29 March 2014

Will Nobody Think of the College Students (Especially the Non-Majors)?

It's not, ultimately, about the Ph.D's.  It's about the college students those Ph.D's are trained to teach.

Let's grant the following:

  • Getting a Ph.D. in whatever field doesn't entitle anyone to anything. 
  • Fulfilling, meaningful work is available outside academia. 
  • Researching and writing a dissertation can hone transferable skills. 
  • Grad school can be fun, regardless of where it takes one. 

Are there still people out there who think that there's "something wrong, something dreadfully wrong, with leaving the ivory tower"?  Perhaps, but when I stand up to be counted among "these people who complain about the fact that we don't just make tenure-track jobs for everyone with a Ph.D.," it's not because I think "PhDs can’t possibly work outside academia like the rest of the hoi poloi. They shouldn’t have to, what with their lily white hands and all."  No, there's other interesting stuff to do out there in the world, and anyone who surfs around the academic blogosphere will quickly find people who have made their way out of academia and are doing it.

Should departments be more receptive to the idea that their graduates may not work in academia? Absolutely, but that's a more discipline-specific solution than many acknowledge.  The Grumpies are responding to a commenter, "Miriam," who points out that, despite the reality that "User experience research is cultural anthropology," many anthropology departments (unlike STEM departments) are unwilling to acknowledge corporate and public-sector applications for their research methods.  That does seem an oversight, one attributable to knee-jerk snobbery.  There are fewer obvious applications, however, for doctoral-level research in history, philosophy, and literature.  Turning doctoral education in those fields into training for corporate and public sector jobs would entail radically reimagining entire disciplines, in ways that the people running graduate programs are poorly prepared to do, even if it were desirable.  And is it?  Other pathways to those jobs exist without diverting resources from higher education.

The Grumpies see the oversupply of humanities Ph.Ds as an inevitability:
So yeah, it would be lovely if, as a society, we took money from Exxon (and you know they’d take it from children’s mouths before they cut corporate welfare) and funded education again, but that won’t solve the problem of the humanities labor market, because the more attractive you make those positions, the more people will want to have them. There will be more jobs, but there will be even more applicants for those same jobs. Heck, even if we cut off all production of new PhDs, folks with humanities PhDs who had given up would return to academia if there were a demand for their services.
Elsewhere in the same post, the Grumpies argue that
But… maybe tenure isn’t all that. 
Maybe, sometimes, it’s worth grabbing that golden ring and throwing it away. 
One of us lives with someone who made the jump (though before tenure), and he’s so much happier.
But setting aside how academia can be both overrated AND so desirable as to warrant abandoning other employment, why is it so unimaginable to tackle the academic labor question at both the supply end and the demand end?

In the utopian world where Exxon profits go to higher education, let's staff lower-level courses with tenure-track faculty instead of Ph.D students, convert adjunct position into tenure-track positions, and only admit as many students into Ph.D. programs as are needed to maintain staffing levels.  Will those humanities Ph.D's come flocking back once they realize that the tenure-track job consists of FYC and required gen eds., with little prospect of teaching senior majors, much less grad students? I honestly don't know.

Hell, let's go nuts here, and make sure that the Ph.D. students we do admit recognize that they are being trained for the profession of teaching college students, and let's structure Ph.D. programs to reflect that outcome.  Let's acknowledge that many humanities departments are, in fact, largely service departments.  Let's recognize that the centrality of research to many tenure-track jobs in the humanities is a fiction sustained by the rank exploitation of adjuncts and graduate students.

But maybe if the academic humanities, from the lofty heights of the Ivies to the most hardscrabble of community colleges, shared a vision of first-rate undergraduate education as the goal--rather than the production of more Ph.D's and monographs--those future Exxon execs coming up through their classrooms would see more value in it.

1 comment :

  1. I dunno, that hasn't been my experience. I've never taken a college class from a graduate student. I've only had graduate student TAs, who are arguably more capable than the undergraduate TAs I've had. I've also had pretty lousy professors whose graduate student TAs were lifelines to understanding the material.

    The elite schools are always going to be that way. The R3s and SLACs without PhD student programs are also always going to be that way, as will the community colleges. Many of the R1s that aren't elite have professors who are largely checked out of teaching because that's not what's important, and a practicing graduate student may be far better than the professor who wishes he were anywhere but there.

    And, of course, being able to teach is an important skill both inside and outside of academia. And there's a lot of evidence that practice teaching is the best way to learn how to teach. Courses in education don't do much, but student teaching does a lot. Some students are going to have to be sacrificed on that altar, just like every July some patients end up betting brand new medical residents. If that means they're helpful in industry or government after graduation rather than the classroom...well...someone is still benefiting.

    And, there's research showing that much of the gains to teaching ability come during the first two years, so an experienced student teacher who has been in graduate school for 7 years is going to be reasonably good.