I'm still pondering the suggestion I linked to in my last post: what if we changed how we admitted grads into English programs and used a "one in, one out" model? By this, I mean that you, the department, don't get to have a shiny new graduate student until you have successfully had the old graduate student defend and file. (If we wanted to be really evil, then we could make that until the old graduate student lands a job.) So I want to play with this idea a little bit, a thought experiment if you will, since it doesn't actually harm any graduate students, use dangerous chemicals, or cost any money this way.
I thought to myself, what if we named each slot in a grad program, kinda like how they name distinguished chairs? Ooh there's a lot of interesting ramifications of this. At first, I thought the slots would be named for the field of study --- the Dickens Graduate Chair? The Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama Chair? Ooh, the Foucault Chair of Textual Perversion? (I don't care if that grad slot guaranteed you'd never get a job; I would pay for a title that cool!)
Of course, this causes as many problems as it resolves: these grads can't change their minds? Would it reinforce canon formation? Marginalize or hold open one guaranteed slot for minority literatures? How would interdisciplinary or cross-historical projects fit in here?
Would the name of the chair determine what TA assignments you get? I, for example, TAd Shakespeare every quarter they didn't have enough people to cover the massive lecture, my own research specialization be dammed. And that didn't really bother me, since I like eating and having them pay my fees. (Ten weeks, you can suffer through pretty much any topic or professor, not that I don't enjoy Shakespeare. But I haven't liked everyone I TAd for.) But would that mean that my program would accept grads based on the TA availability, or just expect everyone to become "well rounded," as they do now? Fascinating.
The advantage to naming each slot is of course that it makes it easier to keep track of. You can't "accidentally" let more 18th-century scholars in and forget about your struggling stragglers if they have a labeled slot set aside for them and go every where with a big sign on them, or their cv (although I like the literal big sign idea too --- a scarlet letter? a leprosy bell? What is metaphorically more appropriate?). Another plus would be that you could tell by the turnover who was pushing their students through or what fields are doing marginally well. (There's no such thing as a "hot" English field any more.)
I can tell you that a couple professors here would still be on their first set of grad students from before my time ... they have a track record of, I don't know whether it's they are perfectionists or they attract perfectionist students who stick around ABD for 8 or 9 more years before suddenly vanishing from the program entirely. So if you can't be arsed to mentor your grads into finishing or bluntly telling someone that s/he isn't cutting it and needs to go, well you just don't get any new grad students, and that means you are messing with fewer people's lives.
Furthermore, you usually endow these named chairs for professors, which would be interesting at the grad level. What if you funded them during the year through your TAships or writing program assistantships (the real reason most English departments have grad students, let's face it), but you got donors to name grad slots by covering, say, summer funding? While I would hate to have the Ethel and Herbert T. Lamprey Grad Chair (and I'm sure that's what I would get), I would have loooooved to get some summer funding, which our department has never done. And I think ---- you can correct me in the comments ---- that all the UCs have chopped summer stipends recently so we're all in the same boat now. Anyway, the ability to write our dissertations and do archival research and publish and prep for the job market for a few months while not working would just be fabulous, and do a lot for the profession's terrible completion rates.
You could announce the upcoming graduates who were going to file and walk in spring on the department web site and that would determine who was getting accepted ---- several of the big postdocs and fellowships already do something like this. Each fall you log on to their web site and they say "English and Italian language scholars will be supported this year. In the academic year of 2011-2012, candidates will be chosen from the fields of art history and film studies." It would make it clearer to potential grad students whose applications were going to be considered, which is also to the good.
And now that I'm thinking about it: what if we kept separate literature departments, but rotated grad admissions around them? You know, this fall we are accepting a German literature cohort, and next year we are accepting a French literature cohort. Have the grad classes be parceled out across departments so that everyone had to teach grads from these different backgrounds --- that would make everything much more interdisciplinary and multilingual! We'd have a dozen different languages spoken in seminar, and grads might actually do cool transnational dissertation projects! I wonder if you could work it so that you cycled the literatures grads in and out of the English/writing classes as well, or if there's too much demand for those beginning language classes. Huh.
Another advantage to my named-chair-one-in-one-out program would be the idea that in a bad year or if people went on the market and didn't get anything, you just kept them around to continue teaching. Why not keep the trained and experienced person to teach the freshmen rather than induct more fresh new innocents into a process with a crappy outcome? Now I realize that time-to-degree limits are often imposed at the school or division level rather than the department, but I still like this way better. You get tired of having them around, pressure them to finish their diss and file and go their way, or if they get sick of it because the low wages outweigh the job stability, they can always file and leave. Besides, on the professor side, everybody held on for a year or two after the stock market crash instead of retiring; why don't the people competing for those few replacement jobs get the same option?
And really, if we're going to have a horrible bottleneck of scholars, I'd rather it came pre-grad school rather than after the huge emotional and financial investment of grad school. Seriously: 22-year-olds being denied and disappointed and having to figure out some sort of career back-up-plan? Oh darn! They're going to have to work a job and get real-world experience for a year because their field interest isn't opening up this year? Darn, they're going to pay down their debt while becoming much savvier about the business world, oh, whatever will we do?
Wait, that may be the whole point of why bring 'em in when they're young and hero-worshiping and stupid. Ugh.
Come play along! What do you think? Can you invent another model? Or give me some snazzy names for the grad chairs.