We Keep Talking in Separate Rooms

When the subject is change, who gets to be in the conversation?

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

June 15, 2016

A n oft-repeated story about Henry Rosovsky, the longtime second-in-command at Harvard University, tells of how he once greeted a student protest group who came to his office. "You are here for four years," he said. "I am here for life, and the institution is here forever." Now, he asked, what is it that you want to talk to me about?

That story is not just funny. It also makes a few sharp points. It highlights the inherent institutional conservatism of academe, for one thing. The university is a place where every idea awaits its time, and no change should be carelessly implemented.

But the Rosovsky story — together with the title of his 1990 book The University: An Owner’s Manual — also speak to the question of who should be making the changes. The story implies that only those with a lifetime commitment to the university should be trusted with its stewardship. Student reformers, Rosovsky suggests, should be regarded with suspicion because they lack both experience and long-term commitment.

I’ve had many occasions lately to think about that idea. I’ve been traveling a fair bit during the past couple of years, visiting graduate schools to talk about how we might reform graduate education in the arts and sciences during these challenging times. I’ve now got a few good stories myself.

Students surely don't know everything about how to educate themselves. But faculty and administrators don't, either. At a time when the two groups so often talk past each other, this is no time to keep them apart.
Here’s one: At a research university that shall remain nameless, I led a workshop for department chairs and graduate directors. We talked about the structure of graduate education. The faculty were open to the conversation, but also deeply wedded to certain assumptions. One scholar rose to defend tiny graduate seminars focused on the professor’s own research. He insisted that such micro-classes were absolutely indispensable. "When I teach a course in my own research," he said, "my students see me thinking. When I teach a graduate survey course, they see only the thinking of other people."

I was, shall we say, troubled by his comment. I think we have to be more flexible, given that the changing scale and financial exigencies of doctoral education may cause us to question the whole idea of seminars, period.

I led a separate workshop for graduate students at the same university. It met right afterward, and from them I heard a different story. They weren’t fixated on seeing how their professors "think."

American graduate students in the arts and sciences don’t ask for much. They tend to be too deferential, in fact. But I’ve spoken to a lot of them in recent years, and they’re remarkably clear on one thing: They want coherence in their training.

Graduate students want the structure and curriculum of their education to correspond to the reality that they confront when they enter the various job markets. That would require professors to face the fact that most of their Ph.D. students won’t get a professorship — and some don’t even want one — and work that reality into their training.

But there’s more to it than that. We also need to consider how the structure of graduate education helps those who actually will become professors. How do those hyper-specialized seminars contribute to comprehensive field mastery, for example? Do they extend time-to-degree, and if so, is the time worth it? How might we prepare students for the kinds of teaching-intensive professorships that many will get?

Many graduate students I meet aren’t even aware that they’re pointing toward those questions. But they’re deeply aware that their education doesn’t make much sense in the form that we’ve currently designed it. Most Ph.D. training prepares students best for jobs at research universities — like their own graduate schools. But those jobs are thin on the ground. Our graduate students want us to do things differently, and there are ways that we don’t exactly get that.

So why don’t we invite the students to the table? The faculty and student workshops that I led last fall had completely different casts of characters. One group filed out, and another group peopled the room a few minutes later. I found myself wishing that each could have heard what the other was saying.

Last month I attended a meeting where faculty, administration, and students did talk — and listen — to each other. The occasion was a three-week Summer Institute on the Future of Graduate Studies convened at Louisiana State University under the direction of the graduate-school dean, Michelle Massé.

The chemistry at the gathering was remarkable. The group numbered slightly over 20, divided between faculty and students. There were also deans present, some wearing part-time faculty hats.

I visited the group for a couple of days, and I saw conversation range widely, alternating between the theoretical (What does it mean for a student to feel secure?) and the practical (How can science-lab directors prepare their students for diverse careers?). Students weren’t afraid to speak up, and I noticed faculty and students taking notes off each other.

Each day the larger group also broke up into small mixed teams made up of faculty and students from different disciplines. Each team focused on a topic — admissions and retention, interdisciplinarity, and diversity are three examples. The goal of each team was to study its issue over the course of the institute and present recommendations to the larger group.

Each participant received a stipend, so the gathering cost some money. You could argue that including graduate students amounted to spending the university’s scarce funds on a group that will take the benefits elsewhere. But isn’t that what education is all about in the first place? Every class we teach is made up of students who will leave. But we gain from the exchanges with them while they’re with us.

The Louisiana institute is seeding the clouds of change. By creating a group of people committed to collaborative reform, the institute is changing the culture of the university from the inside.

It’s too early to tell what the effects of the institute will be. But it offers a guide to how we can conduct the conversations we need to have. Henry Rosovsky was a legendary dean, but when it comes to rethinking the shape of graduate school, his suspicion of student participation is out of place.

Students surely don’t know everything about how to educate themselves. But faculty and administrators don’t, either. At a time when the two groups so often talk past each other, this is no time to keep them apart.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, is published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.