A friend emailed me an op-ed by Marc C. Taylor about the current state of graduate education in the U.S. I don’t have the original citation, so bear with the long quotations.
Overall, I agree with a lot of what he has to say. His perspective is that there are more graduate student than there are jobs in the nation’s universities. I don’t know that for certain, but it’s believable. As the economy worsens, faculty positions are being eliminated down to the bare bones. It’s ironic I’m talking about this today; I had my last class today with a professor who was forced to find a job elsewhere because the current university couldn’t afford to maintain an adjunct. If current faculty are being laid off and having trouble finding new ones, it is logical to assume that graduating Ph.D.s are going to have an even harder time.
Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.
I think this was my favorite part of the article. This is one of the major issues I had in my doctoral studies. In order to find a unique dissertation topic, it would have to be something so narrow that I’m not sure there’d be enough to get a “standard” length dissertation out of it. I know I’m verbose, but I still couldn’t imagine writing 500 pages worth of insightful on one chant (or something). My biggest frustration with academia is the inherent impracticality of the path, unless you’re in the bio/chem/physics research field. Even areas such as political science, sociology, and anthropology which could be of enormous help in the current world (as I believe Taylor notes in his article) if the academic community wasn’t so buried under their own innanity. Universities used to be amazing centers of learning and advancement; to some degree they still are, but the academic community as a whole needs to dig it’s head out of the sand.
About halfway through his article, though, I think Taylor goes off the deep end. He opines that academia needs to be regulated and restructured in the same way as Wall Street and Detroit. That’s not as out there as his “plan” for how to achieve this restructure. I know it’s a long quote, but I can’t do justice to some of his ideas:
1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.
I can definitely get behind this change. My recent experiences trying to find a program that would allow me to combine non-fiction writing, journalism, gender/women’s studies, and religious studies for an end-goal of a career outside of academia has been impossible. The program where I am currently taking courses allows a maximum of 9 credits to be transferred in from other institutions or departments within the same university. For me, this means that I can apply a total of three courses outside of Religious Studies to a Master’s degree. Any further courses are for my own edification. As far as I can find, there are no design-your-own master’s programs. The way the academic system works currently, a design-your-own program might be harder to prove “legitimate.” Then again, there are so many MBAs running around out there, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Oh, you have your MBA? gee, good for you. As my father always said, that and ten cents will get you a cup of coffee. Although with inflation, you’ll need two dollars and the MBA to get Starbuck’s cheapest drink.
2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.
A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.
This is where he starts to go off the deep end for me. “What was your major in college?” “Oh, I majored in Water.” Right…. I also love how he effectively removes the humanities and arts from the conversation, except for language. In his model, where do music, graphic and visual art, dance, and theater fit in? Are all musicians, artists, dancers, and actors supposed to go to highly specialized instutions, such as conservatories? One of my strengths as a graduate student was having a liberal arts background, even though I wanted to make a career in music. A music school would have prepared me to be a performer, maybe a teacher, but nothing more. That’s the highly specialized sort of career and degree that Taylor is ranting against earlier in the article. He also leaves history out of the conversation, without which we are only doomed to repeat our failures, as someone famous once said.
3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.
On the surface, I agree with this. However, there is no substitute for working with a professor face to face, otherwise known as human interaction. The last thing we need to do is de-personalize society even more.
4. Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.
I object to his characterization of dissertations as “more footnotes than text.” Shane has recently been telling me about on-demand printing, which would be one solution to the problem Taylor sees. The student has the dissertation “published” just not printed, but print copies can be generated as necessary. That satisfies the scholarly requirement while easing a financial burden. An eBook is another solution. While on the one hand I agree that there are plenty of alternatives to “traditional papers” I also don’t think the concept of theses or dissertations should be tossed out entirely. Perhaps the purpose of a dissertation should be different, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. His “solution” to have Web sites and video games is terrifying to me.
5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.
This point in particular made me wonder where he’s getting his information. In what field are “most” graduate students not going to find work? Is he talking specifically about the current economy? I don’t think the current economy is a good basis for restructuring the graduate educational model, it must wait until the economy has regained some of it’s strength. When no one is getting a job, it’s pretty safe to make a claim like that. I feel as if Taylor is fear mongering here… I also despise how he doesn’t give specifics – “exposure to new approaches” doesn’t tell me anything. It also makes me think he doesn’t really have any clue how to go about doing what he’s proposing, just some amorphous “better” way.
6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.
This point is the most frightening to me. I’ve watched professors go through the tenure process; it makes them a nervous wreck (at best) for a year, takes their attention away from their students and classes, and is a political game. If you’re going to abolish the tenure system, then get rid of it, but not have some kind of quasi-tenure that makes intelligent, well-educated people go through the tenure-granting nonsense 7-10 times over the course of their career. He does have a point – some professors do become complacent, but there are many who do their best work once they are settled in to a job. This needs way more thought than the little Taylor has to offer here.