Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

ABD, Hey That’s Me

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Up to half of all doctoral students in English drop out before getting their degrees (something that appears to be the case in doctoral education generally), and only about half of the rest end up with the jobs they entered graduate school to get—that is, tenured professorships. Over the three decades since the branch was grabbed, a kind of protective shell has grown up around this process, a culture of “realism,” in which exogenous constraints are internalized, and the very conditions that make doctoral education problematic are turned into elements of that education. Students are told from the very start, almost from the minute they apply to graduate school, that they are effectively entering a lottery. This has to have an effect on professional self-conception.

There comes a time in every scholar’s life where they turn their attention to what is wrong with graduate education today. This month is Louis Menand’s turn, and the surprise is that the resulting article is not half bad, mostly because Menand eschews the cranky “We must teach the good books!” trope in favor of insights that seem, perhaps, to have been lifted unattributed from Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works (reviewed by me here, Bousquet’s blog here):

One pressure on universities to reduce radically the time-to-degree is simple humanitarianism. Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process. Many people drop in and drop out and then drop in again; a large proportion of students never finish; and some people have to retool at relatively advanced ages. Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get. Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own. The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes. Of course, overproduction of Ph.D.s also creates a buyer’s advantage in the market for academic labor. These circumstances explain the graduate-student union movement that has been going on in higher education since the mid 1990s.

Some additional discussion, but mostly mockery of English majors, here.

Written by gerrycanavan

November 1, 2009 at 4:12 pm

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