Thursday, April 30, 2009

Restructuring the University

clipped from

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.

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Mark Taylor's NYT's recent editorial calls the graduate education the "Detroit of higher learning." As in, it's doomed. The quote here (below? above? I don't know) sums up a lot of the ambivalence I feel about academia. WAY too many people are churned through a ruthless system.

I like what he says about disciplines and about problem-focused learning and restructuring the university, and even abolishing permanent departments (to a lesser extent). His suggestion of a "water program" was obviously based on (or was strangely coincidental with) a famous course called (you guessed it) Water at my alma mater, The Evergreen State College. But while this is a great idea for undergraduate education I am not convinced this should be the way of graduate education. Disciplines serve as a form of organization, structure, and shared memory for thought and knowledge. Collaboration is great but without any solid grounding in one or many disciplines, all you have is loose and unstructured knowledge. Plus you have no academic lineage and good luck succeeding in academia without lineage. I can say this for a fact because Evergreen had no disciplines and I am missing a lot of the basic grounding in certain fields that would serve me well today. (On the plus side Evergreen, you excel at the promotion of critical and innovative thinking, reading, and writing skills.)

Taylor spends some time bemoaning narrow scholarship. He's right. I can hardly even explain my work to others. But my field is primarily supported by grants from the federal government (primarily NIH). Should they be paying me to do something that everyone else is doing and that is "obvious"? Clearly not. Is the pursuit of new knowledge flawed just because it's obscure? So what if few people ever read my dissertation. Only a few people need to for it to have any actual impact on the world. In this way, it only matters that people who want to move beyond it read it. They learn what is already known. Then, they go farther. Clearly, many paths are dead ends. But you can't learn or discover something new until you ask a new question, something that hasn't been asked or answered before.

He also suggests mandatory retirement. Oh hell no. Seriously? Abolishing tenure? Yeah, that's probably on its way out anyway. I won't get into that here. Transforming the traditional dissertation? It's likely that any changes in the diss won't be as radical as he suggests. I see no problem with writing a long tome that is rarely read by others. It's a learning exercise. Besides, I had to write one.

Taylor suggests expanding the range of professional options for graduate students? YES. YES YES YES. This is a suggestion of his that I adore. To do this, the graduate students need to be taught practical skills and to be taught by non-career-academics.....people who actually work in their field in the real world (if there is one.) This never happened in my graduate school.

There have been plenty of other responses to this. I'll post to them later in a format that takes html.

Till then, publish or perish!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

u rite reel gude in spite f bee'n a gooey ducker alumni--or perhaps because of??

8:35 PM  

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