A few days before I was set to attend University of Wisconsin-Madison’s visit day, a current student sent the admitted students an e-mail with the heading “A note on the protests.” Madison, as any American vaguely cognizant of the world around them knows, has been the first site of serious resistance to neo-liberal U.S.-style austerity, coming in the form of a two-week occupation of the state capitol in protest against a union-busting budget bill. While I doubt it came as a surprise to any of us, the e-mail’s author thought we should know that many sociology graduate students had been heavily involved in the protests. After about eight paragraphs describing that involvement, however, the student qualified himself—“this e-mail is for information purposes only.” The real reason he was writing was to let us know that people of all ideological pursuasions are welcome at Madison Sociology.
In light of my visit this Friday, that last bit seems pretty laughable. Sociology students weren’t just “involved” in the Madison protests: they were the leaders of the Teaching Assistant’s Association that instigated early demonstrations, organizers of the capitol occupation’s media center, and operators of the website that has coordinated the event. The entire department has been nearly shut down for the last six weeks, as grad students deserted class en masse to support the occupation. Those faculty members who didn’t join them worked collaboratively to cover their lectures and discussion sections, shielding the students from facing any backlash. One PhD student even told me he came up with the idea of the committee-hearing filibuster—which sparked the occupation—while eating his breakfast blueberries. Everyone I talked to in the department had been quite literally living and breathing activism since the beginning of the year.
I’ve realized on this trip that most graduate schools look at outside interests as a liability, not an asset. I, myself, have realized how hard it is to balance serious scholarship and activism, as I’ve lamented on this blog before. What made Madison impressive to me, though, was how the same students who described to me how they spent the last six weeks camped out in the state capitol would rapidly shift gears to start talking about the first, second, and third books they planned on publishing. Indeed, I even learned that the students most active in the teaching assistant’s union are already planning an edited volume on their experiences.
Another thing that my grad school visits have taught me is that whatever a department takes pains to assure students isn’t true probably is. Berkeley told us they weren’t all a bunch of hard left intellectuals divorced from the professional core of the discipline. Stanford assured us that their department consists of more than atomized, asocial number crunchers. And Madison wanted us to know that really, really, they weren’t all that competitive with one another. The fact that Madison’s sociology building has showers inside it, though, suggests otherwise. After the love-fest of my other visits, I find the prospect rather intoxicating.
That said, Wisconsin would not be an easy place to go to school. It’s fucking cold—even Michigan wanted us to know that their winters weren’t as bad as Madison’s. And the funding is painfully bad. While I’m honored to have received one of their top fellowships, I’m still being offered less than half of what Stanford threw at me. Sadly, funding is a symptom of a larger problem; a world-class institution—existing against the odds in a small state with a modest income—that is being systematically devalued by the current administration. It’s also a huge department. It’s easy to distinguish yourself when you’re the only activist around or the top student—it’s a lot harder when the people around you manage to blend the two so seamlessly.
Madison was the first place I thought about when I decided to do a PhD. It was the first place my mentors suggested I apply to. And it was the first school that accepted me. Last week, though, I thought that in the mental grad school race, it had peaked early, as my mind fixated on other places. Madison is back in the running, though, in a big way, probably precisely because it feels like the riskiest, boldest, and most dramatically different option.