Friday, March 03, 2006

Vigilante justice.

As you may or may not know, I have recently completed my Master's degree after what felt like 17 years of anxiety-riddled, panic-stricken, soul-crushing, self-esteem-defeating, agonizing bullshit. As a result of this, I, in conjunction with a Globalization prof at McMaster, have written a letter to the Dean of Graduate Studies. I'm guessing that nothing will really come of it, but it feels good to have written it, and you've wondered at any point in the last while why I've had moments (or weeks/months) of craziness, this might explain why.

WARNING: It's pretty long.


March 2, 2006

Dr. Fred L. Hall, Dean
School of Graduate Studies
McMaster University

Dear Dean Hall,

I am writing this letter to draw your attention to my extremely frustrating and disappointing experience as an English M.A. student at McMaster University. Although I now have my Master’s degree, I am over $13,000 in debt and I have lost a significant amount of time as a direct result of the way that I was supervised in McMaster’s thesis-based M.A. program. Based on my experience, I am wondering whether the rules and norms governing supervision of theses protect students adequately, when there might be problems with a thesis. Let me explain.

In September 2003, I was accepted into McMaster’s M.A. program in English. I chose to do a thesis-based M.A. because I looked forward to the challenge of exploring a topic that was of interest to me, and expressing my interest in a novella-length paper. I began work on my thesis during the year (as all thesis students do), while completing four M.A. level courses. I averaged between an A- and an A in these classes. Beginning in May 2004, I began to focus all of my attention on the thesis, but I got off to a slow start because my mother had been recently diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy. Obviously, at times, this illness diverted my concentration from my thesis. Nevertheless, until August 2004, I was still working towards a September 2004 defence date, until two members of my committee indicated that I would not be adequately prepared in time. As a result, it was agreed that I would work into the Fall. Additionally, as I had checked the McMaster M.A. student handbook, I knew that I had until March 2005 to finish with my thesis, and with continued help and advice from my supervisor, I felt confident that I would finish well before that date.

Thus, I continued to work on my thesis and to meet regularly with my supervisor until August 2004. Unfortunately, between September and November 2004, I realized that I was not a priority for my supervisor or my first reader, and the length and frequency of our meetings dropped severely at a time when, given the outcome of my thesis project, I realize that I should have been having frequent, lengthy meetings.

In November 2004, after completing over 100 pages of my thesis, I was informed - by an email - that my thesis was not progressing in the direction that my supervisor and my first reader had intended. While I accept full responsibility for the mistakes that I made that led to this decision (i.e., I should have insisted on further clarification for some of the feedback, I should have requested more frequent and longer meetings, and I should have made absolutely sure that I understood what was being asked of me), I was beyond disappointed by that fact that there was no ownership for this turn of events on the part of any of the faculty members involved. Why did I receive this type of devastating feedback at this point in time, and not earlier? Why did I not deserve to have a long meeting with my supervisor to discuss what had happened? Why was I not given the chance – that, according to the McMaster M.A. handbook, I am entitled to – to work on my thesis until March 2005?

Instead, both my supervisor and my first reader were strongly recommending that I do coursework. I asked if it would be possible to have another faculty member read my thesis or if it would be possible for me to have a new committee. Both of these ideas were rejected. In December, I made a last attempt to continue with my thesis by writing a new six page proposal that I believed addressed the concerns of my supervisor and my first reader. This, too, was rejected. I then resigned myself to doing coursework, despite the fact that it would mean moving back to Hamilton from Toronto - a move that forced me to drastically alter my plans for any future employment.

As a result of the decision that I would not be able to continue with my thesis, I decided to withdraw for the Winter Term (January-April) in order to recover financially from having to pay for tuition from September to December – tuition I paid despite the fact that I met with my supervisor only four times - and to attempt to earn and save money in order to pay for my upcoming courses. Then, on April 4th, just twelve days before I was to register for classes, and only fourteen days before classes were actually to begin, I received an email stating that the new Associate Dean of the School of Graduate Studies had decided that no M.A. students could switch from a thesis-based M.A. degree to a coursework-based M.A. degree. I would like to note here that I never understood how or why this decision would be made at the beginning of the third term for M.A. students. This email also stated that because of this decision, I would not be able to do coursework (the decision suggested by my supervisor and my first reader as recently as December 2004). Rather, I would be continuing with my thesis with a new committee, a suggestion that I made in December of 2004 that was rejected.

Although I appreciated the fact that it appeared as though I would be able to complete my degree with a thesis – which is what I had always wanted to do – this decision effectively forced me to alter all plans for moving (and renting an apartment, etc.) and (more importantly) it essentially forced me to lose five months of income. This loss came from the fact that I was unable to seek full-time employment based on the belief that, a) I would be moving to Hamilton in April, and b) in April I would once again be a full-time student. On top of this result, if I had been able to begin thesis work with a new committee in December 2004 (as I suggested), I would not have lost five months of time during which I could have been working on my thesis.

I am particularly baffled and frustrated that this decision was imposed upon me in April, five months into an agreement made in December 2004 by my supervisor, my first reader and the head of the English Graduate Studies Department. As I have implied, I was opposed to the decision to continue with coursework (a sentiment I made clear back in December), but as it was so strongly suggested to me (and with no other options being made available to me), I agreed to do coursework to ensure that I would be able to finish my degree. This decision was then reversed five months later. I believed that this decision had been made too late, and I could not even begin to understand how someone could approach me at such a late date and tell me that the option to continue with coursework was no longer viable. That decision should have been verified with the Associate Dean of the School of Graduate Studies in December, and I could not comprehend how a new Dean could reverse a decision that was made in the prior year. Decisions like these can have severe financial consequences for students who are supporting themselves or for their families.

Fortunately, I was not the only person who felt this way. I immediately went to an Ombudsperson – for the second time – to explain this new situation. She informed me that because I had both verbal and written documentation of this course-work based agreement, this decision could not be reversed at such a late date. In fact, she met with both the Associate Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and the English Graduate chair in order to make this point absolutely clear. At this time then, I had both options open to me: I could continue with my thesis, or I could pursue my course-work. I chose the course-work option because I no longer trusted the faculty members of McMaster’s English Department to guide me through the thesis option. The faculty must have a responsibility to the student. Based on this fact, my former employer (previously on the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University) had encouraged me to seek guidance through the office of the Ombudsman, and she also suggested that I consider taking legal action if necessary. Another McMaster employee has advised me to file a formal grievance.

In the end, I completed the courses needed for my degree in the Fall Term of 2005. As I mentioned earlier, I am now over $13,000 in debt. I came out of my undergraduate program debt-free. Unfortunately, I had to pay tuition and supplementary fees for September-December 2004 and May 2005-December 2005. This cost me approximately $5000. I also had to rely on OSAP for additional living expenses from September 2004-August 2005 as I was unable to obtain any sort of salaried employment position because I was still working on my thesis and I expected to be going back to school in May 2005.

I hope that this letter has clearly outlined why I am upset. Not only did I lose time in my life as a result of my supervisor’s decision, but I now also have a serious debt. Again, faculty members supervising a student must have a responsibility to that student. If a student is going to be told that he or she will never be able to defend his or her thesis (as I was told in December 2004), rules should be in place to ensure that this judgement will not be given after the student has worked four additional months, spent thousands of additional dollars and written over one hundred pages. Furthermore, I have several emphatic suggestions:
1) That thesis-related requirements and suggestions are clearly explained in supervisor-student meetings and that questions the student has about these ideas will not be dismissed without an explanation;
2) That the student is entitled to weekly or biweekly meetings with either his or her supervisor or first reader for at least 60 minutes each meeting to discuss the progress of the thesis.
3) The Graduate Calendar states that for M.A. students, a department should prepare a set of guidelines for supervisors or students. “The guidelines should deal with the selection and functioning of supervisory committees and should cover the joint responsibilities of faculty members and graduate students” (my emphasis). I think that this rule should be enforced.
4) Under Ph.D. supervisions, it is stated that the supervisory committee is “to provide the student with regular appraisals of progress or lack of it.” I think that this requirement should be explicitly stated for M.A. thesis supervisors as well.

I am beyond disappointed and frustrated with my thesis experience at McMaster. What upsets me the most is not my loss of time and money, but rather, the fact that at no point did my supervisor or my first reader ever take any responsibility for what had happened. It is clear to anyone who is aware of my situation that it is impossible that this misfortune is solely my responsibility. While I am still baffled at how any conscientious student with an A-/A average could ever possibly be in the situation that I was in, I am happy that I have now successfully completed my M.A. degree at McMaster University. I would be more than willing to personally discuss any aspect of this letter personally with you.

Sincerely,

Lesley Steeve

5 Comments:

Blogger newtron said...

Wow Les,

First of all, congratulations on finishing. I'm really very happy for you. Second, what a great letter! A lot of people in your situation would have been so discouraged that they would never have been able to send something like this. I'm sure it felt good and hopefully some good will come of it. Also, I think it's awesome that your posted it online. Do you mind if I forward it to some people?

1:29 PM  
Blogger Ceeg said...

We really need to celebrate this accomplishment. I remember back in the day when you would call me like 8 times a day and tell me how they were f-ing you over and you kept taking it with a grain of salt. I'm proud of you and I'm really glad that you wrote that letter, they really need to know how they treated you.

Nicely done.

4:58 PM  
Blogger {jeff} said...

What did you write your thesis on?

I demand you post it in its entirety between posts on funnel cake and bizarro Entertainment Tonight reporting.

8:48 AM  
Blogger the usual spy said...

haha, no way! I'll lose the readership of the eight people who read this blog. They demand entries on funnel cake and celebrities, dammit!

11:54 AM  
Blogger {jeff} said...

Will the mere mention of the subject matter scare them away too?

2:47 PM  

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