Grad Writing FLC Explores Change Strategies

This academic year, the Howe Writing Across the Curriculum initiative is partnering with the Graduate School to host a Faculty Learning Community (FLC). The FLC, composed of teams from English, Psychology, and Music, is designed to help faculty reflect on and innovate how graduate students are supported as writers in their disciplines and in their own graduate programs. We’re reading the latest scholarship on graduate writing and meeting every few weeks to discuss how graduate students learn and write, what systems are in place to support grads at Miami, and to collaborate on plans for future change. By the end of Fall semester, FLC participants will have identified a change they want to make in their graduate program, which they’ll continue to plan and implement in the Spring.

In its most recent meeting, the FLC honed in on that very topic of enacting change. According to Adrianna Kezar, in her book How Colleges Change: Understanding, Leading, and Enacting Change, there are two fundamental sorts of change we can cultivate in higher ed. First-order change refers to a “minor improvement or adjustment,” while second-order or “deep” change represents a change so substantial that it “alters the operating systems, underlying values, and culture of an organization or system.”

You might consider a doctoral student’s comprehensive exam, for example. An advisor who alters how they help a student prepare for the exam is making a first-order change. A second-order change, however, would involve reevaluating the very nature of the comprehensive exam. For change of this magnitude, the advisor would have to bring together a group of their colleagues (like the teams in our FLC) to weigh the department’s graduate student learning outcomes with the design of the exam. They might contemplate how well the exam prepares today’s doctoral student for the path ahead. Of course, much has changed about how graduate students function as scholars, like increased pressure to publish earlier on and more PhDs pursuing work outside academia, but the comprehensive exam has remained largely unchanged. First-order change, which is often linear and smaller-scale, can be more quickly achieved. Second-order change is more complex, includes more stakeholders, often meets resistance, and thus is more difficult and takes longer to enact.

Change is complex. We recommend you read Kezar's book for fuller insights on change theory and her framework for analysis and implementation. That said, we encourage you to consider taking steps like the ones outlined below toward supporting grad writers and enacting programmatic change.

  • Consider what existing committees, or groups of faculty, are already positioned to reevaluate departmental approaches to graduate student writing.
  • Talk to graduate students about their writing experiences and post-degree goals.
  • Work collaboratively with graduate students and fellow faculty members to determine learning goals for graduate students at each stage.
  • Identify the scope of potential changes and other stakeholders that you need to hear from.
  • Make purposeful plans for curricular change that support those graduate learning outcomes.