Total Drek

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Monday, October 15, 2007

A plea for assistance- twenty-first century style

Last week I suggested that Total Drek was embarking upon a new endeavour: the offering of poorly considered advice. At the time I rather expected that this offer would become little more than an excuse for mirth. So, you can imagine my surprise when, very soon thereafter, someone took me up on my offer. Specifically a young graduate student who asks to be called "Jaine" left a comment in response to my earlier post giving advice to grad students. This comment is, effectively, a request for advice about a serious situation brewing in her department. I have corresponded with Jaine a little bit via e-mail but I am far from arrogant enough to think that I have all the answers. So, I asked and Jaine has given me permission to reproduce her comment here, as a post, so that it can receive consideration from a wider audience.

A few ground rules: both graduate students and faculty wander past here* and both types of perspectives are probably valid. That said, I am particularly appreciative of the faculty who are nice enough to offer advice. Secondly, Jaine is obviously concerned so she deserves serious responses. At the same time, folks who are embedded in a situation may not always see it objectively. If you think Jaine needs to calm down, it's okay to say so, but do so constructively. Otherwise, anything goes.

And so, without further ado, Jaine:

2nd year grad student here, and I could use a little advice about how to/whether to proceed with voicing concerns to my departmental chair.

The dept. got rid of comprehensive exams last year and replaced them with annual student evaluations. Evaluations are supposed to be objective, but they are not. We're now evaluated on personal grounds (e.g., appearance).

This year, the dept. watered down the curriculum more by getting rid of the thesis option for the MA. We were not even notified about the change. I have a lot of concerns about that--one of the more personal ones being that when I apply for the Ph.D. program, I will potentially be up against persons from other, better MA programs who actually got to complete a thesis. On the flip side, I worry that if I choose to go and apply elsewhere, admissions committees will laugh at my "master's paper."

Besides the curriculum, I've recently become aware that our grad studies director has a habit of manipulating grad school policies/deadlines in an effort to crack the whip and instill fear in students. Students are currently being threatened about losing funding and being removed from the program, and the reasoning for all of that is based on manipulated policies and new, undocumented departmental policies.

I have been told that this kind of stuff doesn't happen so much in graduate departments. And I want to raise the issues, but fear reprisal from both the grad studies director and the department chair. It is my belief that the department is trampling on the well-being of students as well as our futures. It's also my belief that graduate education takes enough toll on students without the added stress of the abuses of power currently going unchecked.

Without getting into any further details, I'd like to ask those of you with knowledge of grad school politics if voicing concerns is too risky of an action to consider?

So? What does everyone think? Operators, as they say, are standing by.

* For reasons that continue to elude me.

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Blogger Dan Myers said...

Hmmm. It's always hard to pitch in on this stuff without REALLY knowing what's going on. Generally speaking though, I'd say that if someone is abusing power, then confronting it is risky. If they'll do it once, they'll do it again and academia is not exactly a total institution in which there is much control over faculty members' behavior.

Beyond that, one has to consider advising against this anyhow, not because of reprisals, but because of whether it will have any effect on anything.

In situations like this, I have always found it better to discuss them with a trusted senior faculty member who can look into things and intervene on your behalf without exposing you.

Sunday, October 14, 2007 10:20:00 PM  
Blogger S.S.STONE said...

If Jaine's anxiety is shared by her colleagues I wonder if the "collective concern" approach would be less onerous.
Voicing concerns in a group meeting to a trusted senior faculty member takes away some anonymity but also doesn't single out any one person.
I'm not sure if this approach is appropriate at this level, just some thoughts.

Monday, October 15, 2007 5:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some comments in no particular order. As the first commenter pointed out, it may be hard to offer advice from a distance.

1) Comprehensive exams for an MA? Huh? And good riddance.

2) Evaluations are documented. Keep copies of anything inappropriate.

3) Programs change all the time. Generally, you're allowed to finish your program under the rules in place at the time you enrolled. Check your offer letter for any telling details (the offer letter is pretty much a contract). At worst you should be offered a choice (thesis/no-thesis). If they don't offer you that, well... wow.

4) The worry about not completing an MA thesis when applying for PhD programs is not something I can address (so naturally, I will!). In my field, it wouldn't matter. In most fields, even humanities, I doubt it matters *much*. Write a nice letter of explanation; make sure your reference letters are strong and explain the program; and include (if appropriate) a writing sample. The admissions committee wants to see evidence of success. Again, you'll get better advice from within your own field. (I was almost done with my post when I realized that I didn't write a master's thesis myself, and it was never an issue - I'm not in humanities, though.)

5) Faculty and the director can make life terrible for the students. Sorry. It's a terrible place to be when that happens. Get out, as soon as you can. Transfer, graduate, re-enroll somewhere else, or quit. (I picked option 4 and option 3 at an advanced stage in graduate school, but not in an analogous situation.) Find somewhere that supports graduate students. (Good luck.)

6) Remember that you are a professional - an early professional, yes, but still professional. Deal with the situations as a professional. You can discuss your concerns calmly with other faculty, the director, etc. Almost certainly you will discover things aren't quite what they seem. Reprisals are possible; you deal with that possibility professionally, too. I'd read the offer letter carefully before deciding on an appropriate course of action. When I had serious concerns, I wrote a formal letter to the relevant person in the department. That person wasn't happy with criticism (nor would I have been), but both of us dealt with the situation professionally.

7) Serious abuses can be dealt with. Start with the ombudsman. See comment (3).

8) There's always more than one point of view. You said the director threatens to withdraw funding. Result (presumably): students work harder, publish more, and graduate. Are you sure that cracking the whip is a bad thing? (And it could be.)

I have been told that this kind of stuff doesn't happen so much in graduate departments.

- Happens in all of them. There is NO greener pasture.

It's also my belief that graduate education takes enough toll on students without the added stress of the abuses of power currently going unchecked.

Yes, graduate education is tough, and often not in a good way. It'll get harder and worse as you go on.

Without getting into any further details, I'd like to ask those of you with knowledge of grad school politics if voicing concerns is too risky of an action to consider?

The very worst thing you can do is keep silent, IMHO. Be a professional; be outspoken; find your own path. Otherwise, at what point will you pursue your own ideas and defend them?

Bottom line: abuses can be dealth with by the ombudsman. Document *everything*. "Mere" concerns can be dealth with professionally. An organized graduate student association (formal or otherwise) can do wonders.

I've said plenty already. Good luck to you!

Monday, October 15, 2007 5:39:00 AM  
Blogger Plain(s)feminist said...

I agree with Dan - you need to find a faculty member you can trust, junior or senior. A junior faculty won't have the security to do too much, but the important thing is to make it a faculty concern as well as a student concern. Also, a faculty member who is concerned about student welfare will be in a good position to help you analyze what is really going on here. Whenever there are major changes like these, in my experience, no one informs students or asks for student input, so it's easy for rumor to take over. However, there is more than one way to read this situation, and it would be helpful, I think, to have a faculty member give you their perspective on it. For instance, the shift to student evaluations may have been made in order to help students, not hurt them - this, in addition with what you say about grad school policies and deadlines, could suggest that the dept. is perceived as being sloppy, as turning out students who are not prepared/professional, and it may be that the department is under pressure from the Dean to shape up and improve (and get students through in a timely fashion). Likewise, lots of programs don't require a thesis for the M.A. It may be that the faculty are moving with the times, here. A good writing sample is a good writing sample, and it doesn't have to be a thesis to count.

Anyway - the point is, you need an ally who can both hear your concerns, give you some feedback, and then advocate for you. At best, the dept. might need to sit down with grad students and better explain it's new policies and procedures and why these changes have been made - and how it will affect grad students. At worst, the students need an advocate who will take on this cause as their own.

Lest I sound horribly patronizing, as I fear I do, please know that my grad school experience was similar in many ways to what you describe, but it turned out in my case that the problem was not in the policies, which were not horrible, as we'd feared they would be, but in the lack of communication between faculty and students.

Monday, October 15, 2007 7:37:00 AM  

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