The nature of graduate assistants – students or "workers" -- has been at the heart of the graduate assistant unionization effort at a number of private universities. New York University’s unwavering position has been that graduate assistants are students, not employees, and their assistantships are financial aid to support their academic program. This has been our position even when the National Labor Relations Board ruled otherwise for a brief period before returning to its long-held position last summer. In deciding whether to negotiate a new contract with the United Auto Workers, this principle would had to have been maintained in any outcome the university embraced.
NYU’s decision not to renegotiate a new contract with the UAW cannot be separated from the history of its experience with the UAW over the course of the original contract. In 2001 when NYU signed an agreement with the United Auto Workers and gave up its right to take the matter to court, the university took a leap of faith: We relied on an understanding with the UAW about the need to protect core academic decision-making from collective-bargaining process. This understanding was recorded both in contract language and an accompanying letter from the UAW. These assurances formed the foundation of our agreement and were indispensable to our decision to forgo our rights to appeal the decision at that time.
However, contrary to their commitment, the UAW sought to obtain authority through the grievance process over academic matters that they had specifically agreed were not within their purview. These grievances were not simple issues over back pay, as the union publicly proclaims. They are challenges to the kind of key academic decisions no university would subject to collective bargaining: who is appointed to teach a class, how many years graduate students can take to complete their studies, or who is a graduate assistant. The fact that the union’s grievance attempts on these issues failed and that arbitrators strongly rejected their claims does not change the peril the grievances posed. Had an arbitrator decided against NYU, even wrongly, the decision would have had the force of law. Moreover, these grievances reflected a fundamental lack of good faith that is compounded by the union’s efforts to recast them in their public utterances.
So, as NYU contemplated whether to enter voluntarily into a new contract, these matters weighed heavily. The university engaged in a robust and thorough dialogue on the matter, involving many forums. Two committees -- one of faculty and the other elected University Senators -- both advised against negotiating a new contract, citing the grievances in particular, and 160 faculty members signed a letter urging the University not to sign a new contract, saying:
“For a graduate student union to be appropriate, the predominant or primary relationship between the University and its graduate students must be that of employer to employee. But that is clearly not the case...
"...[O]ur PhD students are chosen for their potential to become, after a period of intensive training lasting several years, important contributors to their academic disciplines. A part -- but not the main part -- of that training involves learning the craft of teaching, which in turn involves the often arduous tasks of grading, lecturing and interacting with students. But could anyone looking at this picture in the whole seriously maintain that the primary nature of the relationship between the University and its graduate students is that between an employer and its employees?"
Given that the UAW was already on our campus, and it was clear that many graduate assistants wanted the union to be their voice mechanism, the university took the unprecedented step of seeking to meet the UAW half-way in response to their public statements that it was willing to take the issue of grievances off the table.
Before NYU decided last week not to negotiate a new contract with the United Auto Workers as collective bargaining representatives for its graduate students, we fashioned an offer that would have sought a middle ground, striking an important balance and creating a new paradigm. The offer provides graduate assistants with union representation on economic issues, while protecting the integrity of the academic decision-making process that is essential to graduate assistants’ primary role as students. Grievances would be addressed within the academic processes of the university and conclude with the provost, thereby ensuring that academic decisions involving graduate students are made through academic processes and based on academic norms.
In making this offer, NYU moved farther than any other private college or university to try to reach an agreement. We were willing to enter into an agreement that would have created this new paradigm; the UAW was not. NYU wanted academic decisions to be made in an academic process; the United Auto Workers wanted academic decisions to be made by outsiders.
And so, we will implement the proposals NYU offered in June, which built in part upon the lessons we learned from our experience with unionization: $1,000 per year increase in the base stipend (currently $18,000 annually) for each of the next three years for graduate students, payment of 100 percent of student health insurance premiums, full tuition remission, and the creation of new mechanisms for graduate student voice within the NYU community, as well as a $200,000 fund for medical emergencies (a suggestion that emerged as our proposals were being considered). This will permit our graduate students to pursue their studies in an environment guided by academic norms and oriented to supporting their academic success, with the support of stipends and benefits that are guaranteed.
Each university will necessarily make its own decision as it confronts calls for unionizing graduate assistants. NYU’s history will probably be instructive to many, and the UAW’s rejection of our offer will likely come to be seen as a singular lost opportunity: that a union could not bring itself to embrace a new paradigm, preferring instead to rely upon a traditional employer/employee labor model that has proven to be ill-suited for an academic environment.
John Beckman is vice president for public affairs at New York University. (An article by a member of the TA union at NYU, defending the United Auto Workers, appeared on Inside Higher Ed last week.)
Back in the prelapsarian days of faculty unionization in the 1970s, when there were few laws on the books empowering and regulating collective bargaining in higher education, it was not uncommon for administrators to recognize a union simply because faculty had voted for it. It was an almost unspoken tenet of campus collegiality -- and a precursor to today's embattled concept of shared governance -- that institutions should honor the clear majority wishes of their faculty. That is essentially what happened recently to the graduate employee union drive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After a decade's struggle, the enlightened chancellor -- who has since resigned -- simply recognized the union.
There was a difference, however; the graduate student vote had taken place years ago and been dismissed as legally nonbinding. What graduate student employees had to do to apply a bit of leverage was to occupy the administration building. Details of that story are in Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy (Routledge, 2004). There is a general lesson in the Illinois strategy: you can get a union if your employee group has majority support for it and if you are willing to go the distance, to disrupt daily life on campus by nonviolent civil disobedience. That may well be what will be required at New York University this fall.
Every unionization drive now includes an aggressive anti-union campaign organized and funded by the administration. Why? Why has the civility of an earlier (and far from utopian) era disappeared? Why do administrators fear graduate student employee unionization drives? I'd like to propose some answers to these questions:
1. The character of higher education administration is changing. I still prefer the model of an eloquent and progressive administrator whom one can admire. That is my notion of appropriate campus leadership. I encountered such people several times at my undergraduate college (Antioch) and have done so repeatedly at Illinois, but in the last decade I have increasingly witnessed administrators who make exploiting the campus workforce a primary aim. When an administrator prefers to deny campus employees decent health care, satisfactory retirement benefits, a living wage, safe working conditions, and effective grievance procedures, that administrator is an adversary. Unionization does not invent adversary relationships in such cases; instead it recognizes them and tries to negotiate them in a rational way.
2. Every administrator wants full control over the budget and maximum personal power. Unions alter the forces effecting budget allocation. They change campus priorities. Even the modest gains graduate employees have won represent a symbolic loss of centralized power. Administrators fear the symbolism as much as the real impact. But the message successful collective action sends about the potential to change campus power relations more generally is a potent one that worries administrators considerably.
3. Unionization threatens the increasing use of contingent labor. A legally binding union contract may be the only way to limit the growing reliance on contingent labor. A contract can potentially restrict the percentage of courses taught by part-time faculty and by graduate students. Administrators would prefer to decide the ratio of full-time to part-time employees themselves.
4. Union solidarity and negotiation threatens increasing administrative desire to control both appointments and the curriculum. I have encountered growing administrative discomfort with traditional faculty control over appointments and growing administrative resistance to faculty control over the curriculum. Some administrators want the power to shift appointments and curricula quickly to meet corporate needs. Others simply want to emphasize more profitable majors.
5. Union solidarity strengthens academic freedom. With tolerance for campus dissent decreasing, administrators should welcome union organized support for academic freedom. Yet some administrators would prefer to capitulate to outside political and corporate pressure. It is depressingly clear that some administrators at our most prestigious campuses have no fundamental understanding of or respect for academic freedom. For them unionization seems a threat, not a benefit.
6. Unions can seek a role in defining the institution's mission. Not only administrators but also governing boards have shown interest in redefining the basic mission of colleges and universities. Where faculty senates are weak and submissive, both faculty and graduate students need a vehicle to express their views of the institution's purposes and goals. Mission statements that faculty and students find abhorrent need to be resisted.
7. Union contracts counteract the dramatic differences in campus compensation. More and more are campus salaries mimicking the increasing gap between corporate managers' earnings and those on the shop floor. As the gap between administrators' salaries and the salaries of those who teach or perform other campus work widens, the sense of common purpose is undermined. Yet too many administrators are comfortable with this trend and fear union power to resist or reverse it.
8. The greatest worry is with for sciences. A union representing research assistants in the laboratory sciences is likely to have the power to initiate grievance procedures. The secret of how some such labs are run in science and engineering is not well known. Students are often privately warned they cannot expect positive evaluations or recommendations unless they work 80-120 hours a week in the lab. Even with beginning grad students, who do not yet have dissertation projects, the time above 40 hours is treated as the student's personal research. Often it is actually virtually all research for the faculty member in charge of the lab. Established grad employee unions have regularly won grievance complaints against such practices, and that has real budgetary implications for the labs at issue. Exploitive labs are often established around a core of foreign students, many of whom do not have family in the United States and all of whom increasingly risk being thrown out of the country or denied entrance in the first place. Once a core of lab employees accepts the requirement of an 80-120 hour work week it is then possible to integrate American citizens into the same culture. Some of the other rules such labs put in place are equally surprising. Grad employees may be denied standard university holidays unless they work overtime in advance to "pay" for them. They may be assigned breakage fees for the loss of ordinary glass equipment. All these abuses will be fought by a good union.
9. Relations with faculty will be poisoned. This is a false fear, because unions tend to displace potential student/faculty confrontations. Instead of grad employees in a lab having to protest unfair working conditions to their supervisors, union negotiators initiate far less emotional and confrontational grievance procedures. Having experienced union representatives negotiate grievances reduces rather than increases antagonism. That is true both for exploitive labs and for humanities or social science courses that overwork teaching assistants. It is not in fact unusual for humanities department faculty to endorse grad employee union drives. They do so because they want their students to be better paid and because they do not see themselves as employers in any case.
10. Unions promote new identities for faculty and students. The last decade has seen a growing tendency for members of a given union to reach out to other employee groups on campus and the community. After several decades in which the self-interested, entrepreneurial faculty member has seemed the major identity available in higher education, unions have begun to promote socially responsible, community oriented identities. Some American Association of University Professors unions have reached out to help their grad employee colleagues organize for collective bargaining. Grad students and faculty have joined city-wide living wage campaigns. Grad employee unions especially have joined other campus and off-campus unions in job actions. The new Ph.D.'s who come of age in these community oriented unions enter the profession ready to pursue not only their own careers but also the well being of the whole community in which they live. An enlightened administrator has nothing to fear in this development and every reason to welcome it. But administrators who worship corporatization, not community, are coming to fear the rise of a faculty class who identify with all workers.
The American Association of University Professors recognizes the right of all campus groups to decide for themselves whether they wish to negotiate their salaries and working conditions collectively. The organization takes no position on whether they should opt to unionize. It simply recognizes that the right inheres in each employee group. Increasingly, campus administrators seek to deny that right. Several campuses have spent more fighting these drives than they would be likely to spend paying for benefits won in contact negotiations. Perhaps the reasons above help explain that anomaly.
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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.