Notes on Being a Graduate Director

For the last four or five years, I’ve had a strange position. I serve as graduate director of three programs which have more or less stopped admitting students. Our department currently has, on the books, an MA in History, a DA in history (which is a Doctor of the Arts, a teaching doctorate), and a PhD in History (offered jointly with our colleagues at NDSU). Three years ago, we lost funding for our graduate program as part of a larger budget cuts and austerity program at the University of North Dakota. At that point, we decided to press pause on admitting into our program To be fair, we do have a few doctoral students continuing to wend their way through our program and a handful of recidivist MA students working to finish their degrees.

This week, though, this situation started to change. The Graduate Committee at the University of North Dakota approved a heavily revised MA program. These revisions included a new 4+1 offering which would allow a student to start their MA after 60 undergraduate credits and complete it in one additional academic year. While the revised program still has to make its way through the university curriculum committee, I anticipate no difficulties there. We also continue to have no funding which means that we have no GTA positions and no tuition wavers, it will likely attract a certain kind of student who is unlikely to get support from other institutions. That being said, we anticipate that our MA program will serve this population well and provide a distinctive take on the History MA. 

Here are some thoughts about our new MA:

1. Limiting Required Classes. Previously our MA was like most graduate degrees: a Byzantine series of requirements and tracks that involved not only the synchronization of a number of courses, but assumed that how we imagined our degree best reflected our students expectations and needs.

With this revision, we’ve moved in the opposite direction and will require only four courses: (1) a historiography class, (2) a methods class, (3) a portfolio class (more on that later), and (4) 3 research and writing credits.

2. Built on the framework of our BA. Historically, our MA program was quite distinct from our BA program. Instead of content or methods focused classes, we shifted to rather more open ended research seminars and graduate reading classes that emphasized historiography as much as historical content knowledge.

In truth many of our students were ill-prepared for this change. More than that, many of our students found even directed research and intensive reading in the complex historiography of a period, issue, or approach to be so different from their undergraduate experiences that it was not only undesirable, but also not conducive to student success. 

Our new MA will cleave more closely to our BA allowing students to transition from  undergraduate approaches to history to graduate style reading and writing courses. Our graduate students will enroll largely in upper division undergraduate classes. We will, of course, expect more writing and reading from our graduate students, but our hope is that the content oriented framework of our undergraduate curriculum will help our students make the leap to graduate level work more successfully. (And elevate the game of our undergraduates as well!) 

3. Non-History Electives and Internships. Historically we have imagined our MA a gateway to a doctoral program in history, but looking back, we realized that relatively few of our students decided to go in that direction. Instead, students have used their MA as a foundation for secondary school teaching, at museums and other cultural institutions, in the non-profit world, and elsewhere. We decided to include the option for as many as four classes being outside our department or up to six credits worth of internships. This will allow our MA to dovetail more neatly with the kinds of “outcomes” that many of our students realize and allow them to get some experience outside the classroom while still a student.  

4. Portfolios, not Theses. We’ve also finally put the MA thesis out of its misery. In its place we’ve adopted a portfolio that will include three papers. One will be an article length research paper (8000-10000 words), another will be a conference paper length work on a different topic (3000 words). The final paper will be a reflective essay or a personal statement which might be useful on the job market or as a gesture toward “closing the loop” on the MA.

5. Managing Faculty Workload. The other advantage that this lighter MA program has is managing faculty workload. Because we won’t offer as many distinctly graduate classes and we’ll support (and encourage) our students to take classes outside of the department, we will not have to develop and offer as many new graduate level classes. The portfolio will also be less of a burden than the sometimes multiyear commitment to a Master’s thesis. As our department continues to shrink and the institution’s commitment to programs in the humanities wavers, we want to do all we can to manage our little corner of the campus as carefully as possible. Morale will not improve any time soon, but being attentive to faculty workloads certainly does make a difference in our daily lives as teachers, scholars, and colleagues.

In the end, our new MA program might not make much of an impact on the status of our department on campus or the character of graduate education in history in the field. We do hope, though, that continuing to invest in a program like ours, which even without funding will be more affordable than many “post-bac” style programs, will reflect our ongoing commitment to offering high-quality graduate education to underserved populations. As more and more “second” and “third tier” universities pull the plug on their small MA programs in the humanities, students from areas that these programs served are left without many alternatives. They are unlikely to be admitted or well-suited to elite graduate programs in the humanities which have started to reduce the number of seats available in an effort to balance supply and demand.

We hope our program will continue to serve as a step up program for students in our region as well as give students looking to continue their education in history for either professional or personal reasons an attractive and flexible opportunity. 

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