Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"The Sisyphus T. Cog Chair of Graduate Study" --- A Thought Experiment

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.


magisterludi said...

How 'bout "Right Said Fred Nietzsche Chair"? Nietzsche did presume there would be a department of Nietzschean Studies someday. Humility is a virtue of the ressentiment.

Phul Devi said...

I take the point about not committing to a whole new group of students before finishing the training process on the last group. But, all kidding aside, I think your model places too much responsibility on faculty for students' progress. I have a graduate student who is terribly difficult to mentor because, quite frankly, ze never does what I advise. I suspect this person is an outlier to the norm, but seriously, there is no way I can get this person to do anything ze does not want to do. Things that are clearly to hir benefit to master -- clearer writing structure, meeting grant deadlines, and the like -- ze simply ignores.

Of course, I'm also not taking a whole new cohort -- my institution is weak in my area of expertise (I'm the only one), so we don't get loads of applications anyway. But my larger point, in response to your suggestion that faculty have to push students along and mentor them more actively, is that not all students cooperate with this process.

Bardiac said...

I laughed at your idea, but it was laughter of despair. At my school, they would have kicked you out if you took longer than they wanted and didn't have the right ivy background or weren't sleeping with a prof, and they wouldn't have noticed when they tripped over you on the way to lunch.

Summer stipends? I would have loved a summer stipend!

Bardiac said...

ps. The Virginia Woolf Chair of Digressive and Digestive Studies, which comes with a meal stipend and a room of one's own. /nod

Sisyphus said...

@magesterludi, I am scared to think what sorts of requirements that Chair would have ... does it come with syphilis? Do you have to be strapped to a donkey-cart with a fellow grad and be whipped around the park by a tempestuous and cruel lover, potentially who is the holder of the Foucault Chair of Textual Perversion, in which case I am even more interested in signing on for it?

@squadrato: I'd be perfectly willing to kick out students who don't meet the expectations of their advisors; in fact I think we should have much higher rates of expulsion (right now my dept. mentally writes off some of the grads but never actually tells them, so they hang on for _years_ and _years_ even though I am sure the committee will never ever sign off on anything they produce.)

I'm also willing to play with different structures than "chairs" or "slots" for MA students instead of PhDs, but I need someone to float more suggestions.

@Bardiac, I'm glad to hear some places kick out their students, although not too pleased about the favoritism and lack of transparency. At my place we have about 15 "perpetual ABDs" still listed on the grad page, but where I got my MA (and left instead of doing a PhD) the newly appointed grad advisor found over 130 "perpetual ABDs" on the lists... as in, people that hadn't been seen or heard of by anyone for ages, yet had been paying their fees every semester up until that time. These kinds of stories the DGS would let drop really solidified my thinking that the bottom 50 or so PhD programs and a whole lot of the MA programs should be closed completely.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Reading about your experience has been really insightful and fascinating, in part because we have overlapping backgrounds. (I left one UC program for another. To answer what may have been a rhetorical question, there are still at least two UC English/Literature programs with summer funding. Although for one program, it was written into my original contract, so perhaps they just couldn't wiggle out of it).

This isn't nearly as neat and interesting as your solution (which I think is well worth looking into), but it seems that most graduate programs are actually cutting their cohort sizes--some fairly drastically. I don't know if the numbers will remain this low one the economic doldrums lift...but perhaps it will help to ease the bottleneck in the future.

At least, that's what I'm hoping.