Changing Directions

massachusetts1445-gate_930405In a recent issue of Harvard Magazine, one of my graduate school professors (before he was at Harvard), Louis Menand, encourages graduate schools to change directions:

Doctoral education is the horse that the university is riding to the mall. People are taught—more accurately, people are socialized, since the process selects for other attributes in addition to scholarly ability—to become expert in a field of specialized study; and then, at the end of a long, expensive, and highly single-minded process of credentialization, they are asked to perform tasks for which they have had no training whatsoever: to teach their fields to non-specialists, to connect what they teach to issues that students are likely to confront in the world outside the university, to be interdisciplinary, to write for a general audience, to justify their work to people outside their discipline and outside the academy. If we want professors to be better at these things, then we ought to train them differently.

After receiving my Ph.D. (and I raced through that degree, student loans gnawing on my heels, despite teaching at several colleges at the same time), I wrote an article complaining about the narrowness of my graduate school education.  While I spent days immersed in the appropriate biographies and fictions of my chosen authors, as well as feminist and literary theory, by 3pm I’d stop, watch a rerun of Thirtysomething to clear my head, then head to whatever college I was teaching at that evening, trying to “teach [my] fields to non-specialists”.  Despite one required class in Teaching College English, I was still a novice at teaching, creating assignments, classroom management, evaluating student writing.  I wanted my graduate program to offer me more help with the job I was so clearly “credentializing” to do.

And now, as I spend my weekends alternatively evaluating how well I did with that teaching (aka grading essays), and working on two articles “for a general audience” as well as  a presentation that is part of my own quest to “justify [my] work to people outside [my] discipline and outside the academy,” I take another look back at my graduate education, and remember that yes, there was one professor who took pains to explain how we could improve our writing, requiring that we read and respond to each other’s drafts, and another who encouraged us to present our work at smaller interdisciplinary conferences, thus forcing us to write for a wider audience.  I had hoped those rare professors of the early 1990s were much more common now, but Menand’s essay suggests otherwise—at least at Harvard.

Menand’s essay concludes with a warning, however, that graduate education should change directions, become more like a law degree in terms of efficiency (so at least 3 years in length but fewer than the 10 it takes many students?), yet still maintain its purpose of creating the next generation of cultural watchdogs, of sorts:

But at the end of this road there is a danger, which is that the culture of the university will become just an echo of the public culture. That would be a catastrophe. It is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate. Academics need to look to the world to see what kind of teaching and research needs to be done, and how they might better train and organize themselves to do it. But they need to ignore the world’s demand that they reproduce its self-image.

I don’t work with graduate students beyond those few working on a teaching-centered masters degree, so I’m far removed from that world now.   But I know many academic bloggers do.  Is graduate school, particularly in English, changing in ways that reflect the need for less insularity? Is it a degree that can prepare someone to be not just an academic (in a market with fewer tenure track job openings annually*) , but also a public intellectual and someone who is seen as being an asset in other, non-academic, fields?  If so, how are they changing exactly? I’m curious.

* Added 16 Nov 2009: Mark Bauerlein blogged about the dismal job opening numbers in English and languages.

2 responses to “Changing Directions

  1. Academic culture changing? HA!

    In my dept., which does offer a PhD, there is a great deal of hand-wringing over this whole situation — we produce scholars in the traditional way, with the traditional skills, despite the fact that we know there are no traditional jobs available for them. But, any efforts to alter this are shouted down by the old fogies, who believe that change = downgrading of standards. And, even those who are most aware of the changed nature of the field (the younger/recent profs — and I include myself in this category), are at a loss as to how to change things. So, we muddle along as usual — just with lots of guilt.

  2. Thanks for the honest assessment , BS girl. Do the grad students ever ask for “more” or return with complaints? I assume grad students themselves are choosing to stay with the traditional route, too, if they are still attending a “traditional” program.

    Not that I even know what a non-traditional grad program in English would look like. I suppose as long as the traditional barely readable dissertation is the capstone (rather than, say, a series of published articles), not much CAN change, except inside individual classes?

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