Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The University As We Know It

It is always interesting -- and in some cases disturbing -- to read a rant by a professor about the current (apparently awful) condition of graduate education in the US and what (radical) things need to be done to change not just graduate programs but the university as we know it. The most recent example was in the NY Times on Monday.

I do not recognize the university environment described by the author, a professor of religion. It is of course possible that my inability to share the view that the graduate education system is flawed in the ways described could relate to my narrow view of the world but it is also possible that my views are directly related to my very different perspective as a Science Professor.

Long-time readers will know that one thing I love about being at a university is the diversity of academic pursuits. I have a liberal arts background and I teach courses that merge science and the humanities. Some of my best friends are humanities professors..

Even so, I know there is a huge gulf between the experiences and cultures of faculty and students in the sciences and the humanities, especially at a large university. I sit on university-wide committees in which I interact with my non-science colleagues, and I am always struck by these differences and how difficult it can be for each of us to understand the other no matter how much we interact professionally and socially. At a large research university, professors of science and professors of humanities exist in very different worlds.

But there are significant similarities, of course, and that is why it is disappointing when a fellow academic takes a cheap shot, like using the obscure topic of a dissertation, to argue that universities are too hyper-specialized and need to change. We are supposed to be experts at something, and that something, at the graduate student level, can be quite specific. It is not a sign of the horrific state of graduate education that dissertations and journal articles and many books are highly specialized and have titles that appear boring to the vast majority of humans, academics and non-academics alike. Some of these titles even win awards.

Being highly specialized does not preclude one from having a broad view and does not disqualify one from being involved in interdisciplinary research. There are many opportunities to do multi-inter-transdisciplinary research during, but especially after, the PhD. Most of my colleagues participate in various initiatives of this sort, and many of these are organized to benefit graduate education (e.g. IGERT). The stereotype of the ultra-specialized professor working alone to produce scholarly works that 5 people will read is not something I encounter, and I publish just as many articles with obscure titles as anyone.

In fact, many of us live and die by citation indices. One can argue about whether that is better than not caring whether anyone reads our work and whether it is a good thing that we know our h-index and the impact factors of journals, but it would be difficult to make a reasonable case that we don't care about the audience of our scholarly works and are content to send our scholarly works off into obscurity.

And what of tenure? Tenure is either seen as the major cause of stagnation in academia or the key to academic freedom and therefore the ability to be creative and take intellectual risks. That's because it is the source of both and that is why I prefer that tenure live on, but with a post-tenure review process that has sharper teeth and real consequences. It should be possible to create (and implement) a post-tenure review system that is carried out in a constructive, humane way that minimizes political and personal issues and allows for shifts in the research : teaching : service equation over the course of a career.

That said, I think mandatory retirement might be a good thing.

I am not against major, dramatic changes in our universities. For example, I was recently sitting in a large auditorium filled with hundreds of scientists and engineers, and as I looked around and realized that there were about 10 women present (mostly students), I could think of one particular major change I wouldn't mind seeing in my lifetime.


Anonymous said...

It seems that the situation in terms of post-secondary education is quite unstable nowadays. Here's a tidbit I foudn online today that I think would be of interest to you and useful should you choose to further elaborate on your topic.


WiseWoman said...

Nonononono. I just read the article, and there's no button to leave a comment, so I have to do it here :)

Getting rid of dissertations with footnotes is not the way to go. Footnotes are important, Mr. Taylor, so that the 5 others who read this work can find the sources and see if they are interpreted right. (Which leads to another question, why do people think footnotes are instruments of torture? They are there for a scientific reason.)

The thought of "alternate" formats for a thesis makes my toenails curl. A game? How will we preserve it for posterity? Programming a game is tough computer science, so I don't see this being a dissertation in religion. Ditto film. Both are also seldom independent productions. You need a largish team to make either.

A hypertext or web-site? Maybe as an auxiliary product of the work, but not as the main focus. By all means, publish the dissertation in the university Open Access database. But there should still be some print copies around. I actually just recently had to dig for a dissertation published in the 1950s. Completely irrelevant then, but now it offers an interesting twist to a current question. Luckily, there was a copy in some library I was able to obtain. Paper is patient, bits come and go.

Indeed, it would be better to pay grad students and adjuncts a better wage. But I still savor the advantages of tenure - I can be as outspoken as I want to without fear for my job. I can work in obscure areas of research that might someday be important. Sure, there are people who misuse tenure. But we need to come up with ways to prod these colleagues into staying up-to-date.

I'm afraid the "new university" won't fly, been there, tried that. A group of people tried to invent a new university a few years ago called the Wikiversity. It was to transcend disciplines, focus on what we do at university: teach - learn - create - discuss - think. It got steamrolled in no time flat by a group of people who insisted that a university must have umpteen departments and subdepartments. At least with hypertext you can be the subdepartment of multiple departments. But the whole thing just replicated what was broken.

Kwitchyerbitchin, Mr. Taylor.

RoboFemme said...

FSP, I'm so glad you posted these comments. I also read that article in the NY Times, and it did make me (briefly!) question my academic career plans. Every career seems to have its downsides, of course; getting a balanced perspective is so important and so helpful. Thank you!

James said...

I agree with this whole post.

Regarding mandatory retirement, it seems to me a legal (ie non-ageist) way of instituting it would be to hire professors on contracts of however many years necessary so that they expire when the professor turns 65. Do you think this would ever work? I guess the main downside would be that the dean might compromise on the length of the contract because they will be long gone when it becomes clear this was a bad decision.

Lillian said...

Excellent comment, I hope you send this to the NY Times.

Greg said...

I think, perhaps, you should write a rebuttal to the NYT! You are spot on, as usual. I also agree with you about post-tenure review. As much as we all gripe about "assessment" we definitely need to do more self assessing on a regular basis.

Anonymous said...

A great reply to an obnoxious essay. And did you notice that he is a chair? I sure wouldn't want to be coming up for tenure in his department!

He really doesn't mention science much in that essay. It makes me wonder if the author realizes his arguments don't apply well to science departments, or if he is just ignorant. Where do biology and chemistry fit in his "zones of inquiry?" We're all going to start studying water? So much for organic chemistry.

Anonymous said...

Question from Student:

Are Engineering PhDs better?
Better pay, better jobs, can work in academia or industry. For example: Chemical Engineering is better than Chemistry (if you like Chemistry and sci. expt as a child?)

Anonymous said...

I think there's a real problem with the interaction between "permanent" tenure (i.e. no tenure review process) and the illegality of mandatory retirement (after the supreme court case in the US, ruling that mandatory retirement was age discrimination). Effectively it has created a system where people can hold on to tenured slots without doing anything at all. And in some cases, these individuals can be dysfunctional and contribute to a dysfunctional department, especially when times become troubled, as they are now.

My suggestion for a solution is not to remove tenure, but to have tenure with a long renewable contract (for example, a 25 year contract, or a 30 year contract). It couldn't be based on the age of the person, so we would end up having different ages at the end of the contract, but I'd set the length of the contract at the 70 (or 67?) - the average age of tenure at your university. Contracts could still be renewed, but it would allow a time point at which there could be a real review process with teeth.

Erin Hotchkiss said...

I can see the retirement issue being one that needs to be addressed by many Universities in the near future.

We have a couple of professors in our science department who were at-retirement and are now planning to continue teaching courses and even start up new research programs. All of this, they will tell you openly, is due to the fact that they no longer have enough money to retire.

While I am sympathetic to their situation, when will this pre-retirement extension translate into fewer positions opening up for younger professors to join our department? I think it will be soon....

Curt F. said...

I think the commenters so far are overreacting to the essay. First, how many people noticed Francis Fukuyama's similarly-themed essay in the Washington Post two weeks ago? Fukuyama's call for abolishing tenure did not include any concrete proposals for what to put in its place, or really address the link between retirement policy (and law) and tenure policy. Taylor at least addresses this nuance.

My instinct is that Taylor's proposed changes could well have the effect he says: universities could turn over their faculties faster and reward the effective sooner and more often as a result.

However, I fear that seven-year contract system Taylor advocates might insufficiently protect academic freedom. And academic freedom is (supposedly) the whole reason tenure exists in the first place. Sometimes people question the need for science and engineering faculty to have academic freedom (see discussion here, for example). The argument is usually that nothing a scientist or engineer says could be so politically controversial as to incite calls for their dismissal. But that is short-sighted. Academic freedom also means being able to assign a poor student the grade he deserves, without having to worry about whether the student's father is a major donor to the university. Academic freedom might mean being able to pare down the number of funded grants a professor has for a short time, maybe to spend a year focusing on service work, or to focus on seeking funding in a totally new research area. Academic freedom might mean insisting on researching "unfundable" research areas with little or no funding, all the while being sure that eventually your results will speak for themselves and that everyone else's view will come around.

So I am not convinced that a 7-year contract would be the best replacement for today's tenure system. But nonetheless, I am happy to see Taylor's op-ed, unlike Fukuyama's, understand that the problem is not tenure per se, but the link between tenure, retirement, and hiring policies.

But, of course, since I am in the hunt for a tenure-track academic position myself, I suppose I might be biased.

Karrasko said...

I think this Mark C. Taylor needs your reply. Excellent post.

daisy mae said...

i'm going to pick up on the last snippet - that of women in graduate school, particularly the sciences.

1) in my experience, there are more women in graduate school than men, in the sciences (note that this is anecdotal!)

2) in a group of all women, for example, a "women's dinner" where female graduate students are brought together with female professors, there is lively conversation about being a woman in science, stories are traded about how to best approach different situations, and academic politics are explained.

3) women leave these dinners with one of two impressions: empowerment, or defeat. many women feel defeat as students, because they "didn't realize i would have to work THAT hard".

4) the marriage/childcare issue. while men seem to be lauded for being married and having children, as a whole they are viewed as a detriment to a woman's career (exceptions abound).

5) getting women to the sciences to begin with

there's an entire compendium of issues raised here, from getting young girls interested in the sciences, to keeping women motivated in the sciences, to encouraging female professors to be role models and mentors.

Unknown said...

A very even-handed response, and I agree with other commentators that you should submit this rebuttal.
That said, your professed openness to "major, dramatic changes in our universities" is a concluding observation that comes off as too little, too late. I agree with the tenor of your primary argument (which, in my mind, says that Taylor's argument is unreasonably black and white; ie, as you rightfully point out, there's more to tenure than mere job security). But I also think you would need to acknowledge an important tenant of Taylor's piece: that hyper-specialization is preparing far too many for far too few positions. "Being highly specialized does not preclude one from having a broad view and does not disqualify one from being involved in interdisciplinary research..." Amen, sister. But, too often, being highly specialized really does preclude students from adequately preparing to succeed in intellectual endeavors outside of academia.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

I (and others) also noticed this terrible editorial's lack of acknowledgment of (and understanding of) how the university is a different place to scientists.

I address some of his points from the point of view of a computer science professor directly in my blog post:

barbara said...

I was very upset by that article, especially by the underlying idea that research topics of interest to very few people should not be funded.
As a pure mathematician, this would mean stopping research altogether. So let's look back. Would this have been wise?

Say Einstein starts writing down the equations of general relativity, and there's no differential geometry there for him to use. Or physicists start coming up with the standard model, and there are no books on Lie groups and their representations in the library.

Come to think of it, would the theory of gravity fit the description? Newton produced a very large, and very difficult, theoretical framework which had at the time very few concrete applications.

All of the above, of course, without even starting a discussion of how many centuries it took to develop the mathematical techniques underlying our ability to make safe purchases online.

This professor's proposals all seem to me to fit squarely into applied science. I have nothing against applied science, but you can't apply what you don't have.

Anonymous said...

"That said, I think mandatory retirement might be a good thing."

Do not even get me started. I am an assistant professor at a large research university. The only female in the department and the first in many many years. 1/3 of my colleagues should have been forced to retire years ago. They do not have active research groups, do not contribute anything to the department, do not help mentor the graduate students and basically stop anything from changing because they don't want to have to do any more work than teach their one class a semester. Two of said colleagues have stated that they will never retire they will die in their office.

I have no qualms with faculty staying in a department 'if' they are still active contributing members. However, this contingent is hurting my future, hurting my department and need to GTFU.

I think it is a very bad idea to have the same head of the department for more than 5 years. Things get stagnant, people become complacent, and 'buddies' are allowed to get away with stuff that they shouldn't.

We are currently trying to hire a new head and one of my 'colleages' sent an anonymous letter to the person we made an offer to basically stating that he was a sub-par choice and that the department did not want him as head. Appalling in my opinion. Cause it ain't true.

Ms.PhD said...

Funny, I wrote about this before I saw your post. here's mine.

Let me just say here: I actually mostly agreed with him. I'm pretty surprised at your response and those of the comments here.

I didn't expect him to know about the sciences. How many humanities professors do? So I don't hold that against him. He's writing from his perspective, which is valid and worth considering. And well-written, I might add.

So I am surprised at how threatened these responses sound, and how literal the interpretation of some of his points, for example the organic chemist who opined how could he suggest we work on Water in problem-focused departments.

I knew what was meant, but apparently a lot of people didn't. Maybe it's just my liberal arts background talking, but I'm shocked at how closed-minded these responses are.

So let me propose this instead.

As a scientist, if you can't keep questioning your model, you're dead.

Consider your response to the university and ask if you can be objective? Let's be honest: since you're currently benefiting from it, you can't.

So maybe you need to take a step back and ask a safer question: could it be better than it is now?

Answer: Absolutely.

Maybe you should consider more than your own perspective on this.

Kevin said...

I agree to some extent that "Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural."
Our grad program requires courses from 4 different departments (5 if you count crosslisted courses) and encourages electives in still other departments. But then our department is inherently highly cross-disciplinary, because of the subject we study. (When we tried recently to get approval for an special hire, we got letters from faculty in engineering, biological and physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities, all supporting the hire. Amazingly in this budget, the administration actually agreed to let us make an offer---it will be a few months before we hear which of several offers the assistant professor candidate is going to accept.)

I see no positive connection, though, between increasing cross-disciplinary studies and increased regulation of the university. Increasing regulation tends to *decrease* innovation and make things more hidebound.

Kevin said...

Taylor's point about printing dissertations is very discipline-specific. Most PhD dissertations in science and engineering have a print run of 3 (or whatever the university requires for its library). The purpose of a dissertation is to prove that the person is capable of substantial independent work. If there is anything in the thesis worth publishing, it is supposed to be distilled into smaller journal-article-sized pieces.

My own PhD thesis was worthless a few months after it was finished (or maybe a few months *before* it was finished). There was one moderately interesting proof in it that I probably should have written up as a journal article, but I was too busy trying to create and teach new graduate courses for 60 students with no TAs and no computer support.

Since then I have had many highly-cited publications, none of which are related to my thesis.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the author realizes that graduate students in the physical sciences don't pay tuition and get a decent salary.

amy said...

FSP, thanks for the great reply to Taylor. I just want to say for the record that many (most?) of us in the humanities also found his proposals infuriating and poorly defended. There's lots of buzz about the piece on humanities blogs, most of it negative. The excpeption would be his point about the need to make sure PhD students have real options when they graduate. This is a problem in the humanities, especially literature, and one that needs to be addressed. But Taylor's proposals would not address this problem at all. For a good response on this, check out Bousquet at the Chronicle:

Also, many of us do have friends and co-researchers in the sciences, and we know how different things are in different fields. Taylor's not representative.

Anonymous said...

Ms. PhD, I'm the threatened organic chemist who posted earlier, although I'm not an organic chemist and not feeling particularly threatened. I think the idea of telling organic chemists to study water is pretty hilarious! AND they have to start collaborating with their colleagues in religious studies.

But, seriously. Taylor's op-ed is on restructuring the university. Not just humanities, but the whole university. It is absolutely fair to call him on his ignorance of science. The best he can come up with is space, time, and water? Please.

The major dramatic change I would like to see in universities is the removal of jerks from positions of power. I can't believe the chair of an ivy league department referred to a grad student's dissertation topic as irrelevant, in the NYT, with enough detail that it takes all of five seconds to identify the student. That is jerk behavior.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ms. PhD, I am surprised by the comments here. As a former scientist, I agreed with most of Taylor's comments. One of the central issues that FSP is overlooking is where do all the PhDs with ridiculously specialized expertise end up? Because the majority won't be faculty members, the only job they spent years training for. It's easy to not even recognize this as a problem if you've managed to solve it for yourself.

I'll go read Ms. PhD's post now. Hopefully it will be more realistic than FSP's.

Female Science Professor said...

I was feeling bad for the author of the 'obscure' dissertation as well. When I was a grad student, if the chair of my department had singled out my dissertation for ridicule in the New York Times, I would have been quite unhappy. I hope he apologizes to the student.

Anonymous said...

I never in my wildest ignorance thought that after getting my PhD in chemistry I was doomed to trying to obtain the unattainable academic position? Who actually thinks this?

It's ignorance on the grandest level to think that somebody with a physical science PhD can't get a job doing whatever the f*ck they want.

A lot of Taylor's criticims do hold true for the humanities and liberal arts but is completely off base for the sciences.

That being said, for the number of people that go to college it's amazing how few actually understand what a professor does and how much research goes on at universities that isn't obscure or so incredibly specialized that nobody cares or understands.

Kevin said...

"for the number of people that go to college it's amazing how few actually understand what a professor does and how much research goes on at universities that isn't obscure or so incredibly specialized that nobody cares or understands."

A common problem indeed, but one that can be remedied by including several undergrads in your research group. Seniors are not that different in productivity from first-year grads, and getting them involved in research can make a big difference in their subsequent views about what education, research, and universities do for the world.

TW Andrews said...

Wow. I can't wait until I can hire a PhD, Water from one of the local prestigious research universities.

It seems as if the author doesn't understand the nature of how knowledge is gained and transmitted. In order for people to come together to address all the questions surrounding water, they should first have some relevant expertise. A fresh water biologist is going to get limited relevant knowledge out of coursework on water rights, I suspect.

I think some of this is driven by inherent differences in the nature of research in science vs the humanities.

In science, new knowledge is built upon the foundations laid by previous scientists. Even paradigm shifts depend upon previous edifices of knowledge by (for instance) reconciling seemingly inconsistent theories.

Graduate "research" in the humanities is not like this. There are only so many ways to parse Proust (or the Bible, or whatever else), and developing an original view on the subject often depends on negating or simply ignoring something said previously. Hypotheses aren't there to be falsified, experiments aren't set up or conducted, and so, while occasionally a new way of looking at things may help tranform the way society interprets something, it's mostly just editorializing on a given topic.

The other thing that I think this misses is that for PhDs in technical fields, there is a market outside academia (though I think many academic research departments could do a better job of promoting these options to students). I'm pretty sure that's not the case for PhDs in Comparative Religion.

Anonymous said...

"A common problem indeed, but one that can be remedied by including several undergrads in your research group."

I'm the anonymous you're responding to and I do have several really bright undergraduates working for me. The whole reason I got into scientific research is because of an opportunity to do undergraduate research. I am a Grade A #1 proponent of undergraduate research.

All professors at all universities should try and incorporate a little bit of their research into the teaching of their courses. Not to override traditional topics that must be taught but to make the students aware of what is going on at their school.

But yes, a PhD in comparative literature. Not many non-academic jobs for this specific field? Where do publishing companies get their editors? Who becomes literary agents? A PhD is a research degree where you learn to think critically, come up with independent ideas and execute them. I gotta think there are jobs for people that can do this.

A PhD isn't always about the exact subject matter but the ability to execute research in a manner where you earn the respect of your peers.

Anonymous said...

"Where do publishing companies get their editors? Who becomes literary agents?"

A BA does just fine for both those careers and a PhD is no additional help at all. Seriously -- speaking as someone with such a PhD (and a science bachelor's) -- there are many humanities fields in which a PhD is basically *only* worth undertaking as a professional qualification in order to attempt to become a professor. This is just not the case in most areas of the sciences.

FSP, it would be nice to hear more about why you think mandatory retirement would be a good idea, as you tacked on at the end. In my experience in my specific (humanities) department, at least, the people who'd be pushed out by such a move are the most productive and influential scholars and prolific advisors/mentors, while the burnouts take their retirement as soon as it's available.

Ms.PhD said...

TW Andrews wrote:

In science, new knowledge is built upon the foundations laid by previous scientists. Even paradigm shifts depend upon previous edifices of knowledge by (for instance) reconciling seemingly inconsistent theories.Um, no. Sometimes new knowledge comes from a completely different direction. And FYI, inconsistent theories don't get published anymore, especially if the previous edifices are deeply entrenched and the purveyors of the new "inconsistencies" are politically powerless.

But hey, you can keep on thinking we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Anonymous said...

Okay, then I'm confused. Depending on your field a PhD is a good thing or a bad thing. The people who go on to get PhDs for the pure academic pursuit of it, often can't get a job because they are 'over-qualified' and have to be paid too much for their specific field. Which to me is the actual problem more so than over specialization.

So, Taylor thinks that PhDs are too specialized and nobody cares about the research.

Or, it could be what I think is one of the main problems in America. Companies/corporations want to cut costs and increase profits by paying people the smallest amount possible for a person to do a job with the smallest amount of education possible.

Anonymous said...

Definitely this should be sent as a rebuttal to the silly NYTimes Op-Ed, but I was especially glad to hear the last part. It's very frustrating that there's concern in the NYTimes pages about whether we keep the doors open to foreign PhDs for jobs and postdocs (which we should!) but with no discussion that we're losing ~50% of the talent we've grown at home. This is a huge loss of human capital that we've paid to develop, plus it's just damn frustrating.

Anonymous said...

"Um, no. Sometimes new knowledge comes from a completely different direction."

The writer did not say it was impossible for knowledge to come from a new direction also.

"And FYI, inconsistent theories don't get published anymore..."

I am very sad for you if this is true in your field. There is certainly a lot of seemingly inconsistent data / intellectual debate about underlying processes in my field.

Catherine said...

Dear Anonymous 4/29/2009 04:32:00 PM,

I am an editor at a scientific publishing company. A PhD (and preferably additional research experience) was an absolute prerequisite for my job, along with all of my editorial colleagues across the company.

Catherine Goodman
Associate Editor
Nature Chemical Biology

Anonymous said...

Catherine Goodman, you appear to have completely misunderstood my point (I'm the anonymous commenter you responded to). Sure, in highly specialized fields of academic and sci-tech publishing, editorial staff sometimes need to have Ph.D.-level expertise in order to fulfil their editorial function. Surely you don't mean that a comp lit or English or philosophy or history Ph.D. is what gives you and your staff the necessary qualification to edit your journal?