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Apr. 27th, 2009

The latest article about how our model of graduate education is broken:


I'd love to hear some thoughts about this. Even though the author loses me a bit when he starts in on his suggestions, I found this a usefully provocative read--especially because, for once, it doesn't blame or castigate people who have chosen to do graduate work.

Also, let me admit that when I read the sentence, "A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations," my first thought was, "Whoa, what a cool topic!"

Hope everyone is having a good Monday!


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 27th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this! A few thoughts I had:

- I agree that major restructuring needs to occur to encourage more cross-disciplinary projects, but when he starts talking about abolishing departments and creating, in their place, "problem-focused programs", I begin to wonder how the humanities fit into something like this, and how the perceived purpose of a humanities education would be changed by it. It's certainly a major goal of a university to find ways to put new knowledge to use in solving world problems, and in our increasingly global community a thorough understanding of the cultures of different groups of people *is* necessary and an all-around great thing--but certainly the humanities have a larger, if less directly real-world applicable, purpose. In this new model the writer is proposing, this deeper and, I think, more important purpose would be lost.

- In the same way, his proposal to do away with tenure in favor of some "7-year contract" would completely compromise a humanities professor's ability to do the kind of work *they* feel to be important and necessary. With a 7-year renewal plan, academic freedom would be completely lost (which he mentions in passing in the article, but fails to really address--he brings up all the problems with the tenure system, but merely skirts by the biggest reason for its existence). Basically, "problem-focused programs", which will constantly face the fear of being cut or drastically reworked, plus 7-year contracts, which will force a professor to constantly face the fear of being cut, together to me seem an administrator's dream, spelling the end of academic freedom.

- I do think the writer does a great job at expounding the many problems with the system as it is--the main one being that the university has simply failed to keep up with the rapidly changing world around it... but I don't think his proposals hold any water. Maybe they could make a multi-departmental program for figuring out one that will :-)
Apr. 27th, 2009 06:23 pm (UTC)
I totally agree with everything you said here, and you put it way better than I ever could.

It is, of course, hugely important to create opportunities for interdisciplinary work--to make sure that people in different departments and different schools, people who use different methodologies and study different time periods, have a chance to talk to each other. But I'd like to think that we don't have to abolish departments altogether in order to make that happen. Interdisciplinarity is just as often about comparing differing approaches to a topic as it is about developing new approaches, and if we think long-term, it seems to me like people have to learn what it means to look at an issue through a disciplinary lens befure they can fully grapple with both the opportunities and the limitations of that approach.

Also, I spent some time just now discussing the article with my coworkers, who are funnier than I am. One of them suggested that once scientists in the Water program figure out how to create clean drinking water for everyone, the religion scholars can turn it into wine! In which case I'd be all in favor of that research.

And since I've been making fun of the water thing, here's a link to a really cool interdisciplinary water-related project: http://www.artsonearth.org/projects/water09.html
Apr. 27th, 2009 07:50 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah, I found the most ridiculous thing was his comparison of tenure to the regulation of financial markets. Uhhh ... what?
Apr. 27th, 2009 06:16 pm (UTC)
Also, Marc Bousquet's response: http://chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/index.php?id=1330

I don't know if this is sub-only or not, but if it is, he says it's cross-posted on howtheuniversityworks.com, but when I just went there to check, it wasn't up yet.
Apr. 27th, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
That response isn't sub-only, and it's brilliant--funny and true. Yay!
Apr. 27th, 2009 07:41 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that article says what I was thinking about the NY Times piece. There was a whole lot of crazy in there.

Even though there are issues with graduate education in America, this dude should remember that we still have the best universities in the world by far. I think we can fix specific problems without DEMOLISHING THE ENTIRE SYSTEM AS IT STANDS BWAARRR
Apr. 27th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)
That's exactly what I thought when I read this last night! Why do we have to fix the things that aren't broken? I wouldn't be interested in studying any of the new interdisciplinary programs he suggests...not even "Water."
Apr. 29th, 2009 01:11 am (UTC)
Part of the problem of American universities is the economic model they run, which forces production of research etc. to get tenure and maintain contracts. European systems are more state-governed and focus on time in service more than research for tenure and promotions. The forced production of research in American universities is, I think, both the major benefit (as some very good material comes out of it) and the major downside (since it makes for a precarious job position and a great deal of stress, and it leads to the division between research/non-research [read: tenure/non-tenure] positions. So, academics either scrabble to get tenure and the research positions or mostly teach in small liberal arts colleges, community colleges, or adjunct. And the universities can get away with supporting this model because they can appeal to the focus on research and progress as the underlying principle. It's basically a cutthroat capitalist system of university organization. And it works.

But consider the rushed pace of life and stress that academics here so often complain about.

In a way, the requirement for research and the decline in tenure are commensurate. The universities are hesitant to tenure anyone who seems like they won't produce research and bring in funds and new students, and so tenure becomes less and less available. Adjunct positions become a testing arena to see if an academic can survive and publish meaningful research, and research becomes more and more stressful on account of it.

I don't know if there is a way to reduce the requirement for research and to maintain the current level of productivity. We could require tenured faculty to do research or lose their tenure, but that's not really tenure now is it? Or, we could tenure more faculty, but, of course, to tenure a professor requires dedicated funding. And in that, the capitalist model of university education is winning out, currently. Lowest bidder gets to teach the kids. To fix it would probably require government intervention in university administration and tenure policies, and then we would have to wait and see what happened to the research productivity. That intervention might only promote stagnation.

Apr. 27th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
This response is amazing, and so true.
Apr. 28th, 2009 06:26 am (UTC)
A professor and I were talking about this article for a solid hour this afternoon. We thought it was funny how the writer, who's in his 60's now and tenured at Columbia, is conveniently critical of the system when he's probably on his way out. "Scrap tenure and reform the whole damned system, but, uh, wait until I'm gone, ok?"
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