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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
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    Can you specify the country or place of the world where this is happening? – Dmitry Savostyanov Jan 30 at 13:47
  • @DmitrySavostyanov It's in western (continental) europe. Sorry I can't be more specific without revealing enough to identify the programme. – concerned_and_alienated Jan 30 at 18:40
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    What is this program's reputation in the research community, specifically in the country/region where you want to pursue research yourself? The behavior you describe seems abusive, but more importantly(?), it also seems entirely unfit for purpose—research ain't about memorization. – JeffE Jun 29 at 15:25
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    Memorizing and authoritarian "teaching" style? Sounds like France. – henning Jun 29 at 15:40

Your experience is anything but typical. What you should do is leave, and find a better place that has a different philosophy and set of practices. It is hard to say what you should do if that solution is closed to you. The best I can say is to find a way to endure it in the short term and work with others in the longer term.

The fact that this person is head of department makes it especially difficult to stay, of course.

No, graduate education is, in general, nothing like what you describe, though some professors can be very demanding. But "demanding" and "supportive" is vastly different from "demanding" and arrogant.

And independent researcher doesn't need much in the way of credentialing, though it is much harder to build up an initial reputation without those credentials. It would be good to get an advanced degree, but not, likely in a situation like you now face.

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    Although I agree with your points in principle, they probably cover what is considered typical in the western world (eg. US, EU). The norms differ widely in Asian countries, post-Soviet stans, continental China, etc. Your advice may be good or bad, depending on where the OP is. – Dmitry Savostyanov Jan 30 at 13:46
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    @Buffy I am saying that the statements about HE in general are rather senseless, as the HE standards and practices differ wildly across the globe. Abuse and arrogance probably happen everywhere, but US/EU have developed better systems to keep abuse and arrogance at bay, while in many other countries they still go uncontrolled and unpunished. – Dmitry Savostyanov Jan 30 at 13:57
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    I read this really long complaint as a weak teacher with hard exams that's making a self-described autodidact genius feel super sad. I did a sabbatical for a semester in Taiwan and the undergraduate courses were all basically taught as memorization in a similar style; it was typical for the school and for the culture. It's not my cup of tea, and I probably wouldn't have done well there as a student, but I don't know that calling it atypical or abusive is appropriate. – user101106 Jan 30 at 15:11
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    @CJ59, yes, grad school is hard, but the described behavior seems over the top to me. Nowhere does it sound like a valid attempt to actually teach. – Buffy Jan 30 at 19:16
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    Yeah, I'll agree that it probably could be better taught. I could write the same complaints about a grad topology class I took though, and I (barely) passed it 20 years ago. A lot of lecturers aren't good. Doesn't make it abuse. – user101106 Jan 30 at 19:22

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