grad school · hiring · ideas for change · job market · turgid institution

Toward a less laughable PhD in the Humanities

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:

  1. insufficient funding
  2. lack of constructive supervision
  3. inappropriate program design
  4. academic isolation
  5. too extensive a scope for the thesis
  6. 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?

teaching · turgid institution

Guest Post: The game’s afoot

Getting my blog fix this cool but lovely fall weekend, still a little high after Calgary managed to elect as our mayor Naheed Nenshi. Racism, homophobia, Islamophobia definitely raised their ugly and omnipresent heads during and after the election, and yet…I feel that collective pride in a job well done. Many of my students wore their purple t-shirts and tweeted non-stop @nenshi.

There is a but coming, and you know it.

However, when I take stock, as I frequently (over)do, of my academic life in all of its contexts, I know that my impatience this year overflows at work. And why? I have designed an ace course (“The ethics and politics of gaming”) and the students are, gamely, attempting to work out all of this inquiry-based stuff and perhaps have some fun too (this weekend, watching them try to complete a tournament, has been a blast, which again gives the thoughtful pedagogue in me pause: when did I stop having real fun with students? did I ever? do other professors have fun? perhaps I am not a fun kinda gal, just plain prone to grumpiness). In my older-middle age, aka wisdom, my recent and more frequent fits of mini-lashings out, polite refusals, strategic-if-not-always-clever complaints—as well as inner sighs and eye-rollings at many twists and turns—are triggered by how increasingly and dauntingly our academic lives are slowed down by processes of numbing inefficiency, form-filling (paper, in this day and age?), be-there-or-be-square organizing (sure, I can make that meeting at sunrise), querulousness, posturing and (hear it in this post), defensiveness.

In the end, I worry politically about the inculcation of these values in the first-year students I feel both protective towards and so deeply frustrated by (hear the old cry of the inquiry-teacher: where is their curiosity? their drive to find things out? their connectedness? their gratitude?). Well, duh. Where has ours disappeared to in this place of performance indicators and whoever gets most bums in the seats wins and have we survived the term yes or no? My most memorable moments from the last two weeks have been to hear what is usually unvoiced in our carefully-articulated academic free state. “We will do this because we have been told.” “We have to.” Worse, I realized that I fully accepted that logic, and then turned on my heel, entered my classroom and expected students in their first term at university not to, to ask the tough and confusing questions while I chatted to them about structures, rules, liberatory pedagogy, and asked them to play card games without rules. [Wonderful game, Fluxx, for the curious.]

Sure, I am having great fun this weekend, but that overlays my jittery anxiety about an ongoing and increasing trend in an academic game (in its most serious sense) that really has forgotten to ask questions that many activists brought to the academy in the first place. What an irony that women, particularly racialized women, or women with illnesses and disabilities (the list is much longer of course) are being overseen and thus overlooked, a trend that is mirrored in the classroom. Back to playing the game, though. One of my students has completed the quest and the blog is abuzz, if confused. Someone has suggested a games night. Hallelujah!

Aruna Srivastava
asrivast[at]ucalgary[dot]ca

DIY · turgid institution

Guest Post: Research between the cracks: when you’re a PhD without a library

Today I heard back from the library of the university at which I completed my PhD a year ago. Sadly, they are unable to offer me online, off-campus library privileges, even with Visiting Scholar status. Only current faculty, staff and students can access the online resources. It took the library two months and countless messages from myself and my former department’s Chair and Graduate Secretary to provide this information.

So if I want to access databases like the MLA, peruse online journals, or see what books are in the library system, I have to go physically to campus and work there, in a crowded public lab filled with undergraduates. That’s a bit of a drag when you’re trying to be an academic researcher in the 21st century, and want to check something on the MLA at 2 in the morning – or briefly at 3 in the afternoon, for that matter.

I don’t have an academic job right now. Like so many recent PhDs, I’m cobbling together what I can, teaching sessional, applying for jobs, looking for other options and yes, grateful for the work I do find. But moving forward is not easy when you’re not affiliated with a university. It’s much more difficult to research and write papers when you don’t have good, unlimited access to an academic library. Heck, the moment my card expired after my PhD I was back to borrowing status as a member of the public: 3-week loans on a regional library card, with no way of accessing interlibrary loans.

My former department has been very supportive, and they tried their best to help me. But university policies, and library policies, are very clear: they’re meant to exclude me the moment I graduate. In the current economic climate for PhDs – and the current employment climate generally, with its rise in sessional positions and cutbacks to full-time workers – universities should rethink their relationship to their alumni, and offer more institutional support to their PhD graduates. After all, the harder it is to publish, the easier it is for us to perish. Ultimately that makes them look bad too.

–Susanne Marshall

canada · equity · turgid institution

What do women want?

The other evening I was invited to the home of a retired colleague to talk about equity. The idea was to discuss some of the unsettling trends in the Stephen Harper administration and in our own university and come up with a plan for revitalizing feminist struggles.

We failed. Oh, we had plenty to say about Ottawa, and our universities, and our funding structures, and even our colleagues, but when it came right down to the gnarly question of what we mean by equity – well, when it came down to that, we failed. We could not say what we want.

These last few days, I have been pondering why. I will speak for myself, but perhaps what I say here will resonate with you too.

Partly, I find it hard to say what I want in the name of equity because I want so very many things for the profession. Some of them are directly connected to equity, some are loosely associated, and some are entirely distinct. Among the things I want: cheaper tuition; smaller class sizes; a clear job description; the return of my colleagues’ telephones; a reinvention of the conference format; more generous and less aggravating support for research; a broader understanding of university-community relationships; recognition of graduate supervision as part of our workload; academic jobs for grad students who want them; time to think; and a Jil Sander suit.

It’s also hard to say what I want because I have been trained in a metacritical / hypercritical tradition that means as soon as something is out of my mouth I can see its pitiable inadequacies. Nothing is ever good enough, and when ‘smart’ is measured by idealist perfection or theoretical rigor rather than the pragmatic dirty compromise of actually existing postlapsarianism – well, then, it’s tough to get the ideas out.

But even though it’s hard, and risky, and guaranteed to be inadequate, I’m going to take a crack at saying what I’d like in the name of equity.

First, I support the Employment Equity Act that governs private sector employers, crown corporations, federal contractors and the public service in Canada. There are other ways to arrive at equality, and the federal contractors’ legislation may not be perfect, but since C21 conservativism’s modus operandi, here and elsewhere, often takes the form of dismantling legislation and institutions, I would like to see us stand behind the State on this one.

I would like the professoriate to resemble the demographics of the country in all four protected categories: gender, visible minorities, Aboriginality, and disability. I thought of keying the demographics to our city or our province but both seem volatile enough that I prefer what I take to be the stabilizing influence of the nation as an analytical category. If 4% of Canada is Aboriginal (wikipedia), then 4% of our university should be Aboriginal. Yup, that’s right: I’m proposing quotas. I’ve never been persuaded by the arguments against American-style affirmative action. (Q: What’s worse than getting a job because you’re black? A: Not getting one.)

One important equity goal would be to see these numbers reflected across the ranks, from undergraduate student to full professor. So maybe until we get it right – about 58% of undergraduates are women but only 18-38% of full professors are women, depending on your discipline, so we have a ways to go – maybe we should build in a buffer: plus two or three percentage points per category, for instance. Anyone out there numerate enough to run the figures?

There has to be a time limit with hard targets along the way. Given how long it takes for an undergraduate to become a full professor, I figure we won’t really arrive until 2025 or so: we need to train the best and brightest, and the system requires flexibility. Equity is a long road. Still, every five years, Canada should be about 30% along. If we’re not, we take pan-institutional corrective measures. If by 2025 our equity results are as dismal as they are right now, we strike.

So here, in a nutshell, is my equity demand: I want the professoriate to match Canadian demographics by 2025.

There are other things I would like. I would like equity categories to be more broadly understood, as well, so that gender is not just men and women, and “visible difference” (visible to whom?) can differentiate between moneyed immigrants and structurally disadvantaged communities. I wish we had a good way to incorporate social class into these categories. (Interestingly, queer representation doesn’t particularly trouble me, though I may be naive about that.) I suspect disability will remain the most difficult for us to wrap our minds around, even though many more academics than you might imagine struggle with invisible disabilities like chronic mental illnesses. On the other hand, how many deaf professors do you know?

So, yes, I would like subtler categories – but I am afraid that at this point I lose the clarity of a simple ask, and so I am willing to work with the categories we have for the time being. I’m pretty flat-footed that way.

Am I prepared to adapt to the changed structures and practices and tenets of our academy in order to help bring about more equitable demographics? I think so. But we would be foolish to think we could foresee all of the changes equity would entail – or to imagine we would necessarily like them. Many English departments are shockingly white, for instance, perhaps even aggressively white, and I’m not sure we would recognize “literature” if we hired more than token minorities. Similarly, it’s easy to say that having more women would strengthen arguments for recognizing and rewarding what I’ve been calling in this blog “emotional labour” – but maybe that’s a middle-class desideratum that would not survive equitable demographics. Do we really want mentoring written into our job descriptions? Maybe…. All I’m saying here is that if we go down the road of changing our institutions, we can’t presume we’ll like each and every alteration.

But I’m certainly willing to find out.

Enough from me. What do you think our institutional equity goals should be?

faculty evaluation · reform · turgid institution

Guest Post: Annual Faculty Evaluation

In addition to being the time of new school-year resolutions, September is also the time for preparing the materials relevant to our evaluation by our department and faculty. I work at a University where faculty members are evaluated on a yearly basis; the result of the evaluation process is the award of a merit increment, which translates to some monetary increment to one’s salary.

During my tenure at my University, I have had a range of feelings for this process. Sometimes it was dread, resulting from uncertainty about whether I have been “good enough” to deserve the merit increment award that would place me, at least, in the “you are doing OK” category. Yet other times, it was hope and excitement, when after a particularly good (in my opinion) year, I was confident that I deserved to be recognized as “above OK” or even, in days of particular optimism, “excellent”. And sometimes, especially after tenure and promotion, it was just bored with the process, when the toil of remembering every “contribution bit” seemed disproportionate to the meaning of the anticipated merit award and much more so to the corresponding monetary award it would imply.

So I have tried to think about how this process might be rehabilitated to be constructive and productive as opposed to a waste of time for the faculty members, who feel like they have to pad their reports with every possible “good deed” that might place them above the bar to the next increment, and for the evaluation committee, who have to pore over these materials in an effort to fairly recognize their colleagues’ contributions, as they divide the pie and doll out the necessarily meager increments.

It seems to me that this process has potentially the opportunity to do two things.

The first is to give faculty members the impetus to reflect on their agenda and to consolidate the past year’s work in an overall coherent vision. Personally, I have found this process to be “cathartic” every time I had to go through it, namely at tenure and promotion and when I had to write a substantial proposal. After each of these times, I felt a new sense of purpose in my research activities as they all were more weighty, building on a longer past work and laying the foundation for a longer term contribution, which, goes without saying, should have a higher impact potential. I think, as faculty members, we all need to believe that our work matters in that it actually contributes to our collective knowledge and it is hard to hold on to that belief if we cannot see a long line of contribution from our past, through the present, towards a future. Academy is a long-term process, not so much slow, but rather “for the long haul,” an endurance race with some sprints intertwined.

The other objective of the faculty-evaluation process should be to give the University administration the opportunity to communicate to the faculty the values for which the University stands. This is the time to recognize the contributions that the University has identified as desirable in its vision and mission statements. I do not think that there is any University that stands for “the most number of publications” and “the best teaching-evaluation scores.” Instead, most Universities profess a vision of high-impact research, high-quality productive teaching and learning, involvement with the scientific community at large, and civic engagement.

The evaluation process and its products, including any associated awards of merit increments, should be intelligent, broad and flexible enough to somehow believably reflect these values. When the process degenerates to a zero-sum game, where a money pile has to be divided in a way that corresponds to each individual faculty contributions, it becomes easier to simply come up with a quantitative formula translating the numerical entries in the individual’s submitted report (papers, grants, money, students, course evaluations) into a merit increment. But there is no vision worth envisioning simply involving the maximization of these numbers. And this oversimplification of the process leaves faculty (especially more senior ones who have invested themselves in the institution and have bought into this vision) feeling cheated when during the year they attempt to make the vision happen and, at evaluation time, what matters boils down to a few numbers.

I wish I had some practical proposal on how the process should work. I don’t. However, it seems to me that part of any reform should consider stripping the process from most (all?) numbers (that lead into oversimplification temptation), infusing it with more memory (looking at a longer time span than a year) and leaving room for more reflection (looking at the faculty members’ perceptions of their contributions).

(The writer of this post wishes to remain anonymous.)

heartbreak · hiring · turgid institution

Guest Post: Spousal Hiring

In May 2010 I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about spousal hiring. The former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University made a convincing case about the need for administrators (not just faculty members and their unions) to care about spousal hiring. He writes:

My experience in the dean’s office confirmed my impressions as to the need for spousal hiring. Johns Hopkins simply could not have built its faculty without a willingness to create positions for spouses and partners.

In case after case, that willingness was, by far, the single most important factor in recruitment. We could increase a salary offer by tens of thousands of dollars a year; provide lavish research accounts; promise a scandalous number of sabbatical leaves—none of it mattered if it meant that a candidate still faced the prospect of a long-distance commute or a major professional sacrifice by a spouse.

Now to be clear here, this issue matters much to me, and likely rang true in many ways because I am one half of a dual-academic couple. In 2007 my husband began a tenure-track job in one city, and in 2009 I began one in another city. I even gave up the second year of a SSHRC postdoc for this job since everyone and their dog told me that I’d be stupid to pass it up. Again and again other academics – those in contract positions, those in administration, and fellow professors of every rank – told us just how lucky we were to land two tenure-track jobs within a 5 hour drive of each other. Heck, they said as they toasted us, at least you’re in the same time zone!

Ours is an academic “success story,” but I’d like to take a moment to articulate my experience of this so-called “success.” I won’t offer a list of things that don’t really work with a long-distance, dual-academic partnership in my experience, because I fear that it will just read as a long whinge, a litany of complaints. (“Is the husband a problem?,” is how the New York Times put it.)

What I do want to communicate, however, is the very real sense of helplessness and lack of agency that both myself and my partner have experienced with respect to academia as we have tried to remedy our long-distance situation. We are crushed by a monolithic and slow bureaucratic structure. Our hands are tied, as are those of our respective Chairs and Deans (for the most part). I thought universities would be places where smart people could come together to find creative solutions to any kind of problem, but I’m learning just how wrong I was in that notion. By and large, the advice that we get is: “just wait it out and eventually you’ll end up in the same place.”

Now while that advice may be true, there is no guarantee that it is true. We could just live out our professional lives split between two Ontario cities. But perhaps more importantly, when well-meaning friends and colleagues tell us that it will all “work out eventually,” what they neglect to realize is the price to be paid for that “eventual” timeline. Put simply: we can neither buy a house nor have children until we’re in the same place. And if “eventually” doesn’t happen soon enough, then the window on having kids will close, whether we like it or not. That, I have to admit, is a high price to pay for what is, at the end of the day, just a job.

Here’s where things stand for us right now: This year I was awarded a research grant and was able to convince my university to give me a one-year unpaid research leave (July 2010-July 2011). So I’m back in the same city as my spouse, working from home. What do I think will ultimately happen? I’m a realist. So what I think will happen is that I will end up leaving academia, and I will try to find work doing something else, and I will be one more female statistic who compromises her own academic and professional goals. So if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that my days in academia are numbered. And that makes me very sad. In fact, it breaks my heart just a little bit. But at the end of the day, I would rather have my marriage than my job. And I just wish that academia didn’t ask me to make that choice.

Lindy Ledohowski, Ph.D.
www.lindyledohowski.com