Matching Regulations to Intellectual Orientation: Structural and Curricular Change in a Cultural and Critical Studies Program

University of Pittsburgh

Department of English

Beginning in 2001, our department initiated a series of structural and curricular changes. These changes were a response to what we perceived as a mismatch between the innovative intellectual orientation of our program--in "cultural and critical studies," started in 1985-86--and the overall structure and time to degree. This mismatch, we concluded, affected not only our competitiveness with other PhD programs, but more importantly compromised our students' ability to undertake a coherent intellectual development in a timely way. As part of our CID participation, we have affirmed these changes made to the program. Below these changes are introduced, along with the rationale for them and some documents we have produced since in attempting to assess the success of these changes.

From an MA-PhD to a PhD Structure

Despite the innovative intellectual orientation of our PhD program, we retained the MA in English as the gateway to this program for those students applying with a BA; these students were then required to reapply to enter the PhD program. We found that this outdated structure decreased our attractiveness to the best students and placed us at a disadvantage to those programs we routinely competed with for students. In addition, this structure greatly increased the normative time to degree. The old structure required students to spend at least 7 years earning the MA and the PhD, and between 1991-2001, the average time to degree was 8.5 years. Below are some documents that were produced to demonstrate these disadvantages and to argue for a 5-6 year PhD program that admits directly from the BA.

We quickly realized, however, that average enrollments in graduate courses would decline as a result of changing course requirements from 18 in the combined MA-PhD structure to 13 in the new structure. To address this problem, the department debated several scenarios by which we could maintain an average of 22 MA/PhD courses per year (see the document below). We concluded that we should retain the MA not only to maintain our curricular vitality through stable enrollments, but also as an important graduate alternative to a direct-admission PhD.

Proposal to Change the PhD
This document lays out the rationale for structural change to the PhD program and provides concrete proposals, all of which were adopted.

Enrollments and Structural Change
This document addresses the problem of reduced course enrollments as a consequence of requring fewer courses for the PhD. It lays out different scenarios in order to maintain our average of 22 MA/PhD courses per year.

Linking Coursework to Research and Teaching

In 1997 we instituted four core courses required for the MA and PhD. Three of these courses focused on the departmental programs that fed into the graduate curriculum (Film Studies, Literature, and Composition), while the third aimed to link all three. When we reduced the course load for PhD students from 17 to 13 in 2002, we also felt that four core courses may be too many. We also felt that there needed to be better preparation for students across programs in criticism, an activity we broadly conceived as an essential link between teaching and research. Accordingly we created two new core courses requried for all PhD students: History of Criticism and Seminar in Pedagogy. Below is a link to full descriptions of these courses, as well as sample syllabi for History of Criticism and Seminar in Pedagogy.

Revised Core Curriculum
This document, from the original approved by our department, describes the two new core courses and the teaching and research field requirement.

History of Criticism, fall 2003
This is a syllabus for the first History of Criticism course taught in fall 2003.

Seminar in Pedagogy, fall 2004
This is a syllabus for the Seminar in Pedagogy taught in fall 2004.

Assessing Change

One of the best measures of the success of the changes we have made to the PhD program is admissions data. Below is a link to data compiled since 2001 that we believe demonstrates, in at least one resepct, the success of these changes. The data reveals dramatic increases in acceptance rates as well as average GRE Verbal scores and GPAs of entering students. In the years to come we will compile data on average time to degree for our students, a key component in assessing the success of the changes we made.

PhD Admissions Data 2001-04

Graph of Admissions Data

Goals of the Core Curriculum

For both practical and intellectual reasons, we believe that rather than have the core curriculum largely mirror the separate programs that make up the curriculum in cultural and critical studies and the department in general, it should rather be made up of two fundamental components: first, core courses that address issues of criticism, scholarship, and pedagogy that PhD and MA work in each program presupposes, in one way or another; and second, elective courses grouped by each student, in consultation with his or her advisor, into a "teaching and research field." In this regard we believe the core curricular requirements should aim to be both "pre"-programmatic and forward-looking with respect to each student's professional development.

Our students have been particularly known for their training as teachers, for their knowledge in critical thought both in and beyond what is professionally validated, and their knowledge of, if not expertise in, not only literature but also film, television, literacy textbooks, philosophy, etc. We wanted to use these strengths to address what we perceived as a weakness: that our students sometimes lacked both a shared, pre-programmatic preparation and self-designed "area" preparation that informs and enhances their participation in other courses, their project and dissertation work, and their future work as scholars and teachers.

While a core curriculum cannot completely prepare each and every student for each and every area of study -- nor should it try -- the goal of a core curriculum should be to minimize the need to fill in gaps by providing opportunities (rather than an "exhaustive" survey) that help students more adequately prepare for their own research and practice. And this should be done in a way that both provides a solid intellectual and scholarly foundation for advanced work in specific fields of study, and continues the forward-thinking study and teaching of cultural expression for which our department has become well known.

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