28 April 2009

NYT Reams Grad School

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans)....

The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

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....

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. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) 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.

From here.

Like many editorials, it is half right, but only half. The solutions are mostly lacking, and the goals are fuzzy.

UPDATED WITH ANALYSIS: As the editorial notes, in most fields, a graduate degree is preparation for a position as a faculty member somewhere.

There are specific graduate programs (e.g., JD, MD, MBA, MFA) which are primarily intended to prepare you for a career outside academe. There are also programs structured as traditional academic degrees (e.g. graduate degrees in engineering and the science, in psychology and in economics) where there is a significant market in private industry and government for someone with this kind of training. And, then there is graduate studies in education for K-12 teachers and principals, where graduate education as a form of continuing education is expected and built into the pay scale, and the degrees awarded are almost incidental to the professional advancement that comes with being in the system and progressing with continuing education while doing so.

But, there are many fields of graduate education, particularly in the humanities and social science, and in more theoretically and basic science oriented fields within the humanities, where there is little or no employment market for those qualifications outside academe.

A really insidious part of the graduate education/faculty hiring puzzle is that there is too little emphasis on teaching and advising students, and too much on scholarship. For the vast majority of faculty at the vast majority of institutions of higher education, teaching should be the primary responsibility of faculty, followed by duties like advising students, participating in campus life, and staying abreast of developments in the field.

There should be a place for faculty at all institutions to do original scholarship. But, this should not be the focus of hiring decisions, which should not have completition of a PhD with a dissertation as a requirement or as a standard of educational quality that is measured to evaluate the institution. Instead, hiring should focus on teaching ability, and, in pre-professional fields, on professional experience and succcess in the field taught. Original scholarship should not be an important criterion for securing tenure and advancing professionally for these faculty, while teaching should be a crucial evaluation standard.

This change would in short order end the current glut of almost never read dissertations and academic journal articles. It would also compress the typical time spent in graduate from an expensive near decade, to just three or four years.

Most higher education faculty should be on a "teaching track." Almost all faculty should be on this track in community colleges and four year colleges, in pre-professional master's degree programs, and at schools like Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, where I grew up, where the vast majority of students (well over 90%) are undergraduates, and where a large share of graduate students are in professionally oriented graduate programs like education, nursing, fine arts, or environmental science.

This isn't to say that there isn't a place for a "scholarship track" in higher education. These faculty should do PhDs with dissertations, should be hired and promoted based upon their scholarly potential, and should spend only half or less of their time teaching and advising students, and a good share of those should be higher level undergraduates and graduate students. But, there are only about 300 out of 3000 schools that offer bachelor's degrees that do a material amount of graduate instruction, and the number that should have a scholarship track is far smaller, probably only a hundred or two. Even at those institutions, not all faculty should be on a scholarship track, which should include perhaps 5% or less of the full time higher education faculty in the nation.

In connection with these changes, those who do the teaching in institutions of higher education, particularly graduate students and adjunct faculty, should be compensated better, get more respect, and have more regularized positions. They should be compensated, given benefits, and given the kind of security at least on a par with that associated with assistant professors (i.e., full time untenured junior professors on a tenure track, typically hired for one or three year terms -- the next step up is an associate professor who typically is a full time tenured professors with three or more years of experience, while full professors are typically full time tenured professors who have served with distinction and continued to publish research for an extended period after receiving tenure who receive better compensation and perks than associate professors).

Adjunct faculty should be used to provide insights from someone not available on a full time basis, for more than the per class compensation of an assistant professor, not as a source of cheap teaching labor. The notion of the full time adjunct, typically titled an "instructor" should be abolished.

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