Seeking a Culture Shift in Graduate Education

MLA members discuss professors' ethical responsibilities for training graduate students, as some propose shifts in admissions practices.

January 13, 2020
 
MLA delegates gather in Seattle to discuss recommendations on graduate program culture.

SEATTLE -- The humanities’ dismal tenure-track job market has laid bare some of the profession’s other ugly truths -- namely that power imbalances are too often used against graduate students. The Me Too movement has, of course, revealed abuses of a sexual nature in academe. Yet graduate students also increasingly refuse to accept other forms of mistreatment and malpractice as they face poor faculty job prospects. 


Put another way, if the status quo isn’t a means to an end, then graduate students want graduate school to be more of an end in itself -- and an equitable one.

The Modern Language Association is listening. A fair number of the 700-plus sessions offered at its annual convention over the weekend centered on improving graduate education, not just structurally but culturally. And a large share of the association’s Delegate Assembly meeting focused on a new report from the MLA’s Task Force in Ethical Conduct on Graduate Education.

‘Faculty Hold Considerable Power’

As a number of adviser-advisee abuse cases came to light around 2018, the MLA’s Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee surveyed members about what’s wrong with graduate education -- especially where it concerned power differentials between faculty members and students.

Survey results were never made public. Generally, they involved student concerns not only about the job market and sexual harassment but also mental health, program transparency, favoritism and bias, and exploitation of labor and emotions. They prompted a major discussion at last year’s MLA convention.

Troubled, the MLA’s Executive Council charged a task force with considering the student comments and recommending related guidelines. The charge here was different than that to the task force behind the MLA’s 2014 report on doctoral study in modern language: whereas that report focused on program design and timelines, this one was about preventing abuses of power.

The new task force, led by Simon Gikandi, MLA president and Robert Schirmer Professor and chair of English at Princeton University, wrote in its eventual report that “the relationship between faculty and graduate students is a special one” that’s ideally “intellectually stimulating, long-lasting, and reciprocally rewarding.” Within that relationship, however, the report reads, “faculty hold considerable power over the graduate students they teach and advise."

Faculty members “give or withhold not only professional licensure in the forms of grades and approvals, but also their time,” the report says. They also grant or withhold “various forms of patronage, including collaboration and recommendations for coveted fellowships or teaching opportunities.” They fail, for example, “to return dissertation chapters for many months, to answer crucial emails, or to submit letters of recommendation in a timely fashion,” and they ask students to proofread their papers without compensation, collect their laundry or house sit their pets.

There are also “subtler forms of neglect, bias, or abuse,” and “pressure on students to choose them as their dissertation advisers or discriminat[ion] against students on the basis of race, ability status, age or gender,” the report continues. All of these behaviors -- on top of inadequate funding packages, lack of childcare or mental health benefits, or appropriate job counseling or training -- increase the “precarity felt by graduate students and impede their timely progress toward the degree.”

Recommendations

Ultimately, the task force made nine recommendations, including adopting collaborative or “networked” advising instead of the single-adviser model. Such an approach will “increase the range of professional possibilities for graduate students, reduce stress caused by reliance on single mentors and provide a check on faculty abuses of power,” the report says.

Networked or collaborative advising was discussed at several other panels at the convention. Jenna Lay, associate professor of English at the Lehigh University, offered some practical strategies during a separate panel on graduate student mentoring: encouraging students to serve on campus committees, do informational interviews with staff members and alumni in other kinds of jobs, and pursue graduate assistantships outside of one’s immediate campus home, along with other kinds of professional networking.

Lay’s co-panelist and former graduate student Emily Shreve, now associate director of academic transitions in the Academic Success Center at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, also served on the mentoring panel. At Lehigh, she worked as a graduate assistant in the Office of the First-Year Experience, participated in a committee linking different humanities programs, managed the summer reading program and developed a weekly newsletter for first-year students. That experience interacting with peers and faculty and staff members across the university, outside the classroom, helped lead her to her current position. Even so, Lay noted that this kind of experience is beneficial to all students, as those who pursue faculty jobs still need to understand service roles and the inner workings of the university.

Other task force recommendations include rejecting “all forms of sexual harassment and discriminatory behavior,” such as through the establishment of department guidelines “for treating all students fairly.” When sexual harassment claims are lodged, for example, “faculty must refrain from public comment on such matters while they are adjudicated by university bodies charged with this task.” Departments and programs also should train professors on “bystander responsibility” and the need to guard not only against impropriety but also the appearance of impropriety.


“Promote transparency to reduce bias and favoritism” was another recommendation. Faculty members should publicly set, revise and apply, in a fair and professional way, clear criteria and procedures for all matters that affect graduate students and their progress through a program. Wherever possible, graduate students should be included in department meetings and decisions that affect them.

The task force also advised “clear rules for faculty accessibility and responsiveness,” with regard to responding to papers, dissertation chapters and drafts, and requests for letters of reference in a timely fashion -- including when professors are on leave.

Other recommendations: offer students training without “exploiting” them, such as by giving them workloads that prioritize timely program progress; meet the distinct needs of master’s students, who are not “Ph.D. students lite”; provide mental health-care coverage and services and supports for work-life balance; and fund students sufficiently and pay them on time, so that they don’t need to take on second jobs.

Realities of the Job Market

Offering professionalization opportunities in line with the “new realities” of the job market was the task force’s other recommendation. Delegates selected it as the most pressing issue facing their profession during the assembly meeting.

“Graduate schools and departments -- in collaboration with offices of career services, development and alumni relations, and other institutional offices -- should offer workshops and training for diverse humanities careers as well as for the varied possibilities within the academic job market,” the report says. “Students must be supported, and not stigmatized, when they explore diverse career paths.”

In another session on graduate student admissions -- what moderator Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University, guessed was the MLA’s first such panel -- speakers said that career diversity should start with who gets into graduate school. Citing Julie Posselt’s study of graduate school admissions, Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, Cassuto said that too often “we default into what [Posselt] calls ‘homophily,’ which is the love of same. In other ways we seek to replicate ourselves.” Applying to graduate school and reviewing applicants is a “ritual dance” with prescribed steps, Cassuto continued. Regardless of what they actually hope to do with their degrees, “candidates need to present themselves as prospective researchers.” Faculty readers, meanwhile, “especially want for candidates to demonstrate what kind of scholars they’re going to be.”

This has consequences for diversity of all kinds, including intellectual, Cassuto said. And if “we’re going to reconceive the guiding assumption that Ph.D.s are going to become professors and nothing else, then we have to do that from the bottom up.”

Cassuto’s co-panelist John Guillory, Silver Professor of English at New York University, as a thought experiment suggested that the MLA might also help oversee a staggered moratorium on admissions to humanities programs, in which one-third to one-fourth of departments don’t admit graduate students every year. More realistically, perhaps, Sara B. Blair, Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said that programs must first and foremost study and make public data on outcomes for past graduate students (Michigan has been leader on this front). 

Seemingly agreeing with Cassuto on the value of admitting students with diverse goals, Blair said that there is “no shortage of talent, serious expansive talent, among real-time and often nontraditional potential aspirants for doctoral programs.”

This “doesn’t mean that the Ph.D. in English or the humanities more broadly isn’t still -- but in familiar and new ways -- a highly valuable project,” she added. The world needs “well-trained, critically adept humanists to not only to teach college students of all sorts,” but also to “make richer sense of the world we inhabit.”

During yet another panel on what professors owe their students, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of digital humanities and professor of English at Michigan State University, said that a more “generous” academic culture starts with how faculty members interact with other scholars and their work. “I’m not asking us not to disagree, not to push new ideas forward, not to think critically," she said, recalling that a group of graduate students early in her teaching career had come to class prepared with brutal critiques of a reading but shallow understandings of what it was actually about. "But I am hoping that we might find ways to remember that critical thinking requires deep understanding and even generosity as prerequisite.”

Fitzpatrick asked “what we and our students might gain by slowing the whole process down, from emphasizing the believing game before leaping to the doubting came,” when engaging with others’ ideas. “Generous argument” might make us better listeners and help "spring ways of thinking that focus on higher education as a means of fostering community rather than providing individual benefit," she said.

All of this entails moving away from a “hyperindividualistic, competitive mode of achievement in which all outcomes are understood to be individual and therefore assessed at that level,” however, she added -- a tall order. At the same session, Lay of Lehigh and Shreve of Nevada promoted the idea of "professionalism" over professionalization, with Lay defining the former as oriented on the "pedagogical missions and ethical responsibilities that we see as essential to a thriving academic community."

Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, said during the delegate meeting that these recommendations, along with MLA member input, will now go back to the governing council for further consideration. It’s possible that the recommendations will inform guidelines for departments on the ethical treatment of graduate students, she said. And while some of the MLA’s existing guidelines for departments in other areas aren’t widely followed, she said, some have real "teeth."

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