graduate education

Our semester officially starts tomorrow -- I have a couple of days to continue creating my new graduate course, since it won't be until Thursday. It's an entirely new seminar, designed to dovetail with my current research interests --which makes it more interesting to create, but also means I keep rethinking the organizational structure.

I think there's a reigning assumption in the academy (at least in my field) that teaching graduate students is the privilege/luxury we all desire, or aspire towards. And if I were teaching top notch graduate students in a real Research U, maybe that would be true. Mostly I have really enjoyed my graduate classes here, but it's not a form of teaching that I privilege above all others. In fact, I think I'm a better teacher of undergraduates -- and there are many things about undergraduate education that I understand and enjoy much more. The goals for a senior-level course are much clearer to me, for instance, than the goals for a graduate course that will include everything from novice MA students to PhD students in non-literature subfields, to PhD students in my subfield.

One of the pervasive dynamics of graduate education (both postitive and negative) is that of replication: graduate advisors are often thought to be (or think of themselves as) turning out younger, newer, fresher versions of themselves. Or the department is thought to stamp you in its mold, to be turning out X number of new units per year.

But the graduate students I have here at Large Urban U are nothing like the graduate student I was, just as this department is nothing like that department. I couldn't replicate myself and my peers even if I thought that was a good thing to do (which I don't).

Our graduate students are here for very different reasons; they have often indifferent skills, & mediocre preparation upon entry; and their career possibilities are radically different. So replication of my experience would be all wrong for these studnets (although I think several of my colleagues still feel that to be their personal mission). What I find challenging is figuring out what exactly is the right thing to give them in a course.

No one ever discusses graduate-level pedagogy. We had training as graduate students in how to teach freshmen; the faculty in my dept sometimes have discussions about the majors. But graduate seminars are vested with the tweedy cloak of Tradition, of Venerable Practices that are assumed to be handed down through the academic generations.

Truthfully: I had one teacher in graduate school who was actually a good teacher. I had courses with many brilliant people, some of whom were good mentors or conversationalists -- but I mostly experienced graduate seminars as negative examples, as models of what NOT to do in a class. Graduate education in my experience was largely a process of self-education. And at some level, that's how it should be -- what students should be learning are the skills and background knowledge to enable them to do individual autonomous research. But it's hard sometimes to even know where to begin. Especially when you only have 45 hours with them in the semester.