Mark Jones, Academic Planning and Graduate Studies: The Unfinished Project (25 October 2011)

In the September 2011 Senate discussion of the draft Academic Plan, there was much  emphasis on the need for greater attention to graduate students.  Even the Dean of Arts and Science noted with suspicion the draft’s “strong focus on the Faculty of Arts and Science,” suggesting the need for “a broader view.”  Senator Reznick, the Dean of Health Sciences, stated that “in general the document is undergraduate-centric and could be improved by more of a focus on graduate education as well as professional education.”  And “Senator D. Moore, Graduate Student Senator, agreed,” adding

that the integration of teaching and research could be better handled. More attention should be devoted to how graduate students combine those two aspects right now. He noted that Principle A [i.e., “Guiding Principle” 8] suggests that graduate students, despite their research and their teaching, should be thought of as students only. He asked if the APTF [Academic Planning Task Force] had considered how their recommendation for more undergraduate tutors and TAs could potentially have an impact on graduate student funding and teaching employment at current enrolment levels.

(Senator Brouwer, Vice-Provost and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies, confirmed later in the discussion “that there could be problems if that [i.e., widespread use of undergraduates as TAs] were to occur.”)

The objections voiced in Senate are essentially four:  (1) that the draft Plan is generally “undergraduate-centric” and needs to take a “broader view” comprehending graduate and professional education; (2) that it needs to attend more to “the integration of teaching and research”; (3) that Guiding Principle 8 (that “We must consider all students [. . .] first and foremost as students”) ignores the research and teaching roles of graduate and professional students; and (4) that this draft’s proposals for employing undergraduates as TAs might infringe on graduate students’ opportunities for teaching experience and hence on their financial maintenance and hireability.

The first point concerns what is simply a gaping hole in the APTF’s draft academic plan.  The September draft barely mentions graduate studies.  Half a page out of 83 concerns  “the graduate program” (see Pillar I, p. 17).  Out of 89 recommendations, only 7 (nos. 14-15, 22-25, and 87) take graduate students into view.  And most of this is merely to promote what any lay person would expect: that graduate  students should acquire “academic literacy,” “effective writing” skills, and training and experience in teaching, but also some “interdisciplinary experience” and an “array of capacities” to suit them for “different [i.e., non-academic] working environments.”  The most concrete suggestion is that Queen’s “explore the advisability of writing diagnostics specifically for incoming graduate/professional students”  (Pillar I, p. 22)–but this is proposed only to ensure that they are qualified to TA the undergraduates.  The most substantive idea for the actual edification of the graduate students is that “As part of the numeracy specialty, a statistical consulting service, particularly to serve senior undergraduates, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, would be a much needed addition” (Pillar I, p. 13).  And what that means is none too clear.

As for point 2, nothing is said in the September draft about “the integration of teaching and research” in graduate study.

But the draft does promote “attracting graduate students” (Recommendation 87) and affirms their value as “teaching resources” for the undergraduates.  Under the rubric The challenge of large classes, we learn that

A task-centred curriculum generally needs more instructor-student interaction than does a lecture course. This curriculum design will require increased teaching resources in first year. There are a number of ways this might be provided.

  • Graduate students and undergraduates can be employed as tutors. With an open classroom design they can work along side the instructor. This can be paid work for undergraduates but course credit (where they can be supervised) is another option. (Pillar I, p. 8 )

And again:

Of course, often these students provide an essential service in terms of undergraduate marking and tutoring. In this respect, we must take care to pay attention to the balance of their work, between TA duties and research, and at the same time try whenever possible to give them more-creative work in the direction of undergraduate teaching.

Having said that, it is critical that this teaching work be properly supervised––just as carefully as their research work. (Pillar I, p. 17)

There is some concern here for the graduate student experience, but it is slanted toward facilitating their “essential service in terms of undergraduate marking and tutoring.”  Graduate students come into focus in this draft more as “resources” to “provide” the university with their “service” than as students to whom the university owes a service.

In this, the APTF’s September draft reflects the preoccupation with resources that has vitiated Queen’s “academic” planning process from its beginning.  The draft’s  resourceful take on graduate students is in fact more or less quoted from the earlier planning documents.

For instance, search for “graduate student” in Principal Woolf’s Where Next? and you find:

Graduate students could play a strong mentoring role here. (p. 10)

Finally, it will be important for us to reaffirm the fundamental place of graduate students in the life of the University in their roles as teaching assistants and fellows, and research assistants. Among the issues we will need to confront are the proportion of graduate students in our population, the balance of international and domestic graduate students, and the best means of bringing them more fully into the non-academic life of the University.  (p. 11)

By bringing graduate students, international and domestic, “more fully into the non-academic life of the University” the Principal appears to mean ushering them into useful functions as “teaching assistants” and “research assistants.”  Were this real academic planning, its concern would be to bring these students into the academic life of the University. But the Principal’s interest in the graduate students’ usefulness extends even to his consideration of our undergraduates, who are considered in the passage preceding the latter passage above:

Undergraduates can be involved in research, as suggested above, but can we not also involve them more in teaching on the principle that what you can explain to someone else, you will better comprehend yourself?

What if we had more undergraduate TAs working with grad TAs? They could learn from the grads and provide additional teaching power. Credit could be provided either as extra points toward the undergraduate student’s degree, or by way of an entry on a co-curricular transcript. (pp. 10-11, boldface added) [1]

What you won’t find in Where Next? is any consideration of what the graduate students need as students, i.e., what the University needs to do better for them, what they need in order to be well prepared as hireable job candidates, good citizens, or fulfilled individuals.

Make the same search in the Faculty of Arts and Science response to Where Next, and you find graduate students valued for both usefulness and profitability:

[Sec. 7.]  d.     Goal 4: On Graduate Programs

Protect, as much as possible, graduate student enrolments, TA budgets and graduate programs through the end of the Reaching Higher program

Rationale: The Faculty is committed to continuing with the [Province of Ontario’s] Reaching Higher initiative for both academic and financial reasons. The increased demand by the very same constituency that made up the double cohort and the incentives from government have made this opportunity one that made sense from a strategic perspective. From the academic perspective graduate students are essential to the continuance and support of both the research and teaching enterprises in Arts and Science. They are often in the forefront of advancing knowledge in the institution and, after leaving the institution, provide significant contributions to a growing knowledge economy. The financial opportunity offered by the Reaching Higher program established by the Provincial Government is a significant incentive to build on an area of growing strength within the Faculty.  (pp. 16-17, boldface added)

This is the main discussion of graduate students in the Arts and Science response to the Principal:  it’s all about how they are useful and bring in money.  Those things are true, and administrators have to consider them, but as academic planners we need to ensure that the University thinks also about what the students need.

All of this emphasis on usefulness and profitability brings us to our third point, the APTF’s “Guiding Principle” 8, that “We must consider all students [. . .] first and foremost as students.”  Sen. Remenda (a member of the APTF) explained in Senate on 27 September that Principle 8 “was intended to protect graduate students from being viewed as a source of cheap labour.”  She added that “better phrasing should be developed to avoid any confusion.”  She may be right about the need for rephrasing, if the present phrasing seems only to minimize the multiplicity of graduate students’ actual roles.  But the overemphasis on the “student” in this  phrasing was formulated in resistance to other formulae.  “Guiding Principle” 8 is meant to remind us that we owe it to our students to regard them as  our beneficiaries before we regard them as our factors, our agents, our saviours, or our cash-cows.

The failure to treat the graduate experience in the academic plan is not just one failure among others.  The role of graduate students has emerged as the central contradiction within the university’s mode of production.  They are both students and teachers, needy and provident, necessary and superfluous.  Mark C. Taylor wrote in a famous Op/Ed of 2009:

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.  (Mark C. Taylor, “End the University as We Know It,” New York Times, April 26, 2009)

Taylor’s essay (now a book) is scary as a whole, but on this point he is not wrong.

A better source on the same subject is Marc Bousquet, How the University Works (NYU, 2008).  Here’s a quotation picked almost at random:

The casualization of the higher education teacher has been accompanied by the wholesale reinventing of what it means to be an undergraduate:  the identity of ‘student’ has been disarticulated from the concept and possibility of leisure and vigorously rearticulated to contingent labor.  In the twenty-first century, ‘being a student’ names a way of work.  (p. 44).

Here is Bousquet more specifically on the subject of the universities’ exploitation of graduate students.  This section is titled “The Waste Product of Graduate Education”:

“From the standpoint of the organized graduate employee, the situation is clear.  Increasingly, the holders of the doctoral degree are not so much the products of the graduate-employee labor system as its by-products, insofar as that labor system exists primarily to recruit, train, supervise, and legitimate the employment of nondegreed students and contingent faculty.

“This is not to say that the system doesn’t produce and employ holders of the Ph.D. in tenurable positions, only that this operation has become secondary to its extraction of teaching labor from persons who are nondegreed or not yet degreed, or whose degrees are now represented as an ‘overqualification’ for their contingent circumstances” (p. 21).

“The system cannot run without people who are doing or who have done graduate study, quite frequently persons who can be represented as on some long trajectory toward the terminal doctorate.  As presently constructed, the academic labor system requires few if any new degree holders–but it gasps and sputters when there is a tiny interruption in the steady stream of new graduate students (hence, the appearance of employment contracts in admittance packets).   The system ‘really needs’ a continuous flow of replaceable nondegreed labor.  It can also use degreed labor willing and financially equipped to serve in the sub-professional conditions for the nondegreed, but the majority of people with degrees cannot afford to do so.

“What needs to be quite clear is that this is not a ‘system out of control,’ a machine with a thrown rod or a blown gasket.  Quite the contrary:  it’s a smoothly functioning new system with its own easily apprehensible logic, premised entirely on the continuous replacement of degree holders with nondegreed labor (or persons with degrees willing to work on favorable terms)…. The reason most universities limit the number of years a graduate student is ‘eligible to teach’ is to ensure that a smooth flow of new persons is brought into the system.  The many ‘exceptions’ to these eligibility rules are the expression of this labor pool’s flexibility, enabling the administration to be confident that it can deliver low-cost teaching labor ‘just in time’ to any point on the factory floor.” (24)

There is lots more of the same; and while Bousquet speaks of the American system, which appears to be out ahead on this downward curve, the same thing is developing in Ontario. We have a government offering financial “incentives” to admit more and more graduate students[2] at the same time as it forbids the hiring of new professors.  It makes no exception for areas like the humanities, where most graduate students are training specifically to be professors, and where their degrees prepare them for little else. The same government is creating an “Ontario Online Institute”[3] that seeks to ramp-up online learning, partly because online learning obviates the necessity for bricks and mortar,[4] partly because it is thought that it will obviate the hiring of professors.  Online courses don’t need to be taught, only “administered”; that is the language of the Council of Ontario Universities’ (COU’s) own statement in promotion of the online institute.  One role the COU specifies for participating institutions is to “Provide professional development for faculty and staff who are creating and administering online course and programs” (COU, “Implementation,” p. 6, emphasis added).  Queen’s Administration seeks alignment with this vision.  Two Arts and Science memos of February and May 2011 promote faster  development of “blended” and “distance” courses and programs.  One explicit rationale is that online and blended learning models reduce the teaching payroll:  “Contact hours are usually reduced in comparison to fully in-class courses, and there may be savings in teaching resources” (“New Initiatives,” Feb. 2011, p. 2).  If I seem to have digressed from the subject of exploiting students as teachers, I haven’t:  the institution that is ramping up graduate admissions while finding ways to do without hiring new instructors must be admitting those graduate students for something, and that something is that we professors can’t teach our huge sections of 200 or 400 undergraduates without the help of those graduate students.  You come across this over and over in the unit responses to Where Next? (some of which can be found here), especially in the response sections 1g and 3b, where Principal Woolf asks  about TA support.  Cuts  to the TA budget would be devastating, says one; “The program and degree structure changes we are discussing are not feasible without a large, high-quality graduate program to support the newly restructured programs and courses directly through teaching and tutorial support,” responds another; “The quality of our undergraduate programs would collapse without adequate support for graduate education on campus.”   The “quality of our undergraduate program at the 100- and 200-levels depends heavily on TA support,” replies a third; “TA support in our 200-level courses, with enrolments typically at 90-100, is absolutely essential to the provision of intensive writing instruction. The [. . .] undergraduate program quite simply could not function without the current complement of TAs.”  Still another says, “TA funding is vital to the preservation of our graduate program and to our ability to teach large courses at the undergraduate teaching.”  And so on.

So it is not surprising that the Administrators’ own documents speak of graduate students, not in terms of what the institution needs to do for them, but in terms of what they can do for the institution.  The interim planning document “Imagining the Future” gives a slightly more balanced picture of the role of graduate students, speaking sometimes of the need to mentor them, but it too is predominantly about how much the institution needs their service–and the provincial cash “incentives” they bring:

The evidence is clear that the contribution of these talented graduate students to the success of our research enterprise and resultant high standing among the G13 research intensive universities is critical. Graduate students also enrich the overall educational community acting as tutors, mentors and leaders, in addition to their well-recognized role as Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Teaching Fellows (TFs).

Based on the importance of these contributions to our overall mission, Queen’s needs to continue to be aggressive in attracting the best students (e.g., providing guaranteed, centrally facilitated, competitive funding packages) and a rich, educational experience that is both student- and career-progression centred.

It should be stressed that the supervision and mentoring of graduate students is ‘core’ to our mission. Graduate students contribute substantially to the university’s revenue; they generate a significant net financial gain from a complex of tuition, scholarship and BIU (Basic Income Unit*) funding. Furthermore, a breakdown of the main sources of support using data from the 2008-2009 academic year reveals a rank order of funding components: external scholarships (45.3 per cent) > grant supported research assistantships (20.5 per cent) > teaching assistantships (20.1 per cent) > and endowed awards (7.1 per cent). That is, we take in considerable government revenue to support graduate studies, and yet students are funded by non- traditional revenue streams. System-wide transparency and a revenue attribution approach might provide a clear picture of the benefits of strong and innovative graduate programs.

Teaching Assistants and Teaching Fellows are funded from faculty/department operating budgets. They play a key role in the undergraduate curriculum and thus they are a required ‘cost of doing business.’ Having graduate students as TAs and TFs provides undergraduate programs with the services of talented and qualified individuals, while providing a valuable experience in leadership, mentoring and teaching for our graduate students. (pp. 13-14, boldface added)

It was in response to all of this that I insisted that our “Guiding Principles” include Principle 8:  “We must consider all students, whether undergraduate, graduate, or professional, first and foremost as students, putting their individual learning needs ahead of their potential contributions to the University as TAs, teachers, or researchers.”

Principle 8 is not nearly enough, of course.  It is merely a stop-gap, meant to prevent back-sliding into the language of the earlier planning documents—and even in doing that it has evidently not succeeded.  The glaring contradictions of graduate student experience, reflected in the temptation of academic planners to position these students primarily as “tutors, mentors and leaders,” is a sign of larger things gone wrong with the university.  Could it be that we are admitting more undergraduates than we should be?  Or hiring fewer faculty than we need?  Or paying more administrators than we need more than they deserve?  Or beautifying our campuses more than we can afford?  Or could it be that our whole secondary function of evaluating every act of every student so that we can produce finely gradated credentials for the workplace has so swamped our primary function of teaching and learning that we can no longer function at all without that “continuous flow of replaceable nondegreed labor”?   I cannot pretend to answer these questions yet, but the starting place would be to attempt to formulate an academic plan that addressed both graduate and undergraduate students as students who have come to university to satisfy their own learning needs–a plan that framed the university in a way that was apt to serve them both equally.

That has not been done either in the APTF’s recent drafts (and the October drafts are no better in this respect than that of September), or in the drafts referenced in the Morelli motion.  Yet there is a big difference in this respect between the Morelli solution and that of the APTF.  The APTF’s submission to Senate is a pretense of completion.  It will spell the end of the process. The Morelli solution is an admission of incompletion and includes a motion for an ongoing cyclical process.  The next big project for the next Task Force should perhaps be to address the complexities and contradictions of graduate experience.  But that will never be done if we pretend that, as of November 22, our Academic Plan is complete and between the covers.


[1] This thrifty proposal for charging two students tuition–one for the privilege of teaching the other, the other for the privilege of being taught by the first–while simultaneously saving on faculty salaries–reappears in the APTF’s September draft and I have already objected to it there:  “The proposal for using undergraduates as TAs/tutors and reimbursing them with academic credits (see p. 18) is financially ingenious but raises ethical concerns (can Queen’s use the currency of academic credits as a device to have A teach B, while charging both A and B tuition in real dollars for this service?)” (Jones, “A Dissent,” note 3).

[2] See the FAS response to Woolf (15 April 2010), sec. 7d.

[3] See Council of Ontario Universities [COU], “The Ontario Online Institute: Achieving The Transformation” (Toronto: COU, August 2010); COU, “Implementation of the Ontario Online Institute: Recommendations of the Online Learning Working Group” (Toronto: COU, April 2011); Maxim Jean-Louis, “Final Report, Engagement Process for an Ontario Online Institute,”  Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, 29 April 2011; and Mark Jones, “On Virtualization, Blended Learning, On-line Learning, and the ‘Greater Differentiation’ of Ontario Universities” (Draft Submitted to APTF, 25 July 2011), Real Academic Planning blog, 25 July 2011.

[4] See the COU’s Aug. 2010 statement on the Ontario Online Institute:  ”The Online Institute will….Reduce the need to build new classroom facilities to accommodate all growth in enrolments” (p. 1).

This entry was posted in Academic Planning Task Force, Grad. Students / Grad Programs, TFs / TAs, Undergraduate TAs. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mark Jones, Academic Planning and Graduate Studies: The Unfinished Project (25 October 2011)

  1. Annette Burfoot says:

    As usual I am impressed with the incredible amount of effort and insight generated by MJ in issues that will affect us all on campus, from undergraduate student to department head. I hope graduate students in particular read this blog – I know some are already reading the situation as labour exploitation (grad students expected to do ever more as part of normalized TA duties) and problematic pedagogy (larger tutorials, less meaningful contact time with students in larger classes). I have two third-year undergraduate courses this year that have doubled in size in one year, with fewer TAs to help. Teaching required contemporary theory (Heidegger, for example) to over 140 students at a time has become quite the trick in lecture preparation. The three grad students who deal with the students grappling with “Dasein” also have their work cut out for them in groups of 25 students per tutorial in the half hour left to deal with substantive issues. And then I wonder, what are the undergrads taking away from all of this in terms of the quality education promised them?

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