Apologies for the length, I don't know how to make this shorter. I also don't know where else to turn for advice. :(
I've recently started an MA in what promises to be a brand new humanities discipline that is not yet well established, and (critically) expects and requires a profoundly interdisciplinary approach. I have a BS, although my undergraduate program of study was effectively interdisciplinary as I took a wide range of classes from various humanities departments, far beyond what was necessary to complete my BS.
I'm now living on a different continent and the cultural expectations around exams and teaching here are... weird. Essentially, the exams test almost exclusively for recall rather than understanding, and there is little critical reflection about this amongst staff nor students. It's not uncommon for students at master's level to cram 50-100 pages of summary just in case the exam asks for flawless recall of one particular scholar's jargon-heavy wording of a discipline-specific concept. Students who have grown up under this culture find it to be entirely normal and seem confused when I bring it up as an issue.
To make matters more complicated, I get weird vibes off the department head. Being around him there's always a sense of danger. Fellow students talk about being scared of him. His exams are known to be especially nasty even within this culture of recall instead of understanding (an engaged, motivated classmate left his last exam in tears after 15 minutes, and is now convinced they should drop out because they feel like are a bad academic and will never make it). He has some concerning teaching habits and attitudes:
- instead of teaching, he simply reads out dense jargon-heavy essays (to a class of 20, many of whom do not come from a humanities background) and doesn't check if we understand (we generally do not)
- doesn't let us ask questions during the lectures (likely because he won't get through reading his essay if we do), reacts derisively if we suggest he slows down, does not want us to record his lectures because otherwise "we won't learn to take notes"
- deliberately makes his slides cryptic to (in his words) give an advantage to people who attend the lectures
- sets entire books as related readings, rather than chapters or papers
- appears to take pleasure in setting particularly difficult recall-based exams (a summary we prepared privately ran to 100 pages and the exam had multiple questions testing pure recall of single lines from the pages)
His course is compulsory and effectively gatekeeps the degree. This seems fundamentally at-odds to the interdisciplinary, "paradigm-challenging" verbiage that the staff associate with the program. He has a follow-up course in the second semester which he claims is "even harder". I have approached other staff in the department, but they seem to be confused about my issues with this culture of teaching and examination, and see little fundamental problem with it. It's reached the point where I'm considering quitting the program even though it is the only one of its kind with a 500 mile radius of where I live, and it is likely the only chance I have to get an MA without going through a BA undergrad (I'm an autodidact and have read broadly in the 15 years since completed my undergrad; based on my ability to understand and assimilate the theory he's been throwing at us so far, doing a BA would be redundant and a waste of my time).
The result of all this and of my conversations with staff is that I no longer trust that the program staff nor the director have my interests at heart. The bad lecturer I describe above would be the only person in the university qualified to supervise the thesis I want to write, but his interpersonal presence raises red flags that bring to mind abusive and/or passive-aggressive people I have worked with in the past. The discipline has a well-known history of small groups engaging in petty, sexist gatekeeping behavior in order to get their particular interpretation of the discipline established, and I start to view this program as engaging in the same pattern of behavior, consciously or otherwise.
My purpose for wanting an MA is to obtain access to the research community - on the one hand through socialization (access to people that will help me learn to write good abstracts, and to write and think at master's level); and on the other hand, to jump through an apparently-required hoop, as I have noticed already that some segments of the research community just won't take me seriously if I don't have at least a master's degree.
I know this is long but I also know that politics and abusive behavior and manipulation are wide-spread within academia. Concrete questions follow:
- What are my options here? Have you been in a similar situation? What should I do? Common-sense would advise gritting my teeth and getting through it (it's only two years). Another common-sense would advise getting the hell out of there. Which should I listen to?
- Would it be advisable to take the staff at their word and write off their odd behavior as evidence of ignorance of how things are done elsewhere (especially w.r.t exams)? At least one staff has expressed openness to my concerns, but I get the impression he is much sharper and more calculating than his cultivated "teddybear" persona would suggest, so I'm not sure if he's just saying that to make me go away.
- How accurate is my perception of research communities, generally? Is it advisable to attempt to make a career as an independent researcher without at least a master's degree?