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In February 2007, Martin Kreiswirth began his mandate as Associate Provost (Graduate Education) and Dean, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. A longtime champion of graduate studies, Kreiswirth has come to McGill from the University of Western Ontario where he was dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies. Vice-President of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and a member of the executive committee of the North Eastern Association of Graduate Schools, Kreiswirth has definite ideas on how McGill can improve its reputation as one of the world's top universities for graduate students.
As Associate Provost (Graduate Education) and Dean, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies what is your mandate?
I think my primary role is to help bring McGill's graduate studies into the 21st century because, to be frank, we had been a little tired and complacent in that area. That's no longer the case now as graduate education is very prominently placed in the White Paper, the Principal's Task Force and other planning documents. My role is to enhance and carry out McGill's new vision of graduate education. One of the fundamental qualities of graduate education in any university is that it is pan-university—it goes across the whole institution. Because of that, our efforts must be fundamentally collaborative. My job is to ensure that the right kind of conversations are happening at the planning level for graduate studies and that everyone is onboard, engaged and ready to work together.
What are some of our biggest challenges ?
Funding is a big issue. We're competing with the best institutions in North America and the world but we don't have the same resources available to us as do some of the others. We know for a fact that places like Ontario and Alberta have enormous amounts of government money earmarked specifically for graduate education. Ontario has given $240 million directly to graduate education with another $550 million in capital to enhance that piece.
How do we compete with that?
Specifically, we need a better distribution model for the resources that we do have. If we look comparatively at the other G13 universities, our resources are low in terms of graduate funding, but they aren't terrible. What isn't good about them is the way in which they are distributed. On average, our PhD candidates receive roughly between $16,000-$17,000 in funding. But if you look at the distribution, you'll see many students making $25,000-$40,000 while many others are getting between zero and $5,000. My goal is to work with all the university stakeholders, first, to eliminate that discrepancy and, second, to improve the overall funding resources available. There are already some positive initiatives underway, including the McGill International Doctoral Awards (MIDAS), which effectively eliminates the differential fee for all international Doctoral students. That's a huge recruitment tool. We've been attracting some of the very best international students, but then losing them to other places because we couldn't compete with the finances. MIDAS actually positions McGill better than a lot of our competitors. MIDAS also shows the kind of collaboration between Grad Studies and the Faculties that will enable McGill to move forward in this area.
Money aside, what else can be done to enhance graduate studies?
We have to promote the kinds of things that McGill already does and will do in the future to make this a unique place to do graduate studies. That means having the programs designed properly; that means having supervision at the top level; that means having student services at the top level—which is, of course, are all part of the Principal's Task Force. It involves doing things that no other universities have done before. Students want something from their graduate education that is not offered in the traditional model. Universities used to say "OK, you're coming here to do chemistry and we'll make you the best research chemist there is." But students also want to know how to prepare for a job after they get their degree. What if that job isn't in academia? Am I going to have skills that enable me to translate my research into a commercial venture? What about my language skills? Am I going to be able to present things in front of companies? If I do go on to teach, what kinds of skills do I require? These are the kinds of questions students are asking.
How will you respond to these questions?
I've been working with Teaching and Learning Services to make a more comprehensive program across the university where students can take workshops and classes to improve their teaching. Some additional workshops might have to do with cultural understandings for international students, some with language and presentation skills. In the end, our graduate students could come out of McGill not only with a PhD in biology but also, if it is useful for them, with a certificate in pedagogy.
What about technology transfer?
I also want to develop some short workshops that shows you how to take your patents and make them into something or how to take an idea and make it into something commercial. And then there's the issue of presentation skills. It's funny, but some students—let's say they are in philosophy—are really well trained in the kinds of areas and disciplines one needs to be a philosopher. They understand the history of philosophy and are well-versed in how to make or refute arguments… but no one has ever taught them how to do a Power Point presentation. Why not have a one-day workshop on Power Point? This is real-life stuff. These are the types of initiatives that that will position us very differently and more competitively than many of our peer institutions.
Any other interesting initiatives?
Just this month we started e-thesis submission. Students can now hand in their final submission for their thesis electronically. We've already had about 37-38 students who have taken this option and we've received some really nice comments on it. One student emphasized the green aspect of it, saying how because he lives in Sherbrooke, he didn't have to drive in to submit his thesis or print it out on paper. It also allows the submission of the final copy in colour which is something we couldn't do before because the archives couldn't take coloured photocopies. Now you have an electronic copy that is in colour—crucial for almost all disciplines now, especially those that require lots of graphs.
Will these initiatives attract grad students?
Not just attract, but retain as well. Students leaving school before they finish their degree is one of the dirty little secrets of graduate education around the world—some 33 percent of grad PhD students will quit before they finish. If we could bring that down say to 25%, we would be able to increase our enrolment simply by retaining existing students rather than by recruiting new ones. Changing the student experience will help retention. We also have to remember that attracting graduate students to McGill is more like trying to recruit faculty than trying to recruit undergraduates. Because of where they are in their careers and in their lives and many of them are married with children, grad students care about things like school systems, daycare, neighborhoods. They aren't necessarily going to live close to McGill the way many undergrads do. So you have to build this into the recruitment model as well. Not only do you have to tell them what a great place Montreal is, we also have to provide them with information on how to register their children for school, etc.
What are your own research interests?
I'm basically a literary scholar. I work on narrative theory and literary theory. I'm also very interested in the way knowledge is produced and packaged, very interested in interdisciplinarity as an academic subject. One could look at it in terms of a critical intellectual history. How do universities form knowledge? How do different disciplines get produced? How is knowledge changing through different disciplines?
My own research started focusing on stories, narratives about disciplines, what kinds of claims they make for different disciplines and how that works between disciplines. I see my interest in graduate education as also feeding into my intellectual interest in how disciplines work.
Do you have a favourite author?
William Faulkner is one of my scholarly interests. I'm particularly interested in the way his texts are able to engage some of the fundamental issues of the social world of America. Things like race and class, etc. I'm interested in the way in which technical experimentation embodies these particular kinds of conflicts. Rather than presenting issues in an argumentative form, novels try to work through problems and advance issues emotionally.
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