Teaching grads, 1: defining the problems

Inspired partly by recent posts by Notorious and Bardiac, I plan a series of posts (not sure how many) about teaching graduate students. This is based, of course, on my own experience at a Large Regional University in the United States; if you are at any other kind of institution, your mileage may vary.

A bit more about the LRU program: we grant both MA and PhD. Some students plan to do a terminal MA; some plan to use the MA as a springboard into a PhD program at LRU or elsewhere; some are accepted straight into the PhD program from undergrad; others have done an MA elsewhere. Our MA program allows students a lot of flexibility. The PhD program requires courses in all the usual periods and areas. The rationale is that MA students are more likely to want the degree for personal enrichment or to move up the pay scale in high school teaching, whereas the PhD is likely to get hired (if at all) at a small college where s/he will have to be a generalist.

We also get non-degree students, usually people who are considering enrolling for a degree but are trying to decide if they really want to. Sometimes they are people who have one or more degrees in more or less distant fields from English who are trying to figure out if they can or want to switch fields. The department’s admission standards do not apply to these students. They pay their money to the university and can take a certain number of courses before they have to enroll in a program.

In the past three years, I have taught three graduate courses. Most often I get one per semester, but I was on leave all of 2008-09, and the year before that the undergraduate program claimed greater needs. So it is possible that nostalgia for the classes d’antan is affecting me; or that since I was off-campus for a year, the student grapevine forgot to warn people about me. Either way, my more recent experiences with teaching MA level classes have caused me some dismay. As Warren Zevon might have put it, “the shit that used to work, well, it don’t work now.”

One of the biggest problems, for me, is the range of backgrounds and abilities in these classes, from advanced PhD students to students straight out of undergrad to students who haven’t taken a class in several years. Some are medieval buffs; others are scared of the weird language. Some are bright but scattered: they are interested and curious but don’t know how to do research. Others are perfectly competent researchers, but are taking the class to satisfy a requirement, and do not demonstrate any particular curiosity about medieval literature. Some are delighted to be back in the classroom. Others find that they are woefully underprepared. Some write well (or at least competently); others are not performing at the graduate level.

So I need to think anew about what I expect of my students: what I expect when they come into my classroom, what I expect them to learn while there, what I expect them to do on papers, in the library, and in the classroom. I also need to think about what I expect of myself: what do I owe my students? How much remedial work can or should I do, at the graduate level? To what extent does “upholding standards” mean teaching as if to specialists? To what extent does it mean providing advanced instruction to people whose main interests lie well outside the Middle Ages? It’s not just a matter of being a gate-keeper and stopping those who are unprepared. There’s also the problem of making the classroom experience worthwhile for more advanced students, when a significant number of their fellow-students are at a different level. These are similar questions to those I regularly consider in undergrad classes. But I see a wider range of abilities in the grad classes than in the undergrad classes, and I think the stakes are higher in the grad classes.

To be continued.