Thursday, November 29, 2012

We are a Bad Guild (part seven)

The spat over policy vs. academic PhD-ness continues.  I wrote about it at CIC, arguing that the trends were in the right direction.  One of the protagonists in this conversation suggested that the academics were trying to limit entry into PhD programs because we want keep the value of the PhD high.  The old limit supply, increase value strategy.

If only we academics were so instrumental, but we suck as a guild.  We already let too many folks through our programs, failing fewer than we should at comprehensive exam time, and then letting many go on to complete their PhDs.  As a result, there are heaps of un- and under-employed PhDs who serve as a ready supply of labor as adjuncts, so universities can cut the number of tenure-track positions without worrying about who will teach the classes.  The under-employed supply of PhDs will be there, desperate to get some work. 

No, there are many reasons why we are not thrilled about the idea of the PhD being a merit badge, but protecting the value of our degrees is not one of them.  For me, teaching at all levels is more enjoyable/rewarding (even fun) when the students are engaged in the material because they are interested and not because they are looking to get a certain grade, to get a degree.  While it is understandable and fine for MA students to be focused on getting the degree, it is less fine for Phd students.

Why?  Because the PhD involves not just the analysis of existing work but the creation of knowledge.  Yes, it sounds high falutin and pretentious, but the PhD is a training process mean to produce people who can engage in long-term, original research.  It requires patience, persistence, and much thought.  One get subjected to heaps of criticism along the way.  It is hardly "fun" but the process is endurable if the researcher is interested and engaged in the research.  Same goes for those doing the advising--we want engaged students or else we are reading lengthy documents produced by a machine-like process.  If we wanted to do that, we would have become lawyers. 

The protagonist pushed back, saying with a bit of bite that we should be ok with having some un-fun days.  That work is work, essentially.  Indeed, this is why academics bitch about grading--it is not fun and feels a lot like work.  But advising dissertation students is not just a bit of work over class, but a sustained relationship and repeated readings of the same material.  Most of us got into the professor business because we find this stuff (IR for me) interesting.  We sacrifice much to be able to control what we do, including who we supervise.  Six years in Texas in my first job was one such sacrifice.  Not being able to have control over where I live is a key sacrifice.  That is the price I pay to have a career where the work is mostly interesting.  Why would I want to supervise work that the student considers to be just enough to get by rather than something that interests and animates them? 

It is a fun job with a heap of work involved.  Encouraging people to do PhDs to make them more marketable to policy audiences may make some sense (I am still not sure), but if it encourages people to see PhDs as merit badges rather than something more, then yuck. 

One more thing: in the past few years, many of us have tried to discourage students from pursuing PhDs because we don't want people to waste heaps of time and money.  It is not about protecting our jobs but about guilt about encouraging people to spend years working for us as Research and Teaching Assistants and then struggling to find a tenure track position. 

Sure, we can be self-centered, but strategic?  Hmmm... not so much.

1 comment:

vlad said...

Actually, it is much more of an insider outsider relationship. All the supervisions is part of a way of justifying the positions of the haves (i.e tenured faculty), as well as getting the university funding from government, cheap labour in the form of phd students both to teach and assist tenured faculty. Nowhere do we see the two tiered labour force more in effect than university campuses. Like autoworkers you're large exploiting part of your fellow workers to keep or maximize your own benefits.