Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Difference Between the English BA and MA?

I'm still thinking about the point (and thus implicitly, the structure) of graduate studies in English. I know: dead horse, etc. But a post by Rohan Maitzen over at Novel Readings gave me more things to chew on.

Maitzen points out that the PhD's aims and goals, at least some of them, are so specific to the academic study of literature that they do not easily translate to the world outside of academia:
One goal is to become reasonably fluent in a style of argumentation and writing that is not universally practised, as anyone who has ever coached a student initially trained in, say, Dr. Stainton's field, philosophy, to do work in literary criticism (as I have) would know. A related goal is mastery of, or at least familiarity with, a vocabulary that really has little or no place outside the academic study of literature.
And further on Maitzen writes:
If writing a thesis isn't even altogether good preparation for writing a scholarly book, it is surely disingenuous to discuss it as if it's a reasonable task to undertake if what you are eventually going to do is become a public servant, a school teacher, a lawyer, the administrator of an NGO, a novelist, or a small business owner. As for the seminars and the qualifying exams, again, it seems to me a mistake to talk about them as if they operate according to the same principles or serve the same purposes as undergraduate courses.
And at another point in the post she points out that while practicing critical reading and writing skills are important to graduate programs, on the one hand it's more of what undergrads do, but in more depth, and on the other hand the new and different stuff (see above) is very specialized towards academia --- towards the profession.

This made me think of the people who complain that high school has dumbed down or fallen apart or otherwise "failed" to the extent that college is like what high school was, and that's why you have to teach kids today basic math and communication skills. I'm not sure I buy that "golden age" narrative about high schools, but I'm sure you've heard it before.

So is the MA supposed to be more of the same undergrad experience, or something qualitatively different? Is the MA supposed to "remedy" something that was lacking or deficient in students' undergrad educations, or is it supposed to add new and different skills and experiences? Are students supposed to go to grad school because undergrad has somehow "failed" them?

And depending on how you answer those questions, the next set would be: then should the MA be structured like the BA, as courses and papers and exams, or like the PhD, or what? Maybe the problem is not that the MA in English shouldn't exist, but that it should be totally transformed into something different.

I'm just playing a little thought experiment here.

To quote my own comment I left at Novel Readings,
If [the MA] is just more of the same, then that doesn't seem useful (big heavy scare quotes there). If it is different, then what exactly is different and why is that a good thing?

Maybe it means that our undergrads should be going to grad school, but in a more "professionalizing" field whether that be admin or publishing or technical writing, once they've had the wonderful life-changing deep-thinking experiences of an undergrad English major. (And I do agree that the BA is wonderfully useful, and that anyone with the slightest interest in English should go ahead and major in it. It's just that grad school doesn't seem intrinsically worth it the way undergrad did.)
I've always liked the descriptions of the English major (and the liberal arts in general) as this wonderful, transformative, life-changing experience ----- you read these great works of literature and think very deeply about yourself and the world and the meaning of life and it cracks you like a nut and oh my god! I can feel my mind expanding as I try to contemplate all this craziness and what does it all mean?!??

It's kinda like a secular version of religious rhetoric, in a way, how you're supposed to ask the Big Questions about Who Am I and What Is My Purpose In Life. I mean, living a life without purpose or missing the point of existing is as bad as living your life without thought of saving your soul and the afterlife, right?

I just don't see why you'd need to go and experience this again, after having this experience in undergrad, if it worked. And if you do figure out your reason for being in the world, you should, I don't know, go out and enact it.

I'm perfectly willing to abandon all talk of "usefulness" and "applicability" and "professionalization" when talking about the BA: forget your paycheck; this is about your life! But it seems like MAs in English are both too professionalized and not professionalized enough: if MA programs were very upfront and pushing this rhetoric of, the degree has no economic or professional payoff, only pleasure and transformative self-discovery, then that would be one thing. But most MA programs, when you look at their web sites or materials, actually sell a blending of both this personal enrichment side and how the degree will make you attractive to future employers (considering that for both programs I attended, when I went to the campus career center, the first thing they told me was that I needed to take that MA degree off my resume, this is a bit disingenuous at best).

And I don't think that, say, learning how to write an abstract and then giving a paper at the campus grad conference is actually doing much on the professionalization or the world-perspective-changing side. So ok then, how should an MA be different?


Fretful Porpentine said...

Hmm, there are at least two different kinds of MAs in English, aren't there? I mean, there's the MA that you get as a stepping-stone on the way to the PhD, and then there's the MA for secondary school teachers who want a pay raise. I'd say these are very different groups of students with different goals and needs, which complicates matters even further.

I don't know that there's a single right answer to what an MA program "should" do, but I do think it's important for programs to advertise up front what they actually do, and not pretend to be all things to all people.

Susan said...

I generally say that a BA gives you the basic tools of a discipline; with an MA you have a strong understanding of hte process of knowledge construction in the discipline, and in the Ph.D. you contribute to knowledge construction.

Now, this is kind of abstract, since I developed it when I was working at an interdisciplinary university. And it's complicated by the fact that a culminating experience (Senior capstone course, MA thesis) might well be a mini version of what's done at the next level.

So in English: you know how to read critically and analyze. In the MA, you begin to engage the theories taht are used; at the Ph.D. you use them.... or something like that.

Unknown said...

wonderful entry and comments. i was contemplating the words bachelor, master, doctor, but susan's comment helped me this: learn what the tools are, learn to use the tools(and teach what the tools are), learn to make tools(and teach how to use them)

Lucky Jane said...

Fretful Porpentine wrote:

there are at least two different kinds of MAs in English, aren't there? I mean, there's the MA that you get as a stepping-stone on the way to the PhD, and then there's the MA for secondary school teachers who want a pay raise.

At least, indeed. To my department's credit, these are separate tracks, designated on the students' registration info on our rosters. With one exception, the MA students in the class I'm teaching now are using the program to figure out if they want to continue for a Ph.D. The curriculum for that MA program was recently revised, and it's unmistakable how much more it emphasizes professionalization.

I don't think it hurts a high school teacher to be acquainted with scholarly discourse. Ultimately, they're trying to teach [buzzword alert] critical thinking [/buzz], and that's all we're doing, only dressed up in our specific discourse and conventions.

When I was in grad school the terminal MA students seem to have been made to feel like second-class citizens. Unlike the proudly proletarian uni where I teach, grad department offered only one flavor of MA. Some professors were openly dismissive, complaining that MA students shouldn't be allowed to dilute the discussion in upper-level seminars. I personally never witnessed this sort of complaining or even took a class with any of the professors to whom such behavior was attributed. Moreover, some of the most insightful readers I've ever encountered were MA students who are now practicing law or running indie bookstores. But apparently the MA students accepted that they were there to pay tuition that would be funneled into fellowship money for the PhD students, just for the privilege of basking in the presence of our faculty. Sure, the MA students were useful to the program, but I fail to see how the program was useful to them.