Sunday, July 11, 2004

Arms Races and Graduate Studies

Well, that must have been confusing. A couple of days ago I linked to a blog I've been reading for a while In The Shadow of Mt Hollywood, but I got confused and thought that John Bruce, the author (and you should read his serialized novel on the blog if you don't mind getting sucked in), had made a comment about graduate students engaging in an 'arms race.'

John was understandably confused. The comment to which I was referring was by Conscientious Objector, whose blog I can't get to tonight, and I'd attributed it to John because I've kept reading Mt. Hollywood and thus assumed that was where I'd read the comment.

Ok, with that prologue, I'd better try to come up with something good. Objector had replied to one of my earlier posts where I'd discussed the problems with "the academic labor situation" (which, simply put, is that there are not enough tenure-track professor jobs for all the people who want to be tenure track professors). I had given some suggestions to graduate students who were seeking one of those elusive tenure-track jobs. Objector noted (kindly) that my advice was good, but there was a larger, structural problem: if every graduate student took my advice (to prep very early and very hard for the future job, to market themselves, to have article ready to publish the year you go on the market, etc.), then those graduate students would be engaging in what evolutionary biologists call an 'arms race.' As the competition between graduate students increased, positive feedback would ensure that more and more and more would be required of them. Thus following Drout's advice might work for any individual, but for the population as a whole it would generate more effort just to stay in place (this has also been called the Red Queen phenomenon).

I think this analysis is correct, and that the arms race has already been going on for quite a while. If, for instance, you look at the qualifications of the people who went on the job market in 1977, 1987 and 1997 (when I went on the market), I'm certain that you'd find a lot of people in the 70's whose dissertations weren't even done. In the 80's, the dissertations might be completed, and maybe one article would be in 'writing sample' stage. By the time you get to the 90's, you'd have people with multiple published articles in addition to the dissertation. Likewise with teaching experience. People in the 70's often had never actually taught a full semester before being dropped in front of a class. In the 80's, they'd probably taught one or two classes. When I started at Wheaton I'd taught more than 12 full-semester classes.

From the point of view of the creature caught in an arms race, it sucks. You're working as hard as you can to survive, and each year the goalposts move, making it harder. But (and here's where I think arms races are good), the population of people outside the arms race benefit a great deal from that race.

How can this be? Simple: more and more knowledge is getting produced from the same inputs of money (funding, student tuition, scholarships)and human capital (graduate students). In the 1970s, 20 graduate students might produce 20 dissertations and 1 article. In the 1990s 20 graduate students might produce 20 dissertations and 25 articles. That's a big improvement.

[Obviously I believe that articles are good things to produce. If you don't agree, and think that published articles are not a benefit to society, then this argument isn't for
you.]

The improvement in teaching is even better. In Anglo-Saxon, for instance there are simply no bad teachers left under 40 years old. It used to be that search committees often had to chose between a good teacher and a good researcher. No longer. You can now hire someone like Steve Harris, or Stacy Klein, or Drew Jones (to name just a few from my scholarly generation) who are excellent in the classroom and have major publications.

So everything is good, right? Well, not for the overworked graduate students who are running just to keep place. Not for the young assistant professors who now need more than just one book for tenure. Not for the young associate professors who have been so conditioned to the arms race that we still keep putting in ungodly hours so as to display amazing productivity. But for society as a whole, we're getting more stuff for the same price. That's the beauty created by the ruthlessness of competition.

And there are other problems. One is a little bit sad. Academia used to be a refuge for smart, unworldly people who wanted to spend their lives, say, trying to sort out the layers of scratch glosses in a group of Psalters. They didn't want to have to be "dynamic teachers", and media outreach people for their fields, and political operatives and tireless advocates. These people are getting pushed out. Academia is no longer a nice place where someone can have a quiet, not particularly well-paid but fulfilling career if you are too shy of lacking in social skills for other places. I honestly think this is unfortunate. Smart, shy people need somewhere to go, after all.

Even more significantly, there is a real question whether we're now producing too much scholarship and if it is of lesser quality. I don't know. There is a problem of fragmentation: sub-specialities becoming so specialized that no-one reads anyone else's work. I have to confess I have little interest in what's in PMLA anymore, though I read Anglo-Saxon England like the Bible. Web-publishing, etc. has led to such an increase in scholarship that it's getting harder and harder to keep up with. On the other hand, I think what's being published in Anglo-Saxon studies right now is so much better than a lot of the general literary studies published in the 70's and 80's, that there does seem to have been a general improvement.

Finally, I want to refer to an email that I received when this discussion was hot back in the winter. I don't have permission to quote or post, so I'll summarize: the emailer wrote: aren't I better off having become educated in the search for a Ph.D., whether or not I get a job as a professor? Isn't the real goal to learn more? Isn't that why you're supposed to be getting the privilege of spending your time studying?

I basically agree, though I also see where the critics are coming from, since the economists might say that all the brainpower could be put to better use. I don't know: a lot of brainpower is put into a lot of activities with possibly less social utility than graduate studies in English. And actually I begrudge none of it.

So that's my response to the 'arms race' idea and an explanation for John Bruce, who was wondering what the heck I was talking about.


P.S.: The previous post was edited to eliminate all those stupid errors, but I can't get Blogger to replace the post. Stupid Blogger!

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