I always forget how hectic the start of the semester is. This semester, I feel particularly caught out. I have a book that I’m publishing to appear this week (!!), another book – that I’m co-authoring – staggering out of the bleak winter writing season, a teaching overload, and the usual onslaught of early-semester meetings.
There is one meeting in which I’m particularly interested. It is with a new “field officer” from the graduate school who is acting as a graduate ambassador. He is also the director of graduate studies for English. We’re going to chat generally about the state of graduate education at UND with particular attention to what’s going on in the humanities. For the last couple of years, I’ve been director of graduate studies in the department of history and while our program is healthy and thriving, I think that graduate education in the humanities nationally has challenges and realistic conversations on campus can at least prepare students to enter a world where an education in the liberal arts and humanities is no long prized as the hallmark of an educated individual and a priority among those seeking to guard the welfare of the republic.
So, as I thought about this meeting on the way onto campus, I came up with three or four things that maybe could frame our conversation:
1. Creating Advocates. Without eschewing our own responsibility to advocate for our students, we could do things that help our graduate students become advocates for their disciplines not only on campus here, but more broadly. To do this, students have to understand more clearly the culture of higher education in the US, the institutional structures that shape their university experience, and how to use their new positions as “consumer of educational products” to push for change on campus that benefits their futures (especially if they plan to go on into academia) as well as the future students.
2. Disciplinarity. We’re in an interesting time for the disciplines. On the one hand, disciplinary integrity is now needed more than ever to protect the autonomy of academic departments, fields of study, methods, and branches knowledge. At the same time, we are being pushed – not just by malevolent forces – into thinking outside the disciplinary box. In fact, we interdisciplinary thinking is a hallmark of a careful thinking in the humanities. For students to grasp interdisciplinary thinking and its potential, however, they need to have both a secure understanding of their own disciplines (and that is best achieved at the department level) and regular contact with folks from outside their disciplines. To do this we have to make it easier for students to interact in an academic setting with folks outside their disciplines.
3. Hands-on Experiences. One of the greatest challenges we face in our two-year master’s program is finding ways to give students hands-on experiences without undermining the rigor of their academic training. For example, we would love it for students to gain work experience at a local museum, in an archive, or with work publishing at a press or an academic journal. These could be developed as internships – for credit – or as part of their graduate teaching assistantships. The former involves asking our students to do work for nothing, whereas the later involves an infusion of funding either from UND or from collaborating institutions.
4. Collaboration across Institutions. We live on an island here in Grand Forks, ND in the primordial lake Agassiz. We’re surrounded by pitch black farmland and connected to other centers in the state by narrow ribbons of highway. These other centers are islands too and many of these islands have college campuses. The Department of History already collaborates with North Dakota State University in offering a joint Ph.D. in History, and I don’t see why this kind of collaboration might not be expanded to bring more isolated, but engaged minds together. And this doesn’t just mean collaboration with institutions of higher education. There are numerous cultural institutions across the state – North Dakota Humanities Council, The State Historical Society, The State Library, et c. – that could offer meaningful collaborations with the various islands across the state.
4. Culture, Not Contract. One of the changes that I’d love to see on campus is less attention given to the contractual aspects of higher education – paper work, programs, deadlines, requirements, et c. – and more given to the cultural aspects of graduate education on our campus here. For example, it remains difficult to convince students to meet less formally or to attend invited speakers or to forge meaningful academic contacts across campus. These kind of informal activities take place when there is a healthy academic and intellectual culture on campus and when programs are seen as opportunities to engage with big and difficult questions rather routes to degrees.