Graduate program challenges

As I think I alluded to in an earlier post, the college is encountering some challenges regarding graduate programs. Part of this is a desire to grow our graduate offerings and figure out how to manage them, which in turn is part of the larger struggles of academic management.

But I don’t want to talk about that. Nor do I want to go on about our specific woes. However these local issues have prompted local discussion about how to re-organize the department’s grad programs, which in turn has me thinking about larger contexts. So that’s what this is about.

A comprehensive, masters-granting institution like Cortland is a specific kind of animal. As I’ve said many times, our students are the B- HS grads from Poughkeepsie and other such upstate locales. And when it comes to our grad programs, like our undergrad programs, they are heavily stocked to public school teachers and people looking to enter that profession. NYS requires all teachers to get masters degrees within five years of receiving their initial certification.

So that drives folks into our programs for reasons other than the "traditional motivations" of grad students. Of course, to the best of my knowledge, the traditional motivation for going to grad school is an inability to find a career that you like with a BA/BS. And I believe there are a growing number of people discovering that motivation as well.

Still, cynicism aside, less than 10% of Americans get masters/professional/phd degrees, or about 1/3 of everyone who gets a bachelors. That should mean that even at a school "like Cortland" the quality of graduate students should be fairly good. We should know that even w/o these stats, since we are generally only admitting folks with a 3.0 GPA or higher, right? So while grad school is like any other school, you have to meet the students where they are, you should be able to expect a fair amount of "rigor."

If I was going to describe a grad program in some generic way, I’d say that graduates should be able to:

  • articulate independent research projects
  • collect and evaluate relevant scholarship
  • establish appropriate research methods
  • have at least an introductory understanding of common theories
  • have a general understanding of contemporary issues in the field
  • have a basic knowledge of disciplinary history

But most importantly, you have to be able to distinguish between a liberal arts BA and a more professionalizing MA degree… even in English. True, the kind of professionalizing in English is not very specific, but on a local level you can probably get some focus. Now at Cortland we have an MSED in English for teachers, so we wouldn’t need an MA that was really focused on teaching HS. That said, many of our MA students are current HS teachers, so you’d probably want to provide some way of thinking about the MA as professionalizing for them. However, we also have students who go on to teach college with an MA or go on to doctoral programs. Finally, though we don’t have many students who come to us looking to pursue other professions (e.g. editing, journalism, etc.), it wouldn’t be surprising if many of grads eventually found themselves outside of teaching or academia, so it probably wouldn’t hurt to give a little thought to other kinds of professionalization in our program.

For instance, our MA students write theses in literary studies, and that’s great if that’s what interests them. The main goal there though is to construct and produce a research project that is relevant to one’s own professional goals.

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  1. Not surprisingly, since our schools are similar, it sounds like our programs have a fair amount in common. Less than a quarter of our students are “traditional” PhD bound English majors who want to be professors. The largest group are high school teachers looking for a salary bump. We have a small number of professional writers looking for credentials, and a large number of placebound folks for whom graduate work is something to do while a spouse or children work, finish school, etc.
    This adds up to a very diverse student body, most of whom are poorly served by the traditional literary analytical thesis. Several reasons: (1) many are not well-prepared for it; (2) time demands are high for folks with full time jobs, kids, etc; (3) literary studies doesn’t bear much fruit for most of this demographic. So as we’ve revised the program we’ve set up an alternative exit option, a capstone course which is more flexible than a thesis but hopefully produces a similarly transformative intellectual experience.
    Interestingly, a fair number of our HS teachers choose the MA in English over the MS in Education because the latter involves tons of work targeting No Child Left Behind, etc. And they are sick of that.

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