Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Merely Academic With an Early Thirsty on Whether It's Ethical to Expand Graduate Programs in the Humanities.

My department is being pressed by the administration to start a PhD program. Many of my colleagues are enthusiastic about this because, frankly, it's fun to teach graduate students, and because it makes them feel as if they're playing in the big leagues.

 But I look at the job market in humanities, and I wonder how ethical it is to train even more PhD students, when the market is already saturated, and when we all know exactly how much likelihood there is that a PhD from a new program will get a job when even PhDs from old, established programs are floundering in adjuncthood.

 My colleagues feel that they have something to offer graduate students, though, and perhaps my own mid-career malaise is affecting my outlook on this project (I don't feel that I have anything to offer graduate students myself).

Q: What do you all think? Is a new PhD program in a humanities field a good idea? Is it even an ethical thing to do to students who might otherwise go do something more sensible with their lives, and not find themselves living in their parents' basements at the age of 40? Am I, perhaps, asking biased questions? 


  1. Of course it isn't ethical. The question answers itself. The question you want to be asking is cui bono?

    The admin wants this because it increases the number of doctoral programs it can say you have, and thereby presumably gain a few points in some bullshit ranking index. And perhaps, since they surely won't be offering anything remotely resembling full funding packages, they are probably already spending the money they think you will pull in for them by rooking the suckers (I mean attracting those highly qualified graduate students). And let's not forget the pool of cheap expendable labour with which they eventually hope to replace a couple of your colleagues when they retire or leave to teach in a real grad program.

    Anyway, the point is, that your admin is composed of unethical, sleazy fucksticks. No surprises there. They see a revenue stream and some cost-cutting down the road. Of course they want this.

    And of course the students you don't have yet get little or nothing out of it. But pointing that out to your colleagues is not a winning argument. They don't give a rat's fuck about that. They want to feel like their jobs just got a little better, damn the consequences. You aren't going to talk them out of accepting the admin's poisoned chalice by hoping that they will develop scruples. They'll sell all your souls for what amount to an illusory prestige bump.

    And that is what always surprises me in these cases. I understand that most proffies don't give a fuck about the ethics. But how can they be so shortsighted about what this will cost them and the department down the line? So if you really want to get them to rethink this, point out the following ugly truths.

    1) Good grad students are fun to teach. Unfortunately, as a new third-tier doctoral program, you won't be getting to teach any of them. And the shitty grad students you will get are going to be twice as disappointing to teach as shitty undergrads. So get ready for the fucking pain.

    2) Even good grad students are a fucking black hole of neediness and incompetence. At the event horizon of a grad student, faculty time grinds to a fucking halt. And the shittier the student, the more of your time they will waste and the more needy they will be. For what that means to you as a department and as individual proffies, see number one.

    3) There won't be enough grad students to go around, so get ready for some serious colleague whining and backstabbing over who gets to teach those precious grad seminars. And despite the fact that those seminars will suck ass to teach (see numbers one and two) your colleagues will soon be at each others throats for the dubious privilege of teaching them.

    4) And finally, because there won't be enough doctoral students to mount real seminars, you'll end up having to blend in MA students and advanced undergrads to justify mounting the fucking courses. And guess what that means? Those courses just got a little shittier and less fun to teach than they already were. It's the circle of fucking life.

    So forget the ethics of this. You are about to fuck yourselves good and hard for no discernable reason. Enjoy!

  2. I agree completely with Angry Andy--no surprise there. May I add that it may also involve "funding" and costs? GTAs are cheap teachers--they are like adjuncts in that way--but as Andy suggests, grad students help increase "positive numbers" for the ridiculous rankings that admins use to get their next jobs. Adjuncts hurt those numbers.

  3. I wrote about this issue, from the faculty's perspective:


    (It's probably considered gauche here to post links to my own writing in the comments. Remove it if you must, but I gave you guys a shout-out in it)

    The gist? It just means more work for the faculty for no more pay, all so that the administration can benefit. And, as put by Archie, it'll be mediocre grad students whining about their grad students rather than mediocre undergrads.

  4. I wrote Andy instead of Archie. I'm in the early lead for the doofus of the day award.

  5. Archie is totally correct on every point. You'll get the dregs of the students who will be prepared to do nothing beyond mediocre undergraduate level work and who will be lazy as a pig rolling in shit. And while you'll want desperately for them to suffer after working with them, contributing to them having an enormous student loan debt that they will never be able to pay off will not make you feel better.

  6. Yep. Where I live, in a not-top-10 program, we (finally) get good grad students, after a huge hiring boom in which we got amazing people because the market is so bad. But because of that same market, we claw and fight with the administration about keeping our program small, and I'd argue we should cap it for a few years or cut it in half and teach grad seminars every other year at the most.

    Just say no.

  7. Definitely be on the "Hell, no!" side of the debate, for all the reasons Archie says.

    And yes, these days the only reason to start a grad program is to put grad teaching on existing faculty members CVs for their own career advancement, and to boost one's rank on some asinine scale. One thing that those ridiculous rankings need to place more emphasis on is tallying up the dead after their PhDs are finished. How many of them are employed in their fields...not just as new assistant profs, but elsewhere that they have a real job. AND adjuncting doesn't fucking count, and should peel points away.

  8. If the faculty is unwilling to work HARD with grad students to get them up to speed on everything they will need to do and have in order to succeed on today's academic job market then the answer would be a no from me as well. If you can say yes, your faculty would be willing to work hard with them and support them in finding jobs, getting on panels, getting publications, and whatever else have you, well then... maybe?

    I come from a program that whines about its lack of placement, but doesn't give most of its students any help or encouragement on getting publications, doesn't actively engage them in much networking at conferences (compared to what I've seen other schools do, not to mention what I've experienced myself through befriending faculty at other institutions who then have introduced me to folks), doesn't really help them with job letters other than telling them to write them like the Semenza book does--and then tells everyone that the reason their students don't get good jobs is because they aren't a top tier program.

    Meanwhile, other schools helped their students pick out good job outfits for interviews (helping them purchase them if necessary), introduced their students around, helped them revise articles for publication, did mock interviews, looked at their letters, and helped them with professionalization. I mean, who would YOU hire--the person who looks like they know what they're doing or doesn't?

    If you think your department can give new grad students the support they need to become good, contributing members of your field no matter their starting level then YES, start a grad program. There are a lot of schools out there that are outright denying the state of the market, are out of touch with their fields, and graduate students (good ones) will come to programs that have it together.

    I don't come from a top tier program. I had multiple offers. So did another student a year ago. Why? We sought help from other, more successful (but maybe not even as "high tier") programs. I would love to one day work in or help start a program like the ones that employed those faculty who have helped and mentored me. They've influenced me a lot, and I would love to be that person for other students.

    That said, anything short of that kind of support is not acceptable. Ask your colleagues to look deep in their hearts, past the funding, past the admin pressure, and past the "but I want to teach higher level students!" to determine if they have the time, energy, and dedication to do what is being suggested.

  9. Another "Archie's right" (without, I admit, the experience to confirm the consequences of getting bad/underprepared grad students, but that sure sounds plausible, and his ethical/job market argument is spot on). My department (in a R2 state school) does have a few PhD programs, and is seeking to add a few more, but the programs are small, and the planning is done very, very thoughtfully, with market demand (both in terms of whether there are other similar programs anywhere nearby and in terms of whether there are jobs out there for the graduates) in mind. That means that we *don't* have, and I'm pretty sure we have no plans to create, an English Literature PhD, but we do have PhDs in a couple of the affiliated, faster-growing (and somewhat social-sciencey) fields that come under our university's very broad definition of "English."

    We're part of a large state system, and I believe this kind of thinking is required by the state (hey, sometimes the bureaucrats get it right). But it strikes me that your department, Merely, could do it voluntarily, seeking to discover if there are any particular subfields in which your department has (or could build) particular strength, *and* for which there is a demonstrated market, either inside or outside the academy (the other key feature of at least two of our PhD programs is that they serve demonstrable needs, with associated jobs, *outside* higher ed), and a dearth of programs in your area/system/kind of university. Unless the answer to all of the above is a resounding "yes" (and the powers that be anticipate giving you an additional tenure line or two to build strength in that area), then absolutely not.

  10. @MLP: That's an awfully nice story. Sure, you are perfectly correct that you don't have to go to a top-tier grad program to get a job (although what kind of job is a different story-- rightly or wrongly, like tends to hire from like in academia).

    The problem is that Merely is in a field that requires a high level of technical skill as a prerequisite for being able to do decent doctoral level work. I'm going to guess (and I'm probably not far off) that there might be 50 graduating seniors in North America each year who have the skill set necessary to jump in and do doctoral level work in her field. The top ten programs suck them all up, leaving dregs for the rest of the world. So the kinds of students her department might get, especially at first, are the kind who need two plus years of remedial work before they are even ready to start working at the graduate level. With a PhD taking an average of 7.5 years to start with, you are talking about students who might need a decade of work or more to have a hope of producing even a mediocre doctoral dissertation.

    No amount of faculty goodwill and trips to the mall to pick out interview clothing is going to help with that.

    Then there is the problem of the market. Her field is awfully small. Some universities have eliminated it altogether. Community Colleges just don't offer it period except in extraordinarily odd circumstances. Lower-tier regionals of the type that might hire someone from a lower-ranked PhD program are the most prone to eliminating it through attrition if they can. And this is justified by the admin because it is an extremely low-enrolling major. I'm guessing that the average department size in her field outside of the real centers is probably three or four people. I think you can do the math there. You are talking about a field in which there are almost no jobs of any description, and most of them are at the better places that already only hire from each other's pools.

    But you are right that having grad students is hard work if you are doing it right. I now this from experience. And I've been working with gradflakes long enough to know that you can't predict going in which ones are going to be the most successful in the long run, which is why some really good people who didn't get a fair look from the top departments occasionally come out of lower-tier programs. But you aren't doing anybody any favors by taking people who are simply not qualified to do work in a highly specialized field like Merely's and pretending that they are going to be doing doctoral level work. It is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness for all concerned. And putting together an entire program on the hope that occasionally you'll pick the occasional nugget of chicken salad out of the gigantic pile of chicken shit you are faced with on a daily basis, strikes me as both irresponsible and self-destructive.

  11. Alternatively....

    I think you could do this, under certain restraints. You could offer the PhD program and have the fun of teaching grad students and still feel like a moral person ONLY IF you satisfy these two requirements:

    * Ensure your program is well-funded so your grad students do not take out ridiculous loans

    That last one is in caps because I am literally yelling it at you.

    I have a PhD and I am currently moving into education administration. It is an awesome job, more industry than teaching but with some (online) teaching required. I get to publish, I go to conferences with stipends, and I'm earning about $60k. My newly hired professor friends are earning between $38 and 45k. So I'm in a good place with room for promotions.

    I could see a humanities PhD program working to develop administrative/political policy design/ education development/library sciences angles that allow for a broader range of employment for your grad students while enhancing their humanities focus.

    Just don't train them to believe that they will one day be professors. They won't. And lying to them about their future professor jobs is what's unethical.

  12. I'll go one further than the Monkey: There's a certain amount of lying involved. Is it necessarily entirely unethical? No. Not even Harvard is entirely honest with its new students. Irrational optimism keeps programs going. Faith makes the world go 'round. A Tier-Three will never become a Tier-Two unless it takes risks. And with risk often comes brutal failure and loss.

    You pays your money, you takes your chances.

  13. @Archie

    Well, I have no idea what field it is other than "Humanities," which my own program falls under. If you have more info--yay! great! I... don't.

    However, I still think that turning out good grad students is more than running grad seminars and throwing them out there--whether that mean technical training, job interviewing training, getting them editing or admin experience--whatever. And there are many programs, even at so-called top-tier schools, that flat out aren't doing it (again, at least in my discipline). Some of these schools seem to believe their letterhead alone will buy jobs. Anymore, that may or may not be true as those PhDs cost more money to hire too.

    Anyway, at the start of my program they told us that pretty much all of us were going to drop out and that none of us would get jobs, then did NOTHING to keep either of those two things from happening. While part A might seem like a reasonable outlook given the job market, I don't think that part B makes any sense at all.

    Anyway, this is all moot. In my current tenure contract, I do not have time to work with graduate students (see above: I think this takes a lot of time to do well, whether that be teaching technical skills on the sly or working with them on interview skills). If the original poster's school is unwilling to amend teaching loads, committee loads, and so on in order to make allowances for a PhD program it flat out shouldn't exist. That would ALSO be a good argument against it, I suppose, and one that the admin might be willing to listen to.

  14. MLP, absolutely, if we don't have (or get) the resources, in terms of time, appointments, library resources, teaching allocations, and funding for the students, I don't think we should do it at all. The problem being that once you've put a lot of effort into planning what your PhD program would look like if resources existed, you're already invested, and kinda want to do it even if the resources don't materialize.

    Also agreed, the only way we could possibly do this ethically or at all is by making sure our students are polished to a fine sheen when they hit the job market. We already do this, whenever we have an interdisciplinary PhD, and the results have been good so far.

    Archie, the numbers aren't quite as bad as you say but you have put your finger on a serious problem. We deal with the lack of technical expertise by already having a well-regarded MA program which spends 2 years beating the technical expertise into the ones who don't have it already. We then ship those students out to name-brand PhD programs in which they generally do well and from which they then graduate with jobs, surprisingly often. I'm inclined to think this is as good an outcome as we could possibly hope for, and we should stop there.

    But our PhD students would likely be locals who don't want to leave the area, and that is just not a recipe for a successful, i.e. employable, outcome, since they are unlikely to want to leave the area after they graduate, either, and there ain't no jobs around here.

    I do like your idea, AM, of urging them to do (at least supplementary) training tending towards administration; but I have no idea what that training would look like. And of course that's not what they signed up to do.

    Thanks for the excellent discussion, all. I'll contemplate what to say to my colleagues. We all mean well.

  15. Academic Monkey said, "I have a PhD and I am currently moving into education administration" and then went on to say that s/he earns more than professors. And then s/he goes on to say that PhDs should be trained "to develop "education development/library sciences angles". I assume that might mean or at least include something like creating CD-ROM and other materials and further the mechanization and depersonalization of education.

    I can't say what I think about any of this without breaking the rules and getting my comment erased.

  16. I teach grad students in a generally superfluous, for-profit MA program. They are better than the undergrads, so the teaching would be more fun if you open up a new grad program. But that is probably the only reason to offer more graduate programs - faculty sanity.

  17. @MLP. I forget who has been around since the beginning. Merely's field has been mentioned before, and you can look at her blog too, which tells all.

    Anyway, I still think your story is, frankly, pollyannaish. I teach in a top ten program in my discipline. Training grad students is the only teaching duty my department and university cares about. I don't accept as many as I could, because I like being selective about who I work with. I do my best to make sure the ones I do take are prepared to do research, to go on the job market, to be in the profession. I haven't failed to place a student yet. But I don't think that has that much to do with me, except that I do a pretty good job picking the good ones out of the application pile. I'm the equivalent of a really good NFL GM, if you like.

    But in the end I strongly disagree with your notion that somehow if we all just worked really hard at teaching our students how to interview and took them shopping for suits that outcomes would be significantly different. The available jobs are the available jobs, and the number of job seekers is the number of job seekers. So there is a giant world of pain and humiliation out there for the vast majority of them. An advisor might be able to change the outcome for one advisee who is on the bubble (maybe four or five over the course of a long career), but that just means some other person will sink into adjunctland, or drop out, or whatever. It is, sad to say, a zero sum game.

    At the end of the day, at least in the tier of jobs for which our students tend to be competitive, they live and die on the strength of their research. And the ugly truth about that is that in the humanities and social sciences, research and writing is an almost entirely solitary endeavor.

    Sure, if a student follows my advice on article revisions and grant proposals she can gain important lines on her CVs, but that alone doesn't determine her outcomes long term.

    What makes or breaks students in the humanities and social sciences, in my experience, is almost entirely their willingness to sit in a chair in a room by themselves and put in the days and weeks and months and years necessary to produce something exceptional. Either the student can do that on her own, or she can't. I can help her improve her technical and writing skills, but I can't force her to do the real work.

    Indeed, I strongly believe that the advisor who does too much handholding and nurturing is just as damaging as the one who does jack shit. I've seen colleagues burn themselves out essentially rewriting their own student's dissertations, and article drafts. And, yes, you would be right to say that in so doing they help those students advance in the profession. But I would respond that such gains are ultimately temporary. Eventually, that crutch is taken away, and the newly minted ass-proffie is going to have to sink or swim under his or her own power. And if a student has been too coddled, he or she is quite likely to fail at the next stage and not get through tenure review.

    The ones who swim over the course of a career, in my experience, tend to be the ones who were forced to swim through grad school, and the ones who sink after winning the job lottery tend to be the ones who were subjected to excessive handholding. There are exceptions in both cases, but I think as a general rule it holds.

    So my sense would be that the really successful people who came out of second-tier programs were, for the most part, going to be really successful no matter what. They just didn't get a fair look from the first tier when they were coming out of undergrad or an MA. I've spent my career teaching in grad programs, and I can say with 100% confidence that faculty input is an extremely poor predictor of future success.

  18. @AA:

    {thousand-yard stare}

    What probably dispirits me most is the colleague who is not able to understand your 10:52 comment (much less imagine articulating anything like it himself).

  19. And this is all relevant to Merely's question insofar as you have to ask yourself what the rationale behind a PhD program should be.

    Give me five months with a reasonably intelligent high school senior who possesses a decent command of written and spoken English and I can train that kid in the formal exercises of writing a winning grant proposal, publishing in some second-tier journal that doesn't get quite enough good submissions, and giving a competent job talk. In other words all the things that would make it possible for the kid to gain permanent employment in academia (I fucking guarantee I could get the kid work as an adjunct). But that amounts to a stupid pet trick. I can't make that kid a scholar, and the second the kid walks on campus in the Fall, she or he would be simply on the glide path to joblessness in three to six years.

    Given the fact that there are already plenty of PhD programs in every discipline, it doesn't matter if you can set one up and teach the students the stupid pet tricks needed to present a professional facade. The only plausible rationale is that you can train real scholars. Period. And as Merely points out in her comment upthread, that means time, money, library resources and lot of other things besides competent faculty in a particular discipline. If you aren't training scholars and researchers, you shouldn't have a PhD program, no matter how hard you work at teaching the students the trappings of professionalism.

    And that doesn't even address the question of whether we really need even more scholars in a particular discipline.

    There are already more than enough shitholes where they produce mediocre scholars with the sheen of professionalism. Why create another, except for purely selfish reasons?

  20. Crap, Adjunct slave, now I'm super curious what you want to say!!

    What I meant to say by bringing up my own experience is that there are some creative things people can do with PhDs, things that can be helpful to businesses and wider education systems outside of the position of "professor." And there is some demand for those people so the pay is currently slightly above that of first-year profs.

    So if I were designing a new course of study for PhDs, I would include some level of administrative/leadership/design/pedagogy.

    Your court!

  21. @AM - I probably read too much into your posting, but I felt like cursing at things like the idea of further bloating the administration, the idea that there are better careers there than in the classroom, and generally the stuff that administration does, often under political pressure, to make education worse or at least different from what we teachers want to do.

    I have nothing against sending more humanities PhDs into the private sector, whether in education or elsewhere out making money. If I could find a good mentor to not just tell me "you have all kinds of talents" but to help me figure out exactly what those are and how to sell them, I'd be gone already. I'm working on leaving, but I'm not gone yet.

  22. department can give new grad students


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.