Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Perceptions of Online Graduate Degrees

A new correspondent writes:

I am two years into the four year tenure process at my community college after having been a lowly lecturer at a research institution for five years.  The seven years I have been teaching professionally has taken its toll on my dissertation.  Well, on both my dissertations...my original lit theory one (2 chapters) and the composition pedagogy one (1 1/2 chapters) I devised after having taught composition exclusively for two years.  In any event, both dissertations are defunct, as is my time extension to complete the dissertation process.  While I might be able to revive my prior degree with more begging and promises, I cannot bring myself to do that again.  Besides, to salvage some sort of professional ethos, I finally came to a point there a few years ago where I had to tell myself, "Not completing is ok.  I am a teacher, not a researcher."

Which is, of course, not completely the truth.  At 40, I am finally settling into some financial security, a marriage, home ownership, a job with which I could retire, fatherhood, and have (mostly) given up video games, I am beginning to think about what else I need to do.  I have never actually stopped thinking of writing or researching and I usually present at one or two conferences a year.  A part of me still longs to produce interesting and vital scholarship and to have the letters behind my name that give that scholarship more scholarly heft.  And, some day, I think it might be nice to teach a grad seminar or two at a local university.

Though I am dubious of the academic value online classes I teach, I am considering pursuing a new doctorate in an online setting.  In particular, I am thinking about going for an EdD or for a cross-disciplinary degree in human organizations because on a daily basis I grow more interested in how we at CCs deal with students who are at pre-college levels.  Because of my schedule though (and my need to keep working to pay off my prior college loans), I cannot see any way to go for a degree except online.  My questions for you, then, are as follows:  As an administrator at a CC, what would you think of one of your faculty members pursuing an advanced degree online?  As an academic, what do you think is the tenor of the academy regarding online graduate work?  And as someone who is, presumably, familiar with the tensions between community colleges and universities faculties, how do you think a community college instructor who gets doctored up online might be assessed by a university hiring committee?

Ah, the joys of turning 40. Preach it, brother. Sandra Tsing Loh claims that 40 is when the wheels fall off. I'm experiencing it as the age when you discover that nobody really knows very much, yourself absolutely included. But that's another post.

The real question was about graduate online degree programs, and how they're perceived.

First and most obviously, not every online program is the same (just like not every traditional program is the same). Some are more respected than others. Having said that, what I've observed has been that online degrees work fine for certain kinds of administrative jobs, but are still usually looked upon askance by faculty.

That may seem paradoxical, but it isn't if you look at administrative jobs outside the academic line of department chair – dean – provost. For example, in the student services areas (admissions, counseling, financial aid, etc.), I've seen people do a great deal with online degrees. In those areas, what really gets you ahead is actual job performance; the degree is usually seen as getting your hand stamped. As long as the stamper is properly accredited, all is well.

With your background, I could imagine you doing very well running tutoring services, and making your way up from there. You'd be dealing with the very students who have captured your heart, and would be staying close to the academic mission, but you wouldn't have to worry about impressing anybody with a highfalutin degree or a dense publication dossier.

That said, you'd probably need to stop thinking in terms of 'how do I break into the university world,' and start thinking about whether you could be happy staying in the community college (or lower-tier four-year public college) world. The Harvards of the world maintain their prestige through rigorous inbreeding, often to predictable effect. Jumping strata like that is unusual and uniquely difficult. It can be done, but I wouldn't base a life plan on it.

At some level, it's about figuring out what matters to you. In my own case, despite having done time in some of the snootier corners of academe, I've decided that clarity of mission trumps prestige. Community colleges have a clarity of mission, and a genuine public purpose, that I find appealing. I feel like I have something real to contribute here. In the snootier corners, there are plenty of folk more adept at certain kinds of gamesmanship than I, and I'm okay with that.

In other words, if you see the online degree as a way back into the ivory tower, I'd be skeptical. But if you see it as a way to apply what you've learned through teaching, to help students who really need it, and to feed your kids and pay your mortgage, go for it.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? How are online graduate degrees received where you work?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

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I found it interesting that he/she doubts the academic value of his/her own online courses yet is interested in an online degree . . . . .

Disclaimer: I've been teaching online at a traditional state institution since the technology was available in addition to teaching F2F courses.

(BTW, I agree, Dean Dad - it depends on the institution and the ultimate goal. I am starting to see that some online degrees are indeed much more academically rigorous than sitting around a table with other people as a primary means of proving your abilities versus the project-based work of at least some online degrees that don't allow for anything to fall through the cracks.)
One phrase stood out to me in the correspondent's letter: "the letters behind my name that give that scholarship more scholarly heft."

1) If what you want is more respect as a scholar of English (whether literature or composition), I'd say that an Ed.D. will not get you that in the discipline, even if your scholarship focuses on teaching. People with English PhDs (maybe people with doctorates in any discipline?) are typically suspicious of education degrees as lacking in rigor, whether they are completed online or not. I'm not saying that this is fair or right, but I think that is a very typical prejudice.

2) I don't actually think the letters behind a name give scholarship any more heft. I've seen amazing pieces published by graduate students; I've seen garbage published by people with their degrees. If you're looking for status, I honestly think that has more to do with institutional affiliation than anything else, and as DD notes, you're out of that market at this point (my status actually went DOWN when I got my t-t job and had my degree in hand - I was much fancier when I was non-degreed and a student at a prestigious research university).

Finally, I'm at a regional university that has been expanding graduate programs. I can tell you that with the current SACS requirements, we would not let you teach a graduate class in our MA in English program with an Ed.D., regardless of the delivery method in which you got that degree, because it could cause accreditation hassles. Also, it's my impression that in all fields graduate classes go to t-t and tenured faculty at that university first, then to professionals in the field (so working journalists for a communications degree, or something like that), and pretty much never to the CC professor down the road. YMMV.
The problem with online degrees -- any non-traditional degree really -- is not the degree but the ignorance of the profession. So I'm with KiK about the range possible. However, in addition to online degrees, the questioner might look at low residency options. I think in general this is a good model for adults -- with some contact and community for a short time, but longer stretches working independently.

The key is doing the research on the program -- how rigorous? who are the faculty? etc.

Also, to think carefully about the purpose of the degree. How would the questioner like to use the knowledge? The question raises CC issues, but then talks about jumping to a university. So I think sorting out WHY one wants to go back to school is really important. I find people who do graduate degrees just for the credential (i.e. they are going through the motions) just as difficult to teach as undergraduates who are not sure why they are in school.
Time to beg and plead. Seriously. Your original institution owes you the chance to finish up, and they are sure to allow you to do so. It's hard to cross that burning bridge, but would be harder to start over. What you need from the degree, at this point, is mostly the credential-- the easiest and cheapest way to get that is to write a complete dissertation, then re-enroll for a term at your old school to defend it.

I totally get that it may be emotionally difficult and weird-- but more than half the weirdness is structural-- this is a weird profession. Your former profs and advisors won't look at you askance-- they know this whole game is impossible. So I think this is one of the many times when parenthood and creeping middle age force a person to just suck it up and get it done.

And then, surprisingly, you'll be happy you did.
I am fascinated by the fact that this person is eligible for tenure with just a Master's degree. I know CC's tend to have different standards, but the plethora of PhDs seeking jobs does give one pause that perhaps they EXPECT that PhD in hand before tenure is awarded.

Better check to make sure.

Also, I am glad to see someone else who got shoved from the nest too soon into teaching who also got overwhelmed by that rather taxing task.

I really think other fields have it easier with 1/ extended funding into dissertation time, and 2/ less time needing to be focused on teaching in lieu of research & writing.

Teaching writing requires a bit more time [prep, grading, meetings, etc.] than teaching, say, physics... you know.
Rather than address your question directly, I suggest that the better path is to back to one of the two dissertations you have worked on, most likely the one on teaching writing. I took A LONG TIME to finish, but in the end the graduate registrar told me that getting an extension was really up to my dissertation advisor. My guess is that you will find similar support once you begin to make clear and regular progress.

Quit writing papers and giving presentations and dig in. Spend $10 and read "How to Write A Lot". It will take you 90 minutes to read and will provide you with ideas to manage teaching and writing. Starting over will not make it easier to write a dissertation.

I did not enjoy finishing, there were some genuinely unpleasant discussions with one committee member in particular, but it felt great to be done. Don't step back. Move forward.

Good luck.
how do you think a community college instructor who gets doctored up online might be assessed by a university hiring committee?

That seems to me to be the wrong question, on two levels.

1) At the moment, it only matters how that degree is judged by your CC. Will it earn you a higher pay grade? At our CC, an EdD will count just as much as a PhD. [It only matters to a university if you want to apply there, and that does not seem to be your interest.] Your near-term focus should be entirely on tenure at your CC and continuing to learn about the special skills needed to teach there.

2) As Dr. Crazy points out, it is the accrediting agency that dictates the standards for teaching graduate courses. In my field, physics, nothing less than a PhD counts. There is a way for an institution to document that some other set of qualifications are judged acceptable, but this requires lots of work on their part and probably some important publications on your part.

However, on the question you did not ask, it would seem to me that your investment in that pedagogy dissertation could be turned to advantage if you elaborate on it with your CC experiences. If you were really ABD somewhere, it would seem to be worth the effort to negotiate a plan to get back to that project in, say, three years from now.
To Anonymous at 11:40 am

If a college Dean and President hired someone into a t-t job that was not eligible for tenure, they are blithering idiots. That would be a huge investment wasted.

What a CC expects (and looks for during the hiring process) is someone who can teach their subject. If we are lucky, we get someone who is good and wants to get better by studying what works (and what doesn't) with our students. A PhD is no more important for tenure than a publication would be.

PS -
In my experience, teaching physics at a CC requires about the same effort as teaching writing. There are labs to prepare, lab reports to grade, adjuncts to oversee (if you are lucky enough to have someone teach labs for you), and messy exams to grade. Folks who teach a gen-ed class with m-c exams that they cycle through every few years are the ones I think have it easier, but the good ones put that time into keeping the lectures up to date and interesting and verifying that their m-c assessments are valid.
Dr. Crazy's comment is exactly on target.

If your former institution will allow you to complete the degree, that would be best for all the reasons described. My real advice, though, would be to sit tight until you have tenure, and then decide what you want to do. Don't let pursuit of a degree distract you from your job and put your chances of tenure at risk.
Quality of online education also boils down to the discipline of the one taking the program. It takes quite a lot of effort to block off distractions if you're studying mostly at home. If you lack enough discipline and self-motivation, you won't get the most out of an online degree program.
If you are writing and presenting conference papers - then you should have plenty of material for a dissertation. Go talk to your advisor, work out a plan and get it done.
There's a reason why choosing the 'right' online degree program is important.
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