Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Little MA Program that Couldn't

We have a small MA program here at NWU, and the colleague who's been ill has been teaching a course, and since we're sort of in the same field, I'm helping with that one, too.

Last week about half of the students gave their presentations (which we taped for my colleague's grading pleasure); my job was to oversee and to make suggestions to help with the final write up.

This week, the other half of the students did their presentations, and we did the same taping, and I made suggestions.

So, last week, I suggested to some of the students that they should look at EEBO for some texts, and they gave me blank looks, so I showed them how to look at EEBO, and then they vaguely remembered that they'd already been shown EEBO and taught how to do a search earlier this semester, but they'd forgotten.

This week, I asked a student who was presenting if they'd looked at their text on EEBO, and they gave me one of those looks like I was crazy for asking, because what was EEBO anyway.

And another student talked about the one critical essay they'd read, and how it quoted another essay, and so on, and when I asked if they'd looked at the quoted essay, they looked at me like I was crazy for asking because why would they want to do that?

When I first got here, I was very supportive of our grad program.  I taught the basic research and bibliography course several times with great success.  (We also had an intro to grad studies in our field course, and a theory course required.)  And then when some budget decisions made cutting one of the three required courses out (the research and bibliography course was the cut, of course), I revised the other intro course to include some research and taught it a couple of times. 

But over the years, I've grown progressively more frustrated with the program for two interrelated reasons.  First, we don't have the resources to give our students a really good grad experience.  I'm not saying they need to have the sort of experience someone at an R1 doing a phud needs, but having gone to a pretty good MA only program, I'm thinking that they need to have a certain variety of course options, certain resources, and so on available.

Second, our students mostly aren't very focused on their graduate work, and because the program's so very small, there isn't a culture of focus, and many students go away while they're writing their thesis and then either do a panic thing and write something or take a lot of professorial time and then decide not to bother finishing because it's too hard.  I've experienced this side of both of those, and I'm not given any sort of time reassignment or extra pay for the ton of extra work it is to respond to graduate work; now one of those was pretty rewarding, but mostly the quality of rushed work isn't at all rewarding, and the students who decide not to bother finishing are even less rewarding.

Last year, more budget decisions, and the faculty voted to cut out the theory requirement, and some other folks revamped the one required course to include some theory.   That makes our program even weaker, so far as I'm concerned.

And this last couple of weeks has really reinforced my sense of how weak our program is, and how weak most of the students are.  You really can't run a strong program with two strong students a year, and six weak ones.  And if you try, you spend a lot of resources that you could use elsewhere. 

So, this course has ten students enrolled.  The other grad course this semester has thirteen.  (And yes, other, as in there are only two.)  (Across all the upper level undergrad courses that are cross-listed, there are 7 students.)  If those two faculty members taught GE courses with even 25 students, that would help our GE numbers a lot over the course of a year. 


  1. This is something I'm always curious about -- what is the justification for the department's having an MA program at all? I have been surprised at the weakness of some of the graduate students I've encountered at my job, and I find myself wondering what the purpose of the graduate program is -- its ranking is quite low and I can't imagine the placement rate is great. Are you meant to be preparing them for PhDs elsewhere? Or giving them a credential to boost them at their current jobs? Or something else?

  2. I'm going to come back to this post next time some administrator tells us that a great way to "diversify revenue streams" is to add an MA program, with some upper-level classes serving both undergrad and graduate students. This would supposedly solve the problem of low enrollments in upper-level classes, but piling a weak MA program on top of a struggling undergraduate program does not seem like the right way to build something solid. Maybe there is a good reason for starting more small MA programs, but I haven't heard it.

  3. Yeah, I get the feeling that what I'm seeing is a "diversified revenue stream" and a way of boosting the impression that the university is dedicated to "research," but an underperforming MA/PhD program doesn't seem like something academia in general needs.

  4. The predictions I've read say that M.A. program enrollments are likely to decline, especially among people who graduated in the last 5-10 years, who tend to be overloaded with debt, averse to taking on any more,and (understandably) skeptical of the idea that higher ed degrees lead to employment. Administrators are, indeed, still hopeful, but I'm not sure that hope is based on any even semi-solid information. I'd guess that there will be fewer, not more, M.A. and Ph.D. programs, especially in the humanities, in a decade -- and that that will not necessarily be a bad thing.

  5. Where I am the MA only people fall into two groups: local professionals (usually HS teachers, but not always) for whom the MA boosts salary; and our undergrads who are being prepared for phud programs elsewhere, but getting more theory, grad experience etc. We've had good luck with the second group getting into good programs. But it's a weird niche.