Dear Mr. Vander Meulen--

Here's the questionnaire--again, thanks for tracking me down. I definitely have strong feelings about the AS@UVA program...

Best regards,
Respondent #12

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*AMERICAN STUDIES M.A. PROGRAM QUESTIONNAIRE*

When were you enrolled in the program? August 1997-August 1998

How did you learn of the program?

I was searching for straight English MA programs and my college advisor recommended that I look into UVA's department. The description of the AS@UVA program in the English department book that was sent out sounded interesting; my subsequent chat with Alan Howard about the program and its combination of technology and humanities pushed me to apply.

Why did you enter the program, and did it meet your expectations?

I entered the program because in the nine months between applying and choosing English MA programs, I became aware that I had no strong desire to get an MA in English--not that I didn't like the study of literature, but I realized that I was not interested in teaching, nor did I want to get a phd at this point (or ever), so it seemed a bit of a dead end. In that same period of time, I started working for a computer company, and did a small amount of work on its web site--my introduction to technology. I was very interested in use of the web, but I wasn't really ready to abandon the idea of studying culture and literature. I was further interested in the American Studies aspect of the program because I had, at that point, lived abroad for two years in two different European countries, and had still not been able to resolve for myself questions about American identity that seemed to come up over and over again. Another aspect was that the program was only a year long--so I knew that I would not be languishing in grad school (unless I wanted to) for years on end. And, quite frankly, I like being in school. After two years out, I wanted to go back and see how I felt about it again. So the combined lure of computers, the web, American Studies (rather than straight literature), and a one year MA brought me to the program.

The program far surpassed my expectations. I learned more than I had any idea I would, both from the cultural perspective and the technological perspective. Without changing a thing about the program, it was far and away the finest educational experience I've ever had, in terms of personal fulfillment, the people involved, the teaching, leadership, equipment, everything. If every year of my life could be that exciting, filled with similarly interesting people, about learning new skills and exploring new ideas, I would be just about the happiest person around. Fortunately, I'm pretty happy anyway, since I can't afford to search the academic world for perfect graduate programs.

What did you find most valuable about the program?

Without a doubt, Alan Howard is the most valuable thing about the program. His leadership, organization and vision gave us the motivation to produce work beyond what any of us thought we were capable of. Alan's dedication both to the program and to the students involved in it made all the difference, many times over.

Was the program different in any significant ways from your earlier education?

It was extremely different. First, my days at Amherst College had not a thing to do with technology. We had a computer center; we all knew how to use email; some of the more technologically intrepid even had VAX hookups in their rooms to check email from the dorm. That was about the extent of it for an English major like myself. There was no discussion of integrating computing with the humanities. At UVA, the integration of our American Studies work with our developing computing skills was the focal point of the program, which was extremely useful; this sort of integration meant that we quickly had to weave together skills and information that would normally have seemed disparate--which of course forced us to understand it all at a rapid pace as well as to see it in a larger context. The program was also different because we were a small group, working intensely together and learning directly from each other, rather than learning competitively in a meet-twice-a-week classroom environment. I know there is a question further down about classmates, so I'll save my big paragraph for that. It was also quite different in that we had Alan, who provided strong, constant, and cohesive leadership--very different from, for instance, my senior thesis advisor at college who I met with once a week for an hour and who of course had other students, classes, and academic concerns. Our academic relationships with Alan were not limited to weekly meetings or quick chats after class; rather, Alan made himself almost always available to us so that the situation was far less formal--and thus the flow of information between the students ourselves and between us and Alan was much freer than anything I've experienced before in school. The casual discussions that took place between my classmates and Alan as we worked on our sites in the computer lab were as (more?) instructive and helpful as any formalized meetings that we attempted.

Did the program help you develop any of these aspects of your life?

-Thinking and communicating?
-Work habits?
-Research abilities?
-Technical abilities?
I'm sure the program did help me develop all of these aspects. In terms of thinking and communicating, it was the first time I'd worked on projects in a group; it was interesting to me to see each of us fall into our natural roles in the group and run with them. That definitely did make me more aware of my communication skills and how I needed to improve them.

Work habits, I have to admit, did not change much from my college days. Not really something I've ever had a problem with or given much thought to, aside from my general ethic to get things done when they need to be. There was some pressure in our program, but frankly most of it was self-imposed or group-imposed.

Research abilities--I have to commend Mr. Vander Meulen for his fine Intro to Research class that I took along with my fellow incomers in August of 1997. That class set me up well in terms of academic research--not that I felt particularly proficient in the libaray right away, but it provided me with the information about what I didn't know, so that at least I could ask the right questions. In terms of less traditional research methods, I came into the program really not even understanding what the internet was or how it worked exactly; the program did a lot towards my understanding of how to use the web as a research tool, how to filter the information received, and so forth. Technical abilities is obviously the big one here. Probably the most important thing that happened to me personally in the program is that I recovered from my built-in, English major, I-don't-need-to-know-this-because-I-just-want-to-read-books technophobia. As you will see in the later questions, this mental shift has drastically changed my life. Concretely, I gained the ability to put together a web site from the ground up; I gained the understanding of how the behind the scenes internet stuff works; I started to get an inkling of programming and hardware and networked computer systems.

To what extent did your classmates affect your experience in the program?

Oh, where to start. Not to overdo this one, but I think MA98 had the most extraordinary luck in the group that came together for our year. The group was smart, motivated, and quickly became dedicated to the idea of the program. We all wanted to learn as much as we could, and we figured out that we could learn from each other amazingly well. Part of that, of course, was that we all became close friends, which removed any element of competition from the program. We wanted to produce good work for each other and for Alan. If it sounds idyllic, it really was; I've found that the total lack of ego issues combined with the desire to share for the common good is very unusual in group situations.

To what extent did the public venue (the Internet) for much your work affect your experience in the program?

The knowledge that what we were doing could be seen by anyone with a computer and an internet connection definitely raised the bar on quality, I think. The closed academic loop (professor assigns paper, I write paper at home in my room, professor reads paper and gives back with grade, I file/toss it) was entirely broken. In AS@UVA, I felt like I was not only doing my projects for Alan, but for my classmates, my family, my former professors at Amherst, as well as general information seekers who might find it. And the response I've gotten to some of my projects from perfect strangers is tremendously rewarding. I heard from the webmaster at the University of Nevada, saying that they had linked to my Hoover Dam site off their homepage. I got an email from a descendent of Alexander Wilson, the early American ornithologist who I did a site on in conjunction with Special Collections, telling how pleased he was to see that his ancestor's art and work had been treated so well. Etc, etc. As you can imagine, that kind of response is priceless, and possible only when work is on a public channel.

Was the course work appropriate to the goals of the program?

Yes. We American Studied, we made websites about it.

Did you perceive yourself as part of any university department or community larger than the American Studies Program itself?

Yes, I felt like the English Department was our umbrella department, but watching my friends who were English MA's or PhD's (ie, not AS@UVA), I was glad that I was only on the periphery--administratively a part of it, so to speak, but not emotionally/spiritually/actually. I'm not really sure if it's graduate programs in English or the kinds of people that are attracted to them (this is a little touchy and please, no offense meant) but I was rather saddened by the level of angst and general wallowing that went on in the larger department among my classmates. It seemed underhandedly competitive--this desparate clawing for recognition from the right professors. Yikes. This is one of the reasons that I came to the conclusion early in my year at Virginia that a)I was so glad I was a part of AS@UVA and not in the larger pool of English MA's and b)I am clearly not cut out for any sort of academic career. To comment just a small bit more on this, I think that the problem is that there are two kinds of people who go to get a higher degree in English: people who seriously want to dedicate their lives to the study of literature/theory/etc and people who Really Like To Read Books and think that means that they should then go to school in the Reading of Books. Hence, a lot of the angst I saw seemed to come from people who were coming to the same conclusions and reluctantly putting themselves in the latter category, thus realizing that they were blowing a lot of money and a couple of years of their twenties to figure out what they shouldn't be doing with their lives.

How well was interdisciplinary study integrated in the program?

Very well, although I wish that within the department there had been a wider selection of American Lit offerings the year I was there. Otherwise, I was quite happy with it. The classes I took were for the most part excellent, particularly Richard Guy Wilson's 20th Century American Architecture. I also loved Mr. Arrata's summer class on English/American Lit in the first half of the 20th century. But to get back to the main question, I felt free to take whatever classes interested me, and to choose projects that would probably go under the rubric of "interdisciplinary." Ie, my thesis was on Grant Wood (American Art, but also social/cultural trends focusing on the Great Depression). I did not at all feel confined to the study of literature, which I was very happy about.

Were the following resources (and any other ones) adequate for your work?

-Libraries?

-Computers and technical support?

-Work space?

-Classes?

-Faculty?

-Financial support?

-Other?

Libraries were fine. I think Alan needed more technical support; he spent a lot of time working on the computers which I know he could have spent more productively and happily on other things. Our computer lab was great from the social aspect--all of us crammed in there--but really everyone should have a computer, etc. Classes were fine, except for what I mentioned above--I wished there had been a wider selection of American Lit classes. Faculty--as I have said, Alan was superlative. I didn't work closely with any other faculty members. Financial support--can't comment on that because I did not get any except for work study. Although, of course, I could have used it, but one of the burdens of the MA is that you know you probably have to pay for it. I might add, on that note though, that the socio-economic demographic of our program was, shall we say, parentally funded. In other words, I don't think you're really going to be reaching any sort of broad population through the program. During the program did you have any relevant part-time employment?

Yes, I work studied. If you go to xroads.virginia.edu, click through on Museum, and go to "Alexander Wilson: American Ornithographer", you can see what UVA paid me to do.

Please describe briefly your major forms of schooling and/or employment since your time in the program (giving dates, name of organization, and chief activities there):

After I finished last August, I was essentially on vacation for way too long. I was trying to decide between moving to San Francisco and moving back to Europe, finally chose Europe and showed up in Prague in January with no job. Happily, things have worked out fairy-talishly well: From the time I arrived in January until the mid-March, I did free-lance web design for Americans in Prague who own businesses here (mostly exporting things made here to the states), and worked part-time at a "web solutions company" called PragueOne doing HTML clean-up on their messy sites and some web design and project management. Probably fortunately, that company essentially folded, forcing me to look for a real job, which I found with minimal trouble.

I now have my dream job; I work for a company called NetBeans, Inc. It is a Czech-owned but American-financed company that makes a software package (called a Java IDE, Integrated Development Environment) that helps Java programmers program faster and more easily. The company is a start-up, so it's very much in a state of flux. I was hired to be smart and creative and fill in holes in the non-technical side of the company. So at this point my responsiblities are:
--Creating an on line community for NetBeans users (this involves testing and selecting community software and coodinating with tech support to get it installed, and then creating community content--contests, polls, news blurbs, etc-- and then holding the community together in a personality type way)
--Re-working the company web site in both look and organization
--Some marketing--driving traffic to the site, dealing with media partners, designing the net banner ads or getting the artists to do it (I usually just do it myself), keeping NetBeans name active in the trade press
--Understanding how the product we make works so I can go to trade shows and be an english-speaking rep for the company

My two most recent job descriptions from my superior were "you know, the happy, fun side of NetBeans" and "NetBeans cruise director".

Did you find advising and placement support in the program to be adequate?

Because I chose to live outside the states, that didn't affect me too much. I did talk to a lot of people who had come and gone before me in the AS@UVA program, which was very helpful in understanding how the degree could be used.

Has your involvement in the program made a discernible difference in the subsequent steps of your career?

Drastically. Never, never, never would I have thought when I graduated from college four years ago that I would be interested in--or capable of-- working in the high-tech software industry. I wrote above about my recovery from my technophobia over the course of the program; truly, that mental shift is what is responsible for the job I had now, which I love.

How might the program be strengthened?

Tough question. Without changing a thing, it was the most profound educational experience I've had in my twenty-odd years of schooling. I think that offering more tech options--ie, if students find they want to learn javascript or find out more about programming, etc.--might be useful. A partnership with the comp sci department? A comp sci grad student on call as work study employment for him/her? Something like that. I also think that Alan needs more tech support in terms of the hardware, and more hardware in general. Otherwise....