Thursday, October 29, 2009

Louis Menand on the Professionalization of the University

The claims made in this article by Louis Menand won't be particularly groundbreaking for anyone who's been following the issue of PhDs and the practically nonexistent humanities job market, but I'll call attention to a few key paragraphs anyway. You can go read the whole thing and then let me know what you think in the comments here.

    • What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are available. The argument that they need the training to be qualified to teach undergraduates is belied by the fact that they are already teaching undergraduates. Undergraduate teaching is part of doctoral education; at many institutions, graduate students begin teaching classes the year they arrive. And the idea that the doctoral thesis is a rigorous requirement is belied by the quality of most doctoral theses. If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship.

    • One pressure on universities to reduce radically the time-to-degree is simple humanitarianism. Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process. Many people drop in and drop out and then drop in again; a large proportion of students never finish; and some people have to retool at relatively advanced ages. Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get.

    • Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own. The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes. Of course, overproduction of Ph.D.s also creates a buyer’s advantage in the market for academic labor. These circumstances explain the graduate-student union movement that has been going on in higher education since the mid 1990s.

    • The obstacles to entering the academic profession are now so well known that the students who brave them are already self-sorted before they apply to graduate school. ... The result is a narrowing of the intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field, and a widening of the philosophical and attitudinal gap that separates academic from non-academic intellectuals. Students who go to graduate school already talk the talk, and they learn to walk the walk as well. There is less ferment from the bottom than is healthy in a field of intellectual inquiry. Liberalism needs conservatism, and orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, if only in order to keep on its toes.

    • If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having. (Sisyphus: Isn't this what's called ... a Master's Degree?)

    • at the end of a long, expensive, and highly single-minded process of credentialization, they are asked to perform tasks for which they have had no training whatsoever: to teach their fields to non-specialists, to connect what they teach to issues that students are likely to confront in the world outside the university, to be interdisciplinary, to write for a general audience, to justify their work to people outside their discipline and outside the academy. If we want professors to be better at these things, then we ought to train them differently.
I agree with many of his points, but am dubious about his solutions. But I'm a big ol' Marxist and say we have to make it so that it's not cheaper for universities to use grad and adjunct labor over tenure stream positions.

I will note though, how single-minded everyone I know, particularly among the bloggers I read, is about writing and publishing a book, even if they are in a school that doesn't require it or a school with a teaching and service load so high that it is almost impossible to do it. No one who's teaching mostly comp and lower-division level classes at an open-enrollment college needs the level of expertise a book brings. At one point, the candidates who really wanted those positions would apply for them specifically and would do a completely different set of activities considered research and service, whether in terms of writing textbooks or supervising student teachers or running a local Shakespeare-in-the-community group or what have you. I'm almost to the point of saying that I don't think all that much expertise is necessary to teach at the college level at all, and that I bet pretty much any high school teacher could step into pretty much any professor's shoes without it making much of a difference, barring the learning curve of how to run a classroom that you pick up in first few years. The only place the specialization has an impact is on the research side, which this article shows is more about reproducing the profession than about the research itself.

But what do I know? I don't have a job.


Sisyphus said...

Aaaaaand I messed up the formatting. No clue what is going on there.

Feminist Avatar said...

In the UK, nobody really gives a toss about teaching as there is no money for universities in it (unless you are the rare teaching only university, which have no money). Students are at the very bottom of any set of priorities. It's all research, which is where the money is (we spend most of our academic lives applying for research funding which is how universities make money in the UK), and to get research money you need a research profile- hence we obssess about books and articles.

Also, if you get funding for your PhD, you only get three years of money and must submit within four years. And, for people who pay their own fees, they are still expected to submit in four or less years or have good enough excuses to ask for exetensions. At the end of four years, a good PhDer will have a PhD, one article in press (not necessarily published) and teaching experience.

There is a lot of debate about the quality of PhD produced, but having read older PhDs, the quality doesn't seem to have declined- and indeed some people think it is rising due to the demands of the job market. However, we are starting on a slightly higher base than in the US as we wouldn't usually accept an American u/g degree over here as equaivalent to a UK one- we usually ask for a US Masters as the equivalent. And, today, most PhDers also have a UK masters before the PhD, which is an extra years work.

Bardiac said...

I think specialization does have an impact on teaching; I think there's a difference in depth and flexibility between someone who's studied an area intensely and someone who's studied a different (though related) area, and someone who's touched on the area slightly (the high school teacher).

Perhaps it's because everyone teaches some Shakespeare in intro to lit type classes? I get asked by colleagues for teaching suggestions and classroom help fairly often. And when I do teach a class for them (as I did yesterday), they're either polite or honest when they say they learned something themselves.

Similarly, when I try to teach 20th century verse, I know I don't do nearly as good a job as someone who's really into Pound or HD. But I think I do a way better job than most high school teachers would. I may just be delusional though. :(

And that's not to say that other aspects of the essay aren't exactly on the mark. Our system abuses phud students in all sorts of ways.

Susan said...

The problem that Menand does not address is the systemic one. That is, none of these things exist in isolation. So the other reason that humanities students take longer to get to degree is that there is not support for research. Most historians (pace Menand) do the equivalent of a year of archival research. To do that in the history of a country other than the US, you need money to go; you may just get money for three summer trips. Well, that stretches time to degree. But even in the US, you need time in the archives. So while science grad students typically work in a lab doing their research to earn their stipends, humanities students are teaching.

To put it another way, the collaborative model of science training facilitates quick degrees, while the individual nature of humanities training slows us down, especially when you don't have a diss writing fellowship.

And the US expanded access to education without expanding money, so the funding model does depend on cheap grad students doing a significant amount of the teaching.

Shane in SLC said...

Susan is quite right about the model for humanities research contributing to the time to degree. I was able to finish both the MA and the PhD in English in six years, but only because I had two major year-long fellowships that allowed me first to finish my coursework sooner than would have been possible with a full teaching load, and then to spend a year focusing solely on the dissertation research.

I don't think all that much expertise is necessary to teach at the college level at all, and that I bet pretty much any high school teacher could step into pretty much any professor's shoes without it making much of a difference

Hmm. I don't know. If this were true, those HS English teachers would already be teaching HS students how to write, and there wouldn't be such enormous demand for first-year writing courses in colleges and universities.

And then there's this: even in freshman comp, teachers are introducing their students to a particular mode of academic writing. It's not unreasonable to expect those teachers to be practitioners of the skill they are teaching. I agree that the monograph is over-fetishized, but I think there is real value in having faculty engage in scholarship even at teaching-oriented institutions.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

One of my comp students was writing about age-gap relationships for a recent paper and wrote about two pages on how Romeo was 25 years old and Juliet was 12. I asked what evidence she had for this, and she said that her English teacher in high school, who had been teaching Romeo and Juliet for 25 years, told her that "fact." I said, "If you can find a scholarly resource that makes this claim, I'll believe it, but I think your teacher is completely wrong." She said, "well, she's been teaching a lot longer than you." And I thought, but didn't say, "she obviously doesn't have a PhD in Shakespeare. But I do." Instead, I said, "Show me evidence in the play that says Romeo is 25." She never got back to me.

I also have students who haven't the slightest clue about how to write a complete sentence. Some students have never had to do research, and they claim that they should be allowed to do creative writing in a comp class. Fairly or not, I blame high school teachers for this lack of preparation.

Maybe all the unemployed PhDs (or under-employed PhDs, like me) should start teaching high school and give students some actual preparation for college.

Anonymous said...

I sent the link of Menand's piece to a friend yesterday and highlighted almost all of the same passages you did.

Menand skirts around the issue a little bit but many of his points, pushed further, get at why the academy has been so bad at attracting minority and working-class college students and the consequences for that gap (i.e. the "narrowing of the intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field, and a widening of the philosophical and attitudinal gap that separates academic from non-academic intellectuals.") I think it's a real problem that academia is so unattractive to people from diverse backgrounds otherwise qualified to be professors. But I'm also very attuned to the fact that the entire system works against bringing such individuals (especially those from working-class backgrounds) into the humanities fold. I've been having some conversations with friends lately about the barriers to inclusion that nobody wants to discuss, in particular languages. Even if a student commits to learning a language like Russian or Chinese or Arabic from day one of undergrad (a tall order for students coming from high schools that might only have had one or two Spanish teachers), they won't be able to get to the level of fluency required to do in depth academic research if they can't afford to do study abroad. Automatically, they're out of the pool.

And as for high school teachers, some of the best teachers I ever had were in high school as were some of the worst. It's really hit or miss but I do think the best ones probably were better than the vast majority of the good professors I had.

P said...

Excellent post. I just read the full article and find the items you that you bullet here to be the most salient ones on the whole.

Haven't read through all the comments, but a quick response to your point about academics who write books even if books aren't required for tenure. Well, that's me. My job does not require a book -- only three-five PR'd articles. And we have a humane teaching load (2-2-2), and total freedom to teach whatever we want (i.e. each quarter, if I want, I can teach two versions of the same class in one quarter, minimizing prep big time, esp. if it's a class I've already taught several times.)

But the reason I'm writing a book -- or at least trying to right now! -- is purely for the love of having a big project. I actually wanted to immerse myself in a big project (not that articles aren't big, but you know.)

So sometimes the research is the "philo" in Philosophy. The of knowledge etc.

That's all.

Historiann said...

Thanks for highlighting this article, which I otherwise would have missed. The comments here (esp. from Feminist Avatar and Susan) have been insightful as well.

My question is this: which grad program or programs in the humanities will unilaterally disarm? Who will make the claim that their 3-year Ph.D.s are as good as the Ph.D.s from other insitituions who took 6 to 9 years to complete? From my perspective as a faculty member contemplating hiring a colleague, there is a BIG difference between people with 3 years of training and 5, 6, or 7 years of training and expertise.

The fact is too that this imaginary successful job candidate with a 3- or 4-year Ph.D. will be behind the curve when it comes to meeting tenure requirements. Like it or not, most tenure requirements in most humanities departments at most universities were written based on the assumption of a 5-, 6-, or 7+ year Ph.D., and the presumption that the doctoral dissertation is sufficiently meaty and polished to become a first book. How the hell can someone with a mere 3 or 4 years of training compete with that?

I'm glad Susan raised the question of doing research/scholarship in other countries/languages. I'm going to write from my disciplinary perspective here: Do we want history departments filled only with 19th or 20th C U.S. historians writing about "representations" of subjects/phenomenae? Or do we still believe that erudition and hard-won archival research are fundamental to being a historian? (That's a question that I think literature scholars, philosophers, art historians, etc. can ask as well--not discipline-specific.)