Doctoral Dysfunction

Many doctoral students today are tending to fall into one of two disturbing categories: academic technician or justice warrior, writes David F. Labaree.

June 18, 2020
 
 
Istock.com/ehrui1979

After nearly 40 years as a university professor, working primarily with doctoral students, I retired this year with a feeling of relief. It’s been a great ride, but two disturbing tendencies are developing among these students that I feel threaten the future health of higher education. Most students don’t exactly fit in either category, but the very existence of these practices may well pollute the pool in which they swim.

One tendency is the urge to become a hard-core academic technician; the other is the urge to become a hard-core justice warrior. Although, on one level, they represent opposite orientations toward research, on another level, they have in common the proclivity to serve as social engineers intent on fixing social problems. The antidotes to these two tendencies, I suggest, are to take a dose of humility every day and to approach educational research as a form of play. Let’s play with ideas instead of being hell-bent on tinkering with the social machinery.

My own experience has been with students in education, but much the same pattern is developing in doctoral programs in the social sciences and humanities. See if any of this sounds familiar.

The Academic Technician

If you adopt the role of academic technician, that means in practice that you concentrate on learning the craft of a particular domain of social science research. Not that there’s anything wrong with craft. Without it, we wouldn’t be a profession at all but just a bunch of amateurs. The problem comes from learning the craft too well. That means apprenticing yourself to an expert in your subfield and adopting all the practices and perspectives that this expert represents.

One flaw with this approach is that it treats social science as a domain whose primary problems are technical. It’s all about immersing yourself in cutting-edge research methodologies and diligently applying them to whatever data meet their assumptions. Often, the result is scholarship that is technically expert and substantively deficient. Your aim is to be able to defend the validity of your findings more than their significance, since at colloquia where such work is presented, the arguments mostly focus on whether the methodology warrants the modest claims the author is making.

The focus on acquiring technical skills diverts students from engaging with the big issues in a field such as education, which are primarily normative. Education is an effort to form children into the kinds of adults we want them to be. So the central issues in education revolve around the ends we want to accomplish and the values we hold dear. The key conflicts are about purpose rather than practice. Technical skills are not sufficient to explore these issues, and by concentrating too much on acquiring such purportedly hard skills, we turn our attention away from the normative concerns that by comparison seem awfully squishy.

Another problem that arises from the effort to become academic technicians is that it turns students into terrible writers. You populate your text with jargon and other forms of academic shorthand because you are speaking to an audience so small it could fit in a single seminar room. You’re trying to do science, so you model your writing after the lifeless language of the journeyman scientific journal article.

That means using passive voice, abandoning the first person (“data were gathered” -- who did that?), avoiding action verbs, loading the text with nominalizations (never use a verb when you can turn it into a noun) and at all costs refusing to tell an engaging story. If you make an effort to draw the reader’s interest, it’s considered unprofessional.

In this style of writing, papers are built by the numbers. Using the IMRaD formula, papers need to consist of introduction, methods, results and discussion. You can read them and write them in any order. Every paper is just an exercise in filling each of these categories with new content. It’s plug and play all the way.

The Justice Warrior

If the academic technician ranks means over ends, the justice warrior canonizes ends and dispenses with means altogether -- all that matters is your frequently expressed commitment to particular values of social justice. You can’t express those values too often or too vehemently, since the mission is all important and the enemies resisting the mission are legion. As a result, your position is perpetually atop the high horse of righteous indignation. The primary targets of your scholarship are sexism, racism and colonialism, with social class coming in a distant fourth.

If people seek to question your position because of a putative failure to construct a compelling argument or to validate your claims with clear evidence and rigorous methods, they are only demonstrating that they are on the wrong side. It’s OK to dismiss any text or argument whose author might be accused of betraying a tinge of sexism, racism or colonialism. Everything that follows is fruit of the poisonous tree. You can say something like, “Once I saw he was using the male pronoun, I couldn’t continue reading.”

Nothing worthwhile comes from someone you deem a bad person. This simplifies your life as an emergent scholar, since you can ignore most of the literature. It also means you seek out like-minded souls to serve on your committee and like-minded journals to place your papers.

This approach incorporates a distinctive stance toward intellectual life. The academic technician restricts intellectual interest to the methods within a small subfield at the expense of engaging with interesting ideas. But the justice warrior on principle adopts a position that is wholeheartedly anti-intellectual. You need to shun most ideas because they bear the taint of their sinful origins. Maintaining ideological purity is the key focus of your academic life. The world is black-and-white, and only sinners see shades of gray.

For justice warriors, every class, colloquium, meeting and paper is an opportunity to signal your virtue. That has the effect of stifling the conversation, since it’s hard for anyone to come back with a critical comment without looking sexist, racist or colonialist. Once you establish the high ideological ground, it’s easy to defend your position without having to draw on data, methods or logic. Being right brings reliable rewards.

Some Common Ground: Becoming Social Engineers

These two tendencies within the social science research community appear to be opposites, but in one way, they are quite similar. Both show a commitment for scholars in the field to become engineers whose job it is to fix social problems. For the academic technicians, that means a focus on creating data-driven policies for education reform, where the aim is to bring education and society in line with the findings of rigorous research. Research says do this, so let it be so. For justice warriors, that means a focus on bringing education and society in line with your own personal sense of what is righteous. Both say: I know best, so get out of my way.

The problem with this, of course, is that exercises in social engineering so often go very badly, no matter how much they are validated by science or confirmed by belief. Think communism, fascism, the inquisition, eugenics, the penitentiary and -- often -- the school or college. Rationalized scientific knowledge can be a destructive tool for tinkering with the emergent, organic ecology of social life. And moral absolutism can easily poison the soil.

A Couple Antidotes

One antidote to the dual diseases of academic technicalism and justice fundamentalism is a dose of humility. What most social engineers have in common is a failure to consider the possibility that they might be wrong -- to acknowledge, for instance: maybe I don’t know enough. Maybe my methods don’t apply in this setting. Maybe my theories are flawed. Maybe my values are not universal. Maybe my beliefs are mistaken. Maybe my morals are themselves tainted by inconsistency. Maybe it’s not just a case of technique; maybe ends matter. Maybe it’s not just a case of values; maybe means matter.

Adopting humility doesn’t mean that you need to be tentative in your assertions or diffident in your willingness to enter the conversation. Often you need to overstate your point in order to get attention and push people to engage with you. But it does mean that you need to be willing to reconsider your argument based on evidence and arguments that you encounter through other scholars -- or with your own data.

That reminds me of a colleague who used to ask faculty candidates the same question: “Tell me about a time when your research forced you to give up an idea that you really wanted to hold on to.” If your own research isn’t capable of changing your mind, then it seems you’re not really examining data but simply confirming belief.

Another way to counter these two baleful tendencies in the field is to approach research as a form of intellectual play -- to play with ideas instead of engineering improvement or pursuing methodological or ideological perfection. Play lets you try things out without fear of being technically or ideologically wrong. It keeps you from taking yourself too seriously, always a risk for academics at all levels. Play will keep you from adopting the social engineering stance that assumes you know better than they do.

This doesn’t mean abandoning your commitments to rigor and values. Your values will continue to shape what you play with, serving to make the stories you tell with your research meaningful and worthwhile. Your technique will continue to be needed to make the stories you tell credible.

Playing with ideas is fundamental to the ways that colleges and universities work. Ideally, higher education institutions provide a zone of autonomy for faculty that allows them to explore the intellectual terrain, unfettered by concerns about what’s politically correct, socially useful or potentially ridiculous. This freedom is more than a license to be frivolous, though it’s tolerant of such behavior. Its value comes from the way it opens up possibilities that more planful programs of research might miss. It allows you to think the unthinkable and pursue the long shot. Maybe most such efforts come to naught, but that’s an acceptable cost if a few fall on fertile soil and grow into insights of great significance. Play is messy, but it’s highly functional.

In closing, let me re-emphasize that most doctoral students in education don’t fall neatly into either of the two categories of scholarly malpractice that I identify here. Most are neither academic technicians nor justice warriors. Most manage to negotiate a position that avoids either of these polar tendencies. That’s the good news, which bodes well for the future of our field.

The bad news if you are one of these students, however, is that it often leaves you feeling as though you’ve fallen between two stools. Compared to the academic technicians, you seem unprofessional, and compared to the justice warriors, you seem immoral. That’s a position that threatens your ability to function as the kind of educational scholars we need.

Bio

David F. Labaree is the Lee L. Jacks Professor Emeritus at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and author of A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

 
Back to Top