Sunday, March 4, 2007

Program Investment

With the weekend after my graduate program's visiting days trailing to a close, I've been thinking a lot about program ownership and investment. Wednesday night through Saturday morning, we hosted a group of prospective students, much like we do every year in late February or early March. Because I was on the graduate committee last year, I was heavily involved in the process, and two years ago, as a first-year student, I made every effort I could to welcome the prospective students, to spend time with them, answer their questions, and chat about the culture of our program, the styles of various faculty members, the challenges that come along with teaching undergraduates at SU, and so on. This year, however, I missed meeting any of the students on the first day because they were scheduled for various meetings throughout the day and the more casual evening events conflicted with an indoor soccer match on Ph.'s schedule. The second day, Friday, was loaded up with my preparations for the pre-CCCC talk. Finally, at the evening get-together and again at a breakfast on Saturday morning, I had the chance to get to know each of them a bit better. A terrific group, really. We'd be fortunate to have them here.

Given the various turnouts, however, this year's visiting days has me thinking about who lays claim to the program, who steers it, who gives it its shape, who carries it on their shoulders, etc. Of course, the program, in a strict sense, is the university's. Administrative decisions trickle down, governing the possibilities for the program and also setting limits. That's a given, I suppose. But I'm thinking, too, about the ratio of investment among faculty and students. It's never so neat as "all faculty" are thoroughly and equally invested (as measured by?) nor as "all students" are thoroughly and equally invested (as measured by?). But rather than talk about my own program in this regard, because I don't want to depict my program as faculty-heavy or student-heavy in terms of involvement ratios, instead I want to pose the questions about who owns the program. Whose stake is greater in efforts to recruit a prospective cohort? The question can be worked any number of ways.

My first thought--on Saturday, when I started mulling this over--was that the faculty, of course, have greater stakes. Faculty, in one sense, are the program (try to have a program without them). They define it; their decisions shape the curriculum; their mentoring and guidance have tremendous bearing on the development of students, interests, professional trajectories. That said, I don't have any idea whether such things are made explicit to faculty at most programs (in any contract or job description or conversation with a department chair or dean) or even whether faculty are on the same page regarding the degree to which their individual actions permeate the culture of the program. Again, SU aside, I suppose this would work very differently from place to place. Or perhaps not. It is also difficult to measure the value of any encounter with students, difficult to separate the faculty-as-collective from faculty-as-individuals. Is a well-taught graduate course of greater significance than behind-the-scenes advising? Is a fifteen-minute formal presentation to prospective students given greater weight than a full three hours of relatively superficial niceties? Volatile and irregular, the bases for these comparisons.

But the more I've been thinking about it, the more I have been thinking that the graduate students must carry the heavier side of the ratio in terms of laying claim to the program and its culture. Graduate students influence faculty decisions, too, though perhaps to a lesser degree than they influence ours. But when we leave a program, we will be forever associated with the program; that is, association with the program lasts with us in ways that are not quite the same for faculty, particularly for those faculty who will stop over at multiple institutions (this one, this stop-over becomes one among many in such cases).

It's a mistake to bifurcate faculty and students, to insist that one group or the other must tow the load of program culture. It's a tidier division in thought-experiment than in any actual program, I suppose. Maybe such things as highly differential faculty investment are discussed openly at faculty meetings. I don't know. I also wonder whether such matters should be addressed explicitly with students and how, assuming it is appropriate, one would go about reminding everyone that the program's culture is in their hands, if it's in the hands of anyone, that is. I mean that the program is defined by students, in equal part whether they are tend to be participatory (additive) or non-participatory (absent). Something like an employee-owned model of graduate education.

To return to the example of my own program and my place in it, the success of the prospective students matters every bit as much to me as the publishing being done by our faculty, the currents in our undergraduate curriculum, the careers of alumni, the reputations of recent grads, the rotation of faculty through various appointments in the program, the rates of faculty exiting, and so on. Complex systems and then some. There's a lot going on. These aren't substitutes for my own activities (progress on the diss, conference presentations, collegiality and whatnot) but neither are they discrete or isolated, especially where the program's reputation is in focus.

I suppose it seems like I'm tip-toeing around some unspoken happening. Not really. Nothing prompted me into these lines of thought besides a genuine question about mutuality in graduate program recruitment--the distribution of the load we bear in performing the program and shaping both its culture and its reputation, not only for the two days prospective students visit each spring, but for the rest of time. Personalizing this discovery might make this thinking-down-a-path clearer: the culture of the program and my own actions are, pretty much from the day I accepted admission, integral.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 4, 2007 8:05 PM to Academe

"Highly differential faculty investment" may well bear itself out when you look at the list of committee members who see students through to a successful dissertation defence. At least I suspect that's part of the equation. There are typically faculty members in every programme who shoulder a larger share of the burden of attracting students, working with them, and helping them with placement after the degree. In a smaller program like SU's, maybe not so much. But no matter how you slice it distribution of labour issues aren't easy to talk about publicly. Plus, like you said, there are so many complex factors that go into performing a graduate program. I really like your idea of an employee-owned model of graduate education. Talking more about what graduate student investment means to various individuals might be fruitful to discuss at something like a Grad Collective meeting. But then again, why not the blogsphere? Thanks for sharing your perspectives.

Posted by: jessica at March 6, 2007 9:58 PM

Yeah, Jessica, I think it would be a good choice for a GC meeting. Maybe we'll hold that over for the fall. Also, because the program is small, there isn't a lot of room for faculty members not to be involved on exam and diss committees. Still, I can only speculate about how some faculty are more active on committees than others. Much of this, too, has to do with whether they are alone in their specializations or if they have colleagues doing similar work, I suppose.

Posted by: Derek at March 7, 2007 8:33 PM