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

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,


  1. “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.

  2. 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.

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