There is nothing more beneficial for a student than to have an environment where she can share her ideas, argue with colleagues, and benefit from their knowledge. When reading theory, for example, it's great to have a colleague close by who could explain what you don't understand or serve as a sounding board for your ideas. Preparing classes together with someone who is teaching another section of the same course (especially when you are teaching for the first time in your life) is much easier than trying to come up with a class plan while cooped up alone at home.
After I left McGill, I discovered that this kind of environment for grad students doesn't exist in many other places. Students come to the department to take classes or to teach and then leave as soon as they can. Sometimes, they come up with pretty ingenious ways to avoid visiting the department for months. As a result, they lose all of the benefits they could obtain in a friendlier department.
So, what was so different at McGill, what made our department feel like a warm and welcoming place?
The main thing, of course, was the way we were treated by our professors. There wasn't a trace of that condescension that, as I discovered later, normally characterizes the attitude of senior faculty towards graduate students. At McGill, I was treated not as a little girl in need of constant supervision, but as an esteemed colleague. I was never told that it's "too early" for me to publish and was never made to feel that my attempts at doing my own research were silly and worthless.
Graduate students are seen as a sort of a nuisance at many departments. At faculty meetings, they are discussed in terms of how to derive more profit from their presence, and not in terms of how to help them on their intellectual journey. Faculty demands that graduate students recognize their authority and intellectual superiority just because they have a title of Full Professor.
As a result, students don't feel welcome at their departments. They perceive them as a space of humiliation rather than a space where ideas and experiences can be generated and exchanged. The hallways of such departments are empty and afford a lot of space for professors to strut around feeling important. The emptiness and the silence of such departments render them tomb-like.
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T