Redesigning Today's Graduate Classroom

Brian Taylor

March 20, 2011

No one should deny that graduate education is in a bad way at the moment. But apart from loosing rivers of blood and bile about this online, exactly what are we doing about it? In the next couple of columns I want to examine a few notable and very different efforts to deal with the most pressing problems before us, and consider what the reforms might mean for graduate teachers.

When I first started writing this column, I thought that I'd be offering practical suggestions for how to structure and teach graduate seminars and how to advise dissertation students. I still intend to do that, but the urgency of the concerns facing graduate programs in these straitened times—and the changes that those trends are already forcing in programs—have made clear that we can't separate what happens in graduate classrooms from what's happening in graduate programs around the country. And as the high unemployment rate for new Ph.D.'s illustrates, we can't separate what's happening in graduate programs from the troubles faced right now by universities generally.

It was with those thoughts in mind that I attended a meeting last month of the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, a program financed by the Teagle Foundation and directed by Peter T. Struck, a classicist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sarah E. Igo, a historian at Vanderbilt University. As its title suggests, the forum looks forward. It's a concerted attempt to seed the clouds with thinkers who are also doers.

The forum is sponsoring 30 fellows in fields across the liberal arts as disparate as French and brain science. A number of fellows hold appointments (or joint appointments) in education. Nearly all are junior faculty members. They will meet five times over a three-year period (two meetings remain).

Igo and Struck have worked on the principle that talented thinkers should go beyond coming up with ideas, which is the easy part for academics. They should also design and model their ideas. Indeed, "design" is the keyword here. "Instead of taking conundrums that we might chew our cud over," said Struck, "we want to design tasks."

That emphasis on design makes the project stand out for me. I've seen a lot of grant money get spent by groups of people who talk to one another and then stage a conference where they talk to one another some more. The problems facing academe today demand concrete plans for trial and testing. Accordingly, the mission of the Teagle forum is for its participants to "carry [their] conversations back to their home universities, to policy circles, and to the broader society."

Design is the designated vehicle to turn ideas into policy. "Great design," said Zachary First, one of the 30 fellows and managing director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, "is feasible (can it work?), viable (can it spread?), and desirable (do people want it?)." At one of their earlier meetings, the group members created a series of "design challenges" that now serve as collective prompts. Many of the prompts reflect continuing national conversations, such as, "Design a way to deliver a liberal education such that it is not just a luxury for the affluent." Related to that prompt is another one that speaks directly to the anxieties roiling graduate education right now: "Modify the academic labor market such that it will better support a liberal education."

The emphasis on practical planning makes the forum unlike any other group of its kind that I've seen. Struck and Igo emphasize that they are looking for inspiration from successful business models ranging from health care to religion. The goal of such case studies, says Igo, is "concrete action, to think about institutional structures." And, she adds, "to unthink them too."

One group prompt is to "design graduate training to produce professors who will make the organizational changes we envision." Those changes are not yet articulated, of course, but I'd like to focus on that very lacuna as a space that we can all try to fill. It's too early to tell what the results of the Teagle initiative will be, but the hope is evidently that these young and talented fellows will take their heightened sense of "can do" and become campus leaders who will be able to foster new ideas from the top down.

But why can't we all start doing what the forum is doing, from the bottom up? Let's start with the classroom. As professors, we design what goes on in our courses. It's easy to design a graduate course around a chunk of disciplinary content: We need look no further than the graduate seminars that we took ourselves. But the new realities of graduate education in this country require new designs.

In particular, how can we design graduate courses that aren't just for future professors and other academic researchers? We need to adjust our goals in the classroom to accommodate different kinds of students.

A history professor, for example, might acknowledge the fact that many of her doctoral students will teach below the college level by devising different kinds of teaching exercises to accompany the historical scholarship she covers. That doesn't mean she should transform her seminar into an education course, but it does mean giving students ways to approach the material as apprentice teachers as well as apprentice scholars.

The same imperative applies to graduate education in the arts and sciences generally, of course. In last month's column (The Chronicle, February 11), I stressed that graduate advisers and graduate students both need to keep each others' goals in mind as they design their relationships with each other, and adjust those goals as necessary. That means changing our vision of what we do—and changes in practice will follow.

I recently spoke to a Ph.D.-carrying lawyer who recalled that when she first decided to apply to law school more than 30 years ago, the director of her graduate program actually refused to write her a recommendation because he disapproved of her decision to leave academe. Although the director's stubbornness is ridiculous, the story is less laughable than it seems. Lots of professors still view nonacademic professions as a distant second choice for graduate students, and that's unrealistic as well as unfortunate. If we are to welcome Ph.D.'s to venture outside of academe, we have to prepare them for that possibility inside as well as outside our classrooms. Next month I'll report on another effort that seeks to do just that.

Author's note: Writing a column offers the privilege of an evolving relationship with one's readers. A number of mine have noted that certain observations I've made about graduate education don't fit the sciences so well. That's true. I want to write about the sciences along with the humanities and social sciences, including a focus on some of the specific problems encountered in scientific graduate education. But in order to do that, I'll need some education myself. So consider this a special request to my readers in the sciences: Please send ideas, referrals, or simple advice to my e-mail address below.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments and suggestions from readers at