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Graduate Review & Improvement Project (GRIP) meeting

November 30, 2011

I attended a meeting of the Graduate Review and Improvement Project (GRIP) today and wanted to throw up a quick reflection here.  This discussion is still nascent, but I’m posting a quick summary and my reaction to try to get the word out.  If you’re a CEHD (and particularly PsTL) student, I’d love to hear some feedback so I can better represent our views as this discussion progresses.

The context:

The OLPD department in our College has been working on developing a process to evaluate and improve its graduate programs.  They’ve been trying different strategies–surveys, regular meetings for grad students, “town hall” meetings with a broader community, etc.  From what I gathered, the goal is to put evaluation and program improvement closer to the departments, students, and faculty whom it affects, rather than let it get stuck at a higher institutional level that can be less accessible and more nebulous for students and faculty.  Now, they’re calling together representatives from the various departments so they can share what they’ve been doing and invite a College-wide discussion on how we can work on improving our graduate programs.  We met today–a mix of faculty and students from each department across the College–to discuss ways to evaluate and improve our graduate programs.

Concerns/questions that came up:

  • There was a lot of concern (expressed by both faculty and students) about the power differential that exists between students and faculty.  A key question:  How do we make sure that we’re getting “the real picture” in student feedback, and not just creating avenues where students may feel constrained or intimidated from speaking their mind?
  • There was a lot of discussion about a set of metrics that has been created at the University level to try to flesh out what it means to be a “quality” Ph.D. program.  These metrics may be used in some form to guide funding decisions for programs, although the details of this process are still unclear to me.  You can have a look at the metrics here.  If you want some context, I believe these metrics were created by the Enrollment Management Subcommittee at the Provost’s office, and speak to point #4 on page 10 of this document.  In our discussion today, there was some concern about how to respond to and incorporate these metrics in our own College improvement processes.
  • The topic of advising came up, and the central role that advising plays in the graduate student experience.  OLPD has been working on a list of expectations for graduate advisors, and the Institute of Child Development (?) has established the expectation that advisors meet with their advisees at least once a month.  The key question:  How do we establish norms and expectations for advisors so that faculty and students know what to expect and what to demand?  How do we create a culture that is responsive to students and what they need to succeed?
  • Faculty expressed concern about the kinds of demands they are forced to juggle and trade-offs they are forced to make (ex: spending more time on advising vs. working on their own research).  Having a realistic understanding of the resources it takes to be a good advisor, researcher, etc. seems crucial to improving both student and faculty experience.
  • The COGS Survey came up as a potential source of good information on graduate students’ experiences.  We also discussed creating a repository for survey tools, policy documents, etc. that CEHD departments can draw from when evaluating their graduate programs.

My reaction:

I, like most in the meeting, was concerned about some of the metrics the Enrollment Management Subcommittee has developed.  When defining a “quality Ph.D. program”, I would like to see metrics that take faculty members’ teaching/advising efforts into account.  And, at a land grant institution, I would also like to see metrics that value service to the Minnesota community.  I worry about metrics that are overly quantitative, such as number of grants, publications, citations, time to degree, rankings, etc.  I feel that these kinds of numbers obscure contributions that are powerful but not easily quantifiable.  They also set up a kind of one-size-fits-all “game” that may make us misallocate resources in ways that are not necessarily efficient, or beneficial to students and academic innovation.  I also believe that these numbers can be sloppy to collect (even as they purport to be “clean” and “unbiased”).  I would like to find out more about if/how these metrics are being used to allocate funding across the University.

I also have a suspicion that a key lurking variable behind any graduate program’s success is the quality of advising (which I believe, at the grad level, is essentially coterminous with “teaching” and “mentoring”).  It is that exciting and powerful “meeting of the minds” that goes on inside and outside of the classroom.  Advising has primacy–it is where the whole hoopla of grants, publications, citations, and conference proposals is born.  Graduate students don’t need course content as much as they need a sound support structure and sound relationships with mentors and peers.  And faculty mentors need the time and resources to offer this to graduate students.  The bad news: this defies–or at least problematizes–“the bottom line”.  You can’t cut corners on this.  And if you do, quality will suffer.  If we can articulate principles of good advising, give faculty the resources to focus time and energy on advising, and empower students to expect and demand quality advising relationships, that’s a huge step towards graduate program improvement, in my mind.

In thinking about this, we would also be wise to expand our scope to nourish not just faculty-to-student advising, but student-to-student mentoring and community.  We should also remember that promising a solid support community–and then delivering on these promises–also sells well with prospective grad students.  So, the bottom line is: pulling advising and community onto center stage can simultaneously advance our success in other metrics (publications, grants, citations, time to degree, etc.).  Let’s figure out where the horse is here, and let it pull the cart.

But mine is just one voice, so…

My questions:

  • What am I missing?  Any graduate students out there want to weigh in on this?
  • Is advising actually as central as I think it is to quality graduate education?  Or is there something else to focus on?
  • How do we feel about online/distance education programs?  What makes a “quality” distance education grad program?

Feel free to comment below, or shoot me an e-mail at linkx109@umn.edu .

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Roberto De Freitas permalink
    December 3, 2011 8:20 am

    Hola Alison, Thanks for taking the time to attend the meeting and sharing your reflection.
    This Graduate Review and Improvement Project (GRIP) has the classic making of a Action Research project for one of our graduate students.

    I say this because, many suggest that action research should always be a collaborative process, insider or outsiders is of no consequence to this improvement project. I am of course speaking of positional stance.

    The position we assume or ground ourselves, in response to investigating the improvement of the graduate student experience in the College of Education and Human Development, will influence an individual positional view of power relations,

    The challenges that are faced by GRIP can be best addressed in collaboration with with all who have a vested interest. (dissertation committees,and others). The initiative for change will commence from inside to out. And the issue of improvement, as measured by whom?
    In other words, whose values will define improvement in this inquiry?

    As always, I would love to hear form you! Questions, comments, personal experiences all create helpful dialogue for learning.

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