Thursday, May 29, 2014

Missing the Target

Lots of smart people worked on a report at McGill on the Future of the Humanities PhD.  I don't have the time to read the whole thing, but I find it incredibly frustrating that they rule out what seems to be most obvious:
we do not recommend cutting numbers of PhD students or cutting programs.
Of course not.  That would mean making hard decisions, setting priorities, and figuring out how to teach classes with fewer teaching assistants.*
* Some might point to the thirst for research assistants, but one can do what people at Liberal Arts Colleges do--hire undergrads. May or may not be quite the same, but substitution is possible.
The job market for humanities Phd's has been far bleaker than that for social science.  So, cutting supply when demand has dropped would seem to make sense.  Nope.  Not here.

The recommendations in the rest of the document make sense but could have tradeoffs.  Replacing book-like dissertations with an assemblage of related scholarly effort is not that different from what economists do and what political scientists are increasingly doing--writing three related papers.  Of course, that works if we change tenure standards from books to articles.  Otherwise, we are setting people up for failure down the road.  Still, this is not a bad idea. Nor is more reporting, better mentoring and the rest.

But as I said at the top, this is dodging the big question and the hard choices.  If departments and universities to do not adjust their production of PhDs, someone else will, whether that is states/provinces cutting funding for PhD programs (kind of happening already) or students will learn that the PhD is a bad bet (see what has happened to law school applications).  Better to reform via decisions over which one can have some influence than imposed by outside, right?

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