Sunday, August 19, 2007

more on what makes a good orientation (by request!)

When I wrote my Random Bullets of Orientation post, I tried not to go on and on about the wonders that are a well-run orientation. I figured it was the norm at most institutions, and the fact that my previous school didn't have a program-specific orientation just set me up to love whatever was thrown my way.

I still think that's the case, but in this post I'll describe the orientation here and why it made me happy, and then I'll talk about some of the things that could have been done at my previous school. I hope that will address Dr. Virago's question (in the comments).

This post is really long. You've been warned. :)

First, the legend:

- New School (NS) and Old School (OS): self-explanatory.

- New Grad Director (NGD), Academic Coordinator (AC), and Wonderful Staff (WS): at new school; NGD is self-explanatory (and he's very cool) but AC is the non-faculty, adminstrative person who works closely with the NGD and who is in charge of all students as far as keeping them on task, making sure paperwork is filled out, making sure everyone gets paid, etc. In a word, she's FREAKINGAWESOME. WS includes all the support staff in the office. They are all wonderful.

- Old Grad Coordinator (OGC): the grad coordinator at my old school; consider this a position and not a specific person because my first year the grad coordinator was a fellow who had been in the position for a few years, had been chair at one point, and at been at the school for decades (still is there), while the grad coordinator my second year was an assoc. prof coming off sabbatical. I like both the old and the new person quite a bit, but they are very different people and administrators.

- Crappy Chair (CC) and Crazy Admin (CA): at my old school, CC and CA were two completely dysfunctional peas in a pod. CC has since been replaced in that position by Wonderful Thesis Director but CA is still there.


An organization is only as good as the people in it. Duh, right? The first step in running a happy and efficient ship is to ensure the crew consists of nice, sane, competent people. Such is the case at NS. Such was not always the case at OS, and that contributed to the culture of not helping/not sharing/not doing anything efficiently [people are trying to change that, but they're in a deep hole and getting out will be a long process].

At NS, orientation really began for each of the new students when we got into town and went to see the NGD and AC. At least it did for me, and I assume for the other students who thought it would be a great idea to go meet the people in charge. When I went in (several weeks ago) and walked past the AC's office, she hollered at me (I had met with her a few weeks earlier, just to say hi and thanks for her help) to come see her when I was done because she had keys and papers for me. Keys and papers? Without having to call eighty-seven different departments on my own and sign my life away? This situation would be the first of many differences between NS and OS.

Had coffee with the NGD and talked to him for an hour or so about my courses, language requirements, plans for completion, schedules, and so on. When I left his office I had no concerns or questions about what I would do or when I would do it. Yes, I knew most of it before our meeting because I read all the program information, but if I had been a new student who didn't read any of it or had questions or was just freaked out by all of it, he would have made sure I knew what I needed to before he let me leave his office. When I did leave his office, the AC handed me the building key, my office key, and a mailbox key—no muss, no fuss. When I walked past the front desk and said goodbye to the WS, they said goodbye and used my name after only meeting me once, weeks earlier.

Flash forward to orientation time. It was a two-day affair, from 8:30am to 2:30pm each day. You were expected to be there, of course. Each day had the obligatory coffee/tea/water/pastries in the morning, and deli sandwiches/salad/cookies for lunch. The free food contributed to the overall sense of not having to worry about a thing. The free food also attracted the advanced students (and some faculty) in the program to just stop by and socialize with the newbies.

Most of the sessions took place in the reading room, which is one of those standard rooms with books and couches that most departments have (but it's not a lounge), the one where committee meetings, seminars, and other events often take place. The room that says "no food and drinks allowed" but where luncheons and teas occur and no one pays any attention to the sign. [Mary and Trout: think FO104 only larger and with better catered food.] We sat in a circle. MA students, PhD students, advanced students, new faculty, and the chair were all treated the same.

Before things began, the chair (a lovely man wearing a suit, tie, and flip-flops) came around to each of us and introduced himself and chatted with us all for a moment. At OS, the CC never introduced himself to the grad students unless you happened to take his seminar (which I avoided). I'm pretty sure that although I was there for two years, and he attended a small gathering at which he heard me talk about my thesis, and after I won the "best MA student" award this past year, he has no idea who I am. I'm fine with that. On more than one occasion a new student asked me who was the strange man walking on campus talking to himself, and I would have to say, "oh, that's CC." But I digress.

At greeting and intro time, the new students introduced themselves, as did the NGD, AC, new faculty, the chair, the composition coordinator, the assistant composition coordinator, the GenEd/Writing Program director guy, and the president of the dept. grad student org. In other words, everyone we would need to know was right there in the room having pastries with us, explaining their roles in relation to ours. It was nice to include the new faculty (four of them! young!) because some of them appeared just as nervous as the new students.

After introductions, anyone who had not met the AC and WS went to the front desk area and met them. Such people are so important to the overall efficiency of a department (and one's personal program of study) that making friends with them is a no-brainer. It's easy when they're genuinely nice people. But some people don't know the importance of AC and WS-type people, so it was a good idea to make the new students meet them and learn what they do. At OS, everyone avoided the office and CA if they could.

Next up was the first panel: "grad school survival and success." Four students, each at different stages of their program, told us their (vastly different) methods for survival and success. Again, these were really nice people who didn't talk to us like we were the scum of the earth or out to fail or anything of the sort. Two of the people were MA students and two were PhD students (one just finished), they each had vastly different personalities, and each of them had something relevant for all of us to take away. It was obvious (to me, anyway!) that the panel was carefully constructed. Additionally, they didn't pull any punches or try to make it seem like our chosen course of study was going to be easy-peasy. They told the truth, including positive and negative aspects of the program, and all with the blessing of NGD who was sitting right there nodding in agreement.

After the panel, and lunch, we all went to the Writing Center. Everyone in the program, MA or PhD, is fully funded. MA students teach five courses over four semesters and PhD students teach ten courses over eight semesters. There is not enough virtual space in the internets to discuss how that just would not work at OS. Wow. Anyway, none of us teach this semester—we learn the ropes (either for the first time or how the ropes are constructed here, as in my case) and teach two courses next semester—but we are responsible for leading at least one section of the companion tutorial group for those in freshman comp who need the extra help [we can sign up to lead more groups, and get paid extra! What a concept!]. So we all hung out and learned about the people and processes in the Writing Center.

That was it for day one, but I want to point out that NGD was with us for each step in this process, on both days. He went with us on all tours and listened to all panels. He was our leader and made sure we didn't get lost, and also made sure that none of us left a panel or tour without having all our questions answered. This constant presence solidified the position he'll hold in our academic lives for the next several years. It helps that he's a really nice guy.

The next day started again with the free food, and three panels were scheduled: grant and research assistance, conferences and funding, and "key dimensions of the MA and PhD programs". The grant and research assistance info was provided by a fellow in the uni's office devoted to grants and what not. He gave us the overview and then talked about grants available for our field, grants available for grad students, and workshops for grad students. He urged us all to register for the free grant writing workshop coming up, etc. The woman who was supposed to talk about conferences and funding didn't make it because she had just gotten back from an overseas trip, but the NGD stepped in and spoke briefly about monies available for conferences and such—regardless of our status as MA or PhD—and said things like "if you know you're going to need $500, tell us in advance and we'll get you $500." I know faculty members who don't have access to travel funds that easily. Sigh.

The "key dimensions of the MA and PhD programs" had the same sort of composition as the "grad school survival and success" panel on the first day (different people, though). Four students with different personalities and at different stages of the MA or PhD programs, who discussed specific tips/emphasized timelines related to the two degree programs. Sure, the basics can be found in the graduate student handbook, but these were real people talking about their own different experiences—that's an important distinction for people who can't just "get" something until they see a real person tell them about it.

After a coffee break, we all went to the computer lab. The department also as a "digital technology and culture" program, and thus also has its own computer lab. Instructors can also reserve a classroom in the lab for "computer day" if need be. The computer lab also happens to be run by two of the ESL and linguistics folks, who also happen to be two-thirds of the foreign language competency committee. So, in addition to learning about things in the computer lab, we also learned things/asked questions about ways to settle the foreign language competency requirement. Again, everyone was nice and helpful and many people walked out less stressed than they went in.

The final event of orientation was the library tour. Not only did we learn the basics (where are the periodicals? how do I copy? where is the microfilm and can we scan to a flash drive instead of printing? etc.) but we met specific people relevant to our type of research—the special collections guy, the reference desk liaison for our department, the instructional librarians who would do the orientations for our comp classes next semester, etc. So helpful. And the librarian was really funny, in that librarian humor sort of way (that I like).

And there you have a brief description of a successful and much appreciated orientation.

There's not a darn thing I couldn't have figured out on my own, and I would have if necessary. I don't have issues navigating around institutions or dealing with requirements or asking questions when I have them—of the staff, the chair, whomever. But a lot of students do. Some students are afraid to ask questions for fear they'll get their heads bitten off or they'll doom their academic careers if the question appears stupid or simplistic. I understand that. I'm not one of those people, but I understand where they're coming from. So, it's important to have an orientation in which a lot of questions are answered, but I think it's more important that the new students see they're in an environment in which questions are okay and people are kind. That's not to say that NGD wouldn't flat out tell a student they're going down the wrong path or setting themselves up for failure or other negative things, it's just that you can tell he'd do it in a helpful and supportive way.

Of course, if you have a department in which the people in positions to help do not or aren't wired in a positive way or if the administration is suspect/crazy, then all bets are off.

At my previous school.....

In the MA program, we did not have an orientation of any kind [I make a distinction here between the MA and MFA programs because the MFA folks had considerably more structure in place.] Then again, given some of the personalities in the department, lack of introductions might have been a good thing!

Ok, no, not really. There was no sense of community, structure, organization, support, etc. However, you could form your own community, build your own structure, and get your own support if you worked for it. I did. Others did. But not many. People go through that program for many different reasons, and very few do so because they want to be scholars. It shows in their interactions with other students and profs, with administration, and with their preparation and level of work in seminars. Because of these factors, I understand how OGC is sort of behind the eight ball regarding implementation of any changes; the first thing that would have to change is the admissions policy. I know that sounds snooty, but I don't mean that everyone should want to go on for a PhD. I simply mean it would be nice if at least half of a cohort had read a few books besides The DaVinci Code and knew, say, one critical perspective. Just one.

Back to the list of things I think OS should have done/should do:

- Have an orientation in which all students: get a copy of the handbook and suggested timelines, meet the staff (crazy or not, they're still the staff) and learn why you'd need to see them, go to the library, meet the folks who teach grad seminars (especially if there are only ten or so who do!), meet some people in the program. You could do that in a single day. Heck, you could do it in five hours.

- Make it a requirement that each student talks to the grad coordinator before beginning the program, and map out a plan. Revisit that plan every semester and adjust accordingly. Short meetings like that won't kill anyone. Some people graduated this year and OGC had never met them, not even once. That isn't right. I place most of the blame on the student, but then some blame on the program for not making it a requirement (and also for admitting people like that in the first place).

- Don't admit seething jackasses to the program. More importantly, if you do admit such people, smack them down when appropriate. That is to say, find a way to keep such people from being the omnipresent negative force in hallways or in classrooms. Even if students want to try to build a community, if the one or two bad apples are always around and are always exerting what they perceive to be their "power" (because faculty lets them get away with being jackasses), students will avoid the department entirely, and some seminars.

- I think the point above would be better written as "have a backbone." Be a guiding force and set an example. Don't let the loudest set the example for people seeking examples, because often the loudest are not the ones who are right. Or even nice. Or even barely tolerable.

- Whatever core courses you have (such as the basic research methods or introduction to being a graduate student courses), make sure they're vaguely similar. I'd say "consistent" but I know that's difficult. I'd settle for vaguely similar. At OS, a different person teaches it every year (typical) and there seem to be no common goals for the course. When I took it, it was a straightforward introduction to research, overview of theoretical perspectives, preparation for seminars kind of course. When Trout took it (his final semester, I might add...that's another thing: make people take it their first semester!), it was course in research for a medievalist who only uses the Stanford library. Nothing against medievalists or the Stanford library, but most people aren't medievalists and OS had a perfectly fine library. This coming semester, it's an entire seminar on grant writing. No one knows why. I'll leave it at that.

- Finally, whatever information you print out and give to people or have on a web site, make sure it's consistent and accurate. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but OS contradicted itself nearly at every turn. Or made things up on a case-by-case basis—often for the better, but not applied to everyone (or at least the info wasn't disseminated to everyone).

Without structure, consistency, and people with backbones, you can't even begin to be efficient and helpful. All you have is a clusterfuck of smart people, and that doesn't help anyone.

I adore many people at OS, was able to tap into the brains of a few spectacular people, and taught a super diverse bunch of students. But I had to work hard to get through the piles of crap to do so. At NS, there isn't much crap. None, so far. Then again, seminars don't start until Monday! But I have a good feeling about it, and relatively little stress.

[Except for the stress I have about not being stressed! The "is this too good to be true?" stress.]

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