(Fairly) Qualified website review.

While I’m relieved to have finished writing the main portion of my thesis, having done so has left me bereft of excuses for avoiding the process of MA research. Having inevitably become more responsible about work over the last year, however, I spent my week considering my options.

There are 22 public universities in the province of Ontario: Algoma, Brock, Carlton, Dominican University College, Guelph, Lakehead, Laurentian, McMaster, Nippissing, Ontario College of Art and Design, Ontario institute of Technology, Ottawa, Queen’s, Royal Military College, Ryerson, Toronto, Trent, Waterloo, Western, Wilfred Laurier, Windsor, and York. Since I’m neither a cadet nor considering a career as an engineer/graphic designer/photo-journalist/minister[i], this reduces my list by five. Six, once I strike off the University of Toronto, which, with its 60 000+ enrollment, is the largest university in Canada, a fact which makes competition for funding fierce. Finally, as Winter and I declared ourselves mortal foes back in 1996, I can also rapidly strike out Nippissing, Lakehead, Windsor, Carlton, and Ottawa. [ii].

Which yet leaves me with eleven universities to research online, both the school in general, and the English departments in particular. For the latter, I’ve been looking at both the range of courses offered, as well as the range of research covered by the faculty (particularly the early modernists). For the former, it’s tuition costs v. living expenses, funding/TAships available, entry requirements, application process, fees, and deadlines, and, of course, library facilities.

It’s a lot of information to process, and, as the days of the mailed information package seem numbered [iii], a comprehensive and user-friendly website is critical, and has become one of the criteria I’ve been using to judge the university’s likely relationship with its students. A university which has taken the time to address the commonly-sought problems of potential applicants, and to ensure that complete information for applying is provided in an easily visible area on the site is, I think, a university which is at least aware that its students are living mammals who get tired, anxious, and frustrated.[iv]

Covering departmental websites, residence information, financial aid, and general application process generally involves rerouting to four or five different websites per university. A site which directs the student to go to these different areas, but fails to provide links to do so, shows signs of a university that is generally not going to make any administrative process easy for its students. Further, a site which obfuscates tuition costs, refuses to provide information regarding application fees, or makes the student download these costs in a PDF or spreadsheet (an unreliable and frustrating process if one has an older computer or slow internet connexion), or which provides a tuition breakdown containing forty columns, and all in acronyms, abbreviations, and jargon (requiring searching the website for clues on how to interpret these abbreviations), is a university that flaunts its primary concern for profit rather than its students. Finally, a poorly designed site, or one which automatically makes the student write in requesting basic information regarding tuition costs and application procedures indicates a university that does not value its students’ limited time. Having application regulations is necessary to ensure a uniform standard of assessment (and to judge a students’ willingness to commit to a program), but there is no need to make this overwhelming experience completely alienating. [v]

For departmental websites, the one feature that has proved most useful is the listing of faculty areas of research (by genre or time period) beside or underneath their names. This information provides both a rapid overview of the department, and immediate directions to the members of the faculty whose research is most relevant to the potential student. The alternative design (that I’ve seen) is a simple list of faculty names, which involves a “select-read-back-select” process; this is not too much of a problem with smaller universities, but becomes irritating when faculties have 30 or more professors. [vi]

The best website I’ve yet seen is that belonging to McMaster University in Hamilton. Information on application procedures, fees, and financial support is readily available from the main “Graduate Studies” page, with each sub-page linked to every other sub-page, as well as to separate departmental websites and their additional procedures (which means almost any page will lead you to the information you’re currently looking for, without having to navigate back through previous pages). The site also provides prominent links to the two major federal grant application sites (NSERC* and SSHRC*), as well as provincial grant and loan programs (OGS* and OSAP*), as well as links to an off-campus housing search generator and to the city of Hamilton.

Their English and Culture faculty is also impressive, and includes four (4!) early modernists: two of which list Jonson as their main area of research, and one of which is Helen Ostovich (who is currently working on the Cambridge edition of The Magnetic Lady). The department also has Canadian lit. and theory represented in healthy numbers.

While I’m definitely excited about the academic potentials of studying at this institution, the student-friendly design of the website which made obtaining this information a non-frustrating (even pleasant) experience, has helped ensure that my enthusiasm remains completely unmarred.

End Notes:

[i] a career as an engineer/graphic designer/photo-journalist/minister. Imagine MacGyver, Father Brown, Picasso, and Frank Lloyd Wright all donated genes to create this super-human. Better yet, imagine Sir Philip Sidney.

[ii] and Ottawa. I researched these schools all the same, and they all provide excellent funding, but this is mostly due to their small populations: something about -30°C (-22°F) winter nights in roughly the middle of nowhere doesn’t seem to appeal to most students. Well, Ottawa and Carlton are fairly busy, but still terrifyingly cold.

[iii] Seem numbered. Only about four of the universities I’ve looked at make a non-online info package readily available: the other schools likely offer one, but it seems to be a write in and request deal.

[iv] anxious, and frustrated. We’re also witty and charming, but not while reading about transcript copies and references.

[v] more alienating. Universities requiring onerous numbers of forms and documents (multiple official transcripts at the student’s expense, reference letters accompanied by additional signed forms printed from the website guaranteeing the authenticity of the sealed letter, or pre-application application procedures) also indicate this.

[vi] 30 or more professors. In general, I’m fairly forgiving of organisational problems in departmental websites, if only because, having participated in the process of revamping my own department’s site a year ago, I realise that departments are often contractually assigned an external programmer/developer, and the process of designing, testing, and improving a site can be a slow-developing one.

23 July 2008 ~ St. Catharines

Glossary of Terms:

OGS. n. nom. Ontario Graduate Scholarships.

OSAP. n. nom. Ontario Student Assistance Program.

NSERC. n. nom. Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. (I bet Frank Gehry would have received one of these.)

SSHERC. n. nom. Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.


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