Monday, June 07, 2010

What profs should expect from graduate students, and vice versa

Dame Eleanor Hull is the pseudonym of an American professor of medieval literature. She also writes a blog about academic experience. This month she's been thinking about what she can expect from her graduate students, whom she sees as a mixed bag in regards to talent and preparation. Comparing their performance in her classes to her own performance in an ivy league program has made her wonder about her own expectations. She's asked for comment.

Well, this upcoming fall I will teach my first graduate seminar ever, since the university has only had a masters program in history for the last two years, one of which I was on sabbatical. In the past I have had a few undergraduate seminars and everything worked right and students were both talented and enthusiastic, but graduate seminars ought to be a little different, shouldn't they? So I am interested in hearing from graduate students, former graduate students, former graduate student who now teach graduate students, and anyone else who has an opinion who is bold enough to express it. What do you expect from your professors? What drives you crazy, or drove you crazy in the past, about how your professors ran their graduate seminars?

One of the things that you might consider commenting on is the matter of what is polite and effective communication between an older professor who is an expert in the field and students who are usually quite young and keenly feel their own inadequacies -- or sometimes not. Lady Eleanor Hull brought up this point in one of her posts:
When I was a student, my cohort and I were good at reading subtexts. Many of my students are not. And yet, if I'm very direct about certain kinds of instruction, this can be read as bossy, bitchy, rude. I suppose a lot has to do with tone of voice and body language. And I think being direct is usually better than indirect direction. But sometimes I would prefer to put a page of translations and explanations in the syllabus, something like this:

If I say, “Of course you know,” or “Let me remind you,” I mean I expect you don’t know, but you should, and I am going to fill in some information so we can all pretend you knew this all along. Listen carefully, so you can keep up your end of the pretense.

If I say, “You might want to look at [Source],” this means “Go to the library and look up [Source].” Similarly, “You really should look at [Source]” indicates that I'm surprised you haven't done this already and you had better find [Source] ASAP.
Dame Eleanor has got both agreement and strong disagreements on this point.

That's an interesting issue, but far from the only thing we could talk about. One point I should make clear is that the students I am teaching are not aiming to be specialists medieval history. My class is considered a "breadth requirement" (under the rubric European history) for students who are interested either in 20th century history or Canadian history. Some students Perhaps will have taken medieval history and be interested in it, but it'll just be a matter of luck. Clearly my presentation will have to be calculated to make them feel that it's a good idea to know more than just your own little corner of chosen history. And I'm afraid I won't be able to convince them just by saying that sentence in the first class meeting. It's pretty certain that they will think at times that they are suffering the torments of the damned, but I hope in the end some will think it was all worthwhile.

I am very interested in what you might have to say on these matters.

Image: It was supposed to be a seminar but it got oversubscribed and turned into a lecture course.


  1. Nice post, and important question. I think my expectations vary depending on what the students want to do w/ their MA. Brooklyn College offers only an MA (although CUNY, my larger institution, does offer a PhD). Our English graduate students are largely either already teaching junior or high school or getting their MFA. Since they mostly have no intention of getting a PhD, I don't expect astonishingly deep work from them, although lord knows I load them down with bibliography at the slightest provocation. As for those students who do intend to try to get a PhD, well, I expect a LOT more...

    And for the matter of social cues: better to be as explicit as possible.

  2. As you know, I've been teaching in our grad program for a lot longer but I've never gotten to teach my specialty! I've team-taught 19th century social history courses with colleagues and, more recently, our mandatory methods course.

    So I'm experienced in bringing the history to them or at least the thinking about history. We also do a fair bit of showing how thinking deeply about text or topic A can help improve their own work in subject B (So a seminar critiquing "Hitler's Willing Executioners" and "Ordinary Men" opens a door into more generalized considerations of evidence, argument and bias).

    So I'd hammer home not only expectations but how they can apply some of the insights and methods they're using in your class to whatever other elements of history they're pursuing. That and the just-plain-cool! factor of medieval history, of course!

  3. Anonymous11:41 pm

    I'm a graduate student doing my PhD in medieval literature at a Big Ten school. I think from the sort of class you're describing, I'd expect it to be a bit general and not to go too in-depth on any one subject. I'd expect essays that ask for close reading and comparisons between texts more than extensive bibliographies. I'd expect that the class would be helping to prepare students for MA-exam type questions, so again mostly breadth and comparison between texts instead of in-depth in any one area.
    A graduate class usually requires 20pp of essays, in my experience, one way or another. For this class, I'd guess there'd be a survey of texts, a 3pp class presentation on some one text, and two short essays of 8-10pp. Either that, or three to four 3pp essays doing close readings of the texts, and then a 12pp at the end. I think the latter model would be better for getting the students engaged and for helping them to retain the information.

    I could say that I've taught ten semester courses of my own, mostly in composition, so I'm not entirely unfamiliar with planning syllabi.

    I wouldn't expect a lot of hand-holding from the prof., just professionalism and hopefully a lot of interest in the subject. I could also hope that the texts would be a lively selection and the class would be talkative.

    If the students need help, I'd expect them to visit office hours and to communicate by email. I would also expect them not to miss any classes without contacting the prof. That's pretty standard in my program.

    I might also expect that the prof. would require one meeting to discuss the final paper, a month or so before it's due.

    Depending on the region of the country, either Dr./Professor for address, but sometimes first names are good, if you live in California, etc., or that's comfortable for you.

    I'd expect the students to do the work and be more engaged than undergraduates, and I'd expect them to be actively looking for connections in the field to other things that they know.

  4. I admit I'm shocked to find that some of the grad students I deal with still feel proud *not* to have done all the reading, and believe they're getting away with something when they skip a course session or two. These are the "immatures," the ones not really ready for grad student flight.

    On the other hand, the profs I find least appealing as a grad student are those who insist on lecture-and-exam-and-quiz format, who do not invite the grad students into their world, and whose limits prevent grad students from challenging themselves. If you're a grad student, you deserve to either leap the high hurdles to be part of academic discourse, or to fail to do so. Being some sort of turbo-undergrad just doesn't cut it.

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  6. Anonymous10:39 pm

    As a PhD student in medieval history, I would expect to read McCormick in a class like this. :-)

    I would also expect to have a clearly-defined syllabus at the beginning of the course that includes ALL of the readings and written assignments, with firm due dates, paper-lengths, etc. included. I know that might sound absurd to many, but in my department professors put a great deal of effort and time into creating syllabi for their undergrad courses, and then often tend to wing it as they go for the grad seminars.

    Readings are sometimes announced only a week in advance, deadlines for assignments are not officially announced until midway through the quarter, paper lengths change wily-nily. It is exasperating. I have had one prof. at least acknowledge this as a problem by issuing a sort of posthumous "syllabus" at the end of a 2-quarter class, but that did little to help us when 8 of us were scrambling to share the library's sole copy of an 800-page book, as no one had time to order it through ILL.

    One type of assignment I found particularly helpful for a class like this (in which few of us were specialists) was to write an _appreciative_ 3-4 page scholarly book review for each major work covered. This was extremely useful as it forced everyone to actually read the book (the few daring souls who tried to get away with not reading were quickly discovered in this way,) and taught us a useful job skill, as well. (The reviews had to be appreciative, but in class we were free to tear the books apart to our heart's content.)