Also, let’s get rid of prestige. Agreed?

Mark Taylor of Columbia University takes to the New York Times Op-Ed this morning to ask for the End [of] the University as We Know It. His description of graduate education as “the Detroit of higher learning” is clever but provokes YHB to wonder if graduate education is the outdated auto industry providing unpopular products that devastate the economy and the environment, what is undergraduate education? The financial industry? Producing products that nobody can understand, but we’re all convinced we can’t do without, somehow? Well, anyway. Our graduate system is in crisis and has been for decades, which seems a lot like our auto industry, in that it becomes a trifle difficult to tell what exactly we mean by crisis.

But my point isn’t to mock Mr. Taylor, although can I just say that if the “dirty secret” of higher education is that it’s supported by underpaid graduate students and adjuncts, then, er, (looks around, gestures, dropping voice to a whisper) somebody already leaked it. I mean, seriously. How many readers of the New York Times can be shocked this morning to learn that higher education is supported by underpaid graduate students and adjuncts? You think it’s just Larry Summers? Seriously, Mr. Taylor reveals that

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

Surprise, consternation and alarm! Now everybody will know!

OK, more seriously, Mr. Taylor presents six short-term steps to “make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative” or perhaps “rigorously regulated and completely restructured”:

  1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. Get rid of hierarchical divisions in favor of webs or networks. Instead of the survey, wide, narrow, narrow, narrowest path to a doctorate (which many of y’all know is a vast oversimplification, but still recognizable), the path to a doctorate will wind through different disciplines and end up with the candidate at the center of a web of influences.

    This is a terrific idea. It’s also a lot of work for the candidates and their advisors. Although, I suppose, there will be many fewer candidates. So there’s that.

  2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. Mr. Taylor suggests that these temporary programs, centered around such ideas as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. ” would be designed for seven years’ duration. Again, I think this is a fantastic idea, and I would love to see a group of colleges attempt it. His example of a Water program, involving religious, cultural, technical, political and economic aspects, would I think lead to magnificent studies and, potentially, a group of students who not only knew a lot about Water, but had a sense of a way to tackle complex issues.

    Of course, the logistics are… formidable. I have never been on a curriculum committee myself; my understanding from those who have does not lead me to believe that having most of the school either in the first two or last two years of that process would be feasible without substantially changing the workload of the faculty. Also, the challenges of recruiting an undergraduate student body seem severe. If I were to advise a student to go to a college that had an absolutely monstrously good program on, say, Narrative, but which program was going to expire two years into that undergraduate’s time there, to be replaced by something that might be even better but, then, perhaps not, well, I’m just saying. A big challenge. Including how I would know that the Narrative program was that good when it had only been running five years.

    Also, can you imagine the fights over office space?

  3. Increase collaboration among institutions. His example of German at one institution and French at another seems a weak example of a terrific idea. It’s easier for me to imagine an advanced seminar with two professors and eight students from four institutions, able to not only meet via vidphone but study together, collaborate on seminar papers, pass notes, and develop jargon. Intro courses seem (to me) to require more group-in-a-classroom stuff, but then, I’m almost forty. But really, the technical and logistical challenges to this one seem smaller to me than the first suggestions. The problem with the webinars I’ve attended have been that they have been one-offs with very weak levels of commitment. Well, and some weak preparation and fundamental ignorance of principles of change management, but that’s not the fault of the format. Nor, really, is the format responsible for the awfulness of the word webinar.

  4. Transform the traditional dissertation. Whoo hoo! Let’s do it! Can I just ask whether there is anybody left that thinks the traditional dissertation as it’s been implemented in the last two or three decades is either traditional or sustainable? Or helpful, or useful, or has any significant positives that aren’t either (a) outweighed by the negatives by a factor of silly-to-one or (2) positives only in the context of a seriously broken economic structure of higher education?

    On the other hand, it still goes on. I mean, seriously, it does. No, really.

  5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. This is an odd one. I’m not sure how this would work, or how it would fit in with the other suggestions. Perhaps this is because he’s a religion prof, and people who get Masters or Doctorates in Religious Studies all do so intending to go into academia. This is largely true, I think, of doctoral candidates in the humanities, although I think not so much of Master’s students, and much, much, much less outside the humanities. And getting a Master’s Degree in Water Studies, it seems to me, doesn’t do much to expand the range of professional options, as opposed to getting a degree in Electrical Engineering, say, or my current favorite, the M-SOB, the Master of Science in Organizational Behavior. It is true that, as he says, a really good set of programs such as he is imagining would help individuals trained in them cope with a constantly changing set of circumstances, and would likely decrease the number of people who find themselves with a set of obsolete skills—but would an employer really pay a premium for that long-term benefit over the perceived short-term benefit of the status quo?

    There is a multiple-level perception problem going on, and perceptions form reality. Let me put it like this: Employers perceive a particular specialized degree as either preparing you to do a particular job (university professor, Human Resources manager, software architect, sportscaster) or (and this is important) dispreparing you for that job. A Ph.D. in Art History is at a disadvantage in looking for a job teaching Art History to high school students, or for that matter, in writing PR copy for a bank. This is not true for all high schools and banks, of course, so the other problem is that there is a perception that a specialized degree will be a disadvantage for any job other than the one you are being funneled into. So students want the program to excel in that funneling, or at least there is a perception that students want programs to excel in that funneling, and so Universities try to create that perception… Universities aren’t going to be able to implement a series of changes and expand the range of professional options for graduate students. It would take a social revolution.

  6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. I hate that Mr. Taylor combined these two, and that he put mandatory retirement first, as if the primary problem with tenure was the difficulty of firing old farts. I haven’t seen that at all; in fact, the primary benefit I’ve seen to tenure is the difficulty of firing old farts. The primary problem I’ve seen with tenure is that a University, faced with making two tenure decisions, each of which is unfathomably expensive (or at least is perceived to be that way by the decision-makers, and I think with good reason), have set up systems for search and tenure committees that are just awful, and lead to all kinds of terrible things for universities—including that secret dependence on underpaid graduate students and adjuncts. Oh, and the tenure system has wound up with a culture that makes the sacrifices of those graduate students and even adjuncts seem to make sense, with the golden potential of being in the Inner Ring dangled in front of them.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I think tenure is a terrific thing, but that the tenure review is so awful that it overwhelms the positives of tenure. On the other hand, tenure is largely a protection against Bad Things we don’t see, and like the tiger-repellent rock, it’s a bit difficult to know how bad the Bad Things would be if we got rid of it. Cost-benefit and so on. I can see the damage the tenure system is doing, and I know that the protections are largely against things that are relatively rare (compared to the damage of the tenure system), but then, they are relatively rare because of the tenure system. So, you know. Right now, I think that replacing the tenure system with seven-year contracts sounds great. Fifteen years after the change, I might be furious.

So, a lot of very interesting stuff in there. But a lot of stuff that would be incredibly difficult and expensive to actually do. Mostly, I’m happy that somebody is suggesting this stuff, to get it kicked around.

Oh, and—wouldn’t it have been way, way, way more persuasive if the Op-Ed had come from a collaboration of profs in different departments and institutions?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

10 thoughts on “Also, let’s get rid of prestige. Agreed?

  1. charlene

    Interesting. And re your last line, my response to this, as someone who was a physics grad student, is mostly along the lines of “I don’t think that would work for science!”

    For example, #1 and #2? Okay, let’s take Water. Consider the modeling of turbulent fluid dynamics systems… First of all, it takes years to get the necessary math and physics background to understand fluid dynamics; you’re well into an undergrad major in applied math/physics before you get there. And it’s not unreasonable to be well into a grad program before getting one’s teeth into a modeling-system problem. So when are you going to have time to talk about culture and religion? Also, as you note in #5, someone who has the experience in modeling complex dynamical systems, even if her dissertation is very narrowly focused on a particular subfield no one else actually cares about, is going to actually be way more in demand in the working world (in many different paths– lots of things need to be modeled) than someone who doesn’t have that experience but can talk about water and religion, which suits you for… working with water boards?

    I think also that in the sciences #3 is taken much more as a given, especially if you are in an experimental discipline where you have to work with other people in your lab, at least, and with theorists, and with people doing work using similar experimental techniques… and many of these people are probably going to be at other institutions.

    A question on #4: My dissertation followed basically the “papers-stapled-together-and-add-an-introduction” format, and so was not particularly onerous or unsustainable, and had some helpful/useful components (e.g., I was able to include some results that didn’t really fit in a published paper). Is it considerably different in the liberal arts?

  2. charlene

    I should have added that I do agree that it’s good to think about these things (and even if I don’t think some of his suggestions will work, it’s good to open up the dialogue). Especially, as you note, I think it is fascinating to explore alternatives to the tenure system (one of the reasons I left the academic system forever after grad school).

  3. JeffH

    Hoo boy there is so much I could say about this since I’m working at a place that’s implementing some ideas along these lines. Maybe when I’m not about to go into exam week I can comment more. Just a few quick comments for now.

    1) To my complete and utter lack of surprise, Taylor seems to assume that The University really just means the humanities disciplines.

    2) To a certain degree Hampshire and Evergreen State have tried the “completely abolish departments in favor of themes” idea. Evergreen State seems to be hanging in with it, but Hampshire seems to be moving away from it.

    3) Has he ever participated in developing a new program from scratch? I seriously doubt it, otherwise he wouldn’t be nearly as cavalier about replacing them. Replace that idea with one of continuous review and adding or subtracting individual courses or components as need be and then maybe you’ve got something.

    4) As far as tenure versus contracts, I could write pages on that one. There are some serious pitfalls there, the biggest being that faculty would replace a single do or die decision with several over their career. Now the stakes would be different from the school’s end, but still. Not that I’m obsessing over this one at the moment or anything…

  4. Vardibidian

    Well, Humanities and some of the social sciences. But not all of them. Which is part of the point of my last line—if this had been a collaboration with (say) a organic chemistry prof, a religion prof and a studio art prof (OK: an organic chemistry prof, a religion prof and a studio art prof walk into a bar… ), it would have been more persuasive, not only because I wouldn’t have felt like it was making those assumptions, but because I think it would have shaped the actual suggestions a wee bit.

    Jeff, if you have a chance after exams are graded, I’d love to hear more. Or, hey, why not respond whilst proctoring the exam? Unless it’s a take-home. But I think with seven-year contracts less high-stakes for the school, there would be a chance that the decision-making would be less crazy. And I think Mr. Taylor assumes, as I do, that the school would be willing to renew contracts under most circumstances, although, you know, very little evidence for that.

    Hm. Water and religion would prepare you for baptism, at any rate. And quite likely a job at a desalinization plant in the Middle East. Or Central America. But I’m hoping those places also have people who were single-minded modeling freaks in school. Ten thousand hours of practice, isn’t that what Malcolm Gladwell says?


  5. Matt

    What is it that makes you in favor (apparently) of abolishing tenure, where I’m leery of it; and I want term limits for Senators, which concept you (V) previously have expressed the leer thereof?



  6. Chris Cobb

    It generally takes institutions of higher learning 5-7 years to design and implement a new general education program. I am afraid that I do not see a single practicable proposal in Mr. Taylor’s editorial.

    I suggest a different approach: that institutions of higher learning each concentrate on developing a _mission_ that serves the needs of a well defined community, set of communities, or constituency, and that the institution make programmatic decisions about education and about research in ways that are in keeping with that uniquely and locally defined mission, rather than basing their decisions on making the institution competitive in national ranking systems and in the faculty “star system.”

    In other words, I think Vardibidian’s title suggests a much more practical line of approach to the reform of higher education, though the resistance of entrenched faculty interests would be just as intense to a turn away from the prestige game as a turn away from established institutional structures as Mr. Taylor proposes.

    P.S. A question on #4: My dissertation followed basically the “papers-stapled-together-and-add-an-introduction” format, and so was not particularly onerous or unsustainable, and had some helpful/useful components (e.g., I was able to include some results that didn’t really fit in a published paper). Is it considerably different in the liberal arts?


  7. textjunkie

    Yeah, I tried to read that article but it seemed like such balderdash I had a hard time reading all the way through it. Thanks for your summary and dissection of it. 😉 Your metaphor of the undergrad education as the financial sector is perfect!

    That problem-focused program approach only works if you have disciplines that can bring something to it–I mean, let’s study water! Without any in-depth background in math, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, psychology, political history, etc.! Um, no. Pretty much useless. That’s great for starting an interdisciplinary research center focussed on a particular issue, but is not in itself a good way to give anyone the tools they might need to *address* whatever the problem of water is. It only makes any hint of sense now, when you have departments and disciplines that you are trying to get to work together. Say you are successful in removing departments and disciplines, and now you have people getting a degree in “Water Studies.” So what? What can they do? What can’t they do? What do they know and what don’t they know? What tools do they bring to the next big problem? No idea.

    And don’t get me started on mandatory retirement. That’s ageism at its worst.

    I agree that education from K-12 through the PhD is messed up in many, many ways, but this is not the solution.

  8. Chris Cobb

    To continue this conversation a little bit, and to provide a more substantive answer to charlene’s question, let me say a little bit about the differences, as I understand them from the humanities side, between a humanities dissertation and a science dissertation. A humanities dissertation is generally not, or not merely, a collection of papers with an introduction attached. It’s difficult to describe exactly what it is except by example, but, in theory, a humanities dissertation makes a substantive original contribution to knowledge in the PhD candidate’s field. It establishes this status for its insights in two ways. On the one hand, it undertakes a sustained analysis of the primary evidence of human activity with which its discipline is concerned (art, music, literature, primary historical documents, religious practices and writings, etc.), while on the other hand it undertakes an exhaustive review of prior relevant scholarship on that subject, so that it can a) demonstrate that no one else has already done what the dissertation is doing and b) demonstrate the significance of its own arguments by showing how they contribute to the ongoing discussion in the field.

    Put that way, the conceptual difference between a chemistry dissertation and an English literature dissertation is not vast: that’s why they are both suitable for the awarding of the PhD. The great differences, as I see it, between the type and temporality of labor involved in a humanities dissertation and the type and temporality of labor involved in a science dissertation come from two other factors, one of which is inherent in the differences between scientific and humanistic enquiry, and the other of which is an accidental development of the economy and culture within which the two different disciplinary areas are practiced.

    The inherent difference is this. In the science dissertation, there is a clear distinction between the experiment, the papers, and the dissertation. The papers and the dissertation are write-ups of the experimental research, and those write-ups follow very conventional formulas of composition. In the humanities dissertation, such clear distinctions do not exist, so that in a sense the dissertation _is_ the experiment. There is a distinction between research and writing, but there are no _results_ prior to the writing: the writing itself produces the results, and the dissertation as a document _is_ the result. Consequently, the whole process of working on a humanities PhD is much less structured than working on a science PhD, and its end point is much less easily established.

    The accidental difference is this. In the world of the sciences, the paper is the currency in which scholarly prestige is accumulated, and there is fairly broad agreement in the field about what makes research results a) valid and b) important. So far as I understand it, it is relatively easy for any results to get aired in a scholarly forum (at least in a poster session), valid results will probably get published somewhere, and there is a relatively uncomplicated connection between the quality/importance of one’s research and the status conferred by publication in a particular journal. The dissertation, being a form that is not the major currency of the field but is merely an accumulated amount of that currency, has comparatively little significance in itself. One needs to finish the project it represents, and one needs to earn the degree, but the dissertation does not have significance beyond this. In the world of the humanities, the chief currency of prestige is not the paper but the monograph: the book. At most research universities, one needs to have a book to earn tenure. That standard becoming more flexible, but it is still more or less the standard. The usual and most practical way for a scholar to have at least a book contract by the time she comes up for tenure is to turn the dissertation into a book. (It’s not all that uncommon for a junior professor to publish a first book that is not based on the dissertation, but it is not the norm.) This means that humanities dissertations face an additional set of compositional constraints that have to do not with what meets the intellectual criteria for a dissertation, but with what will enable the project to lead to its eventual publication as a scholarly monograph. Is it readable? Is it on a subject that will sell sufficiently? Does it have the coherence to work as a book? These are pressures that the _writing_ of a science dissertation does not face, although some of them figure into the choice of research topic at the outset of the process. If humanities dissertations did not have to be marketed as “a book in the making,” then the differences between science and humanities dissertations would be lessened.

    Mr. Taylor’s proposals for changing the dissertation are, as he states them, driven by the fact that it is making less and less sense for publishers to print scholarly monographs in the humanities. Thus, his proposals probably have little relevance for the sciences, since the publication of the dissertation as such is not the norm in the sciences, and issues totally unrelated to the intellectual merit of the work do not regularly affect the publication prospects of scientific papers, while such issues continually affect the publication prospects of scholarly monographs in the humanities.

    The fact that Mr. Taylor’s proposals for changing the dissertation are subject-driven seems to me one among many indications of the shallowness of his thinking (or at least of his writing) about reforming academia. He assumes that “publication” should still be the ultimate purpose of the dissertation, beyond the actual earning of the PhD degree and receiving all the rights, privileges, and job prospects thereunto appertaining. If research in the humanities and, consequently, graduate education in the humanities are going to be reformed, the issue that needs to be considered is the kind of work that PhD students should be trained to do. If they need to be trained to make substantial, original contributions to knowledge, then the dissertation remains a valid focus for the degree, and the problems of disseminating the work of humanities scholars ought to be tackled separately. If humanities PhDs need to be trained to do _something else_, then what that something else should be needs to be figured out, and a method of training that suitably prepares someone to do that something else needs to be devised. Mr. Taylor appears to propose that by restructuring the curriculum to be ever fluid and interdisciplinary and by having PhD candidates create websites instead of dissertations, the issues of what PhD students in the humanities are being trained to do and how they are being trained to do it could be resolved. I think that is unlikely.

  9. charlene

    Chris, thanks for the detailed analysis. Clearly I live in my own little universe populated with scientists and engineers. V, your point about baptism was hilarious!

    So, although I don’t really agree with overhauling the graduate degree (for exactly the reason Chris sets out, that I do think Ph.D. students should be trained to make “substantial, original contributions to knowledge”), I do agree that it is true that undergraduate education primarily prepares you for… going to graduate school, and the curriculum (in both humanities and sciences, as far as I am aware) is set up for that, and that this is something that is not necessarily a good thing (since many, if not most students don’t go on to graduate school). However, it seems that a less drastic solution than to completely overhaul the entire system would be what my undergraduate institution did: don’t have as many requirements for graduation in a major as you would if you assumed your graduates were all going on to a Ph.D. program. The students can then fill the spaces with whatever they feel would be most useful for them (more classes in the major if that’s what they think would be useful, or a larger breadth if that’s what they want). This does assume quite a lot of initiative on the part of the student, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing to get out of an undergraduate degree, either.


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