The Graduate Director as Agent of Change


I, like most grad directors, am learning the job on the job. There's no handbook, no course; just role models (Evelyn Rawski at the University of Pittsburgh became mine) and huge messy files of old papers. And the Carnegie Initiative, which helped me to think broadly about graduate education even before I became grad director.

I find that I have four roles: rule enforcer; problem solver, advocate, and visionary.

Rule-enforcer. My graduate program had rules; lots of them, and most of them outdated. Consequently, the rules were enforced only sporadically. Because changing rules generates uproar, at first I didn't bother; we on the Carnegie team had larger reforms in the wings. Instead, I picked out the rules that were worthwhile, for example, time limits on completion, and notified students that they would be enforced. The students didn't mind, because I gave them ample time to comply. But a few of the faculty objected; they didn't want the rules applied to their own students. In those cases, I found it helpful to quote the rule book, which they had created long before I came to KU (3 years ago).

As our Carnegie Initiative committee designs new policies, some have gained easy approval by the department, but others have been met by suspicion. For example, the committee designed a "Progress Grid"--a plan that established yearly standards for progress towards completion of the Ph.D. in 5/6 years. But some faculty thought it was too stringent; they preferred a "No Graduate Student Left Behind" grid that everyone could accomplish. Rather than bring the matter to a contentious vote, I simply issued the grid to graduate students in the guise of my "advice." Now that students and faculty both are accustomed to it, we will be able to raise the issue of enacting the grid as policy without nearly the same level of opposition.

Problem-solver. The problems come in two types: individual and systemic. Individual students sometimes don't fit into the normal patterns for the program. In those cases, I talk with the student, and we figure out what makes sense intellectually. Then I find a finagle to make our solution work programmatically.

Systemic problems arise out of the way in which the program is structured and how the department operates. KU's program had quite a few problems, but we had trouble facing them. Getting past the inertia was an essential first step. It helped to collect and disseminate solid data that counteracted a lot of the misimpressions about the program. For example, when we tracked placement of our graduates, we discovered that the majority found teaching positions at four-year colleges, not into local two-year positions and non-academic jobs. Because we place our students in the way of a top-tier institution, we need not be shy about holding them to high standards. An analysis of funding options revealed, to everyone's surprise, that we weren't poor after all. We actually could see that all eligible graduate students had GTA's, GRA's, or fellowships; all we needed was better money management.

Advocate. The grad director not only governs the program, but also represents it--to three constituencies.

The first is the graduate students. If the students can be convinced that the grad director is "on their side," they become a powerful force for change. I gained their trust first by integrating five of their representatives fully and equally into the Carnegie Initiative team. I administered the rules fairly, solved problems, ran interference with faculty, and kept the process transparent. I listened to students' concerns, individually, through their representatives, and at "Town Meetings," and addressed them as adults and junior colleagues. All this involves a lot of "face time" with the students, but it pays off in good will and support for reforms.

The second constituency is the faculty. The grad director has to be on their side, too. I have to solve the problems they have with their students, which means sometimes that I have to be the one to deliver difficult messages. I also make the faculty's intersection with the graduate program easy. For example, I streamlined the admissions and GTA selection process to greatly reduce the faculty's paperwork, so now they are happy to provide their input in the form requested.

The third constituency is the university administration. In this, image is everything--although it certainly helps to have some substance behind it! I brag shamelessly about the quality of our students and our faculty, and how through the Carnegie Initiative, we are becoming a benchmark department for the nation. The administration eats it up--administrators like to hear good news because it comes to them so rarely. And in response, resources have started flowing to the department.

Visionary. Grad directors seem to come in two personality types: caretakers and visionaries. Tempermentally, I'm a caretaker--and a somewhat lackadaisical one at that. But I am able to recognize good ideas when I hear them, and the Carnegie Initiative was set up to generate them. Most important, I came to recognize that in order to train graduate students to become "stewards of their discipline" (as our Carnegie Foundation mentors put it, we need to have a clear idea of how we conceive of it. But historians are like a herd of cats; we're not going to agree on what our discipline is all about and we could spend eons arguing about it. I realized, though, that for the purpose of structuring the graduate program at KU, it was enough to have a set of characteristics that we wanted our students to possess. Then the challenge became more tangible: designing programmatic elements to imbue students with those characteristics.

Our program came up with one of those "visionary" ideas: the substitution of a professional portfolio of the student's work for the traditional "data-drop" exams. We recognized that the traditional exams, where students appear on a given date and write responses to questions, did not provide an accurate measure of their command of the material. Furthermore, the exams took a format that graduate students would never encounter again: writing essays without books or notes in a tightly-constrained period of time on a certain date. The value of the exams, we decided, lay in the kind of reading and synthesis students undertook in preparation, rather than in the exams themselves. Thus the portfolio was born: in contains the work students produce in their courses, along with synthetic essays, annotated bibliographies, grant applications, course plans, and any other materials that reveal the breadth and depth of their knowledge. The portfolio resembles in form the promotion and tenure dossiers that they will have to produce later in their careers. The portfolio exam idea is sensible, but it represents a bold departure from established practices. As graduate director, I have had to make a case for it repeatedly, first to department faculty, then to graduate students, and finally to the historical profession.

Grad director in a time of transition is not a job for someone faint-hearted. You have to be willing to put in the time and energy, and you have to want the job--but not so much that you are willing to continue in it no matter what. My "ace-in-the-hole" is a well-advertised threat to step down if I can't be effective. Nobody else in the department wants the job.

Eve Levin

Department of History

University of Kansas

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