THE NEEDS OF GRADUATE STUDENTS
or

how to make it into the ivory tower

Susanna Morton Braund

The focus of the conference

Some variables

The needs of research students:

  1. Starting up techniques
  2. Language skills
  3. The evidence: what is it?
  4. Questions about the evidence
  5. Issues around the - our - selection of evidence
  6. What we do with the evidence
  7. On being a PG
  8. The importance of presentation
  9. And the ultimate question: "Will I get a job?"


    The focus of the conference

    CUCD chose for its conference this year the topic of the needs of graduate students as an issue of increasing relevance to the profession. We are living through a period of increasing professionalisation of the education process and it seems timely to review the `training' we (do, don't, might or should) offer to the coming generations of university teachers. This is not an entirely new topic for CUCD: it complements the earlier Working Party which resulted in the document on taught MAs in Classics Departments. The focus of the 1995 conference was primarily upon research postgraduates who seek entry to the ivory tower of academe. Three speakers presented papers with complementary perspectives: I started with an overview of the skills needed by graduate students (which follows here); Emma Stafford spoke from a postgraduate's perspective about the experiences of graduate students as teachers of undergraduates; and Judith Hallett provided an American perspective on the management of graduate students. The topic provoked a lively debate. This issue is so important that the debate needs to continue beyond the conference. Hence the invitation from the editor to present our papers in the Bulletin was most welcome.

    My views doubtless derive from my experience and observation over the years: it is clear to me that some Classics departments are more aware of these issues than others and that some already look after their graduate students really well. That's terrific. But this is an important issue for all Classics departments and I hope that, whether or not my views find support, those which have not reviewed their provision will be inspired to do so as part of this debate. My final point in this preamble is to emphasise that my views are entirely personal and in no way represent the collective view of the Classics Department at Bristol (my affiliation when I wrote the paper).

    Some variables

    Many factors make the subject of the needs of graduate students a huge one. Three very different kinds of variable occur to me, though there are doubtless others too.

    (1) There are different kinds of graduate students. There are those studying for the MA for its own sake, those taking the MA as preparation for the PhD (whether that MA is designed to fill in gaps in the undergraduate experience or constitutes a dedicated research methodology) and those who go straight into the PhD; there are graduate students from different educational backgrounds (depending upon the nature of their first degree, e.g. non-linguistic/linguistic; international; closely structured or `cafeteria' modular degrees); there are full-time and part-time students and there are mature students.

    (2) There are both formal and informal modes of communicating skills: specialised courses (instruction in MA courses and in research skills components taught by departments or faculties); personal interaction between PhD supervisors and students; attendance at conferences and research seminars; seminars with and without staff present, the last offering the excellent possibility of peer education.

    (3) Resource factors, both financial and human. The inadequacy of funding available (from the British Academy and from individual universities) means that a greater proportion of postgraduates than before are self-funded, which increases interest in `value-for-money' (which is not necessarily to be dismissed as Thatcherite ideology but poses a reasonable challenge to us). Diminishing funding within universities combined with increased pressures on staff time raise the crucial question - how much provision can we (afford to) make? Human resources are limited too: except in large units, it may seem preferable to target specific areas or groups, otherwise our graduate provision may not be viable. This may be achieved by recruiting postgraduates in limited areas or setting up programmes with core + optional elements or, alternatively, entirely composed of optional elements, to meet the needs of individual students. Different models will suit different institutions; collaboration between departments (e. g. in Faculty units) or between Classics departments in different institutions may become more and more desirable, despite the inevitable resistance to this engendered by the competitive structure of postgraduate provision.

    The needs of research students

    I now address specifically the needs of graduate students who undertake research, starting with a discussion of academic skills (items 1-6), including the difficult issue of language skills (item 2). The experience of being a postgraduate (PG) is one area which is not adequately addressed currently (and perhaps never has been), I believe, and I attempt to flag some aspects of this in item 7. I then offer some thoughts on maximising employability in terms of (self-)presentation (item 8) and I close with the thorniest issue of all, that of recruitment practice (item 9).

    1. Starting up techniques

    This includes the use of libraries and bibliographic techniques, including familiarity with L'Année Philologique; use of dictionaries; use of relevant reference works, which will include some of RE, OCD, DS, RAC, TLL, LIMC and doubtless many more. Essential too are IT skills, including word-processing, creation and use of databases, CD-ROM, the electronic network of email (and - soon - the internet and WWW - but here I go beyond my own capacities!).

    2. Language skills

    I expect we can agree that there are modern languages in which PGs need a competence - French, German, Italian, and perhaps others, motivated by particular projects. But what about the ancient languages? What level of linguistic expertise is necessary for our PGs? It is clear that many PGs, whether they are graduates of Classical Studies degrees or of `traditional' Classics/Greek/ Latin degrees, will benefit from linguistic consolidation and extension - and there is a variety of ways this need can be met, for example, by attendance at UG classes at the appropriate level or at classes targeted specifically at PGs; and there are supplements to conventional classroom teaching, for example, intensive weekend or summer schools. But should we insist that a PG without Latin or Greek should devote a substantial chunk of their research time to acquiring this language? I'd like to suggest that this might depend upon the proposed research project and upon the sort of teaching that PGs might end up doing.

    I don't think we should assume that a high level of linguistic competence is necessary for every kind of project (although we might want to insist upon an adequate level of competence). There are topics of research in ancient culture in which it is not self-evident that time devoted to acquiring Greek or Latin is time well spent. And when we consider the sort of teaching that is increasingly required in Classics departments, teaching for degrees which involve little or no study of the ancient languages but which focus on wider aspects of ancient culture, the argument for diversity among the PG cohort becomes stronger. It should not be a given that those of high linguistic competence necessarily have the skills to teach on `non-traditional' degrees courses. The contrary is clearly the case, sometimes. There is a subtle tendency to downgrade the skills acquired in `non-traditional' degrees. What I am suggesting is, in essence, that there is value in diversity - and that graduates from `non-traditional' degrees have many skills to offer which cannot be guaranteed to be found in those of high linguistic competence. Ideally, we will foster and look for both kinds of skill; but, realistically, we should acknowledge that one or the other will have been privileged in any individual's educational experience.

    As a profession, we have been pretty successful in diversifying our range of degrees to maintain student enrolment - in fact, better than that: according to the most recent CUCD figures (1992-3), the numbers of students in Classics Departments are on a rising trajectory (while the numbers of staff have been declining, of course). But I am not convinced that we have been equally successful in ensuring that the most appropriate people are there to teach on this wider range of degrees. So I hope that we shall openly address this as an issue and try to consider and value other skills besides the purely linguistic. It goes to the heart of the question of what is comprised in our discipline of `Classics'.

    3. The evidence: what is it?

    Not every PG will need to assimilate everything in this list, but there will be items which are crucial. The list includes an understanding of the sites and landscapes of the ancient world - that is, the physical evidence of topography: visual assimilation of the ancient world is to be encouraged, preferably by visits but at the least by the study of maps, photographs, plans, reconstructions. In terms of material culture, a PG may need to study the visual arts, sculpture, architecture, inscriptions and coins which survive. texts, including literary and non-literary texts, will be central for some PGs, and here it may prove useful to understand the circumstances of the production and distribution of ancient texts, palaeography and the survival and transmission of texts from antiquity. For some students, an awareness of the skills of textual criticism will be important.

    4. Questions about the evidence

    Once a PG has become familiar with the evidence relevant to her/his project, it is time to raise questions about this evidence. These could include, how does this evidence survive? how (in)complete is it? how (un)representative is it? who produced these forms of evidence? from what social and educational background? why? for what audience? what did `publication' consist of? what (if any) are the shared expectations of author and audience? how is power being expressed in these different types of evidence?

    5. Issues around the - our - selection of evidence

    A further issue which arises from consideration of the evidence is, which texts/statues/coins/inscriptions should be studied? Who chooses them? And should we go for canons? (As an undergraduate at King's, Cambridge, I had to fill in an enormous sheet listing the major classical authors as I sampled them - but I never challenged the choice of those authors.) The tendency to offer UGs increased choice in modular systems means it is more and more possible to avoid areas you are not immediately drawn to ( and even under an older system, I must confess that as an UG I managed to avoid studying any Tacitus!). To what extent, then, is it our responsibility to ensure our PGs fill in the `gaps' left by their UG training? Such questions are in essence professional questions and it seems to me valuable to raise awareness about these questions among our PGs.

    6. What we do with the evidence

    PGs need to be acquainted with the approaches used in previous and current centuries and periods, to become aware of their advantages and limitations. For those working closely on language or literature, this might involve some insights into how authors of dictionaries and commentaries work. And for everyone, this invites a list of -isms. We can all make up our own list, but it might include some of the following: ancient literary criticism, Marxism, formalism, linguistics, genre theory, structuralism, deconstruction, feminism and psychoanalysis. Whatever the list, I should like to see included some awareness of the differing scholarly traditions available (e.g. European vs. North American), to foster awareness of the endeavours of colleagues in other countries. And I would like to see more attention paid to the rhetoric of scholarship and what it means to `be' an `academic'. In another paper on the subject of the personal voice in classical scholarship (forthcoming), I describe how as young academics we learn to adopt the impersonal voice of classical scholarship: I wish to challenge this procedure. I hope a debate on this topic will ensue and ultimately stimulate a diversification in the voices available to us as classical scholars. But that's perhaps a professional issue for another forum, another year...

    All of the above items are, I take it, desirable, but it is hardly feasible to expect every PG to gain competence in every one. So - which skills are to be privileged, by whom, and to what extent there should be a set sequence in the acquisition of these skills? I do not wish to prescribe answers, but believe that everyone would benefit from greater awareness of our expectations of PGs and from a greater fluidity and flexibility than hitherto.

    And all of the above items are things that can be taught. I turn now to another aspect to the experience of being a PG which is less often addressed.

    7. On being a PG

    The nature of independent study is probably the single biggest shock for the new PG. It can be a very lonely life. (First I wrote `is', but I was then rightly reminded by John Wilkins of how cohesive and mutually supporting the postgraduate cohort at Exeter is. Clearly the degree of loneliness depends upon the ethos of the institution and upon the personalities of fellow PGs.) Getting into good working habits is very important. This should, of course, be conveyed by the PG's advisor(s), but often isn't! PGs need to know what resources exist in their institutions to help them through any problems, acute or chronic. There needs to be a forum for discussion of shared situations and problems, e.g. how hard should I be working? how many hours per day? how do I go about beginning to write something as enormous as a dissertation? Ideally, too, there should be physical space devoted to the PGs collectively. Apart from the intrinsic desirability of this, PGs will iron out each others' problems by consulting and collaborating with one another, on any and all of the six types of skill outlined above, and more.

    8. The importance of presentation

    The importance of presentation in both written work and in `live' professional situations cannot be overestimated. In written work this pertains to typography, layout, accuracy in footnotes and references to bibliography and so on. Other contexts where attention to (self-)presentation is crucial include giving research papers, composing abstracts (i.e. brief proposals of a papers to be given at conferences such as the Classical Association and the American Philological Association), writing proposals for grants, letters of job application, preparing a CV. And PGs need to be aware of the (usually) unwritten qualifications for a career - teaching experience and publications - since it seems to be increasingly impossible to land a job without scoring on both these points. Again, an advisor who is on the ball will cover all these points, but, given that times have changed since most of us were appointed and these are things not all of us had to do, it seems useful to set them down as the start of a semi-formal agenda.

    I hope we might agree that most if not all of the above are skills which need to be communicated to our graduate students. I hope, too, that in each institution where there are graduate students the process of inculcating these skills will not simply be presented to the students as a fait accompli. There needs to be a consultation mechanism and communication between us (as the providers of the skills) and the recipients. It matters little whether these avenues of communication are formal or informal, so long as they are effective. Perhaps the ideal is to have graduate representatives on staff-student liaison committees, so that there can be PG input to decisions about skill provision and so that PGs can appreciate why we (academic staff) make the decisions which we make.

    9. And the ultimate question: "Will I get a job?"

    I shall close by emphasising the importance of this entire issue of the needs of graduate students: the choices which we make are political and will affect the future shape of the profession. Which leads me to the thorniest issue: the perceived tendency for `cloning' by selection committees. This has two facets, equally pernicious: the apparent stranglehold of Oxbridge and the apparent inability (of some institutions) to appoint women. I refer to the tendency of so many selection committees when faced with an array of PGs from which to choose to play safe and appoint an Oxbridge product - usually male. And I would venture to say that Oxford and Cambridge are probably the worst offenders in this.

    On the Oxbridge point, as an Oxbridge product myself, I do not speak with a chip on my shoulder. But this tendency is an acute problem for Classics perhaps more than any other humanities discipline because the domination of Oxbridge is, I think, unparalleled. Between one quarter and one third of the Classicists in post in Britain are in Oxbridge and an overwhelming number of British classicists were themselves trained in Oxbridge. This doubtless makes any attempt to broaden the base harder than it would be in another discipline where this pattern does not pertain. On the point about gender, I believe, in retrospect, I may have experienced discrimination - very likely subconscious - in at least two of the positions for which I was interviewed unsuccessfully in my career. (I don't think I have a chip on my shoulder here either - and I am delighted to be moving now to a chair in a department where the gender balance is equal throughout the status ranks.) But I am not speaking personally here. I am trying to reflect a perception, accurate or otherwise, which I have detected among graduate students known to me. And it is, simply, that Oxbridge PGs - and especially male Oxbridge PGs - have the advantage in applications for jobs in British Classics departments. I raise this because, for many PGs in Classics, one of the things they really need to know is, will I get a job? And if the answer is that it's unlikely unless you've done `Greats' and pee standing up, then perhaps all our efforts at redesigning graduate programmes to meet the putative needs of our colleagues-to-be are a waste of time and, worse, perhaps we are wasting the time - and the lives - of these young (and sometimes not-so-young) people whom we encourage into graduate work.

    What I seek is a greater diversity of voices in the profession and a greater diversity of role models for our graduate students. I am NOT an advocate of positive discrimination, on gender or on other grounds. (I apologise to more ardent feminists than me for this. Of course, I applaud it in theory, but in practice I think it puts everyone involved in an impossible position. But that doesn't mean I wish to sit back and acquiesce in continuing discrimination. Hence this final section.) And, happily, sporadic progress is being made. But I believe that if the general tendency to cloning continues, it will be the death-knell to the profession. At the least, it will be used to `prove' the widespread prejudice about Classics being a traditional and slow-moving profession and may provide a stick with which we can be beaten.

    I realise that to raise this issue is controversial. It may even cause offence. That is not my intent. What I have said, I have said in the sincere belief that the best interests of our profession are best served by confronting this issue - by putting it firmly on the agenda.

    SUSANNA MORTON BRAUND

    ROYAL HOLLOWAY, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON



    last updated 26/1/96


    CUCD Bulletin 24 (1995)
    © Susanna Morton Braund 1995

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