March 21, 2011 Comments Off on Cooperstown

This weekend I was in Cooperstown, NY, to interview at the Cooperstown Graduate Program for museum studies. It’s a tiny, tiny town in upstate New York with old-fashioned houses and the Baseball Hall of Fame, among other things. I was hosted by a girl named Rebecca, who let me and another interviewee, Sarah, share her efficiency while she slept upstairs with another student. The interview weekend was strictly scheduled, most of it involving talking to people, and I’m still exhausted.

DAY ONE. I arrived at the Albany airport at 1:30pm. I was expecting to take the later shuttle to Cooperstown, even though there was one at 1:30, but as I sat by the baggage claim and steeled myself for a 2.5-hour wait, I noticed a guy walking around with a “WELCOME CGP INTERVIEWEES” sign, and he came over and asked if I was Jenna. I told him I wasn’t but I would love a ride if the shuttle had room, and it did. We got to CGP, which has its own brand-new building a little ways up the lake shore from town, and Rebecca had checked me in and given me my nametag, propaganda folder, and fancy travel mug before I really knew what was happening, and she whisked me away to her apartment, saying that she knew I must be tired and maybe jet-lagged, which was awesome. So I chilled out until 6, when there was a potluck dinner for the interviewees, students, and faculty. The problem with potlucks is that my attitude is “must try everything!” and so I always end up stuffing myself. Then the faculty split us up into groups and took us on tours of the building, which didn’t take too long but included some really amazing facilities, with smart boards and projectors and state-of-the-art media editing computers. Then we had an extensive Q&A with the faculty. They seemed very relaxed and had good senses of humor. Afterwards Sarah and I opted out of both trivia night and movie night and went home to watch TV with Rebecca and Liz, Sarah’s host, who lived upstairs.

DAY TWO. Breakfast was at 8. Then they hustled us into vans and took us on tours of the Iroquois Storage Facility, the Fenimore Art Museum, and the Farmer’s Museum. The ISF was huge, and the tour clearly covered almost nothing of it. It was full of objects related to New York State history, including a ton of unidentifiable objects that I wanted to ask about, many of them large farm implements. The students spend a lot of time there, apparently, journaling. Then the Fenimore, which was in a gorgeous old house and included big collections of folk art and Native American objects. It was very nice, and it has a wonderful object storage area and a nice auditorium. The Farmer’s Museum is a little along the lines of Colonial Williamsburg or Plimouth Plantation, with several old buildings arranged along a street and peopled (in the summer when the museum is open) with costumed reenactors. I liked this the best, and I asked good questions and felt good about myself. It culminated on a ride on a carousel, which I haven’t done in years. A crazy lady ran it, and she came by and told each of us about the animal we were riding. I chose Beautiful Becky Bunny Rabbit, mostly because the saddle was broad, because I was wearing a skirt and had to ride side-saddle. Then lunch. Then interviews. My first interview was in the NYSHA library, with Gretchen Sorin, the program director, and three other professors. It went well except for the part where we were discussing my many interests. I said it takes very little for me to become interested in something, and one of the professors asked if that meant I was a dilettante. I said maybe about some things, but I was consistently passionate about music, linguistics, and literature. And Gretchen said, “Well, help us out, Natalie, because you’ve said you’re interested in music, linguistics, and literature, and you didn’t say history, or art, or science, which is what we do here. So why should we take you?” And I didn’t know. I made something up, of course, but it was actually a real contradiction that kind of stumped me. Of course, a broad interest range and perspective is always a wonderful thing and adds to any job whatsoever, which is what I should have said. But I was upset about it, and felt that it didn’t go great. That night was ethnic food night, followed by Q&A with the students, which was a little creepy. It felt a little cultish, because every single one of the students stood up and said how much they adored the program and the people in it, and how they felt like they belonged immediately upon arriving here. It sounded very much as though there was kool-aid involved, in great quantities. So I stood up and asked for things they didn’t like about the program, which was very well-received by everyone. One girl said if you have a sport you love and have to have, you should think about what it would be like to do without it, and that there’s very little choice in classes. Another girl said it can be hard to live in such a tiny town, miles and miles from anywhere. No one said the classes were difficult and some of them aren’t very applicable, or that it can be hard to be stuck with the same group of twentysomethings for two years, which were things I was worried about. And actually I’d have rather heard that those problems were present rather than being left with the sneaking suspicion that they are present and ignored. After this we went out to the local bar, Cooley’s. That was nice because a lot of people came up to me to tell me things they didn’t like about the program, or to give me non-crazy, non-lovey-dovey reasons why they liked it. I talked to several very down-to-earth people about how the work doesn’t have to take over your life, and how useful the classes really are. It was informative and relatively fun. At home I compared notes with Sarah, who is trying to decide between this and a couple of public history programs where she has full rides. Neither of us is sure whether we want to come here, which made it great to bounce ideas and opinions off each other.

DAY THREE. We went to the local coffee shop and the Saturday-morning farmer’s market, and then we had interviews. This time I was with four different professors in the old CGP building close to the library. This one went better, except for the awkward but inevitable question of “What do you think is the future of the museum profession?” Unanswerable and kind of stupid, but also kind of important, I guess. Blah. Then after lunch we toured the Baseball Hall of Fame, which was amazing. Our tour guide was some important guy whose title I’ve forgotten, and he took us on a whirlwind tour of the museum, then up to the library, where we got to see, among other things, a mid-19th-century rulebook, an aluminum disc of a 1936 World Series radio broadcast (a rare form of sound recording that can only be read on two machines in the world), a 1947 stats ledger (HUGE), and the promissory note from the New York Yankees to the Boston Red Sox, $25,000 for Babe Ruth. That was awesome. And then we saw their collections storage, where he showed us a Babe Ruth bat with 28 notches on it, for home runs hit with it. It was pretty much amazing. Then we went to look at the local gym (bleurgh) and several of the houses, none of which appealed to me because they were just bedrooms in a big house, and I don’t want to have to interact while I make dinner, or anything like that, if I don’t want to. Maybe if I lived with only Sarah, or something like that. Then there was a fancy reception at the Fenimore, which was a beautiful place to have a reception, but it was incredibly awkward because I can’t mingle. I maintain that I will be able to work in a museum without being good at mingling, but I did give it a shot, for what it was worth (not much). Then there was supposed to be a pizza party, but instead we went home and made microwave mac and cheese, watched TV, and Sarah and I discussed the program again.

DAY FOUR. At 8 there was a community pancake breakfast at the Farmer’s Museum, which they do every Sunday during maple-syrup-making season, and which was very good. Then the shuttle went back to Albany at 9, and I sat with Sarah for a while and talked some more, and then I flew back to Milwaukee, where Simon picked me up and mercifully took me home.

So what did I think? I’m not sure how much of the aversion I feel is the result of three days of forced socializing, which by Saturday had given me a constant, raging headache, and how much of it is real. I want to love the program, because it sounded interesting, but I just wasn’t filled with passion, which I take as a bad sign. I’m trying not to be put off by the amount of work, because I know I could do it. I liked most of the interviewees. It’s a fairly reasonable program, as grad programs go…no one would give me an exact number, but it looks like about $12,000 a year. It would mean two years in a tiny town with the same tiny group of people and maybe a stressful living situation, which I’m not at all sure about. Besides, I was so looking forward to moving in with Simon here in Madison. I don’t want to move to a place I don’t really want to be by myself. I’m also still not sure I want to do museums for my whole life, although Sarah pointed out that most of the skills I learn here can be applied to most jobs, and besides, a master’s is always impressive. I just have no idea what to do about this. I almost hope I don’t get in, so I don’t have to make a decision. Rebecca informed me sharply that this is my only chance to get in, because if I turn them down after they accept me, they won’t ever accept me again. I’m sure this isn’t true. For one, she’s not on an admissions committee, so what does she know? For another, they put a lot of emphasis on how Interview Weekend is not only for the faculty to decide whether they want you, but also for you to decide whether you want them, and Cooperstown. Of course I’d have to address it in my next application, but I think if on top of all  your other application materials you put a thoughtful letter telling them why you didn’t enroll before and what’s different now, they would certainly give you another chance. But it did make me realize that deferring is probably not an option and if I get in I should take this chance seriously. Plus there is my idea that even though I might actually have preferred to do this another time, I might be wise to make myself do it if I get the chance because it’s a good investment. So, in the end, I have no clue and am totally at sea. To make matters worse, I will probably find out in New Zealand (leaving Thursday evening!), and everyone says they require you to give your answer very quickly, within ten days or so. Ugh. Hopefully it will come soon, and then I can make a decision and enjoy the rest of my vacation in peace.


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