Sunday, October 28, 2007

Help! I don't want to be grad director any more


One of the reasons I haven't posted much of late is that I've been running around like the proverbial acephalous farm fowl trying to deal with one graduate student related thing from another. Some of it's routine but nevertheless time consuming and potentially stress-inducing, and some of it is all about dealing with grad student nightmare situations. Here's a quick run-down that gives you a sense of my last two weeks without, I hope, revealing any sensitive particulars.

  • I scared one of our part-timers away from our program. I feel completely responsible for this since a) I'm the grad director, and b) the only two classes he's taking are my classes. The real problem, I think, is that the two classes are not literature classes (one's research methods, the other's Old English), so he based his conclusion that "graduate study in English is not for me" on rather idiosyncratic courses. I feel really guilty about this. Of *course* in the research class I've been talking about the why's and how's of academic research 24/7, but I've also told them more than once that the teaching/research balance is different at different kinds of institutions. But this particular student dropped out because he wants to teach more than do research. Argh! I tried to talk him out of it, to no avail.
  • Another student stopped coming to his classes and has also decided to withdraw from the program, which is probably the right decision for him. But the problem is he thinks he can go on being a TA for the rest of the semester and collecting his stipend check. Theoretically, I think he's right, and if we saw TAs as employees and treated them as such with all the attendant legal rights, that would be the case: he'd do his job and we'd pay him for it. But our university, like most, sees a TAship as financial aid, for which only full time students are eligible.
  • The withdrawal of the student above leaves me with an unfilled TAship for next semester, which will mean the College will suck the line back up into itself, giving us one fewer TA line for next year.
  • Another student has decided to leave the literature concentration for the other concentration we offer. That's fine -- at least he's still "ours" in the larger sense, since all of our students get MAs in English. But the problem is that program is less flexible in its course sequence, so he has to take next semester off and restart in the fall. So I have his TAship to fill in the meantime or lose it, as well. (He'll get a different one next year, vacated by a graduating person.)
  • It's Ph.D. program application time and a few of our "good for us but not stellar" students have delusions of grandeur. I tried as best as I could to get them to apply to fewer extremely competitive programs and more programs with higher acceptance rates. They have no idea of their worth in this market. I think I'm being so gentle with their fragile egos that they don't get it and they'll just end up disappointed. And some of them are so freakin' arrogant without reason and they have no idea how they're coming across. I cringe to think of how their personal statements read. They have no clue and it's making me tear my hair out.
  • And those are the ones who tell me what they're up to. Half the time our students do this all behind the scenes and I never know where they're applying and/or getting in. And who knows what they're putting in their personal statements. I'm going to run a personal statement workshop ASAP just to get them to let us see the damn things. I mean, how can I help shape the reputation of our program if some of our graduate students are doing god knows what.
  • And all of our students think they're shoo-ins for the local flagship. Um. As if. It happens to be a top tier program with about a 1 in 10 acceptance rate, and in recent memory not a single one of our applicants, even our best students, have gotten in there. The phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" comes to mind. But they think because they're residents of the state that makes a difference, or because they took undergrad classes there (not, mind you, finished a degree there) they have an edge. I can't get it through their heads that state universities can be as competitive and selective at the graduate level as an Ivy League and none of that stuff matters. Indeed, some of them would prefer students from elsewhere than from their own state because it adds to their prestige. I think I may just ban students from applying there. OK, I can't do that. But I might tell them the above.
  • Which reminds me: our undergraduates don't understand that even *our* program is somewhat selective. This is because at the undergraduate level we're an open enrollment university, so all of the problems in the above bullets and here are the result of many students never having had to apply anywhere selective before and not knowing anything about the process other than maybe what they see in movies or on TV. (A number of our MA students were our BA students.) So sometimes tears, anger, resentment, and pleading are involved when someone is rejected. And often I have to deal with it in person!
  • And then there's the MA exam. I hate it. I hate dealing with it; I hate its format; I hate its reading list. But mostly I hate dealing with the students who complain the loudest about it, because they are always the ones who don't get what it's for and don't prepare well and don't do well. And there's really no excuse for not preparing well now or not getting it, because now almost all of our students have gone through my research methods class, where I also spend time on the culture of graduate school, and have them read all sorts of stuff about what typical MA/Ph.D. programs are like, and how most include some sort of comprehensive exam. I talk about how to prepare for it, including working in study groups and using the range of skills and expertise of their peers. And I talk about how to make it professionally useful beyond the instrumentalist goal of doing well on the exam. And I talk about how independent work is expected of graduate students and the exam represents part of that independent work. And still I get students who fear and doubt their ability to read something "hard" on their own (and so they skip much of the medieval and early modern part of the list and then claim they are "blindsided" by having to answer a question on those texts). Or they complain that they didn't have a chance to write on a bunch of the texts on the list, so they couldn't show off what they know (uh, you're supposed to know the whole list!). Or else they ask what was the use of their having read those other texts? And they complain that the list is too long, when it's actually shorter than the other "comprehensive" lists out there, and only longer than those exams that change the key texts every year.
  • And my colleagues aren't any less troublesome. Last year when I started a discussion about revising the exam they successfully put me off with misdirection. (Because I am so easy to manipulate. I'm an idiot sometimes.) But not this time! This time I found the history of the last discussion, when the exam was fully revised 5 years ago, and in it the faculty agreed -- they voted on this! -- to revise the exam at least every five years or when new literature faculty were hired. Ha! It's been five years *and* they've hired me and Milton, and both of our areas are underrepresented on the list. And I've got bits and pieces of 5 years worth of data for assessment -- questions written and answered -- to determine if this exam is doing what we think it should. So ha! We ARE going to have this discussion whether my colleagues like it or not.
  • And then there's the horrible way we exploit our TAs which I want to do something about, if not with more money, then with reduced or better managed workload, but I need the help of our composition people, and the chair, and we need to fight it out with the dean of the grad school for the money to do what we want to do. And given the desires of the current administration we might face tremendous resistance, which the composition people and the chair know full well, so they're not exactly eager to get cracking on it. It's all so wearying. Meanwhile, the students look me in the eye and say things like, "I can't afford internet at home, since I can't live on my TA stipend, so I couldn't complete this assignment." I have no idea how to respond to that. We actually do have a hardship fund in the department, and I tell them about that. But then what? It's not like I pulled a bait and switch on them -- the stipend amount is advertised and I tell them what it is in their acceptance letter. Like most things in this profession, it assumes the person holding it is young and single or, if they have a family, there's someone else taking care of them. And yeah, it sucks. Big time. I know that. But I don't control that. I'm trying to do something about it, but it probably won't result in more money. There just isn't much of that to go around, especially not to the humanities and the grad programs. Our priorities are not the university's priorities. But I think grad students, since they deal mostly with their department, assume that the department controls all of the things that affect the students' lives. I know I assumed that.
  • Of course, it doesn't help that I'm not yet tenured. I'm a little tentative when faced with dealing with administrators. That's why I need the help of my senior colleagues to do what I want to try to do, and they're all a little more weary of trying, with good reason. It's really discouraging.
  • And if one more of the non-traditional students condescends to me and acts like they have some kind of seniority over me (most of them are my age or, at most, 2-3 years older; leaving aside the fact that I'm a decade and a half older in academic years), or tells me I just don't know what their life is like I will freaking scream! The women are the worst. I swear next time it happens I'm going to say, "Oh, I don't know what it's like to be treated like I don't matter and don't have expertise or experience or authority? Really? Because I thought that's exactly how you're treating me right now!"
  • And finally, I had a small-group implosion in one of my classes this week. I blame them somewhat for not being grown ups and dealing with it, but I also blame myself. I stupidly assigned the non-traditional-student, pulling-herself-out-of poverty, single-mom-of-pre-schoool-aged-kids and one of the straight-out-of-college, 20-something-bachelor guys to a group together. Recipe for disaster. He didn't understand the limits on her time. She wielded them like a sledge-hammer over him. They're both bad communicators; he's the shy, quiet, studious guy who prefers to avoid confrontation than to solve problems and she's the fierce type who makes everything into a confrontation and bullies her way through life. Good one, Dr. V. I'm an idiot.
I'm exhausted. This really does take up the course release I get and then some. (God, imagine if we still had our Ph.D. program!) I'm staying on next year for sure, and maybe 2009-10, but then I'm applying for sabbatical for the next year, and so that might be a good time to put someone else in my place, and not just for the year.


Matthew Gabriele said...

I can totally sympathize about the non-traditional students. I don't have at my position now, but in the past they loved talking down to me because I was younger, or just a grad student and so didn't know "real life." It's hard being civil sometimes...

Profane said...

Related questions:

To what extent is it our job to dissuade the 'Good but not Stellar' students away from graduate work, particularly Ph.D. programs? How? Should it be with sledgehammers or silk gloves?

Feirefiz said...

Sorry to hear about your difficulties. I don't think you should worry about the people who drop out. They will do it for whatever reason seems best to them. I doubt it's the particular courses that matter. I suspect it's just the whole experience itself was overwhelming for the guy and it would happen even if he were taking 2 lit courses. If they're really keen, they would stay. As for the disrespectful older women, I totally sympathize. I had an older woman returning to grad school come to my office and say, you're just a kid! Never mind that I've got a PhD and publications and she's a bad student with a BA trying to get an MA late in life. And then she goes to the chair to complain about me without cause! Unfortunately, women are sometimes the most intent on keeping other women in their place. With such women, they will use their age as a marker of authority, but when faced with say a younger man, they don't do the same to them, because I think it's about the way the gender hierarchy works. You keep the people below you in place, and the people below older women are younger women, not men. Anyway, you don't have to fix everything you know. The students are adults; if they want to shoot themselves in the foot, they have every right too. Besides people need to learn that there are consequences. I like watching tv and in a recent episode of "Grey's Anatomy," they said something about surgeons needing to sympathize but not get emotionally engaged. Perhaps this is good advice for us academics dealing with problem students too?

Dr. Heidi said...

What about a "reality-check" workshop?

We had a great one on the topic of publishing when I was a grad student. I wish that there would have been other workshops like that. I feel that most grads are undertrained and have unrealistic expectations about their future.

- three years out from a humanities Ph.D., no job, hunted by the hounds of student loan debt...

meg said...

That's an awful lot of stuff cluttering up your plate -- poor you.

Re the SOTA (Student Over Traditional Age) problem, I sympathize -- not because I've had those students (well, I have, but...) but because I *was* that student. I was the second oldest grad student in the humanities at Plutocratic U, and I gave my younger profs plenty of trouble, esp. the women. I just couldn't help it -- I needed the validation that I had learned some other stuff, I needed an extra measure of respect.

My way of dealing with those students neutralizes them in a flash because I've been there, but my suggestion is to
1. Call each one in to talk.
2. Pile on the respect -- how tough this must be, etc.
3. Talk about their behavior problem (usually it's directed at fellow students even worse), but as something inadvertent that they don't see they're doing.
4. Wallop 'em with the condescension and put 'em in their place bigtime (unless they already seem chastened).

Dr. Crazy said...

Dr. V.,
I totally sympathize with just about everything in this post. Know that you're not crazy, and that you do have support, even if it's only of the bloggy variety :)

Also, for those students who claim not to be able to do assignments because they don't have the internet at home because they don't get paid enough, the only response that I think is appropriate is that this is no excuse. They're talking, ultimately, about two separate issues: the pay for TA's (1) and their ability to do the work (2). Universities have computer labs with free internet access. They knew the requirements of your course when they got the syllabus, or at the very least when you handed out the assignment. I feel like to make it about how they are compensated is a way of manipulating you, ultimately. If it were really a problem with the ability to do the assignment, shouldn't they mention it the minute that you give the assignment? And if they did, wouldn't you then direct them to one of the free computer labs? The issue is just that they didn't do what was required of them, and then they came to you on the date it was due with a crappy excuse. Of course, it's an excuse that makes you feel sorry for them and that is guaranteed to pull at your heart strings. The problem is, it's garbage. (This says the girl who didn't even have a computer throughout her MA program, and who didn't have the internet at home until she was ABD. It's entirely possible to manage, if not easy to do so.) That said, I might recommend that each of these students sends the dean of the college an email explaining their plight, which might go a longer way toward getting those TA stipends increased than just having faculty bring it up. Such a recommendation gives the students agency and it also takes the problem out of your lap.

Sisyphus said...

Ah, sending sympathy your way, Dr. V! I know just how obstreperous us grad students can be. Your program sounds a lot like the place I did my MA. The exam and student bitching about the exam especially.

And I second the suggestions that the grad students themselves need to put pressure upwards on the administration. If they want to push for change, they're gonna have to organize. There are such things as TA unions --- I tried to start one myself back at my MA program. Now, a union drive is a shitload of work like you wouldn't believe, but even the threat of one can cause the university to produce funding and perks, if only to preemptively neutralize the union drive.

And if you want to show them some ranting about grad school competitiveness and stepping up, you could always send them over to my blog. ;) I seem to have ruffled some feathers with recent posts.

Ancarett said...

Gak! I don't think that non-tenured faculty should hold this position (note: I've been graduate coordinator of my program both before and after tenure). It's really tough and to do the job well you need to be able to "bully" your colleagues a little at times. I'm sorry that you're having to deal with all of this.

Good luck with forcing your colleagues to face up to the five-year review of the comps. And I'd suggest that you have an "applying to grad school" informal seminar for both B.A. and M.A. students seeking to get out there where you can gently introduce the issue of 1/10 acceptance rates and the fact that they're not all that.

As for the condescending students, I know what you mean. At forty-something, I still get that from a few older (or equivalent in age) students. Your response sounds pretty good, actually!

k8 said...

Or, for all of those applying to phd programs, you could also direct them to some of the wonderful blog posts by humanities phds/students and those wonderfully (and probably appropriately) bitter forums over at the chronicle of education's web site.

And, I'm willing to bet that some of those students who assume they will be accepted to the local state-U also think that they will be able to get jobs in the state or very close to a particular location. They need to know that this is rarely the case.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

And all of our students think they're shoo-ins for the local flagship.

Oy, I had this too at Rural Utopia (though mine were BA students, not MAs). It was so weird to deal with because I had (still have) no idea how convincingly to explain the niceties of the hierarchies in academia and the fine distinctions between different kinds of institutions to students for whom the default was, if you wanted to go to college, you went to the one nearby. (With Rural Utopia, you did get students who wanted local but small as opposed to local and huge, but otherwise it was exactly the same.) I grew up where people measured the differences in status between different schools to the micrometer, so we never thought this way.

I mean, I had a student who decided he would apply to Madison and Another Cold Northern Big Ten School. Not because they were, you know, GOOD. Just because those were the two states he'd lived in. He couldn't get past the idea that state schools were there to educate local students at whatever level they wanted.

Seriously, though, this is one of the moments where I can see some of my own middle-upper-class privilege - that I actually understood something about how these hierarchies worked before I went to grad school. It was at least one fewer thing I had to learn.

What Now? said...

Goodness, that's a lot on your plate! I can well imagine that this is taking much more time and effort and stress than the one course from which you're getting a release.

It sounds like you're doing amazing things with your MA program; if only my own program had had anything remotely like this. I bumbled along on my own throughout my entire MA program and only discovered what mentoring and professional development looked like when I arrived at my ph.d. program, so I'm deeply impressed with what you're doing in your program. Even if your students aren't grateful, your blog-colleagues are impressed!

Virgo Sis said...

OK, I am going to sound like an old codger who thinks "kids" today are too coddled (they are.) I would have loved to have had as much information and guidance as you are giving - granted my graduate school search was for less scholarly and more professional schools - but I was completely clueless in what to look for and even more so in what to expect when I got there. It was completely sink or swim and I came from a much less rigorous program than your students. So I applaud the fact that you impart so much information and advice - but they have to make their own decisions. Good luck.