November 10, 2009

Workday Miscellany: Ph.D. Problems, Institutional Inertia, Graduate Teaching, and the Yoke of Marriage

I'm feeling a bit scattered this week. Here are some of the things buzzing around in my head.

1. It's hard not to want to say something about Louis Menand's much-linked-to post on "the PhD problem," but what? Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I nodded emphatically at this statement:
The non-academic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic modes of thought, and had thereby acquired a little understanding of the issues that scare terms like “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” are attempts to deal with. And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction—and also if it had to deal with students who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo.
But I don't really know how to assess some of his larger claims, especially the more sociological or statistical ones; I can't even compare them to my own experience, really, because the information is exclusively about American institutions and I don't know how closely the patterns he describes are repeated here in Canada--despite having spent two years as coordinator of our graduate program. One of the reasons is that the concerns of that position were, of practical necessity, extremely local: it's a two-year stint by departmental policy, with an incessant stream of relatively small bureaucratic and advising tasks and intervals of intense labour around major fellowship deadlines and, of course, admissions. In the first year of the position the learning curve was steep and my dependence on our (exemplary!) office staff nearly total; the second year was slightly better but the end was already in sight. New initiatives? Policy development? Research into large-scale professional questions and how they might impact or play out in our tiny program? Not a chance: there was just no time, and frankly no incentive, to explore broader issues.

2. In a related vein, I was struck by Menand's passing suggestion that "If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship," but this seems to me another of those ideas about changing "the system" (not unlike the MLA's call to "decenter the monograph" as the gold standard for evaluating tenure and promotion files) that can never be addressed on a local level and so may never be addressed at all. Which department wants to be the first to say that they will award a Ph.D. without requiring a thesis? For that matter, which department could make such a change in policy without losing their accreditation or funding? Which department could independently assert its ability to evaluate the work of its members without the sacred stamp of "peer reviewed publications," or at least giving equal weight to less conventional modes of knowledge dissemination? (How far, as the MLA report suggested, has "peer review" become an excuse for farming out the job of scholarly evaluation to editors?) Anecdotally, conversationally, there's plenty of dissatisfaction with the professional status quo and interest in making various features of it more flexible and more responsive to changing conditions in, say, publishing or employment. But this week, in a couple of different contexts, I was reminded again of how rigidly current practices are enforced by administrative structures that assume certain models for estimating academic productivity and value (for instance, fellowship competitions in which quantity of publications is taken as the only 'objective' measure of excellence, or research models that promote applications for large grants as if more expensive projects are both necessary and desirable). People grumbled about the implicit principles but the atittude appears to be "that's the way things are now, and we'd better stay in the game."

3. I was also struck by Menand's remark that "Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark." This certainly echoes my strong feeling for the last several years that English, for one, has become a field so inchoate that it is unable to declare and defend itself in any compelling way that all of its members can agree on--at least, not without resorting to unbelievably bland formulations (all the world's a text!). How can we sustain a sense of ourselves as a functioning discipline under these circumstances? Though I don't want to fall into conservative lamentation about the good old days when everybody knew what books were valuable and why (when were those days, exactly, and how long did they last?), anyone who has worked on curriculum reform (and probably everyone working in an English department anywhere has done so at least once) knows that the lack of an identifiable core is a practical as well as an intellectual problem. It's a problem for us, as we try to define priorities in hiring as well as teaching, and it's a problem for students, whose programs include so much variety it is possible to meet a 4th-year honours student and be more struck, somehow, by what they don't know or haven't read than by what they do and have, and certainly impossible to predict what experience or knowledge they bring to your class (in my 4th-year seminar on Victorian sensation fiction, I have students who have never studied 19th-century novels before--they have a lot of catching up to do, to participate effectively in some aspects of our discussions). But what, if anything, to do about that? Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menant points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.

4. All of this mental muddle is particularly distracting because one of the things I'm trying to get done is course planning for next term, and particularly the plans for my upcoming graduate seminar on George Eliot. When I first taught such a class (in 1997-98), I thought it was pretty obvious what I should do: graduate courses are training for professional work in the field of literary criticism, right? That shouldn't have seemed so obvious to me then (I didn't take into account, for instance, that Dalhousie's program includes a 'terminal' M.A. and thus serves a student population that is not necessarily headed down an academic path), and it certainly does not seem so obvious to me now. But what difference does, or should, it make that there seem to me to be a number of uncertainties about the purpose of their degrees more generally, our seminar in particular, and even literary criticism itself? Is a (real or mock) conference paper a reasonable goal, or a paper suitable to be revised and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal? Should I diversify the requirements to suit a wider range of possible applications of scholarly expertise--say, a resource-rich website, an experimental hyper-text edition of a chapter, a paper aimed at a general audience, a portfolio of book reviews, a class wiki? Is it possible to accommodate such a range and still to ensure equal workloads and fair evaluation? I've been reading and rereading a swathe of critical articles in preparation for the usual "secondary readings" requirements but if I can't even be sure myself what we need to accomplish in the class, how can I choose what they should read? Probably I'll just do what I usually do, which is pick some articles that seem particularly useful or interesting, or that stand for some reason as key or classic pieces; require a couple of short response papers, a seminar presentation, and a term paper (of the usual academic variety). It's tempting to reinvent the course--but it's part of a whole system of requirements and expectations, and so there I am again, reluctant to deviate from local norms, to point out that most of them will never need to do academic criticism (or get a permanent job in which it is required of them for tenure) and so we should really find something else to do about what we read.

In the meantime, my classes seem to be going fine. I was particularly pleased with the lively discussion in the Sensation Fiction seminar the last couple of meetings; I think we have some real momentum now, having bulldozed through four major novels in preparation for the next phase of the course, which involves a series of workshops and then a series of student presentations. In the other class, assignments just went back and besides the inevitable angst and resentment that generates, I think most of them are behind on their Middlemarch readings. But I'm doing my best to keep the energy up and to give them ideas about how to make the most of the reading as they work their way along. We talked about Lydgate and Rosamond, and the "ideal not the real yoke of marriage" (a phrase actually used about Dorothea and Casaubon, but widely applicable in this novel). For a happily "married" woman, George Eliot could sure put her finger on just how and why marital relations can turn from bliss to pain. To my knowledge there are only two married people in the class; they seem to be the ones doing most of the nodding as I explain the process of disillusionment and then adaptation to reality the novel describes.

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