I have been a member of the graduate faculty in fiction writing for a number of years, and up until this last year, have seen our applications increase with great regularity. I think our past success had quite a lot to do with our innovative programming, our attention to the various ways in which graduate students were able to enroll in a significant number of classes in a wide variety of classes, including classes in genre and popular fiction writing, something most other schools consider "non-literary" and therefore not relevant to the MFA degree. Now our students are limited to just four choices for elective classes this coming spring, two of them not in the fiction genre. We were told by our interim dean and interim chair and graduate director (nontenured and with the fewest years of teaching experience of all of our faculty) that the Provost insisted that graduate students will only be allowed to take graduate-only classes from here on out. The Provost, at a recent forum, told us something different: graduate students should have the opportunity to take graduate only classes, but there is room for mixed classes as well.
Because our undergraduate programs (particularly in our new department with the largest enrollment in fiction writing of all of the programs) really allow us to support smaller programs as well, we need to look at how to better bring these programs together (graduate and undergraduate) as a way to increase enrollment and opportunity. This will take more than just cross-listing, but a real attention to the tiering of classes, to staffing those classes with experienced teachers who know how to teach to a diverse population, and professionals in their fields who are also experienced with teaching and working with students of different skills and education levels.
The new curriculum in our department was made and delivered top down, without consultation with and consideration by the full faculty; probably against the college's governance and procedural rules. When it was delivered to the graduate faculty by the interim dean, interim chair, and nontenured director, it was said to be a "done deal." When the ideas were presented, they were presented as something "everyone else does."
Why would we want to build a program like everyone else? Particularly when we don't have the funding opportunities of "everyone else"? And to my mind, with this narrow curriculum, we now have a rather unexciting and not very innovative program. I no longer feel inclined to encourage students to apply here, as I always have in the past.
A number of the senior faculty have received letters from potential students and existing students voicing their concerns about what is no longer available to them. This is not a good thing. Last year's applications dropped to well under 100, far fewer than I have seen in many years. We offer less to our students now, for more money, and I am interested to see how that will affect our application numbers this coming year.
I write not to just complain (although, obviously, I do have my complaints) but to suggest strategies across the board to help support graduate study. Strategies that do not seem to be welcome in my own department, but ones I think are important nonetheless.
1. Graduate Directors should be tenured faculty, and they should have at least five years experience teaching graduate students.
2. Graduate Directors should not be allowed to change curriculum, policy, and procedure without full consultation and collaboration with the full graduate faculty of the program. Faculty must feel invested in the program, and not simply charged with carrying out orders.
3. Chairs and Deans should collaborate with full graduate faculty about curricular changes, potential areas of improvement. Having taught here for many years, I can think of many things that need to be changed in our program. However, I was not consulted about this, nor were the colleagues I have spoken with.
4. Departments should have resources for in-service to work with all faculty, in order to best train them to work with diverse classrooms, including graduate/undergraduate classes. Guidelines and learning outcomes should be discussed and set.
5. Students should have a wide variety of learning opportunities in their own field, but also guidance toward engaging in collaborative arts opportunities in different departments. This guidance needs to be done not just by the director, particularly if the director is rather inexperienced and not all that familiar with Columbia and its programs.
6. Advising for graduate students should be done by all graduate faculty, not just the director. This way, students will have a wide variety of input, without specific agenda.
7. Graduate programs should be in conversation about sharing resources and opportunities, perhaps with an advisory board or ad hoc committee selected through the GPC.
8. GPC minutes should be published for transparency and accuracy of information.
9. Graduate funding must be increased.
10. Graduate success needs to be celebrated.
11. The work of the graduate programs must be done in full collaboration with the graduate faculty as well as with the GPC and departmental curriculum committee, and the outcomes of such work must be shared openly and without omission or false statements.
12. All graduate students and faculty must know their input matters, and there should be a way for all members of these constituencies to work together, not in secret, selected audience, closed door, last minute meetings, or other ways that appear uncollegial and/or deceitful.