Grad School’s Psychological Imprint Morphs into A Bigger Blind Spot Later On

Dig, if you will, a fathering, in the form of a folkloric, social psychological blindness, known as pluralistic ignorance.  Read an argument for how a hidden curriculum of pluralistic ignorance, that is acquired in grad school, impedes future action to make graduate education better.  In Leaving the Ivory Tower (2001) Barbara Lovitts uses the psychological defense called pluralistic ignorance to explain why some practices in graduate education, which don’t make sense to students, go unchallenged.  When pluralistic ignorance gets sewn into the fabric of graduate school, it goes on to blind the eyes of those staffing graduate education or those representing graduate students.


The Emperor and his men watch the spinners make the invisible fabric for his clothes.

Pluralistic ignorance works like the social psychology in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes.   Graduate students don’t want to appear stupid or ignorant. Students assume that everyone supports the status quo, save only them.  Students zip their lips to gain acceptance in an educational culture which has failed to take an interest in its practices. While all the residents of the kingdom know that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, none of them can say anything, not even to each other. The entire kingdom has too much to loose by speaking out.  The only one with nothing to lose, is a child, who finally bursts the bubble and announces, “The Emperor is not wearing any clothes”.   The child rescues the kingdom from a dangerous, shared delusion.

Pluralistic ignorance reigns still.  At the International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training in Oxford in March 2015, the keynote speaker, Dr. Debra Stewart, who is president emeritus of the Council of Graduate Schools, issued another ‘wake-up’ call.  Wake-up calls, which go unheeded and unheard, are oft-repeated throughout the history of graduate education studies.

Pluralistic ignorance writ large over careers in graduate education can not hear a wake-up call.  When a grad student acquires a pluralistic ignorance filter, that filter becomes part of the armamentarium going forward.  When these students take their place as supervisors, department heads, and deans, the reality shut out by pluralistic ignorance in grad school becomes a blind spot.  Graduate educators can not hear or heed wake-up calls because of the deafening and blinding that took root in grad school.

Whether pluralistic ignorance explains a lack of initiative on the academic front, ‘don’t ask’ offers a reasonable excuse.  Graduate student leaders, like other graduate students, may assume the mantle of pluralistic ignorance even as their experience tells them otherwise.  As such, graduate student advocacy bodies in Canada have achieved precious little in getting departments to change academic practices that do not serve their members.  Even with legions of former union  members, who add to the ranks of the high attrition statistic, pluralistic ignorance preempts action.  Let’s not notice, forms a tacit agreement between grad ed leaders.

Any sound program that looses 50% of students bears some responsibility for high attrition, save in the censure of ‘don’t ask’.  Pluralistic ignorance allows graduate students to leave their programs in shame, taking full responsibility.  What if  graduate students got proactive messages crafted by graduate student associations that in grad school students often assume more responsibility for academic struggles than is warranted?   Why haven’t grad associations crafted such messages?

Graduate programs escape responsibility for their failure to pay attention to the wake-up calls in high attrition statistics via the clamp of pluralistic ignorance.  Hence the ‘silent’ exit of grad students.  Silence, induced by shattering shame and self blame, fails to ring the alarm bell for the grad department and the graduate students’ association.  In exiting their program and blaming themselves, not their indifferent programs or unresponsive graduate students’ associations for failure, the drop-outs experience in grad school goes unaddressed.

A tacit trust between Canadian grad school leaders, from the dean to the graduate student leader, seems to exist that all is well with academic matters. Some Canadian graduate student associations lack and do not elect executives designated to represent the membership on academic matters.

Graduate student leadership awakened to academic issues briefly when a national graduate students association enjoyed brief support in the early years of the millennium. Unfortunately, Canadian GSAs withdrew their support, even though research undertaken by the organization specifically addressed graduate student concerns.  The research undertaken by the national association spoke to not gaps but holes in the literature.    Since then no cohesive efforts to address academic matters from a graduate student’s perspective have punctured the delirium of the shared delusion.  The blind spot persists.

Dig, if you will, a mothering, calling for graduate education leaders to say, “oh but the emperor is wearing no clothes.  Let’s put some real clothes on him.  Ah,  when first we practice to self-deceive, we doom the future for qui vive”.

See Wikipedia for the definition of pluralistic ignorance.



What results do Canadian GSAs have to show on academic matters?

How would an ordinary graduate student answer the question, “What exactly has my GSA* done to better the quality of my graduate education since forever?”  Would the ordinary Canadian graduate student be able to name one issue that the GSU made headway with or made better?  Would graduate students even be aware of the following two dozen issues?

  1. Ongoing Renewal Policies: Did elected executives work with the student council to craft and adopt policies to flesh out an agenda of ongoing renewal of graduate programs?
  2. Academic workshops: Did the GSA develop professional and academic workshops to stimulate awareness of new developments in graduate education.  Graduate students would be interested in learning about new kinds of dissertations, new genres of scholarly knowledge production and managing a supervisory relationship that goes beyond the PhD comic?
  3. 21st Century Research Protocols: Did the association work to embed new practices related to citations, data sharing, digital forms of academic writing, social media, publication, poster making and copyright within graduate programs?  All of these topics could be workshops offered by l’assocation.
  4. Partnerships with Graduate Programs: Did they work with the faculty to partner on experiments or new approaches within programs?  For example, collaborative dissertations or networked research could be tried out.  Getting rid of all course work for a research degree as in the UK would be worth a pilot project for certain programs.
  5. Support a student journal.  Did GSUs establish a student journal to impart experience with peer review and publication?
  6. Graduate skills training & the three-minute thesis contest:  Did the GSU support melding of professional graduate skills with learning in graduate school and not tacked on to it?  Did they try to test a mandatory requirement of the ‘writing short’ skill which would require a three-minute thesis or some variation thereof like an RSA to complete a research degree?
  7. Student-centered Programs:  Did they promote partnerships between graduate students and faculty aimed to capture student insights for program renewal?  The CID concluded that graduate programs best develop a vibrant, healthy, intellectual culture that revolves around student growth and learning.  The insights of doctoral students were also found to be rich with potent remedies for program problems and pitfalls.   A student-centered learning culture goes a long way to combatting the mental health vulnerabilities latent in some of the isolationist, unhealthy cultures in graduate programs in the past.  Did the GSS promote the development of a graduate review and improvement process (GRIP), a value-added measure that benefits graduate students at the University of Minnesota?  To ensure timely renewal of graduate education, graduate students need to examine their programs while in the program.  Did the GSU promote exit interviews of graduate students aimed at feedback to strengthen programs?
  8. Partnerships with private sector and non-academic employers:  Did the GSA work to orient programs toward non-academic sources of employment and entrepreneurship?
  9. Supervision policies and training:  Did GSAs work to set up supervision policies and training for supervisors to keep up with developments in graduate education?
  10. Knowledge of Graduate Education: How have graduate student executives over the decades heard and heeded the many heart felt cries for action from graduate education experts?  How do student executives gain an understanding of pressing issues within graduate education?
  11. GSA Data and Research  Functions and Transparency:  How has the GSU set-up long-term research and data keeping functions of their membership? Did the work of l’association result in the university keeping and publishing time to completion and attrition statistics?   Did they try mining the association’s data base to derive these or other stats in the face of a reluctant administration?  Did they track and urge administrators to track graduate student career trajectories after degree and feed that data back to university administrators?
  12. Program Integrity and Differentiation: Did they work on issues related to the integrity of the oral defense? (Oral defense exams lack both validity and reliability and leave students open for abuse by examiners).  Did they ask how a fail is determined for an oral exam?   Did they work with administration to resolve and clarify meaningful differences between masters and doctoral degrees that require original research?  Did they work with administrators to pre-empt poor standards of original research from qualification, as in the racist creed that Harvard University accepted from Jason Richwine?  If Harvard can accredit substandard research, then all research training institutions know the system of research training needs more checks.
  13. All but Dissertation or No Dissertation:  For the roughly 50 % of doctoral students who languish and leave doctoral programs, an official All But Dissertation (AbD) designation would help.  Did my Canadian GSU lobby for recognition of all but dissertation students?  Did they urge graduate faculty administrators to also develop a doctoral degree by publication pathway?
  14. Bona Fide Academic Requirements (BFARs): Did they push for bona fide academic requirement policies to ensure access and diversity?
  15. Collaboration:  Did the GSS collaborate with counterparts in other organizations to share and exchange ideas, wins, policies under development, resources and strategies?
  16. Communication:  Did l’association plan for changing of the student administrations so that greater continuity occurs? Did incoming executive get briefing notes from outgoing counterparts to maximize transfer?  Did they set goals or direction for their terms in office with associated evidence of work or results?
  17. Student Council Training:  Did the GSS institute training for the student council to develop expectations, practices and priorities by which to maximize the council’s effectiveness and the executive’s effectiveness?  How does the council compensate for the short terms in office which can result in little traction with the harder issues?
  18.  Faculty Goals:  Did l’association provide answers to the question, “How does my faculty of graduate studies keep abreast and contribute to new developments in graduate education?”  Can the GSU answer questions about the genuineness of the faculty’s review process if one is in place?  Is it aimed mostly at marketing and recruitment?  Has the GSA earned a voice to contribute to university reviews or renewal initiatives of graduate programs?
  19. Study of the effectiveness of graduate education within the university:  Did representatives find out how faculty form and track academic goals? Did they urge study of graduate programs with input from students as suggested by the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID), which was a five-year project for rethinking research training?   Did they ask for data around time to completion, around attrition, around admission and around assessment or try to set up possible joint partnership projects or goals with administrators?
  20. Program changes and new programs:  Did the GSA gain graduate student consultation on proposed program changes to insist on also tracking the effects of changes to stop the ‘new shiny button’ promotion of change without study?  How did my GSS represent graduate students in proposed new programs in terms of instilling greater transparency and assessment rigor from the onset?
  21. Network infrastructure development: Did the GSS develop an organizational network to address issues in graduate education by supporting a robust infrastructure of not for profit organizations to support continuity?  By now graduate students ought to be able to name some national not-for-profit groups that assist GSAs year after year with primarily academic advocacy.  Did graduate student reps develop graduate student academic advocacy into a pro-active and positive force akin to the effectiveness developed by student leaders in the UK or the output of the recently formed Ontario Undergraduate Students Alliance (OUSA) on academic matters?
  22. Support study of student unions to ensure dialogue:  Did the GSA support the study of Canadian graduate student unions?  Very little is known about them.  The HE system in Canada values, needs and wants student representation as a check and balance.  Recently, at #transitioned a High Education Quality Council of Ontario conference, an upper level HE administrator said student leaders drive discussions of quality.  A more reliable model for student representation on academic issues needs to be developed to make sure that these discussions take place.
  23. International and national graduate student and graduate education organizations: Did the GSA try to secure a seat for a national graduate student representative in the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies? This would mean bringing together all graduate students’ organizations in the country into an effective pan-Canadian counterpart to CAGS.  Did the GSU put together a delegation from their university to attend the bi-annual ICDDET conference in the UK?
  24. Canadian brand:  Graduate student associations play a vital role in Canadian graduate education and ought to impart an exciting, dynamic, value-added aspect to Canadian graduate education on the world stage.  Did your graduate student leaders play up the important role they take in shaping the reputation of Canadian graduate education?

Since the turn of the millennium, graduate students are wont to name significant gains on the academic front from student union representation.  Indeed some GSAs as yet, do not have designated reps for an academic portfolio. How can this new crop of 2016-2017 graduate student representatives establish an agenda for successful advocacy, student-faculty partnerships, and movement on academic issues?

The graduate student movement in Canada needs to build an enduring social infrastructure that outlasts and captures incremental gains from the brief yearlong terms. The one year terms for elected executives give a reason to form strong bonds that organize, focus and aim energy year over year at substantive issues that will make an enduring difference to graduate students.  A graduate students’ association needs to perform its role in the system of Canadian graduate education.  GSAs need to aim for their work to add up year over year to add up to a legacy of value-added changes. The day that the everyday graduate student can name major gains brought on by their graduate student association will be the day that affirms that graduate representatives fulfilled their mandate within Canadian graduate education.

Graduate student unions must promote their value to their membership and to a wider audience.  One way to start would be in taking on an ambitious agenda contained in the two dozen points above which, if enacted, would bring a smile to the lips of every graduate student in Canada.

*GSA, means graduate students’ association and is used interchangeably with GSS, graduate students’ society, and GSU, graduate students’ union et aussi des étudiant(e)s des cycles superiéurs de la francophonie au Canada sont inclus ici.

I wish Leaders of Canadian Graduate Students created…

Where is Canadian graduate  student leadership on issues of graduate education quality and renewal?  So many issues in graduate school education failed to register on the agenda for the National Graduate Student Caucus (#ngc16) in Saskatoon this week-end.  The National Graduate Caucus is a lobby group of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) which only represents some graduate schools in Canada and leaves many graduate students, not part of the CFS, with no national representation.

The  effectiveness of the NGC in graduate student affairs may be taken from its lack of an internet presence, even within the CFS website, lack of publications, lack of response to a lengthy letter sent to 2014-2015 NGC president, lack of response to the cfs ngc email address etc.  NGC student leaders need better support, direction, and continuity.

Some graduate education practices need to stop (oral defense, high drop-out rates, long times to completion) and some graduate education practices need to start (data collection, partnerships, renewal meetings).  Graduate student leaders across Canada need to join forces to take action on issues in graduate education.  While the issues below have existed in the literature since the graduate  caucus formed, they have failed to make headway.

I wish student leaders of Canadian graduate students created:

  •  A bundle of long-term policies to further renewal of graduate programs and assessment measures by which to judge their payback.
  • Partnerships between the graduate students’ group and the university to trial new practices with a view toward adoption, adaptation and scholarship.
  •  An effective, stable and long-lasting counterpart to the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) to keep track of progress, provide training, promote successes, commission/conduct research and support new student leaders.   A comprehensive national graduate student lobby and advocacy group deserves permanent staff to maintain continuity of long-term action agendas.  The abysmal record since such an organization disbanded in the early years of the millennium and of the NGC, shows that these issues get lost otherwise.
  • Lobby points and advocacy to request data collection on time to completion, on drop-out rates, on long-term career outcomes.  The lack of data collection by graduate programs speaks to a practice that front loads attention on program admission and then stops tracking students.
  • Lobby points to require publication on program  web sites and in university literature of data regarding admissions, time to completion, and drop-out rates.
  • Lobby points for more data sharing related to student tenure for the purpose of transparency, verification of marketing claims, and partnership projects.
  • Better data mining of graduate student databases in the possession of graduate student groups.
  •  Experiments in the structure of graduate school assignments perhaps featuring collaborative dissertations, networked research, the use of different genres of scholarly knowledge production, MOOCs for research methods.
  •  Exit interviews with non-completers about program quality for the purpose of improvement or insight.
  • A Ph.D by publication pathway proposal and advocacy points.
  • Academic entrepreneurship pathway possibilities in programs which would direct student efforts to entrepreneurial applications of the new ideas that graduate students generate.
  • Annual program renewal meetings between students and faculty.
  • Research on the oral defense and more robust assessments of learning in graduate school.
  • Proposals to straighten out significant overlaps and duplication between masters and doctoral programs.
  • Lobby points to confer all-but-dissertation (AbD) designations for students who depart doctoral study  before completing research.

Overall such policies would raise the quality of graduate programs by starting conversations between students and faculty in regards to academic matters,  by  graduate student engagement with program improvement and by joint partnerships to trial new practices.                                                                                                                                                                         What is the payoff for students of such policies?  At the admissions-end, student assessments of the program accompanied by data publication on times to completion/drop-out rates answer questions for potential applicants.  This may result in lower drop-out rates which prevents not only the often life-long anguish many leave takers feel for leaving a program before completion but also takes this issue out of a blind spot.  In the past, students bore the full weight of failure to complete where the indifference of the program to students contributed to anguish and failure.

Fixing issues in programs associated to student stress and anguish is better than spending money on mental health providers.  Completing research degrees in less time with greater quality assurance, completing  more multi-faceted, responsive research degrees, and completing research degrees in collaboration with other early career researchers payoff for Canadian graduate students who will graduate with lower debt, better mental health and better prospects.

Graduate students need not be sacrificed as human fodder for graduate programs which  show notorious indifference toward examining and correcting their education practices. Some graduate student faculty may even see long times to completion and high drop-out rates as a perverse badge of honour for the program and a Darwinian thinning of the herd.  More responsive graduate student leadership promises to put such perverse thinking in the rear view mirror and move forward with joint faculty/student responsibility to make graduate students thrive instead of languish.

Needed: Graduate Student Leaders to Champion the Ongoing Renewal Platform

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.







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