Not what I signed up for

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    Leslie B

    Hi,   I was hoping for a little feedback re the general nature of other people’s grad school programs.  I have no foundation in the principles of design but I was accepted into a graduate  LA program and am currently immersed in the 7 week summer “leveling” semester. The experience is nothing like what I expected to get out of a semester claiming to provide  design foundation.  It seems like this is more for those already posessing a strong artistic background–and my bigger concern is whether the profession itself actually commands strong artistic talent.

     For example, rather than learning about line-weight, how to capture proper perspective, shading and shadowing, etc. I am asked to basically just go out and draw (“walking in a loop, capture a scene on paper every so often until you come back to the beginning of your loop–5 scenes in total, vary the distance between you and the subjects but be sure to capture perspective and details”–spend 20-30 minutes on each of the 5 scenes and make each one atleast 12″ x 18″).  Same class–“draw a still-life of 3 objects in precise detail.  Then, rearrange the 3 objects 14 different ways and sketch each of the 14 compositions–due in 5 days (really???)  Coming from the perspective of someone who does not draw (well), this is beyond daunting.

     In another class, “choose an object of about 12” or less that you have found outdoors, sketch an abstract interpretation of it in a way that conveys what attracted you to the object, and make a model of it.  Abstract… what???   Model…how????  (absolutely no instruction/demonstration about how to do pull any of this off).  Seems like the method of teaching involves throwing students out into the wind and then when  the finished work is presented you are told what you did wrong (but were never provided prior guidance or insight). Then, when the instructor critiques your work it is unspecific or ambiguous, and based upon his/her subjective opinion, you may have to re-do the entire piece.

    Then there’s AutoCAD….Everyone is telling me that AutoCAD skills are key to successful work in LA, yet the only thing we have learned in 2 wks time (8 hrs of class-time) is how to use polygon command, purpose of ortho mode, snaps, how to create a new layer, and a little bit about how to set things up in paper mode for printing.  It’s really a shame as there are only 5 students in this class and we’re missing out on a great opportunity(while paying dearly)  to really learn AutoCAD.  Our first assignment was to go and create a bench–provide front view and side view.  Seems simple enough…unless you lack  a foundation in drawing principles….I spent hours trying to visualize the seat of the bench from straight-on view and was unable to get it right.

    2 out of the 3 courses are taught by people who graduated from the program last year  (one ‘teacher’ graduated from the LA program 6 weeks ago—no real world LA experience, no teaching experience or credentials).  The AutoCAD teacher has only been teaching for 2 semesters and has never used a PC in her life so she’s teaching AutoCAD using her MAC and then walks around to each of us and tries to figure out how to demonstrate the task on each of our PCs (we also all have differing versions of the program). After day 1, I asked her to consider moving us into a computer lab so we could all be on PCs and have the same AutoCAD version so we could move along faster.  She declined.

    So far…most difficult 2 wks of my life…I’m not a quitter but I’m wondering whether or not this is the profession for me.  I guess I thought it would be more technical and a little less ‘artsy’.  Like most things, alot of it probably depends on the school you go to.  One of the ‘teachers’ remarked that this school really stresses the ephemeral and that you have to learn to get into the “feeling” of the space/object/concept. Apparently, in order to be a successful LA,  the way you ‘sell’ your idea to your client is by presenting it in a way that enables them to connect with the feelings behind your concept. I ‘get it’, just not sure how to do it, and although that’s what I’m supposed to be learning here, it doesnt feel like its happening for me.

     I was hoping for a more ecological restoration type of focus and unfortunately the state I reside in does not have many LA education options.  While this is just the summer ‘design foundation’ piece of the program, I was told that what we learn over summer will form the basis of our work in the next 3 years. I feel like I’m being asked to go write a research paper when I haven’t learned to read yet.  And then everyone says that the 1st year will be a killer and that this is just a warm-up….

    Is my experience thus far pretty typical for a LA program? Or, should  I be searching for another school…

    Any feedback would be immensely appreciated.

    Leslie B

    If you don’t mind, I’d rather not say.  It is in the south-eastern part of the U.S.

    Jason T. Radice

    Did you look into the program with concerns to ecological restoration curriculum before you started? Most LA schools will not give you a good specialized education in that, and it seems like you have an aversion to the real fundamentals of the profession. If you think it is bad now, just wait until you get into a studio. LA is mostly about design, with ecology being just one of many components. You have to know how to express your ideas visually, and that means A LOT of drawing and CAD work. Summer courses are also very intense as a result of the condensed timeframe; you take a 14 week semester and cram it into 6 weeks. It sounds like you would probably be better off taking one of the environmental science degree programs. If you are in a 3 year MLA, you have a LOT crammed in to that three years, so you just get a taste of things, and a disproportionate amount of that time is spent learning the tools (all of the computer stuff) rather than PROPER design, ecology, environmental psychology and real-world office preparation like detailing and management.

    I had just the opposite experience in grad school; they focused too much on the fundamentals for someone already with an LA degree and 10yrs+ in practice. It was just a repeat of my BLA where I was more like an unpaid TA than really learning all that much.  


    Leslie B

    Hi Jason,  thanks for your insightful response.  I don’t think I have an aversion to the fundamentals of the LA profession, its more along the lines that I don’t have any experience re a design foundation and thought the program would introduce these fundamental design principles.  I enjoy expressing my ideas visually (through photography and what-not), and was hoping to learn how to express them on paper but it seems like a strong art background is a pre-requisite to this program.  On the other hand, I suppose you’re either artistically capable or you’re not.

    Thanks again.

    Roland Beinert

    It does sound like you’re not getting a good introduction. I remember doing a lot of the same things you describe, but we got some introduction to drafting, etc. I’d say stay for the rest of the summer, then, if you aren’t getting what you want out of the program, switch to another school. If you do stay, but want a better introduction, try taking graphics courses in other departments like engineering, architecture or art.

    Leslie B

    Thanks Roland. Time permitting, the graphics courses sound like a good idea.


    Hello Leslie B:

    First up, I would defer to Jason R  and Roland G.. as your counselors in this matter. I am not volunteering them  here. But, both do  have real world and recent  experience in the graduate school experience and have posted well-writtten and expressed pieces about what each went through. Your currrent experience and theirs might be completely different, but they probably have more in common than either of you think.


    Having said that, you put down a lot here. I will comment on a few important points. You are being challenged, in a very intense and focused way, to quickly establish and develop a strongly “design” influenced and oriented ability and viewpoint. There is a lot of merit in that. You also need to be prepared for being interrogated  on what process or inspiration you used or were influenced by that informed what ever you came up with. Sketch expression or in the digital form, it is all the same.

    I am not going to assess your previous background or preparation for this profession. Jason R’s comments are far more valuable than mine. What I will say, is again, your being challenged, in a focused and time intensive situation. If you make it into the real world, that world is no different. So, despite what your protestations may be, this is good preparation for the real world.

    I suspect your at the University of Georgia, but I really have no idea and no preconceptions about the program there. My concluding suggestion is this. Gut it out, go through the summer, and see where you at when September rolls around. Flipping to another graduate school for the sake of finding a program that is more responsive to what you thought it would be, is an expensive and dislocating proposition.

    I have been very clear here  before on the employment prospects in our profession here. You need to get extremely real and fast with this prognosis. If you complete your graduate program, you will be entering the job market at a time when, if everything locks in and meshes in your favor, the job market will be on the BEGINNING of an upswing. That is the optimistic outlook.

    I fundamentally believe in the value and purpose of this profession and so should you. I am also trying here to give you a reality check.


    It sounds like too much fun!! I wanna go back to school, the world of fantasy. Enjoy it. 3 years will be over before you know it. 

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I wonder if a BLA would not be better both to give you the foundation to learn on and I’m not so sure that it won’t better prepare you to do wht you want to do. The words “Master’s Degree” seem to be a major sales ploy in universities these days. Some are phasing out having undergrad LA degrees accredited in order to keep students in school longer (am I right Roland?).


    They break everyone down like they are two year olds when teaching basic design classes in under grad, at least they did in the early 80’s and still in the mid 90’s. I was not an artsy person either, but they taught me what I needed to balance me out. It was not fun, but the artsy people suffered through grading and drainage in the same way as I was enjoying it.


    This profession is tough because it is a blend of left brain – right brain. I don’t think anyone can jump into without getting ALL the basics broken down and re-built so that you get that balance. I don’t have a MLA and never took the classes, so I don’t know. But, it seems to me that if you don’t have the basic foundation and the rigors of studio for a few years it will be hard to be competitive.


    Can you blow out a BLA in the same time frame instead?


    Funny you mention… my BSLA program started off extremely abstract. We were cutting out squares, rectangles and circles, and then we’d arrange them on contrasting fields of paper sheets. My room mates used to laugh at the work I’d bring home. After a week of what I thought was silly pre-school craft projects, we moved into learning about form, space, order, rhythm, scale/proportion, etc. It was probably my second semester before I had any studio projects that looked anything like a real site or building shape. I became really discouraged. I couldn’t believe all the hours I was putting in at the studio at night and the money I was spending on materials to produce work that I wouldn’t want anyone to see. Towards the end of my first year the projects had a more realistic feel to them. Each year the program became more and more like the real world.


    I said all of that to say this. Now that I’ve been in the field for a couple of decades now, I appreciate all of the abstract projects I did in school. I still use those same basic design principles to arrange objects in space that relate to one another.  I don’t spend a lot of time at the conceptual level, but I always start with basically arranging geometric shapes on a field. With all the massive porticos being held up by skinny columns and acres of pavers I see on small homes, some of us need to go back and learn the basics.  


    Leslie you don’t have to be “artistic” or whatever that means, but it helps to be creative.

    Leslie B

    Thanks Craig.  Would be great to learn the basics…form, scale, rhythm before having to produce detailed sketches of the landscape, that use these design principles.(Latest assignment: choose 2 works from 2 of the great masters and reproduce in exact detail in 18×24) Perhaps a BSLA is a better way for me to go. Thanks Again.

    Leslie B

    Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for your input.  THis school does not offer a BLA, and the process thus far has been costly (as was expected) and has transplanted me far from home.  Investigating the BLA elsewhere is not a bad idea.


    mark foster

    My BSLA program also went from the ethereal to the downright tedious.  You may get a clearer picture by looking at/talking with the folks who are in the years ahead of you. 

    Your entry reminded me of the feelings I had pretty much all the way through school!  With hindsight, I realize that I didn’t know enough then to know what I needed to know.  Was some of what I was taught useless to me?  Absolutely, but some of the stuff I thought was useless at the time was invaluable.

    Roland Beinert

    Actually, a three year grad program is shorter than most BLA programs, isn’t it? I spent four years at University of Wisconsin for my bachelors. The masters program at U of Idaho typically takes three or four semesters, but you still need to get a BLA first. I think U of I still gives you the option of getting just a 4 year BLA, so there’s no attempt to force students into a longer program like you suggest. It’s all voluntary. I spent five semesters at U of I, but only because I wanted a planning grad certificate as well as the MLA.
    Leslie, if I could have gone anywhere for grad school, it would have been to Cal Poly Pomona, where they have the Center for Regenerative studies. John Lyle is one of my heroes. If you want to stay in the south east, I hear Louisiana State has a great program. And, of course, I liked the programs at University of Wiscoonsin and Idaho. There’s nothing wrong with looking around at both BLA and MLA programs. I’d still stick with your current school for the summer, though. If you do decide to switch, then maybe try to get residency in whichever state its in, even if it means taking a year off to work. Try to avoid getting loans by finding scholarships, using Tuition Management Systems and finding a part time job while you study.


    Hmm. I think I could do a better job teaching that stuff if they are as you described.  However, it seems like a lot of design programs are like that.  You go in expecting to be told what to do and then you’re just told to go do it, then bring it in for critique.  That can be rather nerve-wracking, especially if you’re not used to criticism.  I know there were some times when I got fed up with it.  Some dropped out of my program because of what they perceived as unfair criticism.  I heard something similar from someone who went for fashion design.  You’re expected to already have an interest in fashion and be able to present ideas.  The teachers consider themselves to be there to develop your design skills.  It can help to have some kind of design or art background before you go into it.

    What do you hope to get out of it?  These skills aren’t very marketable these days.  I certainly wouldn’t go back for a grad program unless I was independently wealthy.  On second thought, if I was doing it for fun and wasn’t concerned about the investment value, I’d do a film or acting program.

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