Shortly, graduate students across Canada will elect new graduate student representatives. Graduate students’ unions work on teacher assistant contracts, taxes, grants, mental health initiatives, social functions, tuition, student conferences etc., but rarely address program renewal and assessment. A now long disbanded organization, The Graduate Students’ Association of Canada commissioned valuable research on behalf of graduate students in its short life. Since the organization disbanded, no replacement has come to the fore and the issues it started to address languish still.
What is the ongoing renewal agenda that graduate student leaders need to champion and work on long-term?
Lack of consultation with graduate students: A major initiative to retool doctoral education for the 21st Century, the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) placed the experience of doctoral students at the center of meaningful reformation. Despite this The White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities and a recent UBC initiative (Reimagining PhD paths at UBC) failed to consult with graduate student reps. The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies which hosts conferences like ‘Reimagining the PhD’ does not have meaningful graduate student representation, nor has it shown leadership in working with graduate students’ groups to get meaningful representative feedback and input.
Better data collection by programs, faculties and student union groups: Planners need data. Renewal initiatives ought to spring from knowledge of student experiences, of new approaches and of effects of changes. Career trajectories of graduates would be especially valuable data. A systematic collection, analysis, sharing and publication of data shows integrity, responsibility and engagement. The larger question the lack of data asks concerns the indifference of graduate programs to responsive planning and performance metrics. The pattern to admit students and then loose interest in tracking them or learning from their experience needs address.
Data collection function by graduate students’ groups: A unionized graduate students’ group should mine its database for use in discussions with administrators. A students’ association could conduct learner satisfaction surveys and study career trajectories. With long-term data on career trajectories, program planning and student decisions could be better informed. With its own data collection arm, a students’ association could also verify scant official data.
Transparency and change in the oral defense: The oral defense lacks robustness as an assessment instrument in terms of validity and reliability. The oral defense sanctions abuse in the form of contempt and derision from examiners and therefore invites less than forthcoming answers. A graduate students’ group needs to address this faulty assessment instrument. The ignorance of programs toward underpinning assessment to robust marks speaks to the very issues at the heart of program renewal.
Ongoing doctoral-teacher training: The research world has changed. New genres of scholarly knowledge production (#goskp) disrupt academia and produce differences for the dissertation. Experiments in doctoral training that allow for collaborative dissertations beg for study, uptake and variations of supervision. Ongoing teacher-training makes for greater respect toward teaching responsibilities.
Question Administrative Solutions: Recently, even without good data and even with high student attrition, some doctoral educators have suggested that reductions in admission numbers would solve employment issues. Student reps should question administrative solutions. (Incidentally, a graduate students’ group should demand greater transparency about admission procedures and administrative address of high attrition).
Practices in Programs: Toward an Examined and Renewed Doctoral Education
What are the policies to put in the storefront window to show graduate students that their representatives are working on program renewal and assessment?
Scholarship in graduate education: A graduate students’ lobby ought to insist that the graduate studies faculty be contributing to knowledge of graduate education by at least attending conferences and at best publishing research.
Partnerships with graduate students’ groups for ongoing renewal: A graduate students’ lobby ought to insist that programs solicit feedback from learners and act on same to improve the program. Student advocates ought to look into GRIP at the University of Minnesota and demand the same kind of value-added educational advantage.
Monitor developments in doctoral education: UBC and McGill are experimenting with new approaches to doctoral education. The corresponding study of these new approaches leaves much to be desired in terms of contributions to a literature. Participation with doctoral educators at conferences like #ICDDET leave open the exciting proposition that program changes go beyond tinkering with the format for doctoral education, to studying and learning about the changes.
Mess with the core: Graduate studies faculties tout three minute thesis contests and graduate skills training. None of this counts towards the degree. Instead of featuring these skills as extraneous, a doctoral program that incorporates new practices into its core shows a better commitment to renewal. Ditto for incorporating learning about doctoral education as part of the curriculum of doctoral education as in GRIP at the University of Minnesota or the program renewal meetings that put student together with teachers at the CID.
PhD by publication route: One mark of a good doctoral school is that the school confers PhDs by publication. The wherewithal to grant a PhD by virtue of publication shows a greater grasp of doctoral education.
Academic Entrepreneurship Component: Applications of new knowledge to businesses outside the Ivory Tower reaps impact, employment and social benefits.
Audit: A graduate students’ group ought to develop an audit-like procedure of doctoral education practices associated to ongoing program assessment, examination and renewal.
Doctoral programs have expanded in Canada by more that 400% since the 1980s. This unfettered growth has allowed programs to tap into market demand, unrestrained by pesky questions about assessment, quality and renewal. Consumers also lack metrics by which to judge the performance of union representation. Graduate students simply trust institutions and unions to keep up with program renewal. Graduate students’ representatives need to take on a role with a long-term agenda of quality checks and ongoing renewal. Such an agenda should be immune from the shaky alliances between student unions which so very often fail or get short shrift.
Graduate students’ representatives in Canada, need to add value to their members’ academic experience. At this time of graduate student elections, let’s hope some candidates put program renewal policies in the heretofore bare shop window.