Thursday, November 05, 2009

My Grad Class

Enough about the search committee posts as I've now made my way through the ~150 applications we received by the deadline, I've made my long short list and checked it twice, and now I just need to wait to see how committee deliberations next week (4 hours of meetings scheduled! Fun times - not) go. From this point I will not post anything much about the search, for this is where things get more specific and I don't feel like posting further would be appropriate for the blog.

So, let's change the subject. I want to write a bit about my grad seminar that I'm teaching this term. Our MA program is basically brand spanking new, and while at first I had concerns about us starting such a program (who needs another MA program in English?) I actually see that we are fulfilling a need in the region, and so that's fine. That said, well, I got seminar paper proposals in from my students who remained in the course (lots of attrition from my initial enrollment, which I had expected would be the case, and which I'm ultimately fine with) and I am... how do I put this?

Well, let me back up. When I designed this course, I was very clear about the fact that I could not just put together a course that would have passed for graduate-level in my own experience. Most of our students are working full time, and they just don't have the time to devote to reading or the sense of graduate-level expectations for workload that I had in my own grad experience. So, in thinking about the course design, I very clearly wanted to set up a schedule that pushed the students but also that gave them a lot of milestones throughout so that they could chart their progress.

So, whereas in my grad work, where the reading expectation was something like 1 novel per week plus secondary readings and theory, in this course, students are reading about half of the amount. I'm ok with that, as I'd rather have them do all of the half amount of reading rather than none of a larger amount of reading. And whereas my seminars with rare exceptions had a grade breakdown of 80% seminar paper (with no proposal assignment or anything folded into that) and 20% a presentation/discussion-lead and participation, my course has more bites at the grading apple. Presentation; Participation; Proposal/Annotated bibliography; Reading Journal; Seminar Paper, with percentages distributed more evenly across assignments (though the seminar paper is still the largest percentage). Again, for my student population, I think this makes sense. In my grad programs, the expectation was that you'd be doing things like a reading journal, refining a topic and doing research, participating, without instruction. My students, for the most part, did not enter this program with a level of preparedness that would indicate that they would do these things without them being assigned. I don't think that it's a bad thing for me to make these requirements explicit, given my context, so that's fine, too.

What concerns me is not the structure of the course or my level of expectation. I put a lot of time into designing the course, and I think it's a good one. And, for the most part, the students are bright and enthusiastic, if perhaps a bit lacking in maturity and seriousness compared with grad students at research-heavy institutions. But.

I was totally shocked by the quality - or lack thereof - of their proposals for their seminar papers. (In general - some proposals were alright, I suppose.) Here is what surprised me:

  • Quality of writing. Poor word choice, lack of clarity, failure to proofread.
  • Failure to comply with the required topics that the proposal assignment indicated that they should address. Because that's the thing: I didn't just say "hand in a proposal" - I gave them an assignment that broke down explicitly the information such a proposal should include.
  • Lack of specificity. This goes along with the first two bullets, but it's also a distinct issue. Ultimately, I don't think the majority of them actually revised the proposal before turning it in.
These three things shocked me, not in the least because I spent a good hour of a class session discussing the proposal assignment and its link to the final paper in class (something that also never happened in my own grad career).

I mean, these are graduate students. Not grad students in a top program, surely, but still: why would a person pursue a graduate degree if one didn't intend to do one's best on all assignments? I just don't get it.

I mean, I get it when undergrads don't necessarily apply themselves on all assignments. It's not what I'd wish, but I understand it. This, though, I do not understand.

Also, let me be frank: most of my undergraduates who are majors in upper-level courses produce better topic proposals than what I got from my grad students. At the very least, they follow directions. But more often than not, a good number actually have really interesting ideas above and beyond meeting the basic requirements of an assignment.

So I guess what I am, beyond anything else, is disappointed. I'm going to force some of them to redo the assignment before I'll pass it (something I'd never imagined I'd have to do) and I think I'm going to take time in class tonight for them to workshop their proposals with comments and to meet with them individually while they do so. I feel like this is a freshmen comp style thing to do, and I think it's infantilizing, but I think they all will benefit from it. I'd rather infantilize them and help them to do well than to treat them like grown-ups and have them all tank the paper.

It does suck, though, that this is where we are at this point in the semester. I'd just expected so much more from them.


Belle said...

This sounds terribly familiar. I've found recent grad students thinking that grad was the same as undergrad, even when I'd done everything I thought I could to disabuse them of that. Since my undergrads have the same perception vis a vis undergrad vs high school vs grad, I sat down and did some hard thinking about my own expectations.

Ultimately, I created a document (linked to all class pages) that talks about expectations and differences. The undergrads see the differences - I no longer get complaints that I'm expecting them to do grad-level stuff, and they can see quite clearly that HS stuff isn't going to work for any class I teach. The newbie grads generally see just how different expectations are, and the first time their BS bounces back in their faces, they either quit, seek help or withdraw. Which is fine with me, because I'm not going to accept 2000 level work for 5-6000 level course. Period.

All that said, I think you're right to be disappointed. The proposals sound... pathetic.

Bardiac said...

It does sound familiar to me, too.

In our MA program, we get some students who are ready for a regular PhD program, but mostly we get students who just aren't prepared, or who are doing an MA because they don't know what else to do, or who think they want to do a grad program but have so little experience (often because they went to our undergrad) with anything like a real grad program that they don't realize something like that could exist.

It's frustrating as all get out, especially because most of them will get out thinking they've got a real grad experience, and never realizing they don't, and then they really don't understand why they're not qualified for a tenure line job here.

PMG said...

I've seen this at two different schools that had MA programs that sound similar to yours. (In musicology, but still.) In both cases, the majority of the students were getting an MA because they wanted to boost their salaries--most were, or wanted to be, public school teachers. So I think their idea of pursuing a graduate degree was that it was just kind of one more busywork hoop they had to jump through, something you just passively "did" without caring too much about the details.

Which is annoying!

life_of_a_fool said...

yes, I've also had a similar experience with our MA program. Some students are great, want to learn, put in effort, etc. And others seem much more interested in waiting out the time passively (and/or don't know any better). It's frustrating, and I think all the harder without further-along PhD students to help socialize them.

Anastasia said...

I didn't get the different or realize I needed to work differently or harder at the master's level until a professor handed me my ass. you know what to do. :P

Shane in Utah said...

It's interesting to see how common this phenomenon seems to be at second- and third-tier institutions that offer a Masters but not a PhD. I have also taught grad classes at two different institutions that fit in that category. As a rule, the top 25% of my undergraduate English majors are far superior writers and critics than all but one or two of the grad students I've encountered.

gwinne said...

Do you know why these students are pursuing the MA? Are most doing it to boost salaries in their current fields?

Ann said...

Dr. Crazy wrote, "I mean, I get it when undergrads don't necessarily apply themselves on all assignments. It's not what I'd wish, but I understand it. This, though, I do not understand."

I agree. It's not the lack of natural brilliance, it's the lack of effort that would grind me. We have a M.A. program only, but I've been pleased for the most part by the fact that our students are really open to faculty direction and unafraid of hard work.

I don't think your workshop sounds infantilizing. It will be a way to help them professionalize themselves, and that's what they need. You're meeting them where they are, which is what teaching is all about.

Tree of Knowledge said...

At my MA school, there was no PhD program. Almost everyone in my program was there to get the MA to get a promotion or a raise--lots of highschool teachers and technical writers. The other large group were pursuing the MFA and many couldn't articulate why other than "I love to write." Most of my classmates were happy with Cs and Bs and cared about getting the degree, not about doing quality work. Only 4 of us went on to PhD programs.

So I guess my point is, students who aren't in grad school because they want to do grad-level research but because they need the degree for some reason are going to have different priorities from those who want the grad-level work.

But I'm also bitter about my MA program because they didn't prepare us at all for PhD level work (probably because most of the students didn't want that, and the school made money off of the highschool teachers and technical writers with jobs who earned their MAs at night).

negativecapability said...


As a rule, the top 25% of my undergraduate English majors are far superior writers and critics than all but one or two of the grad students I've encountered.

I have gotten to the point where I feel *unethical* teaching graduate courses. This profession is broken, to be sure, but I try teach graduate courses at a level that would allow them to be competitive on the market as it stands. This doesn't go over well with some students. It's frustrating.

Sisyphus said...

Meeting them where they are is all well and fine, but I would be making very clear my disappointment with the quality of their work and point out that they were being guided to do things they should have learned in undergrad. As MA students they should be learning how to write conference abstracts and doing more advanced research, or at least writing longer, more complex essays than in undergrad.

I did my MA at a place a lot like what people are describing here, and was very frustrated that it was nowhere near as quick and challenging as my undergrad experience --- particularly because most of the profs had just given up on the MA students and weren't doing anything to help them learn either good undergrad or grad student skills. And then, of course, since the program exists to provide a steady stream of cheap comp teachers, you have to wonder about the quality of what most of those MA students were teaching in their classrooms.