Saturday, May 2, 2009

"Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning"

Mark Taylor, the Chair of the Religion Dept at Columbia, has a pretty interesting Op-Ed piece in the New Yorker, entitled "End the University as We Know It". It's a pretty radical piece of writing that advocates a complete restructuring of the University System, and especially grad school. In fact, the piece starts off with:

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).

A pretty grim pronouncement...with an uncomfortable degree of truth, probably.

Anyway, Taylor suggests that higher education is in dire need of complete restructuring. To this end, he suggests that we take the following steps:

1. Completely restructure the curriculum: Taylor wants to get rid of the tiered learning structure, and replace it with a "web-like" system of learning and scholarship, with an emphasis on cross-disciplinary education, which leads to his second point...

2. Abolish permanent departments: Taylor does not like the traditional disciplines. Rather, he suggests organizing university programs around questions or research problems, drawing on a range of expertise to interrogate a variety of topics.

3. Increase inter-institutional collaborations: and Taylor doesn't want to just stop there...he wants different universities and institutes to augment their research with workers from elsewhere.

4. Kill the standard model of The Dissertation: probably the easiest sell, right? 600+ page tomes that no one will ever read, AND you have to re-format everything anyway to gets papers out of it? Yes please.

5. Expand the range of professional options for grad students: meaning that they don't JUST TA or RA for their Profs, but do other things (Taylor is a little vague, here)

6. Impose mandatory retirement, and abolish tenure, requiring professors to keep their work new and exciting.

While I agree with the frustration that Taylor feels for higher education (ESPECIALLY in regards to the Dissertation and getting rid of tenure for profs) , I'm not sure if this is the right way to go about reformatting the University. In particular, the perpetual call for "more interdisciplinary work" is always a little bothersome; what exactly is meant by "more interdisciplinary", and how are you supposed to implement it without a sound grounding in the basics of some standard discipline?

What do you guys think?


Bryan said...

I agree with the dissolution of the Damnable Tome of Archaic Knowledge, just give the students experience with publications, but some of his other points are a bit hinky.

For example, he points out the questionable job market for academics, then in his restructuring of universities he argues:

"Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff"

It seems a bit odd to substantiate his argument that there aren't enough jobs by arguing we should 'halve' the jobs we do have. Plus, I am fairly confident in bureaucracy's ability to sustain its jobs and see to it that the only job losses are the academic ones. Which leads to strengthening the death spiral we are in.

I also disagree with his vague 'problems' departments. One, this is already happening to some degree. Two, it is only going to slow problem solution down further. Taking his example of 'water problems', there is already some collaboration between engineering geologists, ecologists, hydrologists, etc. working on solving the problem. It becomes pointless if these work groups have to incorporate a theologian, a literary scholar, and the art department. Essentially, implementing his plan would be to do what he is decrying. Creating jobs that have no real world benefit.

Also creating 'problem departments' just creates new departments. Except they are more randomly structured. Want to learn about natural disaster mitigation eh? Well you need to talk to the 'Fire' 'Water' 'Earth' and 'Air' departments. They used to be in one place, but now they are scattered.

I am up in the air about tenure. I have seen it do some good, and I have seen it abused. I know I don't like mandatory retirement. Mainly because I have seen people actively doing research well past 'retirement age', and I don't like the idea of forcing these people out.

I also don't like his obsession with 7 year contracts (maybe something biblical inspired this, I don't know). But it seems like it would be a never-ending cycle of tenure track.

My solution would be to focus less on publications and grants, and more on the less quantifiable aspects of higher education. Collaboration, committees, boards, public outreach, quality of instruction, etc. A serious problem with most universities, from my perspective, is the crushing burden of supporting a monstrous bureaucracy. It kills the motivation of departments, and they in turn (in some cases), pass the burden onto grad students.

And maybe I'm biased, coming from sciences, but if I want a job outside academia, they exist (the old saying about 'if it isn't grown, it came out of the ground...'). Maybe the same is not true for more existential departments, like the author's theology department.

Bryan said...

After reading some of the 'editor's choice' comments. I suggest the following links on the article as well.

Eric said...

I also have a problem with his apparent "free market" approach to academia...who is it EXACTLY that is going to be defining these "questions" that we are supposed to orient ourselves around? Corporations that fund research? The gov't?

I mean, the point of having departments, right, is to insulate academics from the uncertain vagaries of life, right? Once you get rid of the Ivory Tower, all you are left with is free-market free-for-all in which the basic tennets of the scientific meritocracy are chucked out the window...

Megan said...

Yeah, I've got some real problems with the idea of ditching an institution that's been so central to Western science and culture for over a century. Modify it, adapt it, fix it, but I do not think destroying it to rebuild it is a good idea.

I agree with Bryan-- organizing around "problems" essentially means creating new departments or interdisciplinary programs. Which pretty much already happens already. And, as Eric points out (because we talked about this yesterday! ha ha!) who is coming up with these problems anyway? I am a participant in an interdisciplinary IGERT program, and I can tell you, framing the problem is the hardest part. The whole point of the disciplines is that they come at any given subject from a different perspective and with different methods. These are not as easily subsumed under a single research program as Taylor assumes. What "the question" is may seem obvious to one group, but may appear different to another. A lot of work goes into figuring out how these approaches might (if they do) fit together. If Taylor wants organization around problems-- will the government or perhaps corporations be the ones to decide what these problems will be, and how will they decide what perspectives (disciplines) will be incorporated? Or shouldn't the people who know the most about the subject, the *experts* (gasp!) work this out without outside political interference (with the exception of stakeholder input in certain kinds of situations).

One thing that annoys me in particular-- when he talks about subfields of subfields who only talk to each other. Well, we've got some tough problems here on earth that require deep, intensive study. We need depth and breadth, which does not mean we should get rid of the 10 people in the world who study X, but to help make it easier for them to talk to the 50 people who study Y. Don't ditch the disciplines-- there is not another way to get the depth and rigor you need to get at the problems he's talking about. He's talking about synthesis, but you need rigorous knowledge and practices to synthesize in the first place.

Tenure: getting rid of it is a terrible idea. 1.) The pressure to publish at high volume in particular favored journals is already hurting the quality of publishing. 2.) Tenure is there to protect academic freedom. I don't want professors fired for their political views or their research choices. An analogy: If you want to get rid of tenure, do you also want to make Supreme Court judges an elected position with term limits? Very similar problems would ensue. 3.) If there are a few tenured professors sitting on their ass, not publishing, teaching, or generally living up to expectations, I think the best way to solve this is to be more careful about giving tenure in the first place, not by getting rid of it! It may still happen once and awhile, but I don't think that's a very high price to pay for an institution that is *the core* of academic freedom.

Finally: teleconferencing+internet=dumb. I don't see how the staff problem is fixed since a professor can't teach twice the load of students with the same quality, particularly from 100 miles away.

OK. Me done ranting now. said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

aqui said...

I totally agree with the article.