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Transforming the PhD to Improve Undergraduate Learning?

In his recent book “The Graduate School Mess” and a series of online articles, Leonard Cassuto of Fordham University eloquently describes how graduate schools fail to prepare PhD students for the undergraduate teaching positions they will most likely hold in the future. And lack of preparation is the least of it: many graduate programs at least implicitly teach students to disrespect teaching-intensive jobs, although they now significantly outnumber research-centered jobs.

In the context of growing concern over the quality of student learning in undergraduate programs, it is worth pausing to think about the implications of having unprepared, and likely disgruntled, faculty members teaching the bulk of undergraduate college courses. This is especially problematic as rapid changes in the composition of the undergraduate student body and technology-enhanced education practices leave PhD graduates increasingly disconnected from the learning environment and population they are expected to teach. There are few incentives for these new faculty members to explore innovative teaching practices and increase academic rigor (which would involve substantially more work on their part) when they are underpaid or scrambling to improve their publication portfolios in the hopes of securing a more research-focused job down the road. The minority who will land such jobs will have even fewer incentives as they pursue tenure. And yet faculty members are crucial players in promoting change and bringing institutional innovation efforts to life.

So how can we help new faculty members improve their teaching, and consequently the quality of undergraduate student learning? Part of the answer may lie in enhanced pre-service training through PhD programs.

Doctoral students are often eager to increase their job market prospects by improving their teaching skills. They also have the unique opportunity to experiment and learn new practices and technologies in a low-stakes teaching context not easily afforded by post-graduation jobs. PhD programs can require pedagogical training that is complemented by thoughtful exposure to the realities of the current undergraduate climate across varied institutions, and hands-on experience in creative practices. There are few practical barriers, as most PhD-granting universities have existing teaching and learning centers that are ready to offer students support at minimal extra cost to departments. Making such training a core component of PhD programs will also garner faculty and staff support, and ensure that all graduate students are equipped for a likely career in teaching, or a fruitful back-up plan.

Many professors would jump at the opportunity to have talented trained students teach parts of their courses. And the proliferation of technology-enhanced instruction greatly facilitates this process, in addition to making it more necessary. For instance, PhD students can deliver and record the lectures that students view online for a flipped course. In addition to easing professors’ teaching burden, recording would provide new, asynchronous opportunities for professors to ensure the quality of their graduate students’ instruction and provide them guidance. PhD students often put together informal training sessions for their classmates in their areas of expertise – so why not have them offer a mini-elective course through their department instead, using open educational resources and online platforms if cost and space are an issue? Such experiences and skills also translate well in the nonacademic job market—another increasingly common career outcome for PhD graduates.

Some PhD programs are already starting to think creatively about how to best prepare their students for high-quality undergraduate teaching. The Preparing Future Professors program, for example, offers Stanford University students firsthand exposure to life as a faculty member at San Jose State University, where undergraduate education is the primary focus. The UC Irvine School of Humanities, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is currently rolling out its pilot “5+2 program”—a five-year Ph.D. program supported by fellowships, teaching assistantships, and summer research stipends, followed by up to two years as a teaching-focused assistant professor at the School.

The possibilities are practically endless, and it is high time to let the trend of creative innovation that is slowly but surely sweeping across the undergraduate landscape edge its way into PhD programs.

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