In 2013, a group of graduate students at the University of Arkansas decided to revitalize a student organization called the Graduate Students in English (GSE). In that first revamped year, the GSE created events focused on each of our department’s graduate degrees—the M.A. in English, the M.F.A. in Creating Writing, the Ph.D. in English, and the Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies—and the GSE also started an in-house graduate student conference.
During the 2014-2015 academic year, GSE officers continued to build on the previous year’s progress by focusing on getting more graduate students at our events and fostering a better sense of community within the English Department. That spring semester, we started looking towards the future of GSE and how we could help direct the next year’s new officers in creating events. Around that same time our faculty adviser, Geffrey Davis, pointed us towards a document authored by the MLA’s Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession (CSGSP) titled “Improving Institutional Circumstances for Graduate Students in Languages and Literatures: Recommendations for Best Practices and Evaluative Questions,” as a potential model to create our own survey that would help us, and future GSE officers, to better know our fellow graduate students.
Several officers gathered together to start digesting the CSGSP’s rather comprehensive document, which offers a number of questions on financial support, graduate student policies, graduate student teaching, advising and mentoring, professional development and placement support, integration into the life of the department and institution, and university-wide policies. In short, the CSGSP’s “Improving Institutional Circumstances” certainly offered jumping off points. The struggle was, which ones were right for the UofA?
From MLA to UofA
Our first step was to decide which of the MLA’s CSGSP’s major categories would best fit our concerns and which needed some adaptation. After including some opening questions on personal information like degree program, we ended up with seven categories: financial support, physical space on campus, advisors and academics, teaching, professionalization and service, and department and personal life.
After deciding on categories, we tailored CSGSP questions to mirror the specifics of UofA’s English Department. For example, under the category of “Professional Development and Placement Support” the CSGSP document asks a series of questions, including:
- Does the department or program sponsor professional development activities for graduate students (e.g., professionalization workshops on publishing, grant writing, and the job search)? and;
- Are MA and MFA students included in professionalization activities?
Since we already knew that our department’s placement officers and the GSE provided professionalization opportunities for all students in the department regardless of degree program, we adapted the CSGSP questions to determine which of the professionalization activities students had attended and which types of professionalization opportunities students wanted in the future. When creating our questions, we asked respondents to select answers based specifically on the professionalization events offered during the most recent academic year. We followed a similar procedure for adapting other questions or topics to fit the specifics of UofA’s English Department graduate programs.
Since this was GSE’s first year issuing a survey, we covered a range of topics that would start to shed light on the basic needs of our graduate students, from how many hours graduate students used their offices to whether or not graduate students agreed or disagreed with feeling prepared to enter the job market. We also kept our survey as short as possible, while still asking what we felt were the most pertinent questions for each category. We ended up with 24 multiple-choice questions and 4 open-ended questions.
So we did a survey. Now what?
In retrospect, deciding which questions to ask or how to ask them or even how to get people to actually fill out the survey was easy in comparison to figuring out what to do with all the responses. For that task, 3 of us collaborated on an ever changing Drive document and eventually produced a “Report on the Status of Graduate Students in English at the University of Arkansas.”
As we worked on compiling the report, we first focused on trends across the department as a whole. Since the GSE tailors certain events to each degree program, we also broke the data down to see trends within the MA, MFA, and PhD programs. In doing so, we were able to make recommendations for future GSE officers that spoke to widespread concerns, like financial support or office space, as well as degree specific concerns, like hosting events for scholarly publishing for PhDs or on creative publishing for MFAs.
After disseminating the report to both faculty and students in the Fall 2015, the English Department faculty voted to create a Strategic Initiatives Committee composed of both faculty members and current graduate students (one per degree program). The Committee will address some of the trends and concerns raised by the GSE’s inaugural survey, including devising and implementing new graduate program protocols.
We look forward to the upcoming work of the Strategic Initiatives Committee, and take pride in the action already generated from the GSE survey.
This guest post is authored by Megan Vallowe and Christy Davis. Megan is a PhD student at the University of Arkansas, specializing in Indigenous Studies. Christy is a doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas, specializing in 20th century American Literature.