Submitted by Gina Hiatt on October 26, 2005 - 4:00am
"Solitude vivifies; isolation kills." --Joseph Roux, Meditations of a Parish Priest, 1886
I wonder how an English professor would feel spending a week in a physics lab. Not about the scientific work, but about the frequent, ongoing interaction between students and peers, post-docs and faculty. Scientists see each other in the lab, if not daily, then at least weekly. They have frequent lab meetings, colloquia and interaction with scholars at other universities around joint research. During my graduate training in psychology at McGill University, especially in the research lab at the Montreal Neurological Institute, I spent hours hanging around the post-docs. I learned at least as much from them as I did from my interactions with my professors. The expectation was that I would be at the lab 9 to 5 or more, every day. I saw my adviser every day.
My curiosity about this hypothetical English professor’s reaction began after a discussion with my father, a professor emeritus in physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. As we chatted about my work as a dissertation and tenure coach, he expressed shock when I recounted how graduate students in English could go a month or more with no contact with their advisor. He estimated that his students usually saw him daily, and never went for more than a week without interaction with him, except when he was traveling. As he quizzed me more and more about the grad student experience in humanities departments, it became more and more clear to me that there is a deep divide.
In the humanities, outside of the classroom, this kind of easy and even semi-formal interaction is rare. The isolation for the grad student begins in earnest when the coursework is finished and the qualifying exams are completed. The fledgling ABD is nudged out of the nest, left to fly solo for long periods. The luckiest students have advisors who are mentors and insist on frequent meetings, which increase accountability and allow the student to learn how to think in a scholarly manner. The large majority, however, are left to flounder, some of them working as adjuncts far from the institution where they are trying to finish a Ph.D.
The students whose advisers organize monthly dissertation meetings get some help with the isolation. These meetings usually involve prior submission of one’s work, with a presentation and then feedback from peers and one’s advisor during the meeting. The opportunity to present one’s own work may come up only once every few months. For many grad students, most writing is accomplished in the days preceding submission of their work. I believe that these meetings are too infrequent and too formal to make up for the absence of ongoing interaction with other scholars.
Beyond these dissertation meetings, scholarly dialogue with peers or advisers is sporadic in most departments outside the sciences. In many cases, the adviser's expectation is that the student will request a meeting when the student is ready. Thus begins one of the vicious cycles of graduate school. The student, working in a void, measures himself against what he imagines his peers are doing. Often he finds himself lacking, and feels ashamed. So he puts off the meeting with his adviser. This increases his isolation and sense of inadequacy. He feels that he is floundering and going in circles. Without encouragement and deadlines, such students can languish for months, and even years.
As a dissertation coach, I’ve worked with many such students. The luckier ones are early in the process and not yet consumed with self-loathing and shame. Others have been at it for years and feel terrible about themselves. It is noteworthy that 80-90 percent of the calls I receive for dissertation coaching are from students in the humanities, social sciences or education -- all fields less likely to have a lab environment. The rest are writing their dissertation away from their university and find it difficult to work in that void.
Conferences and conventions offer important opportunities for scholarly dialogue, as do online blogs. However, there are limitations to conferences (too infrequent) and blogs. What I am advocating is injecting into the humanities department some of the freewheeling dialogue found in the halls outside the conference presentation or in some of the better scholarly blogs.
Why is there such a difference between the hard sciences and the humanities? An obvious reason is that science is best done in groups, due to the availability of expensive equipment and the need for collaboration to make elaborate projects work. Second, science is funded largely by grants, which contain within them the need for accountability. The person in charge of the grant will make darn sure that neither time nor money is being wasted, by frequently checking in with those doing the research and writing.
Barton Kunstler, who wrote "The Hothouse Effect: Time Proven Strategies of History's Most Creative Groups,” in Futures Research Quarterly, argues that organizations can grow into "creative hothouses," much as Ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence. If humanities departments were to proceed as outlined by Kunstler, they would go beyond counting their peer-reviewed publications, and move into creating lasting legacies and nurturing breakthrough thinking. Kunstler identifies the attributes of organizations likely to spawn such changes, including the following: "workers immerse themselves in others’ ideas and work, absorbing creative influences," and "mentor relationships abound." Clearly, it would benefit all the members of such a department, not just the struggling graduate students, to create an atmosphere that "spawns 'geniuses'" and "stands at the center of a wider cultural movement."
How will such changes occur in actual practice? Certainly there is not a need for more departmental meetings. Kunstler suggests that you "reevaluate the basic assumptions and methods of your discipline," and "challenge your most treasured paradigms." Those at the higher levels can begin by modeling the behavior they would like to see in others -- proposing informal discussions, sharing work with colleagues, discussing publishing with faculty from other departments, and seeking out a grad student or two to bounce ideas off of. If every professor advising graduate students made it a point to have a substantive conversation with one of his or her ABD’s a day, the picture for many grad students would change radically.
I suggest that graduate students begin at the grassroots level. They should suggest weekly meetings to peers, with the only agenda being the discussion of work in progress at an informal level. If they are geographically scattered, they can meet by phone -- there are free conference lines available. In my coaching groups there is a high level of closeness and support, even though none of these people have met in person. People should be encouraged to attend with partly formed thoughts, poorly written paragraphs, or just an idea they want to develop. The idea is to think of all such scholarly dialogue as a laboratory. Ideas are cooked up, thrown in the test tube, and mixed with human interaction, creativity and motivation. These experiments will produce better written and less painfully produced dissertations or publications, and might engender a "creative humanities hothouse."
The new Carnegie classifications have emerged from gestation, showing a great deal of thought and energy, which is too bad. Once again we are classifying the boxes and not the fruit.
The education establishment works very hard to say that the classifications are not intended to represent a pecking order among institutions, but the rest of the world instantly uses it that way. The gold rush mentality causes perfectly respectable regional colleges (e.g., Western Oregon University, in my neck of the woods) to wriggle and stretch through all manner of political hoops to become “Universities,” even faux flagships such as the magically relabeled Missouri State University (another perfectly respectable regional college all tarted up with nowhere to go).
There are other classification systems. Although the nation’s system of college accreditation and state approval is not exactly a college classification system, in some ways it functions as one. There are overlapping hierarchies of academic seraphim, cherubim and what Jack Aubrey, in one of Patrick O’Brien’s novels, calls “ordinary foremast angels.” Regional accreditors, national accreditors, state agencies and licensing boards all watch with proprietary care the shifting Cassini divisions between their roles and jurisdictions.
It is time to recognize that these boxes, too, are not that different in their basic descriptions except at the lowest levels, and that what matters is the quality of programs colleges contain as related to their mission.
All college degree programs are not created equal, nor are they equal today. This may be obvious to my friends who hold senior faculty positions at the University of Oregon, Illinois, Northwestern and elsewhere in the upper strata of research institutions. These, after all, are major research universities, formally authorized to condescend by their role as the top layer in the Carnegie classification system. Likewise, my friends who hold positions at Washington & Jefferson, Reed, Davidson and other fine liberal arts colleges can nod politely from their elfin perch in the canopy layer, content to consort with fine young minds.
The distinction is less obvious to those who work in and attend the great bulk of American colleges and universities, but it is nonetheless true. All colleges glaze the clay that they are given. The clay is largely formed by the time it reaches college, but the nature of both the formed clay and the available glaze differs widely, and society expects the resultant china to perform differently under different conditions. Let us recognize this reality and stop comparing unlike things.
Meandering through the pages of any college catalog looking at degree programs is much like walking the streets of an old western ghost town (or a movie set of one). All of the programs are excellent, leading their field and cutting edge -- apparently all the faculty trained at Lake Wobegon U. The main drag of programs consists of an impressive array of two-story buildings, all of similar appearance on the front. Some have two stories of solid building behind them, full of rooms and people. Others are mainly false fronts, behind which awaits what amounts to a conveyor belt: “this way to the Egress.”
It is time to stop classifying colleges and start classifying degree programs. Today this is done on an occasional basis for certain doctoral programs by the National Research Council, but other programs are largely ignored except by specialized accreditors in certain fields. All college degrees issued in the United States should be formally classified according to the nature of the work necessary to obtain them. Classification should be mandatory and no college degree should be exempt from it.
Such a classification scheme would allow students, employers and all other interested people to decide whether a particular college degree is what they want, either as a learning experience or in an employee, co-worker or colleague. There are other classification schemes already in existence, but they do not provide the right kind of information needed by most students, potential students and employers.
Each degree-granting program operating legally in the United States should be classified according to the strength of its program as determined by experts in its field. This system should not be applied to colleges, only to degree programs individually, because there is so much variation among programs at each school except the very best and the abysmal.
Note that this system says nothing about admission standards, only about program quality. There is no reason for a program to adjust its quality and expectations based on who enrolls in it: programs should decide what level they should most sensibly be at and stay there. Students will, for the most part, self-select based on program type just as they do now. In this system, programs would be classified as follows, as determined by peers in the field, with U and G representing undergraduate and graduate programs:
Honors (U). The best undergraduate programs, maintaining the highest expectations of students, and using the most difficult and complex curricula. Intended to provide superlative undergraduate learning for its own value and, secondarily, to prepare students to study in Research programs.
Research (G). The highest level graduate programs, intended to train professional researchers and faculty for colleges and universities, exclusive of licensed professional fields. There is no such thing as a “research institution,” there are only research-level programs, and it is time for the higher education establishment to admit this.
Professional (U, G). Programs that train students to practice in licensed professions. Programs of this nature can most effectively be evaluated by professionals in the field, in part using professional licensure rates and reputational surveys within licensed professions. The Carnegie system already has a similar category.
Standard (U, G). Programs designed for a wide variety of students, but not as challenging as Honors programs, with less ambitious expectations. These programs are not designed to prepare students to obtain doctoral degrees in Research programs, although some top students may succeed in such programs.
Basic (U, G). Programs that meet the basic expectations of a college-level degree program but do not meet the requirements for a Standard designation owing to some academic deficiencies.
Nonstandard (U, G). Programs that do not meet the basic expectations of a college-level degree program, or which decline to be evaluated.
New. Designation of “New” can be applied to any program, only at its own request, during its first five years of operation, as a qualifier for any other classification. Few programs show their true colors right out of the box.
In another of Patrick O’Brien’s novels, Stephen Maturin reminds us that “the kinds of happiness cannot be compared.” In some ways, neither can the kinds of degrees. The first necessary step, however, is to recognize that differences exist and to acknowledge them, rather than pretending that all regionally accredited colleges produce the same kind of degree-earning experience, or that degrees issued for one purpose are comparable to those issued for another. This is fiction.
Let us stop using institutional classifications of dubious meaning and start classifying academic programs using a system that is honest, based on evaluation by faculty and helps people understand college degree programs, as well as pointing out which emperors are naked and which paupers wear cloth of gold.
Alan L. Contreras
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.
Doctoral education in the United States has changed rapidly over the last 30 years, with increasing specialization and the emergence of new sub-fields for graduate study. Depending on the nature and size of a university, some of these fields and sub-disciplines fit into traditional academic departments, while others demand their own departments or even colleges. Examples of the former abound, such as post-colonial studies, which may often find a comfortable home in an English or comparative literature department. In the latter category are fields like criminal justice, public policy, social work and nano-scale science and engineering -- highly-developed fields that attract increasingly large numbers of students and significant government and foundation funding.
We live within an academic marketplace of ideas, and the best institutions respond to the emergence of new areas of inquiry with vigor. Indeed, research universities can be judged by their ability to recognize and institutionalize new areas and disciplines, supporting excellence within them and nurturing their growth. Scholars typically lead administrators in these efforts, writing books that outline possible boundaries of a new field, establishing journals to define the area, or gathering colleagues for forward-looking conferences intended to advance cutting-edge approaches and methods.
From our standpoint, the more fields and defined areas of doctoral study, the better: Formal establishment of these areas is typically the result of tremendously high student and scholarly demand. New areas of study are also the result of significant investments by universities and, in the case of public institutions, taxpayer dollars. Not surprisingly state officials and the public are eager for an accounting of how their investments stack up against others. This issue becomes all the more important when, as is true with the National Research Council ratings project, participating public as well as private institutions must pay to be part of the study.
Given that pushing the research envelope is one of the central tenets of any great university, it seems ironic that a survey designed to evaluate the quality and breadth of research would leave so much of our nation’s research untouched. Despite the imagination, interdisciplinarity, and fluidity one finds across the academy in recognizing emerging fields, our most prominent rating system -- the NRC Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs -- has not responded, and in fact has resisted the change we see around us.
This fall the NRC released its new taxonomy, listing the fields that would be assessed and those that would not be studied. The new taxonomy reflects our worst fears for the assessment of Ph.D. programs: It fails to recognize a large number of thriving and vitally important fields where some of the most talented researchers in the world can be found. Among these fields are criminal justice, public administration and policy, social work, information science, gender studies, education, and public health. We have expressed our strong objections about these exclusions to Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and to Charlotte Kuh, study director for the NRC Assessment. We have received no response, and other academic leaders have been treated with the same disregard when they have challenged plans for the new assessment. Such behavior seems especially problematic given the importance of the NRC study for institutions and researchers.
Placing fields like gender studies and information studies in the new, nebulous "emerging fields" category -- fields that will not be rated -- does not solve the problem in the least, but simply steers important scholarly endeavors in a giant black box. The justification of the taxonomy boldly notes that "emerging areas of study may be transitory," hence it is risky to evaluate them with the same rigor used for other fields. From what we can discern at least, information science, the study of race, of ethnicity, of sexuality, and gender have already emerged, and have profoundly changed the academy for the better. We imagine that scholars in these fields are not transitory in the least: A large number of them hold endowed chairs, run centers, manage departments, edit journals, lead foundations and run major institutions.
To make matters even more painful for us, for our faculty, and for colleagues around the nation, the National Academies recently asked for our financial support for the project -- a contribution of $20,000 for larger research universities like our own. We felt compelled to pay the price, but we did so reluctantly and over the strong objections of leading scholars on our campus.
One can critique numerous aspects of the NRC rating system, and a variety of leaders in higher education have done so quite eloquently for more than a decade since the last report. The data collection takes years to compile, and these data quickly become outdated as faculty members move and institutions change. We understand that the new system will involve online questionnaires and include a database that can be updated annually, and we appreciate the National Academies’ efforts in this regard. Another difficulty with earlier NRC studies has been the inclusion of reputational surveys. The forthcoming NRC study has promised to eliminate the reputational rankings from its rating system, and this, too, is an improvement. Among the worst offences of the system has been the bias toward large programs; much of the variance in previous ratings can be explained elegantly by department size (The 600-pound gorilla of a department, even with many unproductive scholars, will come out ahead of the smaller and higher quality programs). Perhaps the questionnaires planned for institutions and admitted-to-candidacy doctoral students in selected fields will help add a new dimension to program quality that will compensate in some programs for differences in size.
But these revisions, while potentially significant, only make the intentional and unexplained omission of major fields of knowledge, critical to the development of the academy, more inexplicable. Methodological change is not much of an advance if one is not measuring the right population of fields and disciplines. A social science parallel, from public opinion research, is relevant here: You can refine a survey instrument all you like, sweating over question wording, order effects, and non-response to the survey. But if you are asking respondents about banal issues of little political import, why bother?
There is an even more troubling irony in the current effort. The NRC has chosen not to include “those fields for which much research is directed toward the improvement of practice,” such as Ph.D. programs in “social work, public policy, nursing, public health, business, architecture, criminology, kinesiology, and education.” This approach, of course, flies in the face of a recently-released report on “The Responsive Ph.D.” by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. This report identifies the principle of “a cosmopolitan doctorate” as central to the future of the Ph.D. The report emphasizes that such a doctorate “will benefit enormously by a continuing interchange with the worlds beyond academia” and calls upon doctoral education to “open to the world and engage social challenges more generously.” The NRC assessment, by excluding so many well-established Ph.D. programs, will simply have the effect of reifying the status quo at research universities, instead of helping us respond boldly to the loud and chronic public call for an open and responsive academy.
The Taxonomy Committee argues that the task of evaluating research in these fields lies “beyond the capacity of the current or proposed methodology.” We do not accept this argument as valid, particularly given the proposed scope and expense of the projected NRC study. Further, the taxonomy displays no systematic logic with regard to which applied and interdisciplinary programs are included and which are excluded. Why include nutrition or pharmacology, clearly applied fields, but not criminal justice? Why is the study of sexuality not included while German linguistics and Latin American Literature both are? There is no decision rule in sight, and the taxonomy does not even come close to matching the current landscape of the academy. Perhaps if the NRC had retained the reputational measures, they might have been able to mount an argument about excluding particular fields. But, ironically, the new approach makes the taxonomy more distant from reality. It is removed from the marketplace of ideas, and excludes the voice of the scholarly community.
Apparently the NRC is not open to arguments like the ones above, and as a result, the ratings they will eventually produce will not reflect a great deal of the most important scholarship in higher education today. Not only will the final report have gaping holes, ignoring the work of thousands of scholars, but the NRC will also fail to recognize that interdisciplinary research with practical application matters immensely.
We predict that this next round of results will be received -- whenever it is complete -- as a dinosaur, an artifact of uneven logic and old-fashioned thinking about what constitutes true scholarly discovery. We are grateful that other assessment systems are appearing and regret that the NRC will spend over $5 million on a quickly outdated effort to assess graduate education. Thankfully, such short-sightedness will not stop our best scholars from developing new approaches, forging innovative fields, training hungry students, and changing the world for the better through their work. We call on the National Academies – yet again -- to reconsider their taxonomy, so that leaders in higher education can demonstrate to our public officials that we are capable of evaluating the very research enterprise with which we have been entrusted.
Kermit L. Hall and Susan Herbst
Kermit L. Hall is the president and Susan Herbst is the provost of the State University of New York at Albany.
Too seldom do we ask graduate students in science or engineering about their experiences in completing doctoral degree requirements. We go to administrators, faculty, and sponsors, but we don't ask students -- the main educational client -- what they make of what is happening to them. In particular, we are remiss with minority graduate students.
The need to communicate is self-evident. In 2004, fewer than 500 African American citizens and permanent residents earned Ph.D.'s in science and engineering fields, not even 1 percent of the total awarded. The numbers in some disciplines are so tiny as to defy sensibility: 17 in computer and information science, 13 in physics, 10 in mathematics, zero in astronomy. Today the science and engineering workforce -- like medicine, law, and business -- barely resembles the rest of America. The pattern for African Americans, observed for over half a century, is particularly bleak.
Last summer, I asked 40 minority doctoral candidates about their experiences in a "talk back" session at the annual meeting of the Graduate Scholars Program of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Since 1992, Packard Scholars have been selected from among the premier graduates of historically black colleges and universities.
The discussion confirmed that -- for these scholars at least -- those who do enter graduate programs in the sciences often face pressures not experienced by their non-minority colleagues. "It's not fun being a trailblazer in 2005," said one scholar, "because there are certain things we should not have to deal with. When you already have the responsibility and expectation of class work, nobody wants to carry the burden of the entire race and deal with issues that should have been resolved a long time ago."
Often, minority doctoral students in the sciences become PR spokespeople: "We are called upon to do a lot on diversity for the university. To sit on panels every time a black student is invited to the school ... to attend conferences, to take pictures for publications that show the diversity of the university. While we are doing these things, our counterparts are in the lab doing research and producing publications.... When a first-year student comes in, I want them to see another black face. But how do I maintain that research direction and focus? I have an extra burden not carried by my majority colleagues."
And while many students are supportive of diversity efforts, they cannot help but feel conflicted about the competitive realities facing science grads. "Yeah, I wanted to be a trailblazer," summarized one student, "but I also want the Nobel Prize in physics. I don't want to trail blaze in race relations at the university. I want to focus on my research and come up with a new laser treatment for cancer, that's my focus. I don't want to have to deal with the other stuff. Let me be me, let me shine, get your foot off of my neck, let me do my work."
The experiences voiced by the Packard Scholars are not unique. The AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity was created to assist universities and colleges committed to improving the success of all students and faculty, especially those of color. The Packard Scholars reinforced much of what we've learned from our site visits, focus groups, and data reviews (for the center's approach, see this article). Their insights are noted here, many in the scholars' own voices.
Outreach must penetrate the academic reward system. As a faculty activity, outreach ranks a distant third behind research/entrepreneurship and teaching. Neither the faculty effort nor the outcome will change without institutional policies that restructure rewards. As one scholar put it, "Diversity will not be an issue until you start diving into their pockets, their budgets, because they'll do anything to get and keep their grants. But, if a university ... has all the money they need and new buildings, but they have never graduated an African American person, it's too easy to say, 'Oh, we don't know what to do, or we don't have the resources.' That's bull, because if you want the resources, you can get them."
And another remarked, "The program I selected had four African American graduates in the last 10 years. Two more are there now and another came in with me.... That makes a huge difference. Establish a great relationship with one student; make one happy and others will hear.... That is the easiest way to recruit because if they went to a black school, there are other students in their department who are looking for a good graduate program."
Gender and racial bias is a reality. Get over it -- with or without mentoring. The Packard Scholars report discrimination is alive and well in university programs: It ranges from negative comments in the lab about ability or preparation to the faculty's assumption that the only two black students in the department are going to work together. Some universities have developed mentoring or other support programs to mitigate the effects, while others let the problems go unattended.
Many students recommended that universities conduct diversity sensitivity training for the faculty. "That stops a lot of the comments and issues in the labs and in the classroom."
Still others found mentoring programs to be effective interventions. "I'm in medical school now [as an M.D./Ph.D. student], and there are institutionalized mechanisms designed with the philosophy that if we bring you to the school, it looks bad if we can't bring you to completion. Some of these or similar mechanisms, like 'big sib, little sib' mentoring situations can be implemented early. If you start to intervene after the first warning signs, these are still very much preventable problems. I think we would see a much improved attrition rate if we didn't wait until the problem is full blown -- a classic ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
In situations lacking a formal infrastructure for dealing with discrimination, students devise their own. "Coming from [a historically black college/university] where the learning environment was more constructive, I was overlooked here several times because I was the only black in the class. I came up with strategies to cope. My best friend and I would intentionally split up ... so that we weren't in the same group.... We were able to survive because he would bring the information back to me and vice versa."
The student must focus on completing doctoral requirements. This form of accountability is a "performance contract" between student and major professor (if not one's dissertation committee). It reveals to the student the delicate balance of his/her endeavor: "When I started graduate school, the faculty taught us to work together, yet how to be competitive.... If I asked my advisor how to do something, he would guide me, but say 'You are different people, and I'm going to approach you at your level, so I may not ask you to do something that I ask your cohort to do because you are at a different place. But the results should be the same, because you are all here to get the Ph.D."
All kinds of institutions can be "minority serving." If we examine the baccalaureate origins of African American Ph.D.'s and of Latino Ph.D.'s, historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving Institutions, respectively, are the largest producers. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley, among others, have distinguished records as producers of minority bachelor's graduates who go on to earn a doctorate in science or engineering. In addition, relative newcomers such as University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Louisiana State University are undergraduate models of student preparation for science-based Ph.D.'s. Some institutions, and often departments within institutions, clearly "get it." But decentralized authority at the graduate level ensures unevenness and lack of sharing of best practices.
New Ph.D.'s underestimate the skills they possess. The orientation of most graduate programs in the sciences is to a single sector or career pathway that represents immediate job opportunity, but little demand for versatility. Because the doctoral training process reproduces the past, (i.e., the traditions that fit an earlier time), it also reflects the biases and career of one's major professors. Consequently, the Ph.D. experience minimizes belief and understanding about skills beyond science fundamentals. The Capacity Center works with institutions to develop the skills required by 21st century organizations, academic and nonacademic alike: teamwork, problem-solving, adaptation, communication, cultural competence.
This is about leadership -- the overarching need to grow leaders. For all the talk about the impact of mentors and role models, there will always be successful professional women and persons of color who will say, "It was tough for me and it's going to be tough for those who come behind me." These folks, irrespective of vintage or field, will not reach out. That's just the way they are -- making assumptions, suppressing memories of the help they received, and dealing with students their way. As one scholar noted, "Just think about how far the world has come in 10 years. Most of these cats [faculty] we're working for got their Ph.D. in the 1980s, 70s. The technology is moving way too fast and with the stuff that we know, we'll take their jobs. Some of them do everything they can to keep you from completing these programs, making it that much more difficult. The last thing they want to do is lose a job to you."
Change comes as new professionals ascend to positions that control resources and decisions. It may mean climbing the academic ladder or pursuing a nonacademic path. Both routes demonstrate that it's who you know plus what you know that matters -- not one or the other exclusively. Who's in your network? Who talks to whom? The AAAS Capacity Center makes explicit these aspects of professional socialization and networking that can make a difference in a career.
The nation has invested in science and engineering since Sputnik -- a half century -- to advance its education, economic, workforce, and national security interests. When students are not recruited and nurtured to degree completion, we waste talent and material resources -- in defiance of student demographics and to the detriment of the nation's place in the world.
Daryl E. Chubin
Daryl E. Chubin is director of the Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
What possessed me to ask to study with the scholar I'll call Sebastian Klugmann? The field of literary study he was at the top of wasn't the one I was limping toward, his critical method didn't especially appeal to me, his style wasn't the one I went for in professors. I liked them older, crankier, as the early signs of collegial neglect are bringing on their first dismayed glimpses of the end. Klugmann didn't have any bitterness to stave off. He was younger, smoother, still influential and assured -- the ambivalence that distinguished his arguments was purely intellectual. He had the privilege of knowing that what he thought mattered, and the pleasure.
I couldn't have been any more his type than he was mine. It's surprising that he let me in to his graduate seminar, and his mistake would soon have been clear to him. I would arrive late, sit in a fold-up chair against a wall -- the high-backed chairs around the conference table were safely taken -- and keep my mouth shut. There's a place in a classroom for quietly engaged students, but a sense of engagement wasn't what I gave off.
It was by all measures a successful seminar: there were verbal footnotes, heated yet cordial disputes, vital principles in play and at stake, shirts with sweat marks running down the seam. Some respond to the fear of whitewater rafting trips or the loudness of certain concerts by falling asleep: My response to the wholesale expenditure in Klugmann's classroom of conflicting yet harmonized energies was to yawn, fidget, count my change for the run during break to the candy machine for a box of Skittles, chosen perhaps because they too could be counted. Only Genevieve could puncture the membrane of my inertia: dark-haired and green-eyed, she would turn to face Klugmann at the head of the table, her collarbone riding high beneath a blouse tightened against breasts swelling like a majestic wave that I might just have caught if only I had known how to surf. Then her full mouth would close and she'd turn away, her frame retreating into her clothing, and I'd slump back in my chair.
So what was I doing there? My motives were probably the common ones, curiosity and ambition. Like everyone else I must have been intrigued by Klugmann's celebrity. It must also have occurred to me as to everyone else that his letter of recommendation would look nice in my dossier. But if my motives were the same as everyone else's, why didn't I try to score points at the conference table like everyone else? Maybe I didn't want to appear to be sucking up and was trying to distinguish myself by my apathy.
Whatever he represented, however polished his manner, Klugmann turned out to be highly likable. He wore his knowledge lightly, agreed and disagreed generously, laughed readily. The lines on his face when he laughed suggested a vulnerability that allayed my distrust of his smoothness.
I tried to see him to discuss my term paper. There was always a wait. Once when I'd had the patience to get to the front of the line I discovered that the dog I took with me everywhere -- a mutt disguised as a Belgian shepherd -- had drifted away. Across campus was a pizzeria where they used so much oil that the toppings tended to slide off the pizza and, often enough, to the ground. I found the dog there as usual. By the time I got back to his office Klugmann had gone. I called to set up another appointment.
My feeling for home across the country was embodied in my devotion to its professional basketball team, the Knicks. This devotion was dire: the Knicks' fate concerned me more than my own. To watch them play was always stressful, but the effect on me of their playoff series against the Bulls belongs in the annals of hysteria. The Bulls were better. I was dead set against an inevitability.
During those game days I'd grow ever more anxious. Once a game was underway I'd pass from muttering gloom to stunned frenzy to a quasi-religious despair in which every basket the Bulls scored was another abomination. The Knicks' mistakes brought on apoplexy, foul calls against them a species of persecution mania. Their triumphs gave me no compensatory pleasure, merely relief.
The appointment Klugmann had given me fell in the middle of the decisive game. Halfway through the second quarter I saw that it was time to leave for it. I watched the rest of the quarter anyway, and was twenty minutes late when I knocked. Klugmann appeared to say he'd be with me shortly and withdrew. Staring at the letters of his name on the frosted glass office door, I played out in imagination the third quarter I was missing, a fantasy all the less convincing for being continually interrupted by resolutions to leave. The door opened. Genevieve came out and turned down the hallway without meeting my eyes.
Klugmann was composed, but I wasn't. Only when he had had me take a seat, fixed his gaze on me with an owlish deliberation and covered the back of one hand with the other -- only then did it strike me that whatever thought I might have given my paper topic was gone. I found that I hadn't come to discuss my work at all but to disavow my classroom persona, to establish a connection to Klugmann, to befriend him.
I was clumsy and inarticulate. I meant to tell him something of myself, but the game clock was ticking. To explain my hurry I launched into a manic excursus on the Knicks: the illustriousness of their history, the nobility of their cause, the precariousness of their situation. Klugmann seemed puzzled, but in a spirit of cordiality he offered an irrelevant anecdote about his boyhood infatuation with the Dodgers. I steered the subject back from baseball to basketball. He looked at his watch and invited me to come to the point. I mumbled something about being too deep in the research for my term paper to be able to discuss it. "Come back and see me when you've got your ducks in a row," Klugmann said. When I resumed my position in front of the television it was late in the game and the Knicks were in trouble.
I turned in my paper. Klugmann liked it well enough. His comments were apt and courteous but gave no hint of our further association. And we had none.
But a term or two later I ran into him in a hallway. His greeting was friendly and we struck up the kind of spontaneous desultory chat that I'd hoped to have in his office. I found myself asking him to excuse my behavior in our meeting. "I remember only that you seemed a little crazy," he said indulgently.
We walked together down the corridor. At the end he went through the swinging door of the men's room, a quartz, marble, and porcelain prewar beauty. I followed him in, and heard my words echo from tiles as he approached a urinal at the far side. I hesitated before going to one at the near side and unzipping my fly. Instead of repairing to a sink at the back of the room when he'd finished, Klugmann took a step towards me and resumed the conversation.
There were no partitions between the urinals, and the sides of the floor-length structure I faced are not so high as in a newer model. This older urinal was more like a tub than a chest and provided less shelter and privacy.
I hadn't had to go in the first place, and my nervousness at talking to Klugmann didn't help. Nothing would come out, not a drop, a fact that would have been apparent from Klugmann's vantage. He was still talking -- was he also looking? I didn't dare turn my head to find out. I was too busy deciding for how long to hold my position. At some moment of headlong abandon I broke into the magic dance men do to purge the last drop, flushed the toilet, put myself together and turned around. Klugmann was heading to the sinks. I did too, averting my eyes while I scrubbed my hands with a surgeon's diligence. We didn't look at each other again till we were back out. His eyes seemed to flash with mischief, and an incisor snagged his lower lip as if he was holding back a laugh. "It isn't that I was crazy," I said. "It was ...."
"A performance?" He clapped me on the shoulder, pivoted on a leather sole and started up the corridor.
"Yeah," I said after him.
"Bravo!" he cried without turning, "bravo," and gathered momentum for the loftier matters that awaited him.
James Wallenstein, who has a novel in need of a publisher, teaches writing at the New School, Pratt Institute, and Wesleyan University.
Never before in its 91-year history have the officers of the American Association of University Professors heard the call to be arrested in the line of duty. But there we were -- Cary Nelson and Jane Buck, incoming and outgoing AAUP presidents and close friends -- on a New York street on April 27 waiting to be handcuffed and taken to a police station and booked. The AAUP, adding a professional to a basic human right, long ago joined the United Nations in recognizing that all employee groups have the right to choose for themselves whether to be represented collectively. It is not the responsibility of university administrators to decide what is best for their employees. The employees have the right to decide for themselves. NYU graduate employees have twice voted to affirm their decision to engage in collective bargaining.
The National Labor Relations Board appointed by Bill Clinton confirmed the first vote, and the NYU administration negotiated a contract with the union. Then, in a blatantly political move, George Bush's NLRB reversed itself and gave the university the option of withdrawing recognition of the union. Although nothing compelled NYU to do so, it stopped negotiating with its employees. That much is unambiguous, and that alone would have been enough to put us on a New York street blocking traffic, but the crisis at hand was still broader.
The AAUP is concerned not only with the present but also with the future of higher education. We try to articulate principles and set precedents. And we are very much concerned with the precedent this New York struggle is setting. The NYU administration has recklessly ramped up the intensity of the conflict with its graduate students, most of whom had inadequate salaries and health care when the union drive began. So long as those conditions exist across the country, the movement to organize working graduate students will not disappear. But the expectations of what each side can and will do to win have been dramatically increased by the NYU example.
University administrations resisting collective bargaining will now consider it normal and reasonable to retaliate against employees in ways the NLRB would consider flatly illegal in cases where it accepted jurisdiction. And graduate employees will have to counter with more widespread and comprehensive nonviolent civil disobedience. Graduate employees who want some say in their salaries and working conditions will have to bring operations at institutions like NYU to a halt. That is the new and immensely regrettable future the NYU administration has made a reality.
So we sat down in the street north of Washington Square, faculty members from Delaware State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a last ditch effort to give the NYU administration a wake-up call. We would prefer a future of rational negotiation, a future characterized by the productive working partnerships graduate employee unions have established with universities across the country. We are concerned that NYU is calling forth a different future -- one of antagonism and opposition.
NYU quite possibly represents a turning point in the history of efforts to improve working conditions in higher education. Especially after nearly 30 years of a steadily growing national trend toward the increasing use of poorly paid contingent labor to do most undergraduate teaching -- a trend in which higher education mirrors the now radical disparity between CEO salaries and the salaries of those on the shop floor -- NYU's effort to decisively disempower its more poorly paid teachers heralds a future of bitter labor conflict in the industry. While it was inspiring to stand beside the courageous students at the forefront of this struggle, it was sobering indeed to realize matters may now get much worse on many other campuses.
Cary Nelson and Jane Buck
Cary Nelson is president-elect and Jane Buck is president of the American Association of University Professors.
In her president’s column in the spring 2006 Modern Language Association newsletter, Marjorie Perloff focuses on the expansion of Ph.D. programs in creative writing (including doctorates in English that allow for a creative dissertation). Perloff argues that the growth of creative-writing doctorates was a reaction to politicization and specialization within the English discipline: “An examination of the catalogues of recently established Ph.D. programs in creative writing suggests that, in our moment, creative writing is perhaps best understood as the revenge of literature on the increasingly sociological, political, and anthropological emphasis of English studies.”
She also cites recent job advertisements in English calling for candidates specializing in a range of theoretical approaches, which relegate the teaching of literature to “a kind of afterthought, a footnote to the fashionable methodologies of the day.”
Perloff is right on both counts: These are central factors that have led to the growth of creative writing Ph.D.s. But she also misses an important element, one that grows out of, but also underlies, the others. It is that people want what they think and write to matter, not just to their colleagues, but also to the world at large. Creative work, and the doctorate in creative writing, holds out this hope.
The doctorate in creative writing comes in various forms, but most are very similar to literary studies doctorates. I myself am a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Denver, writing a creative dissertation -- a book of poetry, accompanied by a critical introduction. As a graduate student, I’ve fulfilled the same coursework requirements as my literary studies peers, with the addition of four writing workshops. I’ve taken comprehensive exams in the same format as my literary studies peers. I’ve taught more or less the same courses as my literary studies peers. The only significant difference between my doctoral work and my literary studies colleague is in the dissertation.
Sometimes, in fact, it strikes me as a bit comic to be doing the creative dissertation, but then I think about the fate of my work. I want my work to find its audience, though I realize that poetry has lost more readers, perhaps, than scholarship has over the last 50 years. Yet I believe that creative writing holds out more hope of finding readers, and of gaining readers back, than scholarship does. Hundreds or thousands of poetry books are published each year, and are more likely to find their way onto the shelves of bookstores than are scholarly studies. For fiction writers, the prospects are even better -- after all, there’s still a market for novels and short fiction.
However, it’s not just for readerly recognition that I want to do this creative work. It is because literature matters to how people live their lives, not just emotionally but intellectually. I speak here specifically of literature, but I think the principle holds true for any kind of creative work, even works we wouldn’t ordinarily think of as artistic, such as historical or psychological or anthropological studies.
Just a few days ago I was talking with a good friend of mine, a fellow graduate student working on her dissertation. My friend’s enthusiasm for the work and the discoveries that she is making, her eloquence on her subject, and her physical animation in talking about it were obvious, even if some of the nuance of her project was lost on me. But then she stopped herself and said, “Of course, nobody really cares about this.”
She described the frustration of talking about her project with non-academic friends and family members, how it takes too long to explain the work she is doing to people outside her specialty area, how their faces fall blank as she goes on too long in explaining the foundations of the debate in which she is involved. She laughed and said archly, “It’s not so bad once you get used to the idea that no one is ever going to read your dissertation except your committee.”
I have had similar conversations with other friends working on dissertations, not just in English, but across the humanities, though the sense of writing into the void is particularly marked among those in my discipline. Let me say here that I don’t want to challenge the value of discipline-specific, specialized scholarship -- after all, it would be foolish to say that the intellectual work of teaching and writing does not require specialist knowledge, or that the ideas formulated in scholarly work don’t find their way to non-specialists through good teaching or through popularizers or public intellectuals, though we could stand a few more of them. Those academics who write for an extra-disciplinary audience, as Mark Oppenheimer pointed out in a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, play an important part in connecting the academy with the non-academic world, and shaping common conceptions of disciplines such as history. He wrote: “They have the influence that comes with writing for journals at the intersection of academe and the culture at large. They interpret scholarship for people who prefer to read journalism, and their opinions reverberate and multiply, if in ways that we cannot measure.”
This is not a plea for greater “accessibility” or for a return to a “generalist” approach to English. Nor will I rehearse the yearly mocking that the titles of papers at the MLA convention get in major newspapers across the country. But I do think that the sense that nobody’s listening or reading the work of scholars outside their specialized communities points to a real problem of the contemporary humanities department: the loss of audience, and with it, the loss of a sense that the work should matter to a larger, educated, non-academic audience.
There’s no doubt that scholars have produced critical work in humanities subjects that does matter. I think of Raymond Williams, never the easiest of writers, but one who rewards the effort made in engaging with his work and who, perhaps because of his quasi-academic status, writes in such a way that his ideas could be understood outside the academy. I also think of John Berger, Susan Sontag and Fredric Jameson. These are writers who can be exciting for readers coming from outside the academy, and who can influence the way readers experience texts, and even life.
However, with the increasing professionalization of the university, the potential audience for scholarly work has diminished as scholarly writing has become more specialized and jargon-ridden. None of what I say is news, I know. But the creative doctorate as an approach to making scholarly research and thinking matter in the world is news, and very good news.
I think it is important that what we do, literary scholars and creative writers both, makes a difference to how people outside academy walls think. In the history of rhetorical theory, there is a recurring, commonplace idea that the person trained in rhetoric will, through the ethical training in that discipline, constitutionally be able to contribute only to good actions or ideas that improve the state or the community. Cicero put the idea most succinctly, and most famously, in his definition of the ideal orator/citizen as “the good man speaking well.” Learning to “speak well,” however, required years of intense training in the minutiae of the discipline, a close study of the history of oratory.
While this ideal resolutely -- and somewhat courageously -- ignores what we know about human behavior, I do think that as an ideal it offers an important model to live up to. I see the Ph.D. in creative writing as an opportunity to undertake the same kind of close study of literature and writing as ancient rhetoricians would have undergone in their study of oratory, and as a way to position myself to bring that knowledge and experience into both my writing and the classroom without having to give up, or shelve for a long period, my creative work. In fact, it was in support of my creative work that I took up doctoral study.
Cicero’s formulation of the ideal citizen leads me back to my own ideals about the creative dissertation. The creative writer makes a difference not by telling people how to vote, or by engaging in the public sphere with anti-government screeds. Rather, the way literature can matter is by offering a model of the world as it is, in the hope that readers will be moved to action in the real world. Literature is a form of epideictic rhetoric, perhaps the form par excellence of the epideictic:a poem or a novel or a film argues for the values that its authors believe are important to the way we live our lives.
For example, Bertolt Brecht, in his essay “The Modern Theater is the Epic Theater,” makes a list of what it is that epic theater does. According to Brecht’s list, the epic theater:
turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his capacity for action forces him to take decisions [provides him with] a picture of the world he is made to face something… brought to the point of recognition
I read Brecht’s description of epic theater’s functions as a modernist reworking of the ideal orator tradition, the tradition of the artist offering his readers more than polemic -- offering his readers an experience from which they can learn about their own lives.
The creative Ph.D. is vital to making this possible, if it is possible, because literature (any art, in fact) does not come from nowhere. Or, more importantly, it should not come from nowhere. Good writing comes from intense study and reading, the kind of reading that people don’t typically have time for in the frenetic world of contemporary business or the professions. Moreover, what I would call good writing, the kind of writing that, regardless of genre, has something in common with Brecht’s epic theater, requires its author to have a sense of its location between the past and the present.
The Ph.D. in creative writing gives writers the time and training to explore their fields that they may not get in M.F.A. programs, no longer get as undergraduates, and certainly do not get in high school. At the very least, doctoral work exposes writers and artists to a liberal education that prepares them for analyzing, framing and being in the world in any number of different ways. Doctoral-level reading, doctoral-level thinking, doctoral-level writing will make possible the art that creative Ph.D.s will produce. I think here of Flaubert’s quip that, in preparation for Bouvard and Pecuchet, he had to read 300 books to write one (though the reference might cut both ways, as Julian Barnes has described that book as challenging in being “a vomitorium of pre-digested book learning”). I could call on Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot as well, were I eager to lay myself open to misguided charges of cultural conservatism.
But the human need for learning through art goes beyond liberal or conservative approaches to writing and teaching. The experience of literary study at the highest level gives writers the cognizance of literary history they need to produce the epic theater, the epideictic, of our time -- to be good men and women speaking well, writing well, leading and teaching.
The issue for creative writing is that of quality. The value of the creative doctorate is in the opportunity it offers to unite the best elements of the scholarly study of literature or art with the best elements of the study of craft. The writers and artists who come out of creative Ph.D. programs will not only be better guardians of our various and multiform cultural heritage, but they will be better teachers, better thinkers, better innovators. Their research and learning, in the form of creative and critical work, will matter both in the academy and beyond.
In her column, Perloff poses the rhetorical question of where the doctorate in creative writing leaves the idea of the doctorate as such. “Hasn’t the doctorate always been a research degree?” her concerned professor asks in the face of invading creative writers. Yes, it has been, and for creative writers, it remains vitally so.
David Gruber is assistant to the director of the University Writing Program and a graduate teaching assistant in English at the University of Denver.
The title of this column is the title of a manuscript three of us dreamed up some eight years ago. I liked the "how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation" jangle of the words, suggesting something at once so obvious as to be dumb and so dumb as to seem clever. Narrative essays on how a group of people actually wrote their dissertations! Who would have thought? And yet, who could not have thought? The very idea seemed to fit into a mood of exploring all sorts of unconsidered academic practices, a few seemingly invisible.
So we drew up a call for papers. Meanwhile, my two colleagues set about writing their own narratives, as we all canvassed our friends. Gradually, contributions appeared. Organizing principles took shape. Editing began. We actually had a manuscript! Not all of the contributions were as strong as we'd hoped. But most were. And at least the whole didn't suffer from a problem I had been warned plagues all essay collections: sounding as if each essay has been written in the same voice.
Finally, the existential moment drew nigh -- the pitch to a publisher. I began with one whose senior editor I chanced to know. He called for the manuscript, he secured a reader. Was our idea actually going to see the light of published day? Could the process be so smooth? Alas, no. The reader was cool. The idea, it seemed, was interesting. But not all the individual contributions were up to it (excepting a couple of the ones I thought weakest, though including a couple I thought strongest). Worse, the manuscript needed the sort of heft that can only be provided by big names.
This last objection especially maddened me. A section of our introductory rationale explicitly addressed this question. None of us believed in big names for this project because writing a dissertation abides in the profession as something you do in order to get past it (and ideally on to the next stage, publication as a book). The only people who would be interested in writing about how they wrote their dissertations would be people who were not destined to be "names."
The subsequent fate of this manuscript is simply told. It never got published. It never even got a reading from another publisher. Was our pitch letter unsatisfactory? Was the whole idea just a non-starter? In my pitch experience, you never know why, if a publisher's door doesn't swing open. Your manuscript is "just not right for our list." This is usually as specific as a letter of response will be, although sometimes there will be something additional about financial exegencies, worthy manuscripts, and the parlous state of academic publishing today, not to say life itself.
I tell this story for a complicated knot of reasons, having to do with a belief in the power of narrative, a horror of wasted effort, and an acquiescence to the enduring prospect of rejection in professional life. The nice thing about writing a dissertation -- as opposed to writing about writing it -- is that it appears at first to swing free of any of these things, beginning with the fact that nobody ever reads of not successfully writing a dissertation; to write one is perforce to complete it -- and to defend it successfully and finally to receive the doctorate.
What if you fail, and then attempt to write about it? Does anybody actually do this? Whether or no, good luck trying to publish it. Bad enough to try concerning a successful dissertation. Although an account of an unsuccessful one might reveal more about the conditions of writing a dissertation in the first place -- according to a logic whereby failure (or defeat) reveals more about success than success (or victory) itself -- the whole power of the disciplinary narrative embedded in the dissertation is that you complete it, period. Then, perhaps, an individual story begins, albeit again one only possible to relate as a story of success; "How I Wrote My Book," though, is less promising a title than "How I Wrote My Dissertation."
Yet I continue to believe that a narrative -- carefully conceived, creatively organized, and searchingly set out-- about virtually anything possesses an undeniable power of its own. Moreover, some of the best narratives have to do with subjects heretofore disdained, marginalized, or suppressed. Within academic life, a narrative of how you wrote your dissertation constitutes, I think, one of those subjects. How else to demonstrate why to date the story of actual dissertation writing appears to be such an unworthy one?
It's long been a fancy of mine that anything to do with dissertations participates very deeply and mysteriously with waste. Even to complete one efficiently is to have had to keep at bay all manner of false starts, misconceived research, sloppy organization, and other things dissertated flesh is heir to, including inflexible dissertation committees and absent dissertation directors. It's as if to begin in the first place is to have to ignore all this. Many can't. These include people who get to dissertation stage and stop as well as those who never get started.
Another fancy: How I Wrote My Dissertation failed as a project in part because it aimed to explore the waste implicit in writing a dissertation. This was not our intention. (Nor was it the purpose of any of the individual essays.) Yet one reason the very subject appears unworthy is because it cannot avoid bringing to light factors that the profession prefers be suppressed. These include everything from how much time the writing of a dissertation actually takes to how idle is the relation between the completed doctoral degree and a job -- any job.
Writing a dissertation is of course in large part a ritual. It was a ritual when the research it takes to write one could still be expected to inaugurate a scholarly career. Today, when even those who still have some legitimate claim to such a career (because of their institutional pedigree or the disciplinary networks of their directors) can easily wind up as adjuncts, the research seems more hollow than ever. How I Wrote My Dissertation becomes Why I Wrote My Dissertation -- and the reasons emerge as so individual or distinctive (at least this was so in our collection) that ritual efficacy itself is threatened.
Everybody in higher education has an investment in maintaining this efficacy, which is ostensibly so crucial that it cannot be exposed to the vicissitudes of personal experience, as any personal narrative is bound to do. Indeed, personal experience lies at one end of a division encompassing the whole of academic life, at the other end being impersonal professional authority. This authority can of course be questioned -- and personally -- at many levels. But there are levels below which no questioning goes.
A dissertation apparently occupies one of these levels. We don't care Why I Wrote Mine because we care so much instead about the dissertation itself -- whether as the means of authorized entry into a career in higher education or just as a criterion for sorting out prospective adjuncts in terms of their highest degrees. To care about the dissertation is not to care why you or anybody else either did or didn't write one. To care about the dissertation means to believe that even the individual waste involved in writing one can be in some way recuperated.
Curiously, not one of the contributors to How I Wrote My Dissertation would disagree with the last statement. (As I once secretly hoped a few would.) To each, writing a dissertation was worth it, even if it took too long, cost too much, and did or didn't matter with respect to a job. Yet, alas, in the public forum that only publication can command, everybody got rejected together anyway. This brings me to a final point: rejection itself. You've got to be prepared for it in professional life -- the article you can't get published, the class with which you can't connect, the tenure you are denied, the position for which you not got an interview. Arguably, in the construction of a career, the dissertation represents its initial moment, because a dissertation can be rejected.
How I Wrote My Dissertation didn't -- or doesn't -- disturb this moment. And yet in presuming to tell a group of individual stories of how dissertations were accepted, the manuscript does implicitly comport with another story, about how each one could have been rejected. Once more, I think, it is apparently central to the profession that the actual basis of rejection or acceptance not be explored too closely, lest the line between the two grow indistinct or arbitrary. (Was this why the publisher's reader called for narratives of "names," as if to guarantee the boundary?) Part of caring about the importance of a dissertation means upholding both the standards it presumes and the integrity of these standards.
Nobody wants to hear about rejection. Not only because it is always judged to smack of "sour grapes," but because virtually each time rejection threatens to edge up uncomfortably beside acceptance -- and then, although all is not lost, much might well become confounded. The profession after all is full of people who have been rejected in some significant way. (Or in the case of people who choose not to attempt to write a dissertation, effectively self-rejected.) We teach right alongside them. They are part of who we are. No, they are who we are, whether, for starters, we have written dissertations or not. But we don't know many of their -- our -- stories, especially those that courted, or continue to court, rejection.
I've lost touch with the majority of the contributors (and one of the editors) to How I Wrote My Dissertation. I don't know if the rejection of our manuscript bothers any of them; most of the rest I do know seem to have forgotten about it or at least don't bring it up. Why bother? Anyway, in academic publishing, collections of essays especially constitute a crapshoot. (At the moment, I have, let's see, four respective essays with four proposed collections, and haven't so much as heard from the editors of two for a couple of years.) You lose, you move on. What else to say? Not all rejection is worth pondering. Not all rejection is worth narrating.
There are two reasons for offering something of mine. One is that the subject of the rejection marks perhaps the profoundest disconnect in higher education between a professionally authorized project (writing a dissertation) and a personally imagined one (writing about how you wrote it). The second reason follows from the first: Anything to do with dissertations -- ranging from how their content has changed or how they are monitored though what functions they serve -- occupies one of the great mystified spaces. It is mystified because it is uncontested. And it is uncontested, I believe, because it is still not subject to narrative.
People often ask me why I serve on so many committees. I usually tell them a story about my grandfather. When I was a young child, I often saw him in a T-shirt that read, “Don’t ask me, I’m not on a committee.” Beneath this motto was a trail of enigmatic paw prints. To my young eyes, the paw prints seemed to indicate a level of playfulness and mischief, but also perhaps an element of dehumanization. Even before I knew what a committee was, I made up my mind that I wouldn’t make the same mistake. I would be on a committee.
For most of my life, this thought remained dormant. All that changed, however, when I finished my M.A. at Chicago Theological Seminary, having submitted a translation and commentary on an essay Derrida added to the French edition of The Gift of Death, and made the decision to stay for my Ph.D. as well. Perhaps unexpectedly, given the connotations that a “seminary” calls to mind, my motive in staying there was the intellectual freedom provided by the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, which would allow me to pursue my interest in contemporary continental philosophy and to seek out resources in the Christian tradition that would resonate with the interest in St. Paul shown by Badiou, Agamben, and others. (My interest has since shifted somewhat, but of course that is one of the benefits of intellectual freedom.)
Having made a significant commitment to the institution, I decided that I would become more involved. The easiest way to do that seemed to be to volunteer as a student representative to Academic Council. I was one of several student representatives, and though there was a place on the agenda for us to bring up matters of student concern, we most often had very little to contribute. I attended very faithfully, though, as a way of getting a feel for how faculty self-governance works in an independent seminary.
The following fall I signed up for a second term on Academic Council. Starting the previous spring and continuing into the fall, there was considerable controversy at the seminary about the decision to convert student housing into a commercial rental property, and I worked with some of my fellow students to attempt to put together an “open letter” from the student representatives to the Academic Council and the leaders of student groups to the Board of Trustees, expressing our concern about the situation. Due to my involvement, the dean named me as one of two student representatives to Academic and Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees.
My service on Academic Council also made me eligible to serve on the search committee for an open faculty position in New Testament. That same year, I began a two-year term as the seminary’s student liaison to the American Academy of Religion, which required submitting various reports and -- of course -- serving on a committee at the national meeting, which that year largely served as an opportunity for us to ask a high-ranking administrator in the academy questions about the organization and its future.
As I reflect on the events of the last year, then, one thing seems pretty obvious: I’ve served on a lot of committees. Now that I am making the transition toward my comprehensive exams and dissertation, I am planning on retiring from student leadership (with the exception of serving the remainder of my term as student liaison), and this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve done in the course of serving on these committees. First, I’ve become acquainted with some of the routine tasks of faculty self-governance and with the role of the board of trustees. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to be involved -- the seminary was in the process of adopting a new strategic plan and going through its periodic re-accreditation. I’ve also served my primary professional organization at the national level and seen a faculty search from the inside. The search committee in particular was truly a great opportunity for me. I got to look through applicants’ files, giving me a chance to see what kinds of qualifications applicants for a competitive position generally have, to assess what seemed to be effective cover letters, and to see what kinds of things recommenders say. Beyond that, I was able to sit in on a few informal interviews with our most promising candidates at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.
All of this was very valuable experience, and although it sounds like a lot of work, it really wasn’t. Much of the actual decision-making, for both the faculty and the board, took place in the closed executive sessions. Thus the responsibilities of students, and so also the expectations of outside preparation work, were limited: Our primary role was to allow student voices to be involved in the conversation. Even at the peak of my involvement, I was averaging under two hours a week, and most of the time it was considerably less. Since I was in my coursework stage, I was normally on campus anyway on the days when the committees met.
Several of my fellow student representatives complained that Academic Council seemed to be a waste of time because we never “did” anything, but I came to view it as a kind of informal apprenticeship, somewhat similar to the two teaching assistantships that I held that same year. Unlike at some institutions, where the TA is expected basically to teach the entire class, I served as a true assistant, taking care of grading and other clerical tasks and also attending all the class sessions. At first, I viewed the class sessions as a boring ordeal, but gradually my perspective changed and I realized that it was a great opportunity to shift my focus away from the course content and observe the professor’s teaching style -- what works, what doesn’t, what I’d want to adopt, what I’d do differently.
In addition to providing a service to the professor, then, the teaching assistantship helped me to shift gradually from the mindset of a student to that of a teacher. Most grad students are aware of the need for this process, but few seem to be very conscious of the fact that teaching and research are not the entirety of what an academic does -- the nuts and bolts of administration are a major factor as well. Certainly few pursue an academic career because they want to do committee work, but it is an integral part of what it means to be part of a self-governing faculty. Taking the opportunity to participate, by necessity largely as an observer, in the various administrative processes was a very helpful way of getting a realistic view of what the professional life of an academic is really like.
A big part of that for me was simply observing how much time faculty had to devote to meetings and to preparing for them, particularly during the re-accreditation process. Perhaps more important, though, was the kind of informal “ethnography” of committees that I developed over time -- the politics of what is said and what remains unsaid, the role of the moderator in keeping the meeting moving and setting the tone, and a whole variety of other factors that an observer is able to pick up on in a way that someone suddenly thrown into the midst as a more active participant might not be able to.
Above all, I became convinced that patience and a sense of humor are the most important qualities to have in committee work. Patience allows one to see the value in the function of periodic meetings as a way of checking in and making sure that even matters that might be taken for granted are explicitly addressed -- that is, to appreciate the role of regular committees as helping to make sure that things continue to function smoothly and the way that not having to “do” anything can often be a positive sign. A sense of humor works to help maintain that level of patience by keeping what can easily become a tedious process from becoming too burdensome.
For my part, I often found humor in observing the small details of what was going on -- the way that certain seemingly simple decisions could be indefinitely deferred, the people who seemed to enjoy the sound of their own voice and the people who made it their goal to say as little as possible in each meeting, the occasional surreptitious piece of reading material smuggled into the meeting. Much of the time, these small observations served only as an occasion to chuckle to myself, but on rare occasions, I have experienced moments that approach the sublime.
The best such moment came in the course of the meeting of the student liaisons at the AAR. The administrator who had come to our meeting was discussing concerns about how certain institutions were conducting their interview processes, including meeting in inappropriate settings, asking inappropriate questions (particularly about sexual orientation), and basically engaging in a wide panoply of inappropriate behaviors. He assured us all that the AAR was doing everything possible to crack down on such behavior among the users of its job listing service, and speaking on behalf of the AAR more generally, he said, “We are committed to being appropriate.”
“We are committed to being appropriate” -- it is a line I have treasured in my heart and meditated upon ever since. Perhaps I should make a T-shirt.