Friday, February 12, 2010

Sussing out the M.A. student

This semester I'm teaching my first grad-only class--and in the fall, I'll be teaching another. It's been more of an adjustment than I expected.

It isn't the students, or at least, not in the way you might expect. The problem is that I don't fully feel that I know what I'm doing with them: how to pitch the material, what their skills are, and what we're building toward. Sure, I designed what I consider to be a smart syllabus, with assignments that isolate and focus on the skills they'll need for their final projects (and, ultimately, their M.A. theses)--but that's not the same thing as feeling comfortable, on a daily basis, that what we're doing in seminar is what we should be doing.

I've never taken an M.A. class, is part of the issue, and I've almost never reflected on my own graduate coursework in pedagogical terms: what my instructors could have done better, how I could have acquired skills in a more conscious or logical fashion. By contrast, I've been thinking about undergraduate teaching since my first or second year of graduate school, and doing it since my third. And at this point, I'm confident that what I do in the undergraduate classroom is effective and pitched exactly right for my current student population.

But with my graduate students, I keep second-guessing myself: am I presenting the material with enough historical context? Doing too much close reading? Incorporating secondary sources effectively? And, I suppose more fundamentally: does my usual teaching persona work for students at this level?

Still, although I feel a little off-balance, it's not a bad feeling--and it's a nice contrast to the (sometimes overly) well-oiled-machinery that is my undergraduate Shakespeare class. I like my grad students, and I'm interested in them, and in what they need--and I'm thinking harder about what our M.A. program actually is.

I've got 16 students. The median age is younger than I'd have expected--I had three of them as undergrads, and none took more than a year off--but there are also two students in their 50s or 60s. I have a high school teacher and a middle school teacher, a practicing psychiatrist, a couple of poets, and at least three students who are thinking seriously about Ph.D. programs. And both individually and collectively, they're great: smart and talkative and well-read. They do all the work, they're eager to learn more, and a surprising number already have a decent background in Renaissance literature.

And, yes: I still have serious reservations about the fact that several of them are thinking about Ph.D. programs--but I love that those students are smart and focused enough that, at least on the basis of their skills, it wouldn't be a totally unrealistic goal. And I love even more how intense and intellectually curious the public school teachers and the psychiatrist are.

And it strikes me--surely not for the first time, but for the first time with any real emotional force--that our M.A. program is doing something analogous to what our undergraduate program does: gives a damn good education, at an affordable price, to people who are my neighbors and fellow-citizens. Indeed, having a graduate Milton class populated by smart, eager, adult professionals may be a happier scenario than having one populated entirely by would-be future academics.


Anonymous said...

I love your last paragraph, Flavia: my neighbors are also my students, and whether or not they ever read Chopin again, or decide to teach English (and for most of our M.A. students, it's K-12, not PhD), the conversations are wonderfully rich in ways that are incredibly rewarding.

Anonymous said...

How did you complete your program without ever taking an MA class?

Flavia said...

Anon: INRU's English Dept. doesn't really have a terminal M.A. program; when I was there, they admitted a maximum of 1-2 M.A. students every year--and most years they admitted exactly none. (I was the only M.A. student admitted for 3-4 years straight--and I applied for the Ph.D. program in the fall of my M.A. year, got in two months later, and kept going.)

This means that all my classes were made up of students who had been admitted to do doctoral work--which isn't to say that they all finished, of course, but they were admitted and were being trained on the assumption that they'd had similar levels of scholarly preparation and were on the same career path.

By contrast, many programs have a large population of terminal M.A. students, and those students often take some classes that are just for M.A. students (and some that are a mix of M.A./Ph.D. students). And in some programs, advancing to Ph.D. candidacy is competitive--lots of people get weeded out at the comps stage--which I suppose also means everyone is potentially "just" an M.A. candidate until proven otherwise.

So, as I said, I never had the experience of being in classes that were targeted to M.A. students.

Anonymous said...

But is a MA class really that different from a PhD class? A graduate level class is a graduate level class, no? There are seminars and colloqs and regular lecture type classes but they are all on a high level ... I'm not sure what the difference is.

Flavia said...

I do believe they are different. I definitely believe that classes in a terminal M.A. program (at a school with no Ph.D. program) are or can be HUGELY different from classes aimed exclusively at doctoral students.

I assume this is true in many disciplines, but it's definitely true in English. Most terminal M.A. programs in English serve, primarily, public school teachers. Some have tighter admissions standards than others, but they simply aren't going to be THAT tight or that targeted; there's likely a minimum undergrad GPA requirement, and anyone who really can't write a sentence isn't going to be admitted, but such programs aren't looking for (and usually can't afford the luxury of looking for) people who can *already* write a strong 25pp. essay; who have a command of critical theory; and who have a significant breadth of knowledge of the field.

So, there's the matter of what an instructor can assume about prior preparation, but there's also the question of what an instructor assumes their students to do with their degrees *afterwards*. You're right that the same general skills should be taught in all grad classes--but if the preparation level coming in is lower (or is really varied within a single classroom), more time has to be spent on basics. You teach less secondary material (for example), and you devise more assignments to make sure that students can understand and integrate that material. And if you're not expecting your students to be publishing and presenting their work, in the relatively near future (or ever!), what you accept as "mastery" may be lower.

But if you want a practical example: I had a grad class (not within my specialty) where the professor required us to attend all his undergrad lectures on the same subject, so we didn't have to "waste time" on the primary material in our weekly 3-hour seminar. Those were mostly devoted to a two-foot stack of photocopied secondary readings, or stuff we were assigned independently.

And apart from the extra two hours of in-class time that that particular professor expected, his M.O. wasn't unusual: my professors assumed we already knew the canonical works, both of literature and of critical theory, so although they might still assign, say, Paradise Lost or Middlemarch for a class session (singular), they *also* assigned lesser-known primary texts and secondary readings for that same class session, and spent little if any time on the canonical text.

I could never, ever do that with my students. And I'm not sure it would be responsible to do it in any M.A. level class, since the M.A. is partly about *giving* students a broad exposure to the field rather than assuming they already have it.

musicalcolin said...

I'm really astonished by the shear amount of reading required. I guess you didn't specify page amounts, but I would doubt that in a philosophy seminar that we would read more than two or three articles per week or ditto the number of sections in a book. Occasionally there will be a prof who assigns way too much reading. Judging from what you say here it seems like your normal amount is substantially higher than my normal amount.