I have read and re-read Liana’s post and realized that this is shared experience for many in higher ed. It also made me realize that one person who can combat this is the professor and the pedagogical tools that s/he employs in the seminar. One of my mentors artfully kept things under control in seminar by assigning weekly writing assignment due a day before seminar met. This made us demonstrate in less than three pages analysis or thoughtful reaction to the reading. He would then refer to our comments without naming us and then we would discuss the readings and the student analysis. His seminars became a mostly bull-shit free zone. I will always thank him for teaching this way and I have shamelessly borrowed from this with some of the seminars that I lead.
There is something about grad school that makes students feel insecure and it causes bad behavior. Part of it is the trickle-down effect of pettiness from more established academics and what they way about colleagues or other fields of study. Grad students see the ways in which certain areas of research are referred to and this influences the climate in the discipline or in the department. From my view point, I saw that each cohort of grad students wanted to differentiate themselves from undergrads and this sometimes translated into mediocre performance as a Teaching Assistant via the constant complaining of how stupid their students were. I’m not exaggerating here. I shared offices with three other grad students for several years and hung out with other grad students. It is one thing to kvetch about a particular student, but some grads loved to loathe their students.
What I am getting at is that pedagogy is an issue. The professor can set the tone for how the grad students think about the class, the materials, and if they are a Teaching assistant—the students. We need to train faculty to be better mentors and this includes how to mentor in the classroom. Perhaps it is just part of good pedagogy and teaching? I don’t think so. I think that some faculty are just better at teaching, research, or mentoring. So, what do we do?
We need to be help one another. And, I do think that if Liana had a better experience in her seminar she might have stayed in Comparative Literature at the most, but at the least she might have had a better time in graduate school. My fear is that we lose lots of women and people of color due to the alienating environment in graduate schools. Granted the grad school experience can be dehumanizing for all, but I think that some are more vulnerable.
I am thankful that I found some very supportive women and men in cohorts ahead of me. I think that one reason for this is that we were not competing for funding against one another. Years later—these are the same people that I am still in contact with from graduate school. Based on my individual experience, I can attest to how important peer mentoring was in the department, as well as via the women’s graduate peer mentoring group that I was involved with for several years.
What do we do? We have these conversations. And, I have been in contact with the Director of the Learning and Teaching Centre on the campus where I work making suggestions. Most of the time, the Director, Dr. Teresa Dawson, is already ahead of the curve and offering workshops and training for the graduate students. But, as we have chatted about—that doesn’t mean that the graduate students actually attend them! I know in the department where I work one cohort of students complained about the pro-seminar. My sense of their complaints is that some of the students did not understand how priceless the seminar was, but that might be a different post! My point is that I think that grad students in the department I work in have lots of resources—if they seek them out.
Where do we go from here? We need to change the atmosphere of higher ed so that more faculty want to mentor and help their students network. This helps. But, there is more work to be done!