Monday, May 14, 2007

a deep and often frustrating commitment

The subject is graduate school, not marriage.

I've been auditing a Philosophy of Science course, and it is awesome. Our assigned reading, apart from numerous handouts and articles, consists of two books. Pay close attention to the titles!

Theory and Reality by Peter Godfrey-Smith
Academic Duty by Donald Kennedy

The first is about science, the second about academia. Scientists and academics are, of course, not the same thing, although there is significant overlap in the Venn diagram. To be explicit: scientists may work for government agencies or for NGOs, for private industry or for an academic institution. That final employer, however, they share with a variety of non-scientist academics: notably, those who work in the humanities, but there are also academic doctors, lawyers, and engineers. (At a later point, I do wish to delve into the curious break between engineers and scientists, but not now.)

Now look at those titles! The first one seems like it ought to be the only book you'll ever need to read, right? I mean, what else is there? It is a great book (if not truly all-encompassing) about how we know what we know (or what we think we know) about the world. Put another way, it's about scientific inquiry and the nature of human understanding. Being a philosophy book, the language gets weighty at times, but Godfrey-Smith does an admirable job with it, and reading this book can be downright fun. (After all, who doesn't love the concept of grue?)

Scientists are people who work in an unusual kind of local community. This community is characterized by high prestige, lengthy training and initiation, notoriously bad fashion choices, and expensive toys.

--Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality

As for the second title, it probably isn't a phrase you've heard too often. And that's too bad, Kennedy argues in the opening pages. He presents academic duty as the counterpoint to the oft-touted academic freedom--academic duty covers the responsibilities and ethical conduct of academics towards each other, their students, their institutions, and to society at large. Our philosophy professor calls it an "owner's manual" for an academic career, but I believe it can serve (as it is intended to) a broader audience as well. Families and friends of academics will find it a true aid to understanding their dear absent-minded professors. And for anyone who cares about the destination of their tax dollars, it is an educational, lively, at times troubling, but in the end inspiring explanation of the institutions that are funded in very large part by those dollars--and thus, ought to be a source of pride for us all.

Of course, all this praise doesn't mean I necessarily agree with everything these authors say--in fact, I have a few significant quibbles with each of them, and I haven't (to be perfectly honest) finished either book. But they are excellent food for thought and discussion.

Here is the passage from Academic Duty which prompted me to write this entire entry, essentially as an excuse to share the most accurate and succinct description of graduate study I've ever seen:

Before briefly considering the recent history of doctoral work in American universities, it is worth emphasizing what a deep and often frustrating commitment it is. The graduate student's experience depends heavily on the good will and conscientiousness of a single mentor. It requires total immersion in a demanding scholarly discipline, yet often involves the distraction of fulfilling a research assistantship, in which the student works not necessarily on his or her own project but on the professor's, or a teaching assistantship, in which the student is responsible for undergraduate instruction with varying degrees of help and guidance. It takes a long time to complete graduate work (even in the Golden Age of the late 1960s, when support for graduate study was at its zenith, the average was more than five years), and the chances of failure are dauntingly high. Nationally, only about a quarter of the students who embark on the Ph.D. actually finish one. The experience is often lonely and may be profoundly alienating. Yet at its best, with an inspiring and compassionate mentor, it can be positive and even transforming.

--Donald Kennedy, Academic Duty

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