Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Harvard Extended Interview Series: Cynthia Iris, ALM government concentrator

I'm very happy to present the first in a series of interviews with current and former Harvard Extension School students about their experiences at HES. The purpose of these interviews is to let others better understand Extension School programs and student life. I often get emails from people interested in coming here, and try to answer their questions to the best of my ability (see "Questions from a prospective Harvard Extension School student", "Acceptance rate for Harvard Extension School graduate programs?" and "ALM biology concentrator comments & building a Web community") but there are many gaps in my knowledge, not to mention different points of view among classmates in similar ALM programs. I hope these interviews will help fill in some of the gaps, and give a different perspective of Extension School programs.

Here's the first interview in the series, with Cynthia Iris, an ALM Government concentrator and fellow Extension School blogger. Cynthia has some very interesting opinions about how the ALM program could be improved. If you're in the ALM program, you may find yourself nodding in agreement -- or you may disagree. Whatever the case, she offers another perspective borne from experience attending HES classes.

Ian Lamont/Harvard Extended: Why did you choose the Extension School for your graduate studies?
Cynthia Iris: I was interested in studying international relations and foreign policy but not ready to commit to a graduate program. So I started taking a couple of classes in Extension. I had a master’s degree already but didn’t want to re-take the GRE so I chose the entrance route of Extension which means doing well in three classes and no testing.
What's been the most challenging academic experience you've had here?
Learning to write a strong academic paper again -- coming up with a thesis, learning how to argue your thesis, writing well in an academic style and doing a particular format (i.e., APA or MLA).

A second, important academic challenge is learning to structure your time to get the work done: reading, writing, analysis, and exam preparation. It takes some adjustments and time to get into a rhythm about this.
What types of interactions do you have with other members of the Extension School community?
Practically none. It’s very much a ‘commuter’ experience where students come to class and leave. Since there are no class cohorts (i.e., no “class of 2010”), it’s hard to even feel like you are connected to your fellow students in the concentration you’ve selected. I recommend creating an online community, all voluntary, by concentration. This would help students calibrate their experiences, find some other graduate students to connect with, get feedback from peers, and feel less they’re walking blind or alone through the experience.
How do you think the ALM program could be improved?
Make the academics more rigorous for ALMs, by several means:

a) High on my list: have most of the classes geared to specific degree types of students – courses only for ALBs, courses only for ALMs, much less mixing. Currently, the graduate students, undergraduates, and community members who are just auditing are mixed together in many of the classes, certainly the majority of the lectures. The lectures and their workloads are mostly geared to undergraduates. Also, auditors are allowed to actively participate in the class discussions, a practice which can preclude degree students from commenting (there’s only so much time for discussion). Another example -- in several lecture courses, all the ALMS had to do for graduate credit was to add two pages onto the final paper that was required of all students. Further, officially, Extension won’t allow Sections in a lecture class to be split by level either. Graduate students who want to be in a section together have to arrange such a thing on their own and Extension won’t provide a TA for that.

b) Have more faculty advisors per concentration and have them meet with students as they develop their program, not just at thesis proposal time.

c) The required proseminar I took was strong on content but fell somewhat short on process which is the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. It’s not to teach a subject such as the Cold War, rather it is to teach you how to go about the work of academic writing and research, using the subject to illustrate certain process issues and resources. The proseminar experience can vary quite a bit depending on who is teaching. There should be more standardization in this one class as it is the ‘gateway’ to the program and sets the foundation for your research and writing skills, especially for the thesis. My professor was great for teaching the subject matter which happened to be an important subject for my particular interests. It gave me a solid understanding of historical developments in western Europe. But I’m glad I coupled the proseminar with Analytical Reasoning.

d) Sequence of courses – doesn’t exist really but it should. When I took my first class, I asked about this and was assured it didn’t matter. Now, I can say I disagree.

The Analytical Reasoning class (Dr. Wideman) was a boon. I’m glad I took early on (it is not required). Even though the course topic didn’t apply to my main field (government), she was great and provided a strong learning curve so that everyone would be a better student with real tools to do the work (critical thinking, writing, research) throughout the program.

e) Faculty accessibility. Some faculty are better about this than others. One odd aspect about this: if you miss a class or two for whatever legitimate reason, you are on your own to find out what was covered. The unwritten policy is that the professor is not available in office hours to discuss what you missed, even for a brief overview. Yet students get mixed messages from faculty – in several courses I took, the professors lamented that students never attend office hours. But if you are seriously ill, they are unavailable to you, even to discuss the general idea of the class you missed. Therefore, Extension ought to have some resource available for students to connect with each other since absences do happen for good reasons; I suggest a listserv of all class members willing to be on it so they can contact each other.
Where are you in terms of planning your thesis topic, or conducting research? Did the proseminar help you decide?
I’m half-way through the program. I’ve had a thesis topic in mind for some time and began reading generally on it last year. I didn’t expect the proseminar to help me select the topic; further, the emphasis in that particular proseminar was on history and I’m a government concentrator with a thesis focus on present issues. My topic is very much embedded in current military circumstances so it wouldn’t have been likely to come up during the class anyway.
Is there any advice that you would like to give incoming students in the ALM Government program?
a) If you want courses in foreign policy, it’s a hard place to find them. There is no regular offering on this subject in Extension, an oversight in these geopolitical times,

b) The government degree is very broad. There should be some effort to narrow the scope and then provide courses and resources for that subspecialty,

c) Scour around to find resources you need. Not all resources are well-advertised. The Kennedy School and the Weatherhead Center have many fine events and programs that Extension students can attend but you have to dig around their websites to discover them.

d) “Special student status” is a benefit but apparently is somewhat randomly given and difficult to obtain due to competition.

That all said, indeed there are shortfalls and oversights but the program gives you access to Harvard faculty, learning opportunities, and resources that are highly valuable and well-regarded. If you are willing to take the initiative and the time to reach out, over and over, it can be a very good experience.
I would like to thank Cynthia for taking the time to respond to my questions, and share her experiences in this forum. You are welcome to comment on them below, or visit her blog to learn more about her academic interests.

Additional interviews will appear on this website as I conduct them, and may make their way into a book project (if I ever get it started -- I am still slogging away at my thesis!). If you're interested in being interviewed for this series, please email me at

Related Posts:

Harvard Extended Interview Series: An ALM management concentrator

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did the 'Analytical Reasoning' course count towards your Government ALM degree? I've never considered myself adept at writing, and I'm a bit nervous about this ProSeminar course. Any suggestions for doing well?