaut or Let’s Make A Deal host and then go home to add a bunch of new acquaintances that further diffuse the notion of “friend” on your Facebook. Here’s why and how Grad Student Fantasy Camp will work.

Who wants to attend Grad Student Fantasy Camp? Anyone who’s not satisfied with their academic career, which is everyone who went to grad school after 1992, when the last tenure-track position in their specialty was filled. Remember those teaching assistants dressed unconfidently and trying not to do the homework for you while explaining where you went wrong in recitation sections? They all spend this time of year sighing at the window while thinking of the days the biggest weights on their mind were when to maybe start studying for something called “quals”. They’ll pay nicely to feel like that for even a week.

And! The Grad Student theme lets us turn that into a brilliant pricing strategy. Whatever the actual cost is, we’ll say the price of the camp is, like, eight times that. But on “acceptance” to Grad Student Fantasy Camp the customer-student also gets tuition assistance, covering the cost of the first day in exchange for “work” as a TA. They’ll feel like they’re getting such a deal, whatever they actually pay.

The assistance offer gets “renewed” every day, up until the final day of camp when the student is notified the department has enjoyed your Grad Student experience as much as you have, but you should really be getting on with your thesis now. The student then defends a ritual thesis to an advisor, whom they pick on arbitrary grounds the third or fourth day, and three people the student never saw before or will see again, their committee.

The TA work will be grading “student assignments” themselves composed by a Markov chain generator so that there’s a limit to their madness. The grading is done in green pen, to make this legitimately challenging work, because humanity has never solved the problem of making a green pen that successfully writes.

Grad Student Fantasy Camp needs facilities, but by having it either in summer or over winter break we can rent out an actual college or university campus, or just count on not being noticed by the grad students teaching real summer courses. This way the Fantasy Camp gets the necessary buildings and a library that uses the Library of Congress Catalogue System For Crying Out Loud, What Is This Dewey Decimal Nonsense.

We’ll need faculty, to be advisors and committees, and to hold lectures that students can attend the first couple of days before they retreat to “work” on their “theses”. For them we hire adjuncts, who get not just pretty good per-hour pay but also the healing dignity of students who reflexively call them “Doctor” or “Professor” and wouldn’t dream of sending them e-mails addressing them by a contraction of their first names and filled with text-y abbreviations. Of course, to satisfy the students’ need to feel like they’re back in grad school, the faculty will have to seem older than even the students are, but that can be done by the faculty looking generally disapproving of things, and having every document on the class web site (proudly HTML 2.0 compliant) be a download in Rich Text Format.

For the social side of the experience, we’ll encourage students to hang out, reading the good bits of texts — not books, texts, maybe even volumes — from the GV, HS, PN, or maybe even the QC sections of the library while swapping stories about Electrical Engineering undergrads. After the second night our faculty starts inviting groups of students to bars around campus, sharing wild tales of intrigue in the University Senate and leading contests to see who can read without cracking up the longest from furious e-mails in which Brian Leiter threatens bloggers with defamation lawsuits. Around 2 am staff will remind students that there are perfectly good simulation or strategy games or text-based RP MOOs that aren’t going to play themselves. Of course we’ll have guitars at the ready just in case.

Graduation will be heartbreaking, but a sweet chance for a good department dinner at the brew pub where students and faculty promise to stay in touch. Maybe they even will a while, but — and here’s why Grad School Fantasy Camp will succeed — the tug back to campus will last, and bring the customer-students back, maybe several times a summer. I kind of want to go to it myself.

Interested? Please contact the admissions office, care of our confusing and unsearchable web site.

Further Warnings From The Dream World


So, my first warning of practical consequence based on my dreams is this: apparently the student union from grad school days is being used as the center point for some stunt where throwing wrapped-up flags on their poles to the second-storey balcony is being done, and some of these are going to be fired right off as firecrackers. However, the real story is that the Math Dorm, the three-connected bedrooms where all the math students are able to gather and hang out, doesn’t have anyone officially listed as being in it, and nobody seems to be going into or out of it, but it shows signs of recent occupation — warm coffee cups or doughnuts and the like — while all of the dated materials, including calendars and notepads, show no dates more recent than October of 2011. This is a mystery and I don’t know how to begin solving it.

The second warning comes from this tightly-packed little conference room, which I have to get ready for a high-level meeting of multinational multimedia conglomerate heads who are late and are apparently going to be late as long as this little problem doesn’t get worked out, and the difficulty in getting the tight-fitting overstuffed late-60s style tan vinyl cushions packed into the little oval space for them (it kind of looks like the center pit from Dangermouse‘s stately postal box, if that helps) seems unbeatable. This would be less challenging if the room didn’t keep going up to even-numbered floors only to drop back to odd-numbered ones. I believe the takeaway from this is a reinforcement of the old cliche, “too many elevators, not enough Walt Disneys”.

Close Cut Things


I haven’t had to mow a lawn in a long time. For some of that time I was a grad student, and the administration gets all tense when grad students are allowed near sharp objects. They’d rather we stick to harmless stuff like grading essays about the symbolism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I was in grad school for math; I still don’t know why I was grading Uncle Tom’s Cabin essays. They were very protective about their lawns, which they buried in concrete back in the 70’s. Then I was in Singapore, where the lawns weren’t my concern, and they have special equipment anywhere where people go around with vacuum cleaners to suck the grass up to the correct height. You can see where you don’t want that falling into average civilian hands, ever since that accident in Choa Chu Kang (old town) where someone left the machine unattended for a couple hours and they got grass stalks up to 8.5 miles high, menacing navigation and making Malaysia think Singapore was trying to pick a fight.