Let me preface this post with the fact that I am thoroughly enjoying teaching my MA students this semester, and our (theory) seminar is going exceptionally well. They are bright and engaged, and sure, I keep having to reprimand one of them over and over again (let’s note: it’s week 7 and I’ve been doing this since week 2) for dismissing readings out of hand because zie doesn’t understand them or disagrees with them, but I think that the student actually appreciates getting challenged. Or if not, I’m not going to tolerate anti-intellectual bullshit responses in a graduate seminar. (Note: Not getting it isn’t the problem, because you can not get it and come in with questions, and that’s cool. And disagreeing is also cool, if you point to what you disagree with and explain why or pose questions that indicate your disagreement. What’s NOT cool is saying that the material – written by a renowned theorist – is garbage just because you don’t get it or you don’t agree. Because you know, that is a garbage response. And when I say you are being anti-intellectual in your engagement, and your counterargument is that I shouldn’t have had to pick apart a passage in class just to show how to read it… um, I’m modeling for you the kind of deep reading you yourself need to do. Yes, I’m “an expert” and you aren’t. But you don’t become an expert by dismissing stuff that hurts your feelings, says the lady prof who finds Derrida almost entirely confusing, except for in rare moments of nirvana-like understanding that immediately slip away from me.)
But the thing that I want to talk about is teaching at the graduate level with a 4/4 teaching load that primarily includes teaching undergrads including courses ranging from composition for first semester freshmen, gen ed courses, core courses in the major, and upper-level undergrad courses, AS WELL AS teaching graduate students that are typically pursuing the MA for reasons that do not involve a career in academia.
Before I get into that, let me note, I don’t actually object to us having an MA program. I would thoroughly object to us ever having a PhD program. Here’s the thing: I do think that grad school shouldn’t become a default option for all students, and I advise my undergrads that they shouldn’t just assume they have to do a graduate degree, and I encourage them to take time off between the BA and any grad option they might think that they will pursue. And I strenuously argue that my strongest undergrads, who really want grad school, should NOT under any circumstances have our MA program on their list of places to apply, because frankly, they need to do better for themselves if they want to excel in a career with that graduate degree. But for high school teachers who need the MA to get a rank change and to continue in their positions, or for people doing the degree for enrichment, or for people who are place-bound and need an MA to get a promotion at work… we offer a flexible MA that will help them get where they are trying to go. Not all grad programs need to serve a population that wants to become professors. (Some of our grad students have gone on to respectable PhD programs, primarily in rhet comp or creative PhDs, but in general for students interested in lit our program is a dead end in terms of anything beyond adjuncting, and yes, I make that very clear to my MA students.)
But with all of THAT being said, let me talk about the thing that frustrates me about teaching grad students in the sort of institution (regional comprehensive) at which I work.
I truly and fundamentally believe that it is irresponsible for people who are not themselves actively engaged in producing research in their fields to educate students at the graduate level. Yes, I also prefer that people who teach advanced undergrads be actively engaged in producing research in their fields, but I’m more flexible with my ideas about people teaching undergrads because, ultimately, just by virtue of having completed a PhD, one is capable of giving students a foundation for future work, however stale one’s own original scholarship has become. A PhD teaches you, or should teach you, enough that you can prepare adequately, by keeping up with other people’s original research, to teach an undergraduate course in your field of specialization, and while it might be preferable for one to maintain a consistent research agenda of one’s own, I do think it’s possible to do an adequate – and in some cases even a superior – job with undergrads even if one isn’t publishing new stuff of one’s own.
But teaching grad students is – and should be! – another kettle of fish. Because what you are teaching them to do is to do original research of their own, and if you don’t do it yourself, you don’t have a clear state of what is happening in academic publishing, nor do you have a clear sense of what actually is original within your field. How can one possibly pretend to give grad students what they are paying for – and yes, most of our grad students paying customers who don’t get assistantships or any support other than student loans – if you aren’t actually a consistent researcher in your field yourself? For those rare students who want to go on beyond the MA, how can you possibly write an effective letter of recommendation that will get the student into a decent program?
But since the history of my institution – which only came into being as a university in the 1970s and which until a few years ago was playing the role of both community college and 4-year institution – is one that was all about undergraduate education, and because grad programs came into being as a “cash cow” sort of a scheme, there is little to no support for the work that goes into doing the faculty work that really should be a prerequisite of teaching graduate students.
Now, some programs (ones that we might label “applied”) fare better across campus than others, mainly because they worked some deals related to teaching load. (So they have 3/3 loads and the option to apply for course releases beyond that, whereas within my college we are on a 4/4 and we have basically no option to apply for course releases unless we’re working in certain administrative positions or if we are getting “paid back” for directing grad students, after the fact – which I would argue encourages people to do a shitty job of advising just so they can accrue enough “credits” to be eligible for course releases. So there are no options for course releases related to curricular development, and none that are related to research – without grant support, and even with grant support it’s not guaranteed in the humanities.)
Basically, if you’re teaching grad students and you’re in my position, you have two options: either you phone it in with your grad courses, thus doing a disservice to those students, or you phone it in with your undergrads, giving yourself the time and space to do what you should ethically do as a teacher of grad students, which is to keep active as a researcher in your field. Oh, I guess there is a third option, which is to eliminate any self-care and any personal life that you might hope to have. Basically, you can “reassign” your own time by shortchanging students or by shortchanging yourself. There is still a “cost,” but it surely ain’t to the institution’s bottom line.
I suppose one might argue that I’ve split the difference between the three: my grad students are in some ways getting a phoned-in course, in that I am not teaching the most cutting-edge syllabus I could be teaching, because it’s necessary for me to repeat what I teach in that course in order not to have the additional prep. And yet, it’s true that I have a reputation of being more rigorous than many other teachers in my program, in terms of the way that I respond to writing and in terms of the amount of work I assign and guide them through. And then I phone it in with my undergrads in that I’ve basically had to stop developing undergrad curriculum, and I teach the same texts over and over, in order to make room in my life for the grad class. And then finally I phone it in with my personal life in that I can’t actually focus on it, and the only personal life I have depends on the people in it accepting that I’m kind of an asshole. All of this leads to me doing lots of things adequately and to doing nothing really exceptionally well. Which then leads to shitty morale, and weight gain, and me writing internal grant applications that are filled with bitchy venom (because that really encourages people to give you money).
Sure, I suppose I could “refuse” to teach in the grad program (as some of my colleagues have done) though that would not help our program, and though that wouldn’t solve any of these problems. (Let’s note: these are not the reasons my colleagues have refused to teach in the grad program. There reasons have tended to be about refusing to teach night courses.) I’ve tried to refuse teaching some of my service courses and I’ve been told NO. I could agree not to teach upper-level courses in my specialization to undergrads, but, fuck you, you will not take away the thing that I am best at and that I enjoy the most and that really serves the greatest number of our students the best. Basically, right now, I have no power to change my situation. The most I’ve been able to achieve is to get myself a consistent two-year rotation of courses that includes ELEVEN different courses over that two years. And my lack of power has to do with lack of institutional support.
I’ve been investing a lot of extra effort in applying for available money, both from external agencies and from within, in order to support not teaching in the summer and in order to support doing the kind of work that I should be doing as a scholar who teaches at the graduate level, and who teaches undergraduates who aim to be scholars themselves. And I’ve cut way back on service, because service might make me a “good girl” in the institution, but that shit won’t get me fully promoted and ultimately, I’ve discovered that being a “good girl” with service just gets more service loaded onto me. And I’ve cut back on the self-shaming about all of what I should be doing better because, honestly, if I had the institutional support I needed, I would be doing a much better job, so if I’m not doing “good better best, never let it rest, until your good is better, and your better is best” that is because my institution doesn’t actually give a shit if I’m doing the best that I can do, and it’s not about me doing a bad job.
But, at least from my perspective, it’s important to acknowledge that shitty grad programs, and shitty professing, have everything to do with institutional directives and structures. You can’t get something for nothing. You can’t expect excellence if you don’t fund excellence. And, sure, that’s the fault of the voting citizenry, and the state legislature, and it’s the fault of institutional culture, and it’s the fault of a lot of different things. But honestly? It’s not my fucking fault.