OK, it’s agreed: graduate students are not witless naives and deans are not brutal cynics. But what is it about the structure of graduate school that makes both of those roles recognizable? I want to pick up where Erin’s Monday post and its thoughtful comments leave off, and offer a few ideas for making our graduate programs better.
When you think about the kind of work we academics actually do (solving problems, organizing complex tasks, coaching and mentoring, reading, writing, teaching, learning), it sounds, as Erin points out, like a socially valuable kind of critical thinking. I don’t object to bringing people into a PhD program and telling them, up front, that the job market’s tough: it’s not my place to police other people’s passions, and the last thing I want is to sit on an admissions committee saying, “You want to know more? You’re not done ‘learning’? You have a curiosity that can’t be sated? No and again no: this program is for people with a well wrought, externally funded doctoral project!” Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say.
But I do find it unethical to bring people into a program that trains them in unnecessarily narrow ways for a job market that doesn’t exist.
When doctoral students in the humanities drop out of Canadian PhD programs (and, incidentally, they take on average eight years to quit – roughly the same length of time as it takes to complete the degree), funding is part of the story. But it’s one in a longish list of reasons, most of which are well within our power to change. According to the CAGS survey published in 2003 (old now, but still the most recent material published by CAGS and, to my knowledge, anyone else in Canada), students cite the following as their reasons for not finishing the PhD:
- insufficient funding
- lack of constructive supervision
- inappropriate program design
- academic isolation
- too extensive a scope for the thesis
- lack of readiness for graduate school.
Funding is tough, though it has improved markedly (and, yes, unevenly) in the last seven years. #6, lack of readiness, is similarly hard to remedy – grad students sometimes surprise themselves, their families and their admissions committees by discovering they’re not cut out for grad school after all. So I’d like to bracket those two factors in order to ask whether we can’t address the middle issues.
Lack of constructive supervisi0n/too big a scope for the thesis: It seems to me that these are part of the same issue, because a well supervised student should not be pursuing too big a thesis topic. What does that mean, “well supervised”? Should we pre-assign supervisors/advisors/mentors or let students find their own way? How often should we meet with students? for how long? What does it look like to work “together” on a grant proposal?: it’s normal in some disciplines for supervisors to essentially write the student’s proposal, and it’s not unheard of in others for supervisors to refuse to read a draft. Where do we draw our lines? What about reading a thesis: should we hold out for complete chapters or read “chunks” in draft form? When students don’t want to meet, should we push them? What about when they’re not writing (and don’t want to talk about it)? What’s the optimal use of a supervisory committee? Is our single-supervisor model the best one? Should a single supervisory model work for everyone? Should a single supervisory model work for the same student over time? I don’t necessarily have answers to these questions (though you know me, I have opinions): but I would like to hear frank conversations about them, conversations that include new and experienced supervisors, new, experienced and recently completed graduate students, and academic administrators.
Inappropriate program design: We say a PhD is four years long, we increasingly fund for three, and yet … and yet students take anywhere from five to nine years to finish most PhDs in the Humanities. Why? Is it possible that requirements have accreted? – that we added professional expectations like conference presentations and publishing without eliminating anything else (like coursework or language requirements)? Is it possible that something qualitative about doctoral work has changed (see next point)? Are exams the best way of marking milestones? Should we have coursework at all? Defenses? Theses? Is the way “we” did it, back in the twentieth century, the way students should pursue doctoral studies today? What about Erin’s suggestion of coop programs, pedagogical commons? Or what if we organized around skills instead of areas/documents? In short, how long should a PhD program be, and what, ideally, should it look like?
Academic isolation: “Go to your room, and don’t come out until you have a finished thesis!” Wait, no, that’s not what we say. We say, “Congratulations on passing your candidacy exam! Now you have time to think, time you’ll never have again, time I never have. Treasure these months: this is the best time of your life. Now, go to your room, and don’t come out until you have a finished thesis. Oh, incidentally: make it the first draft of a monograph.” And so we banish students to an utterly (well, often) structureless environment where they can watch each rent day come – and go – and come again, while they agonize in silence over a task they a) don’t necessarily understand, b) can’t simply think their way through, and c) haven’t been equipped for, what with our programs’ emphasis on short-term projects (coursework) and performances (exams). My question: is this the way to produce the kind of colleagues we want?
I don’t think these are simple issues, and I don’t think they have simple answers. Each has a material component I have glossed over too readily here (for instance: more office space = less isolation). I respect that some of my colleagues find the sole-authored disciplinary monograph a satisfying intellectual life. But I wonder about prescribing it for others, for everybody. If Deborah Rhode’s recent stat – and I’m sorry, I’m writing this post far away from my library and cannot look this up – that upwards of 90% of scholarly monographs are never even borrowed from the library, let alone cited, I just think we oughta ask whether the monograph-style dissertation is still the sine qua non of doctoral education. Above all I want to acknowledge here that we don’t really know how to change graduate education, and homo academicus hates not to know. Still, just because it’s not known doesn’t mean it can’t be known.
Should PhD programs in the Humanities be small? I’m not convinced they should. I’m not at all comfortable with a future that assumes all PhDs are in applied and medical sciences (’cause you can bet that Engineering is not closing the barn door anytime soon). More to the point, I’m not convinced that I want to give up on the vision of advanced study in the humanities – province, after all, of human life and the imagination, language, history, and our conceptual orientation to the world through time and across space. Call me crazy, but these things seem to me … what’s the word … indispensable.
So I’m for rethinking the doctoral degree in a way that makes it broad, rationalized, useful (to students, to society, to the profession) and complete-able in under four years. Who’s in?