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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
If they print it in The New York Times, it must be true...right? *rolls eyes* 
28th-Apr-2009 12:47 am
Mark C. Taylor, Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, wrote an op-ed to The New York Times on Monday which, though cringe-worthy on so many levels, makes one valid point about the purpose of graduate education in the United States. Here's the relevant quote (with one little wrong bit in the middle graciously edited out...no, don't thank me):
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 than it is to hire full-time professors.
Huh. Funny, I was just having a conversation about this very topic a few weeks ago with a professor employed at a famous UK university (one of the two everyone has heard of). He was "checking up" on me, I guess, while on a research-related visit to the US, and we met in a West Village cafe.

During the course of our conversation, he lamented to me the way in which American universities, which typically provide full funding and a stipend to PhD students, often out-compete his institution, which typically expects PhD students to pay their own way, for the brightest talent. The best students, particularly those of UK and American nationality, tend to go to American schools that provide them with funding. He noted that his university has trouble retaining even its own best students from the undergraduate and master's levels--again, those who wish to get their doctoral degree tend to go where the money is. He considers this failure to compete a problem and disparaged his university for being too complacent and spoiled on the wealth of rich foreigners to make substantive change.

Tentatively, I pointed out that the "full funding" is actually a pitiable salary, masking the fact that American universities are just using their graduate students as cheap labor.

Well, apparently the grass is always greener on the other side somehow, even when your "side" is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. The professor from the UK emphatically disagreed with me, saying: "You think they wouldn't sack the senior staff, the ones that are making the most, and replace them with graduate students if it would save money? Because they would, you know. But the numbers just don't add up." ("They" of course being the powers that be at his institution.) Anyway, he believed that American schools have a strong institutionalized commitment and sense of obligation to the next generation of scholars and intellectuals. This, he seemed to suggest, does not exist back home and that using graduate student labor doesn't save enough money to make it justifiable.

Of course, what level of savings is "justifiable" is an open question, and probably depends on the context. I've had American professors explain to me exactly how increasing enrollment of new PhD students and then using them as teaching assistants saves money, so arguments against the basic premise are dead in the water. But I readily admit that, on some level, the UK prof may have had a point. Obviously I can't speak for academic culture in the UK generally; all I can say is that this particular professor has always been interested in and supportive of my academic development, even though I never attended his institution. Perhaps he is the exception and not the norm. Who knows? But anyway, American universities and professors really do, generally speaking, consider cultivating the next generation of scholars to be a worthy goal. There is also symbolic value attached to how many successful new scholars are produced by particular faculty advisors/departments/schools. It is this very idealism and professional pride that then becomes vulnerable to perversion and obsessive cost-cutting measures.

Bonus Round Bitching Evidence that the Taylor is a jerk: A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
Gee, I'm so glad I'm not the PhD student whose dissertation is being held up for ridicule in the so-called Paper of Record. And for that matter, can you imagine how said "colleague" feels about having his/her judgment (by implication) and student ridiculed in public by his/her boss?

Bonus Round Bitching Evidence that the Taylor doesn't know what the f*ck his recommendations would actually entail: Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. / A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.
Umm...if all departments in the future are interdisciplinary and "problem-centered," who's going to teach the people in the "humanities, social and natural sciences" et al. their respective fields of expertise that he is proposing to bring together? Oh, and what happens when I get a BA in Water and within seven years that "problem" is solved?
28th-Apr-2009 11:48 am (UTC)
Um, yeah...that sounds like of bullshit...getting a degree in water?! WMST is interdisciplinary, but the primary reason it exists is due to unequal structures of power in society...and in the university. He doesn't acknowledge how some (inter)disciplines exist to challenge the status quo and enact progressive change (Latino Studies, Afro-American Studies, Asian-American Studies, etc.) I fear that by abolishing permanent departments, the new "problem-solving" programs will reinstate normative assumptions concerning race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. Racism and sexism, for example, are "problems," yes, but often the natural sciences contribute to these problems rather than critically contextualizing them. And if part of the origins of such systems of oppression are ideological (and not just material), then what kind of "practical solutions" would the program come up with? It seems his "solution" wants to enact yet another form of academic capitalism, privileging the skills and knowledge of trades and applied sciences over the humanities and social sciences. (Which is funny, since his one relevant point is a critique of academic capitalism and the restructuring of the academy -- why universities, for example, are hiring less tenure-track positions versus more adjunct positions in the context of neoliberalism.)
28th-Apr-2009 03:32 pm (UTC)
I don't see why we couldn't have any number of "Inequality" departments under Taylor's scheme, actually. The stated objective seems to want to put faculty in problem-solving mode, as opposed to a Stanley Fish-esque pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (which as you know is a disposition of tremendous power and privilege...and even more irritating, if possible, than Taylor's recommendations).

I still don't get how, if we were to abolish all departments, how incoming students (both undergraduate and graduate) would gain broad enough theoretical and methodological in a particular discipline (biology, say, or history) to be able to function in more than one of Taylor's problem-solving departments. If I did my PhD in "Media," how would I be transferring my skills to, oh I don't know, "Time"...?
28th-Apr-2009 01:01 pm (UTC)
At first I was prepared to critically engage with his article, even if I didn't agree with it...and then he ripped on Duns Scotus. Man, fuck that shit. SCOTUS 4EVER *throws up the horns*


(yeah, guess what I did in school)
28th-Apr-2009 03:15 pm (UTC)
Actually, teaching takes up a good portion of a professor's time away from research. But in the sciences, the grad students generally do most of the grunt work - run the labs, draft the papers, code the algorithms - because the faculty are too busy writing proposals and getting money and sitting on committees. I asked my electrophysics professor when the last time was that he actually sat down in the lab for more than 5 min, and he just shook his head. The scientists I worked with at the govt lab joked that if they wanted to NOT do research, then they'd go to a university.

I suppose it must be better in other disciplines. You can tell how the work is distributed by looking at what majority of the recent publications a faculty has listed are authored alone or with other faculty members. This is more common, from just my experience, in the social sciences like economics (don't know about humanities).

The recommendations for change are retarded, though. WTF, look mother, I double majored in Space and Time! I can bend the fabric of the universe!
28th-Apr-2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
Actually, teaching takes up a good portion of a professor's time away from research.

I'm not sure what kind of point you're trying to make here. Bousquet (How the University Works) would argue that tenured university professors are being transformed into administrators who hardly ever/never teach and who manage underpaid graduate student and adjunct labor--the labor that does most of the stuff the public generally thinks of as going on in the university. The larger question is whether or not you think this needs to change--and if so, how?

This is more common, from just my experience, in the social sciences like economics (don't know about humanities).

In the humanities and some social sciences, collaboration on published work is denigrated. You really only get "credit" for your work if you do it alone. I'm sure Taylor's desire to upend departments has to do with this impulse in the humanities (remember that he is religion). Collaboration is much easier--and often necessary for large-scale projects--in the sciences.

Edited at 2009-04-28 04:21 pm (UTC)
28th-Apr-2009 04:31 pm (UTC)
I'm correcting the misconception that professors hardly teach. All except the really senior professors teach to some degree; depending on their influence, they have more control over what they teach, whether it be a low-level undergraduate course, or a Ph.D seminar on their area of interest. This needs to change only if the university's goals need to change. I think they should cut back on the amount of administrative work, because that doesn't benefit either students or research. However, since the university is self-governing, it's a necessary evil.

I would argue that's not the main reason. Collaboration is often necessary in the hard sciences, particularly experimental work, because the equipment is expensive and often different people bring expertise in different parts of the experimental process (for example, growing the silicon material, fabricating the devices, etc) to the table, which it's rare for one person to have. Theorists do this less, usually if they need simulation software that they can get someone else to write.

Whatever is said about graduate stipends, the full funding for the Ph.D is still very attractive to foreign students and aids many in making their way to the states, so I wouldn't say it's a total loss. If university's cared about training students to go off to industry, they'd fund master's programs.
28th-Apr-2009 04:44 pm (UTC)
If university's cared about training students to go off to industry, they'd fund master's programs.

Many do. I know many funded masters students.

I'm correcting the misconception that professors hardly teach.

You don't have a very good conception of what "hardly" means in this case. At a prestigious SLAC, tenured professors might teach 3/3. At a less prestigious SLAC, maybe 4/4 or 5/5. At CCs, they may teach as much as 6/6 or even 8/8. You will be hard-pressed to find a tenured professor at a research-intensive university who teaches more than 3/3--and often it's a lot less. And it must not be enough because at many public doctoral-granting universities--and many private ones as well--students can go their entire undergraduate career without having once had a conversation with a tenured professor.

I would argue that's not the main reason.

I don't recall saying that it was. But I can assure you that in the humanities and often in the social sciences as well, budding scholars are *told* not to collaborate--because they won't be credited for the work in the same way as if they solo-authored it.

Be extremely careful not to conflate academic cultures across disciplines. Especially since you will be shifting fields come the fall.
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