As My Term in Office Dwindles, Some Thoughts on Our Graduate Program

In 2006 I was elected by my colleagues to serve a three year term as chair of the English Department. Doing so has been an honor, and a privilege. I know that sounds cliché, but I make the statement with feeling and without irony. I have the best colleagues, we teach the brightest and most affable undergraduates … and (this is the part that I feel readers of this blog might not know enough about) we also have absolutely amazing graduate students. As my term as chair comes to its end, I feel that I’ve been able to accomplish quite a bit for faculty and English majors (there is always more to do, but I am very happy with what has come about so far). I am less satisfied with what I’ve been able to achieve for our graduate program.

I’ve written on this blog before about how, economically, it is not easy to be a graduate student at GW because our programs are in general underfunded. This paucity of resources seems especially evident in English, where we possess the means to fund a total of only EIGHT students at any one time. Graduate programs our size at comparable institutions typically fund three times that number. I’ve outlined on this blog what a fully funded English graduate program at GW would look like. I stand by my assertion that such a program would be the envy of anything in the Ivy League: we have resources here in DC (the Folger, the Library of Congress) that other programs simply cannot match. Our faculty are unparallelled. It disappoints me that we do not possess the resources to create a graduate program in English that achieves our actual ambitions, because everyone would benefit: undergraduates, by having the best possible teachers and role models in their survey classes; faculty, by training and working with those at the cutting edge of humanities research; and graduate students, by having the financial support they require to undertake advanced literary study.

In my annual report last year, I observed the following:

Major Challenges & Obstacles
Our greatest obstacle is our meager budget. Some pressure has been alleviated through the influx of donor and research money, so that for the first time we can afford to sponsor visiting scholars. We do not, however, have a reliable source to pay for faculty travel, office equipment, or new initiatives.

Where our poverty in resources will impact us most, however, is our graduate program. We have so few GTAs assigned to the department that we cannot actually sustain a sufficient cadre of graduate students: we cannot, in other words, attain the critical mass that we need in order to become the program worthy of a Research I university that we know we could be. As things stand now, we will likely be able to support and therefore admit NO doctoral students in 2008-09, a catastrophe for a PhD program that has burgeoned in strength and quality over the past few years. This lack of GTAs will impact undergraduate education as well, compelling us to rethink our ability to offer the successful English 40W course since it relies upon GTAs for sections.

Sadly, nothing I wrote in that second paragraph has changed since I composed its dire words last June. The English Department has seen no increase to its support for graduate students — and may even face a reduction due to budget cuts. That lack of funding means we may not be able to attract any PhD students this year, preventing a doctoral program of great promise from achieving its superlative potential.

I want to emphasize how good the current graduate students at GW are. Three of our eight funded PhD students, for example, are working very closely with me in my popular “Myths of Britain” class. I observed their discussion sections last Wednesday, and as I watched them teach their undergraduates with such enviable passion and such innate skill, I was impressed … and so very grateful that I get to work with those who are the future of the field. I know our undergraduates appreciate these gifted teachers as well. I’ll be having dinner with all three and several other graduate students later tonight: they invited their professors to dine with them to thank us for what we have done for them. It is we, however, who ought to be thanking them.

I don’t think I have spoken about our graduate program as much as I should have here at the GW English blog. I’m doing that today because I am so worried. I want to emphasize that our graduate program is not an “added extra”; it is not expendable; it is not fluff. Advanced research in the humanities and the training of the next generation of scholar-teachers is at the very heart of my department’s mission. It isn’t separable from what we do in the undergraduate classroom: it is an enterprise that extends that mission towards its best possible future.

The GW English Department will be much the weaker if our graduate program falters.

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