The training of postgraduates in English Studies: a one-day workshop jointly hosted with the Bristol University English Department 27 January 2006

Postgraduate studies

The object of this one-day event was to explore pedagogic issues arising from the training of postgraduate students within and beyond MA research training modules. For both funding and cultural reasons, matters to do with research students are commonly bracketed under ‘research’. This symposium took as its starting place the idea that the training of postgraduate students is at one and the same time a matter of pedagogy. That curriculum, assessment, and teaching methods are as worthy of developmental and critical attention as are those experienced by undergraduates, and that transition, preparedness, and retention are equally pressing concerns. Since research training is also the gateway to the profession, the experience of postgraduate students has an intimate bearing on the future shape of the subject. The day was lightly structured so as to enable dialogue and exchange of experience between colleagues from different institutions. Fourteen colleagues, representing eleven different institutions, took part. Participants were encouraged to think holistically about the responsibilities of departments and postgraduate tutors towards students, towards scholarship, and the future of the discipline.

Participants were asked to come prepared to speak about the primary issues in their own department, for example:

  • Why are postgraduates important to your department?
  • What kind of training do you offer postgraduates?
  • How do you see postgraduates featuring in your department?
  • What are the trends in postgraduate admissions?

During the course of the day they were invited to reflect on the responsibilities of programmes towards students, scholarship, and the future of the discipline.

Dr Ashley Tauchert (Exeter) had been asked to present a focus to open the discussion. Her presentation, launched a number of recurrent themes. Much of her presentation concerned the speed of transition into postgraduate programmes. Deadlines were harsh, and there was little time to induct students who arrived from a variety of courses and backgrounds.  Postgraduate students were a diverse body, and their transition needs were not usually given as much attention as those of undergraduates. At the same time there was a growing gap between departments’ expectations and the actual mix of skills and knowledge brought by students entering programmes. Injecting research competence was more of a problem with taught MA students than with those destined for research programmes. Ashley Tauchert saw the struggle of students in cultural transition as opening up fundamental questions about the nature of the discipline. Thus for example many overseas students – themselves inclined to celebrate cultural tradition – were distressed and disorientated by the combative nature of British English studies. A culture gap yawned where staff tended to want to undo all that had been done in the name of English Studies, and expected students to write like themselves.

A further set of questions which flowed on through the day concerned the tension between breadth and research specialisation. If we sought a healthy research culture, what were we to make of specialisation – or of those students who wanted to study ‘English’ rather than a specialism? Broad interests tend not to attract funding, so are not ‘owned’ as are sub-fields. All this led some to a dystopian fantasy that English would fragment as increasingly postgraduates were sucked into the discourse of the academic career. What happened to those (some of them mature students) who were seeking a broad education and had no ambitions for professional scholarship? Many of the most academically able undergraduates, it was claimed, did not seek to go into postgraduate work, perhaps no longer seeing this as a space for building on their first degree in any but a professional sense. If we were not to breed up a self-perpetuating elite we had to become better at communicating the benefits of postgraduate work and perhaps find ways of celebrating more appreciative forms of study. Thus in the MA should we seek to keep English people together, or siphon off specialists? We also had to bear in mind the workload implications of running different simultaneous MA schemes, even though colleagues generally welcomed the opportunity to work on them.

We owed to those who did have their eyes on an academic career to raise awareness of what is involved in a contemporary academic job. While avoiding ‘spoonfeeding’, there was a need to explain the RAE, the dual support system, etc. All the while there was a tension  between the pressure to offer students training and helping them become independent. Yet arguably professionalization could be seen as playing a part in levelling access, even though a lot of the time it meant HEIs were re-inventing the wheel in terms of PDP, competencies, and training needs. Some training could be done at a generic, faculty level, but many research tasks required the use of very specific tools. ‘Training’ did not in fact have to be equated with standardisation. An interesting example was cited of a weekly seminar for all postgraduates addressed by specialists who gave insight into the demands and methodologies of their particular area

At the end it was recognised that utilitarian pressures were coming from students too. English had to get the message through about the value of postgraduate study and the employability of those with higher qualifications. One closing suggestion was that the ESC place on its website a document identifying postgraduate attributes. This would not be intended as a benchmark, but as a resource for departments to customise according to their needs.

ANNEXE

DRAFT

Postgraduate study in the broad domain of English enables students to develop a wide range of attributes and skills. Many of these are of direct value in terms of employment and participation in civic and cultural life. All feed into lifelong development as citizen and fulfilled individual.

Personal attributes and skills
  • Self management and organisation
  • Prioritisation and goal-setting
  • Confidence to work independently
  • Flexibility of mind
  • Tenacity: the ability to weather set-backs, disappointment, boredom
  • Patience and intellectual combined with emotional stamina to see a project through from conception to completion
Intellectual attributes and skills
  • High order writing skills and command of a range of appropriate registers
  • Searching and resourcing diverse kinds of materials across the full range of printed (and where appropriate MS) and digital resources
  • Structuring and evaluating arguments
  • Deft deployment of appropriate evidence
  • Developed awareness of the processes of communication and sensitivity to different audiences
  • Willingness to weigh and consider counter arguments
  • Imaginative and supple use of language
  • Analogical thinking
  • Ability to make lucid distinctions
  • Advanced IT and web skills
  • Ability to manage successfully large bodies of notes and files
Subject-specific capacities
  • Informed love of a domain of study which in turn influences approach to other areas
  • Working insight into the production and contestation of subject knowledge
  • Flexibility in drawing on different media as appropriate
  • Synoptic grasp of complex ideas
The ecology of learning and scholarship
  • Willingness to contribute to and play a part in scholarly environments and collaborative endeavour
  • Respect for the protocols of scholarly debate
  • Openness to ways in which a particular domain of study connects with others
  • Belief in self as cultural agent

Annexe: Postgraduate Attributes: a draft for consultation

One of the decisions taken at the end of the event was that it would be useful if the Subject Centre were to articulate the values and attributes of postgraduate study. It was suggested that – while avoiding the appearance of benchmarking – this might form the substance of a web page to which colleagues could point potential postgraduate students, and which postgraduate tutors could adapt to local needs. The following draft was circulated to participants in the workshop for comments.

Postgraduate study in the broad domain of English enables students to develop a wide range of attributes and skills. Many of these are of direct value in terms of employment and participation in civic and cultural life. All feed into lifelong development as citizen and fulfilled individual.

Personal attributes and skills
  • Self management and organisation
  • Prioritisation and goal-setting
  • Confidence to work independently
  • Flexibility of mind
  • Tenacity: the ability to weather set-backs, disappointment, boredom
  • Patience and intellectual combined with emotional stamina to see a project through from conception to completion
Intellectual attributes and skills
  • High order writing skills and command of a range of appropriate registers
  • Searching and resourcing diverse kinds of materials across the full range of printed (and where appropriate MS) and digital resources
  • Structuring and evaluating arguments
  • Deft deployment of appropriate evidence
  • Developed awareness of the processes of communication and sensitivity to different audiences
  • Willingness to weigh and consider counter arguments
  • Imaginative and supple use of language
  • Analogical thinking
  • Ability to make lucid distinctions
  • Advanced IT and web skills
  • Ability to manage successfully large bodies of notes and files
Subject-specific capacities
  • Informed love of a domain of study which in turn influences approach to other areas
  • Working insight into the production and contestation of subject knowledge
  • Flexibility in drawing on different media as appropriate
  • Synoptic grasp of complex ideas
The ecology of learning and scholarship
  • Willingness to contribute to and play a part in scholarly environments and collaborative endeavour
  • Respect for the protocols of scholarly debate
  • Openness to ways in which a particular domain of study connects with others
  • Belief in self as cultural agent