Skip navigation
Speculative Diction

Student engagement and the PhD, part 2


This post is the second part of a longer piece that address the issue of student engagement in the context of doctoral education. You can read the first part here.


I think one of the biggest challenges of education policy is that we’re trying to get things to happen on purpose that often seem to happen by accident. Sometimes it’s as if the more we try to pin down and reproduce the “right” results, the further we get from allowing learning to happen. But there are a lot of different and useful ways of approaching this problem. After all, it isn’t really “by accident” that these things happened. There was (and is) an environment produced by choices that shaped who could participate, and how, in the university’s activities. Bearing that in mind, there are a few ideas I would like to throw into the mix.

Culture. The issue of student engagement raises the perennial problem of policy and culture. These elements need to complement one another, but what is it that steers organizational change? We face a chicken-and-egg situation, a question of what comes first, and therefore, how we should put decisions into practice. Culture is more difficult to change, but also more pervasive and effective. More than just a mission statement, it’s enacted by every person participating in the institution or in the learning experience itself. Difficult as it is, without a culture-based, long-term approach the university is a lot less likely to create lasting relationships with students/alumni, with employees, and with other groups and communities of which it is a part. That’s why for every change we want to make, we should be asking “how does this culture support this (or not)? Does it support the kind of culture we want?” This isn’t a call for homogeneity; goals can be interpreted in diverse ways in a cultural context where we acknowledge some common ground that is not imposed “from above”. I’d also argue that cultural change brings a focus on process and environment rather than solely on outcomes.

Holism. It’s important to think about how goals aren’t necessarily achieved one by one through specific programs that target isolated facets of achievement; change happens holistically, even as each step we take contributes to its form and practice. We’re trying to cover a lot of bases in university education, and some of them seem contradictory. Education itself is a complex process, and fragmenting the process can, ironically, make it less “efficient” at achieving the real goal. For example, specialization of services in the university makes things easier to manage from within, but it can make life difficult for students (and discourage them from using said services when they’re available). We’re shooting at moving targets, since the needs of students are constantly changing, and there are also many paths to the same goals. We need to achieve multiple goals simultaneously rather than focusing only on targeted policies. This requires thinking about how the entire learning environment contributes, not just the elements that are most directly and obviously relevant.

For doctoral education this is a salient point because we cannot simply keep expanding the amount of bases we try to cover during the degree – not without affecting times to completion. But if we’re more thoughtful and deliberate about the process, and the different goals, needs and proclivities of PhD students, we can address this problem. There is no one solution, but we can push for a more iterative approach, where students think and talk about their intellectual development and the possibilities for their futures, making decisions along the way instead of sticking to a predetermined or assumed path. Being “engaged” in various (academic & non-academic) communities can help students learn not just how academe operates and what faculty work looks like, but also what’s “out there” in terms of other kinds of careers and mentors. Trusting relationships are key to this process, but we cannot assume the right conditions will simply develop in the absence of explicit support.

Openness. Can universities as organizations become more “open” or porous in ways that will facilitate better relationships (and further engagement) not only with their students, but also with other groups, both internal and external? Is this a part of the answer – and if so, what would facilitate it? If the university itself is to become more open, this will be a process facilitated by communication with students and with other publics and participants as well. I believe the current ways in which universities treat communication are revealing of assumptions about organizational control. There is a boundary between what happens in the academic organization and what happens elsewhere, but this is a negotiable boundary; in changing it, we see organizational relationships change in ways that are perceived as a loss of control. Because such control was an illusion at the outset, we need to face the issue and develop a different approach.

Returning to the example of the doctorate, I think the main reason that student engagement isn’t discussed with regards to PhDs is that they’re assumed to be “engaged” enough already, by the (academic) parameters of the description. We see terms like “integration” to refer to belonging and participation, but it doesn’t capture the broader scope (and diversity) of learning and experience that takes place informally in both academic and non-academic settings, and feeds into doctoral students’ choices and outcomes.

To re-state: students can learn about future possibilities, and make contributions in the present, by being enagaged with/in these different communities. For example, there’s the community of the university, through which students can come to understand academe in general as an institution – and because scholars play an active role in governance, this is even more important. Then there’s the community of the discipline, wherein students learn the norms and values of the research community; there’s the larger community of academe that’s also global (if variable across jurisdictions). Lastly, there are communities in non-academic contexts, which can comprise specialists and/or non-specialists. We’re increasingly seeing calls for PhDs in particular to make connections between their research and non-academic publics. There’s a wide array of possibilities here, and in too many cases they’re still not being explored enough (or coming up at all) during the PhD program.

While navigating all this, doctoral students are dealing with the fact that some kinds of work are valued in the academic environment while others are not. But after attaining this high level of expertise, do we not have a responsibility to engage with publics beyond those limited to academic contexts? And don’t we want to better know the scope of what is possible with a PhD?

One implication here is that the task of supervision cannot and must not be a “black box”, a process where the student is encouraged to rely heavily upon one person to provide them the guidance, information, and input required to make good academic and professional decisions. Formal institutional reward systems may need to change for this problem to be addressed. A more collective approach to responsibility is crucial because even in terms of preparation for academic careers, the doctorate is often lacking – and it’s unreasonable to expect supervisors to know about non-academic careers when they’ve likely never had one. Students need support not only from a strong peer culture but also from a culture of collaboration in professional development.

As I’ve argued before, the university isn’t apart from and/or better than “the real world”. Its boundaries are of our own making, and they can be re-made if we so choose. And let’s be honest: getting involved with our education as a part of that world can be painful, angering, difficult, troubling, just as much as it’s rewarding and productive. Just knowing about what’s going on every day and knowing how little control you have over so much of what happens – if you care about that, it hurts. Then, if we speak up about the things that matter to us, the response isn’t always positive (and in fact it can be punishing). When we see problems and try to make changes happen, we might find ourselves stuck without knowing what to do next, frustrated but in need of perseverance. We may see, not answers, but more questions.

All this reminds me of these words from Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh: “Once the door of awareness has been opened, you cannot close it.” But I think, of course, this is a good thing, and I think that in spite of the difficulty we should show students how to find that door – then encourage them to open it and walk through.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *