Wednesday, May 20, 2009

. . . and I feel fine

In Which I Make Liberal Use of Blockquotes

Mark C. Taylor recently(ish) wrote an Op-Ed in the NY Times titled "End the University as We Know It," claiming that American graduate education creates "a product for which there is no market and develops skills for which there is diminishing demand, all at a
rapidly rising cost." Awesome! But never fear--Taylor has six suggestions for thoroughly
restructuring the university, to benefit not only grad students but all
of society.

Before getting there, he explains that the model of academic research is all about division of labor, leading to endless specialization: "research and publication become more and more about less and less." Graduate students are trained in this ever-narrowing scholarship, forming the core of the university's teaching and research force. But all good things must come to an end, and, on an unrelated note, all students eventually graduate. (Or quit. A not unpopular option!) Newly minted PhDs are then treated to the pleasure of finding that the only jobs they're qualified for are already taken by their (better-qualified) advisors.

So, what the heck, grad school? Why is this situation not remedied? Basically, says Taylor, because the entrenched academics like it that way:

[An] obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are
self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review.
While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight
responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To
complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted
tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for
the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own

Hmm! That sounded kind of familiar. Here's another academic writing about academia, Stephen Quake in "Letting Scientists Off the Leash". He's grinding a different axe, but the sentiment is surprisingly similar:

It strikes me as one of the ironies of modern life that professorial
faculty members, who by and large lean to the left politically, accept
such a brutal free-market approach to their livelihood. If they can't
raise grants to support their research every year, they won't get paid.
So not only do they have to worry about publish or perish, it's also
funding or famine, in the very real sense that without a grant there
might not be food on the family dinner table!

I couldn't have responded with more appropriate snark than Aurelie Thiele offered in a review: "Quake's post doesn't enhance the image of academics, unless whiny is the new cool."

Of course, Quake and Taylor are opining on the granting system and the modern university, respectively, which are distinct (though related) topics. They're also coming from different fields. Taylor is the chair of the religion department at Columbia, while Quake is a professor of bioengineering at Stanford.

In my very limited experience, humanities grad students tend to be woefully underpaid in comparison to the sciences (not that grad school in any field is a particularly lucrative profession) and to have virtually no non-academic career options. While science grads are often ill-informed about non-academic career options, they're definitely out there: plenty of science PhDs holds jobs in government, non-profit, and for-profit sectors. (Quake himself is, in addition to a professor, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.) All this is to say: it might make sense for a humanities academic to be more concerned about the plight of graduate students.

Meanwhile, science is a lot more expensive than humanities, and the need and competition for grants is correspondingly fiercer. So this might explain Quake's (over-dramatic) attention to the granting situation.

Getting back to Taylor's piece, let's take a look at his six-fold path towards an enlightened university model:

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.
As a recent grad from my program put it, "Interdisciplinary studies are great, but c'mon, welcome to 10 years ago." At least in the sciences I know, we're fairly well inundated with interdisciplinary classes, organizations, workshops, degrees, etc. But not every class can be interdisciplinary, either. If you want to learn calculus, there's no way around taking a plain old calculus class.

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.
Okay, this is . . . a little spacey. I'm all for considering unusual, unexpected solutions to problems, but I'm considering this one, and . . . no. Again with the calculus: maybe you could offer calculus in the Space zone of inquiry, as a precursor to learning Physics, and then Astrophysics. And then when you abolish the Space zone, you can start offering calculus in the Water zone . . . but really, why not just keep a nice Math department where you can offer calculus year after year?

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.

This is a pretty cool idea. We've got a new local thingy that's trying to get all courses offered at all local institutions cross-listed and opened to all local students, regardless of student affiliation. When the institutions are in close physical proximity, this is great, but I'm not sure remote classes are quite there yet, as far as providing the same level of intellectual engagement. (Incidentally, the idea of specializing educational institutions reminds me of the idea of specializing news organizations.)

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. . . 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.

As a student who has been producing school assignments in "alternative formats" since grade school*, I'm theoretically delighted by this suggestion. But I really don't think this will cut it in the sciences.

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.

All I can say is: Yes, oh yes!

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

Ah, the tenure debate! I'm not sure where I stand on this anymore. My initial reaction to the tenure system is impatience and disappointment--but I've heard some decent arguments for its continued relevance and importance. I keep thinking: why can't academic jobs be like other normal jobs? The impression I have of normal jobs (which is just an impression, since I have, um, never had one) is that most people live neither in constant fear of losing their job nor in smug satisfaction that it can never be taken away from them. I guess part of the big difference is that an academic department is a network of peers, not a hierarchy of bosses and subordinates. And when your peers are the ones evaluating you and deciding your job security, everything is just a bit trickier.

I'll have to think more about tenure, and give it a post of its own later . . . any thoughts to contribute?

* When we studied Greece in elementary school, I wrote a series of letters from various Greek soldiers, reporting home to their friends and families about the Trojan war. But these were not ordinary letters. Oh, no. I wrote them on tiny pieces of paper, packaged them in tiny envelopes with tiny addresses and stamps, put all of them into a tiny mailbag that I cut and sewed out of scrap fabric, and then put this tiny mailbag on the arm of an OCTOPUS POSTMAN that I cut out of CARDBOARD. Yes. I managed to work an octopus into an assignment about Ancient Greece. Hi, I'm a dork! And apparently have been since I was ten!

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