In the fall of 2010, at the start of our second year of a Ph.D. program in the humanities at a private research institution, we had enough experience in our department to notice some areas of graduate training that needed improvement.
In spite of the vast differences in our teaching backgrounds—Amy began the program with no classroom experience, while Mike taught extensively during his master's studies—we both felt frustrated with the teaching aspect of our degrees. So, as any good graduate student would do, we put our critical-thinking caps on, came up with a list of ideas, and set up a meeting to talk about them with other students from our department.
We were all in the same boat, after all: pursuing the same degree and the same Holy Grail of a tenure-track position in the humanities. Surely we could all work together to identify the problems, come up with logical solutions, and work with our department administrators to alter the teaching requirements to everyone's benefit.
That was, as it turned out, a gross miscalculation on our part.
At the meeting, it quickly became apparent that everyone had very different ideas about what the ideal Ph.D. program should look like, and very few of those ideas had anything to do with teaching. The meeting quickly devolved into a catalog of complaints against the program, the department, each other, and the field at large.
Perhaps that shouldn't have surprised us—graduate school is not a stress-free zone, to say the least—but we were taken aback by the vehemence of the critiques. Before the meeting, everyone had seemed more or less content with the program, but once we presented ideas for improving one area of the program—teaching—suddenly everything was on the table.
Fourth- and fifth-year students, worried about a grim job market, passionately argued for an additional year of financial support from the department. International students, restricted by the terms of their visas, argued just as forcefully about their need for summer grant money. Still others, comparing our program with graduate-school experiences they'd had at other universities, argued for no change at all. Bewildered, we ineffectually tried to steer the discussion back to the topic at hand—teaching and our professional training—but we left the meeting feeling discouraged and disconnected from our peers.
Despite that setback, we were encouraged by both students and faculty members to proceed with our campaign. Our department chair had suggested that we obtain a concrete show of support so that he could more effectively advocate on our behalf to the dean. We compiled our ideas into a letter, e-mailed it to every graduate student in the department, and left a copy in the department office for our fellow students to sign.
Asking graduate students to sign a letter was yet another misstep. We received dozens of more or less positive e-mails from our fellow students, agreeing that changes were necessary, that our ideas were good for everyone, and that they would sign the letter first thing in the morning. But the number of signatures never changed. (The final count was six; there are more than 70 graduate students in our department.)
Even with the encouragement of our chair to move forward and explicitly show support for some sort of plan—not necessarily ours, but any plan that articulated our shared concerns about teaching—people weren't willing to sign their names. Would their signing affect their future teaching assignments? Could they still get the recommendations they needed for job applications? What if the winds change and they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the political status quo in the department?
Interestingly, people seemed far more comfortable expressing themselves through e-mail, and a departmentwide e-mail chain quickly careened farther and farther off course with every counterproposal, "list of demands," and plea for temperance. There were repeated calls for votes to narrow the scope of our critique, putting us in the uncomfortable position of having to decide which group had the most valid concerns. But there was one thing we could all agree on: We needed another meeting.
So we set the date and time, and waited for all the interested parties to show up. Let's just say the turnout did not reflect the interest we saw online.
Nevertheless, we drafted a modest proposal, tentative really, but it was something that at least some of us could agree on. Of course, it took another four months to nail down the details, sign, and send the letter. In the end, sections of the department named representatives (someone who had volunteered or been elected), and they were the only ones who signed the final letter. Many students had made it clear that while they were in agreement with its content, they were not willing to play the malcontent.
After so much worry and time, what was the response? The revoking of our fellowships? A rebuke? A slap on the wrist?
No, it wasn't dramatic at all. It was a touch anticlimatic: a gracious acknowledgment of our efforts and the reassurance that our perspective would be taken into account as the department deliberated its future. Some of our suggestions, in fact, have already been enacted. Some of the teaching-assistant positions we desired have been made available, and the system for awarding teaching assignments has been made more transparent.
Now that it's fall, where do we go from here? What our department—what every department—really needs is a consistent, sustained forum to deal with graduate-student issues. While the campuswide graduate-representative body at our university genuinely tries to do a good job of presenting the concerns of all graduate students to the administration, that body can't be embedded in every department, each of which operates autonomously.
Without such a forum, graduate students in a particular department can't pass institutional knowledge on from one cohort to another. The main divide we found in our meetings was between those who had finished their coursework and those who hadn't. We simply didn't see each other enough to know what specific issues were important to one another.
Although our first, animated meeting wasn't exactly a resounding success, it clearly demonstrated that many of us had been thinking about how to improve our program. Even more telling was the fact that in many cases, we had, individually, already thought of creative solutions. All we needed, it seemed, was a time and place to talk things over.
Just as important, we needed a frank acknowledgment that graduate students should have some say in their departments. The bottom line is that students who speak out or organize in any way risk serious exposure. In our case, as we imagine is true of many departments, all of our power to effect positive change is granted to us by the good will of tenured faculty members and university administrators.
The most disheartening aspect of this process was the widespread perception among students that being known to have made even a remotely negative comment about our department or any of its policies would have serious repercussions. Many students—otherwise engaged, impassioned young scholars—didn't take part in our discussion for fear of endangering their degrees, their mental health, or their future employment.
Some students who had been involved in our very first grumbling sessions—held, we're sort of embarrassed to admit now, late at night in a dark bar, with a vaguely militant feel as though we were engaged in something truly subversive—dropped out of the effort after perceiving resistance. Other students who were initially hesitant to get involved began to participate after realizing that our department's administration was actually quite receptive to our ideas. It would have made a difference, for the better, if students had known up front that there were no barriers to their active participation in determining the content and terms of their degrees.
Soon we'll be sending another letter to our department chair. In it, we will acknowledge the improvements that have come about and politely ask for an update on any progress made toward resolving our other concerns.
It's a strange place to be. We have no official titles or positions other than: graduate students. Inevitably, we'll find out just how much weight that title carries. So far, frustrating though it's been, the experience of trying to change our program for the better has been worth something. Hopefully, it will be worth more when we're through.