A CalArts Degree in Review: Part Two (The… Troubling Things)

Last week on the blog, I gave y’all a runthrough of some of my favorite parts of CalArts. In short, the high points are the students, the faculty, and the general willingness to try new things and push back against tradition in ways that are useful and necessary. That said, as much as I’m proud of the work I’ve done during my degree, as glad as I am that I’ve gotten to collaborate with folks who are like me, I can’t pretend this is a perfect collegiate experience, even for a grad student. Am I glad I went to CalArts? Yes. It was the creative reach I needed at a time when I didn’t have many similar options. Would the decision to attend be a significantly harder one to make today? Absolutely. Though the reasons behind this are at times nuanced and difficult to articulate, I’m going to do my best to break down the most significant among them here.

Wish me luck.

First, let’s start with the elephant in the room: tuition and cost of attendance. During the 2019-2020 school year, CalArts tuition will rise above $50,000 (per year) for the first time. This follows a trend of significant annual tuition increases for the Institute—the cost per year has risen by roughly $10,000 in the past five years. Put another way, at the rate we’re going, students beginning school at CalArts in 2029 will likely be paying $70,000 per year to attend CalArts (and ~$75K by their BFA graduation) if progress to stabilize and reduce the tuition rate is not made. You could pay for almost three years of an undergrad degree at ASU (at the higher out-of-state rate, with zero scholarships) for the price of that one year of study. You could buy a pretty decent (or outright nice) house in a lot of the US in cash for the price we pay for a CalArts education.

But Eris, you’re surely asking, that’s not including scholarships and financial aid, right?And that’s correct, but here’s this: in the School of Music (HASOM hereafter), the top scholarship available for students during my time at CalArts came out to $27,000, or a little under 60% of tuition. Full rides do not exist (unless you’re lucky enough to be grandfathered into one because you’ve had a parent on faculty for a couple decades). Further, these scholarships are frequently reserved for graduate students, leaving undergrads in the lurch unless they are so absurdly poor they qualify for significant need-based aid—and even then, it’s very rarely enough. I have a lot of friends looking at $200,000 (or more) in loan debt to pay off their CalArts BFAs. I also know people who are only able to attend because their parents could afford to pay full tuition.

Financial aid for grad students is tricky, too, since we don’t qualify for Pell grants and other things available to undergrads. At other schools, teaching assistantships would normally swoop in to save the day for some of us—but again, this is where CalArts falls short. Though rates vary across the Institute, TAs in HASOM make between $10 and $13 per hour and commonly have a limit of four to six hours per week. There is no tuition remission. Let’s start by pointing out that these are starvation wages and hour limits that not only are ethically questionable, they’re disclosed at no point in time before enrollment and welcome week. Those points alone are unacceptable. But wait, there’s more! The hourly limit works pretty well if you’re doing a grading-only job for a class where there isn’t a ton of homework, but if you’re TAing, say, Counterpoint, which relies on massive amounts of work that take time to grade, you realistically need ten hours a week, at which point there should be significant tuition remission in play. (To be clear: I love how Marc Lowenstein teaches the Counterpoint class and I am in no way mad at him; this is just about the pay and expected workload and admin’s failure to address that.) I have friends who have actually taken over classes that were left without a professor, who have led ensembles and found (/commissioned/called for) new scores for them to perform, all while juggling a full courseload themselves and making well under $20/hr. (Oh, yeah—it’s worth noting that full-time for grad students at CalArts is fifteen units a semester, not the seven-to-nine you might see at other institutions. So we spend a lot of extra time in class, too.) As the CalArts administration continues to address the tuition problem, student worker pay and graduate assistantships must also be part of that equation, because right now they’re actively unethical, not just crappy. Our $76 paychecks are not enough to justify most of the work we do for this institution.

Okay, now that we’ve mostly talked about the money (though I could go on about facilities access and the fact that generally we just need more space), let’s start to transition away from that and into the more academic side of things. I want to start by talking about private lessons, since that’s sort of at the intersection of money and classes. At CalArts, there’s a lot of flexibility around who you study with and when. If one teacher isn’t a good fit for you (particularly if you’re a grad student), you can find someone else to study with, and for the most part folks will be pretty chill about it. However, HASOM is in the midst of a curriculum rearticulation, which I briefly mentioned as a source of concern last year. So far, things are . . . okay, but the biggest problem thus far has been the new system of signing up for private lessons. In short, everyone in HASOM can now request one major (hour) lesson and two minor (half-hour) lessons, which is great! However, the administration hasn’t given priority for lessons to folks whose degrees mandate they take two concurrently, like Performer-Composer. As a result, I was not allowed to request a composition lesson for my last semester of school because so many other students had already asked for one. This decision was made without an option for appeal before any lessons had been assigned, and while I ended up getting a minor lesson in conducting that effectively turned into comp lessons (a thousand thank-yous, Nick), I was unable to study with another teacher I admire who would’ve provided a different perspective on my work. As much as I appreciate the difficulties of lesson scheduling, the needs (and degree requirements) of MFA2s and BFA4s staring graduation in the eye should not be overridden by the requests of underclassmen. This needs to be addressed and fixed next year. Period.

This difficulty in securing lessons is also worrying because a problem I highlighted last year still persists in a big way—faculty who are uninterested in teaching, who make their students actively uncomfortable, and/or who are downright abusive are still permitted to teach sans repercussions from the administration. I see this happening with kids I’m TAing and in my own studies, which I’ve alluded to before but never addressed publicly. This is not the forum for naming names, but I spent the entirety of my second year at CalArts—half my degree—away from a sector of the performance program I’d very much hoped to be part of, because the words and actions of one faculty member made me feel not only uncomfortable but unwelcome, Othered, and undervalued. As someone who joined the Performer-Composer program hoping to work on the Performer part the most, that’s a big drawback, and it affects how I recommend the school and who I recommend it to. Problems from these professors (who, by the way, aren’t all in any one department) are largely well-documented and have been communicated to HASOM Dean David Rosenboom, but the lack of action within the administration as a whole continues to be concerning. A professor who struck a student was not removed from their position until the matter was brought to CalArts President Ravi Rajan’s attention (and, to a certain extent, the public eye) during a town hall on the tuition raises. Some teachers have been verbally abusive to students for years or decades, yet their positions at CalArts (which, by the way, claims it does not offer tenure) remain open to them. So they continue to rake in salaries from these positions as students struggle to find a way through their degrees that prioritizes their health and safety despite faculty (who, at times, are mentors) who jeopardize that wellbeing.

HASOM is currently in the midst of a search for a new dean. Once one is named, there needs to be a reckoning over the next four years as full-time/three-year contracts come up for renewal. Faculty comfort should not supersede student safety and security.

A less immediately pressing concern, though related, is that the mentor system does not seem to be working as designed (at least in HASOM). This is in large part due to the fact that performance and Performer-Composer students’ instrumental teachers are largely adjunct, and as such, the person we invariably see for the vast majority of our degree is ineligible to mentor us. Yes, I understand that making adjuncts mentors might cause upheaval if that faculty member doesn’t continue on through a student’s degree, but that’s theoretically an issue for full-time, salaried folks as well—they could walk away anytime their contract is up. All faculty giving private lessons should be able to mentor; students would greatly benefit from it, because the people checking in with us every week are likely the ones with the clearest sense of our mental health and how we’re on- or off-track as far as meeting our goals.

Though so many faculty at CalArts are exceptional in every way, there continues to be a disconnect between HASOM faculty and admin, particularly when it comes to critical degree requirements like recital juries. Jury protocol varies widely depending on your mentor and the other faculty you invite; some allow the full hour that seems to be recommended, while others try to cut juries down to as little as fifteen minutes. (For folks at Orchestra Schools, these are grad recital juries; most studios at CalArts don’t have semester juries.) A quarter of an hour isn’t enough time to run a significant portion of an hour-long recital and get feedback, and because finding a classroom space for juries can be so difficult, many students are shortchanged and miss an opportunity for valuable feedback.

The other major snafu, at least for the composers and Performer-Composers, in the past year has been the handling of work sample submissions. The CalArts library (apparently) requires a work sample from all graduating composition (& related) MFAs; however, this is not communicated ahead of time, and we all received an email in the last week of school that made it look like this was a stand-in for a thesis. Knowing my cohort, many of us would probably have preferred to write an actual thesis and submit a supporting document to accompany our scores, but that’s impossible when you’ve got a week (tops) to turn it in. Because we are expected to submit our scores to the CalArts library with a cover page and an abstract (read: we have to make it look exactly like a thesis), it’s incredibly disappointing and disheartening that we were uninformed of this requirement until three days before graduation. If this is supposed to be a mentor responsibility, it has not been clearly communicated to them. I desperately hope we see improvement on this front in the future; this should be discussed with students no later than the end of the first year of the MFA.

The last thing on my list (I think) is one I didn’t imagine I’d need to include until a couple months ago, and it’s not a happy story. [CW for what I can best describe as peer intimidation and institutional neglect.] In mid-April, I was taking a lesson in a practice room (quick plug here for we need more space), and one of my peers loudly and repeatedly interrupted my lesson, demanding the piano bench we were using (for context: one of our practice rooms doesn’t have a piano in it, hence it is perfect for lessons, but you still need to seat two people). Though a solution was presented (read: bring us a chair), he escalated the situation to the point that he was screaming at me and the people with me. As you might expect, things already sucked at that point, but when you add in the fact that I was in a small practice room with no safe exit and the only step up from screaming is physical violence, you start dealing with my trauma triggers. Those of y’all who know me (which is most of you) know I don’t really cry in front of people, and I basically never cry at school. In the immediate aftermath of this, I was wrecked. I’d been roughly fifteen minutes into that hour lesson, and in the wake of it all, suffice to say I didn’t get any more work done. Thankfully, I was surrounded by folks I trust completely, so I was able to get some semblance of safety back. Everyone’s advice? “Go see Student Services.”

So I pulled myself together, went over there, and (somehow) managed to keep most of my composure while I gave the short version of the story to the counselor who met with me—for five minutes. They had a busy appointment schedule to keep, which I understand, but it seems there’s no one around to handle emergency/drop-in moments like these (or at least, there wasn’t that day). At no point during this did anyone ask if I was okay or if I was at risk of slipping into a very dark place; no, they had me fill out a form so they could theoretically schedule a time to meet with me and they sent me on my way.

I made it home, and I spent the next six hours dissociating on and off. (To get a good idea of how I was doing in the immediate aftermath of that, you can read the transcript of the first Misogyny Monday I ever did—at about 8pm that night—for free on my Patreon.) I missed three classes. It wasn’t low-level dissociation, which for me is somewhat manageable; this was full-on, I-can’t-do-anything-or-talk-to-almost-anyone stuff. If I didn’t work with my trauma as part of my artistic practice, if I hadn’t already spent time this year in the hands of a capable therapist, if the situation had gotten any worse or I was even a tiny bit different of a person than I am, I could’ve been a suicide risk. But because I could string a couple sentences together for the five minutes anyone in Student Services had to talk to me, I apparently wasn’t worth any immediate concern.

And the icing on the depressing cake? They took my information, but they never tried to set up a meeting with me, so I guess I wasn’t that much of a long-term concern, either. I am not the only person Student Services has treated this way. It is unacceptable. And it needs to be addressed. Because, honestly, this is one of those stories I would’ve preferred to keep to myself, tucked away in the box of Harmful Things I Don’t Share With The World, not something I need to shout to the rooftops just to make sure the words get out to someone. I am incredibly fortunate that I have a support system in my friends and family that can get me through hellish days where I stare into the darkness and it smiles back. I know full well that many of my peers do not have that privilege, and I worry that if their dark hour comes at a time that’s remotely inconvenient for the CalArts staff, they will suffer beyond description.

Well, roughly 2600 words later, I think it’s time to call it. Though I’m largely happy with the quality of my education and the extent of my opportunities at CalArts, there are critical changes that need to be implemented in the next five years (or sooner) to maintain and improve student wellbeing and keep the Institute from (entirely) becoming a school that’s only an option if you’re rich. I desperately hope that with the addition of a new Dean and continued leadership from Ravi, CalArts can make these changes and create an educational environment that’s a net positive for all students. ♦

[Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in following along with my musical adventures and general critiques of the world, especially in regards to the female experience and sexual assault, you can follow my blog in the sidebar and/or join me on Patreon. To learn more about me the human, check out my bio; for more on me the artist, read my artist statement. I’m so glad to have you here!]