Thursday, May 15, 2014

An Open Letter to Graduate Program Directors

Dear Graduate Directors,

I hope all is well with you, and that all of your charges have landed safely and happily in tenure-track positions at high salaries in desirable locations with compatible cultures, happy partners, and book contracts.

I hope a lot of things.  That doesn’t always make them happen.

Anyway, I’m still reeling from a wonderful meeting I had on Monday with some of your counterparts.  The ‘hook’ for the meeting was a sense that many Ph.D.’s aren’t landing in R1 positions, like they had been trained for, but that they weren’t well-prepared for full-time positions at more teaching-focused colleges.  As a result, even in a market with a severe labor surplus, it’s often difficult to find good people.  It seems like there’s a potential harmony of interest here.  If your grads were better prepared for teaching-intensive places, they’d be more competitive and have more options.  We’d have better candidates.  You’d have better placement records.  

For present purposes, I’m addressing programs in traditional academic disciplines.  Fields like Culinary or Nursing have different needs.  I’m focusing here on the liberal arts, broadly defined.

I have a couple of suggestions that shouldn’t be difficult to implement.  In fact, I hope you’re already doing them, and you find this redundant.

First, make sure that any grad student with potential designs on a teaching institution gets experience teaching online.  Preferably more than once, and with some sort of mentoring or support.

At my college, as at many others, online classes are the area of fastest growth.  Students are voting with their devices.  Whatever your philosophical position on online teaching, it’s where the growth is.  That’s particularly true in the parts of the country where the number of 18 year olds is likely to remain flat or drop over the next decade or so.  Given the limited number of full-time faculty lines we can afford to carry, a candidate who offers no experience in what is rapidly becoming the future simply isn’t competitive.

In some cases, your students may need to teach at other institutions to gain that experience.  I strongly encourage you to let them.  In fact, to the extent that you can, you should encourage them by building bridges to those institutions.  I will much sooner hire the Northeastern grad with online experience at Bunker Hill Community College than the Harvard grad who thinks he’s the second coming of Professor Kingsfield.  Think of that what you will, but it’s the truth.  

Second, and you should already be doing this anyway, train your people in ADAA compliance and universal design.  They should know that it’s not just a matter of sending copies of an exam to the testing center for extra time when they get a note from the relevant office.  It’s about consciously designing classes and other learning experiences to be accessible to everyone from the outset.  That means, for instance, ensuring that any textbooks used are accessible even before ordering them.  It means ensuring that any videos you use in class or online are captioned.  It means a host of small details that make a real difference to students, and that make a real difference in job interviews.

Hint, hint.

And that’s something you should be doing anyway.  Incorporating universal design into classes on your own campus -- whether onsite or online -- could only help your undergrads.  I’ve heard philosophical arguments against online instruction, but I’ve never heard a philosophical defense of excluding people with disabilities.  You can do better by doing the right thing.

Neither of these should be budget-busters.  I don’t think either would require that you completely rethink everything you’re doing.  If you aren’t already doing them, it wouldn’t take much.

It’s not enough anymore to send us people who are good in the classroom with students who are traditionally prepared to be there.  That’s an important, but decreasing, part of what we do.  Candidates who bring those other skills tend to win.

Thanks, and I hope your summer goes well.


Matt Reed