Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Thoughts on Louis Menand's A Marketplace of Ideas

I read Menand's new book on the kindle app on my ipod touch, which means that I don't have page numbers for references. The good folks at Amazon are invited to find a way for those of us who like to cite sources to do that.

I've been a fan of Menand's for a while. The Metaphysical Club is a fantastic (and readable!) bit of intellectual history, especially for its portrait of William James. Menand has the rare ability to boil complexity down to readability without flattening out the nuances in the process, and heaven knows he does his homework. When I heard that he had a book coming out addressing higher ed, I was excited at the prospect.

It wouldn't be entirely fair to call A Marketplace of Ideas disappointing, since the expectations I brought to it aren't its fault. Menand admits at the outset that the questions he addresses are salient mostly at the rarified level of elite graduate institutions; community colleges are mentioned only in passing, and mostly as afterthoughts. Given the perspective from which he writes, the analyses strike me as sane and grounded, but they mostly aren't the questions I would have asked. For example, he devotes a chapter to the battles over defining general education, focusing mostly on Columbia vs. Harvard. Well, okay, but that's not really my world. At my cc, we define general education mostly by transfer requirements. Lively questions around Gen Ed here have mostly to do with developmental needs, outcomes assessment, and how to offer non-standardized experiences (i.e. freshman seminars) when transfer agreements are written around checklists of traditional disciplines. Jacques Barzun has nothing to do with it.

That said, Menand's book offers some useful food for thought, even if it has to be rearranged a bit on the plate.

A few of his basic facts tell a good bit of the story. From 1945 to 1975, the number of undergraduate students in the US went up 500 percent, but the number of graduate students went up 900 percent. Since then, growth of undergrads has slowed dramatically, but graduate students just keep increasing. Menand pointed out that from 1989 to 1996, the number of graduate students in most liberal arts disciplines increased steadily, even as the number of undergrads nationally declined every year. As he correctly put it, by the 90's "the supply curve had completely lost touch with the demand curve in American academic life." That's because the incentives for individual universities are skewed in favor of producing as many ABD's as possible, whether there are full-time jobs out there for them or not. As one would expect from incentives like that, the time-to-completion figures in the liberal arts fields keep getting longer, even as the market utility of the degree continues to drop. In Menand's estimation, the predictable consequence of these conflicting trends is that all but the truest believers are screened out, and those who remain are neurotically attached to the status quo, despite its obvious unsustainability.

Oddly, though, his proposed solution is to make Ph.D.'s much easier (and faster) to achieve. By setting degree completion at a determinate length, like the three years of law school, he hopes to open up the doctorate to people who currently self-select out. The upside would be a greater likelihood of diverse approaches to scholarship. Why an already-flooded market would benefit from an even greater influx, though, is not entirely clear. Given that the liberal arts Ph.D. is largely unrecognized as an asset outside of academia, and given that the supply curve left the demand curve in the dust decades ago, one would expect that increasing the supply would be the last thing you'd want to do. My best guess at an interpretation is that Menand considers groupthink a greater problem than unemployment. I suspect that solving the unemployment problem would also solve most of the groupthink problem. History will decide.

Given Menand's well-deserved prominence, I hoped he would have used the opportunity to address the root causes of the crisis of higher ed. He gestured towards some of them with his discussions of demographics and the anomalous growth rates of the 1960's, but simply didn't address the productivity trap of measuring learning in units of seat time. He also left out most of the competing demands for public dollars, and offered only a glancing gesture at the political climate of the last thirty years. Dispiritingly, he attributed much of the economic problem to more students majoring in business. At the cc level, at least, that's mostly irrelevant; even business majors have to take gen ed classes. The real story is the farming out of the gen eds to adjuncts, which is made possible by the overproduction of ABD's and Ph.D.'s. Supply and demand curves have a funny way of finding equilibria, even if they aren't where we wish they were.

I'll give Menand credit for his usual readability, and for an unusual level of self-awareness. As advertised, his book gives an elite-faculty-eye view of the trajectory of the liberal arts in America. It just could have been so much more.

What happens to people who aim for professorships in the liberal arts, complete the training, and then don't make it? There's a long ramp of ever less prestigious institutions and perma-temp adjunctships, sure, but what's after that?

In my own field, computer science, there's always software developement. The training is a good match to the work, and there are plenty of jobs, so it usually works out. But I expect it would be somewhat harder in english lit, say.
I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
I'm one of those English lit major who got to the end of my PhD work and found that there were 1000 applicants for almost every job that I applied for. Rather than hoping that I could break the curve and get a job in a place far from home, I learned that I liked working better than I liked the academia bureaucracy, so I quit looking for an academic job and founded a company where I worked as software developer and continued to teach part-time.

Some of the lessons I learned in “the marketplace of commerce” sharply contradicted those that I was taught in “the marketplace of academic ideas.” The actual marketplace is far more forgiving of the faults of people who waste their time in school pursuing impossible dreams than my academic colleagues (who I have maintained contact with) usually expect. If you’re flexible, you can land on your feet and prosper.

Despite the fact that I enjoy working for myself more than I ever enjoyed working in the bureaucracy of academia, I wouldn’t trade my experience in graduate school for anything. And I would do it again, even knowing what I learned about the fickleness of the academic job market. The skills I learned in academia (as a teacher and as a thinker) made me a better leader than I ever would have been had I gone straight out of my undergraduate experience and into the workforce.
Does his definition of graduate study truly include only doctoral degree-seekers? There has been an explosion of terminal MA programs designed as professional advancement, and are simply cash cows for universities a la MBAs.

I, too, enjoy this blog, I'm a recovering academic now working in applied social science research.
DD, I have enjoyed your blog for a couple of years now, and the points you make about, 'A Marketplace of Ideas' are well-founded, but... it appears to me that you are overly fixated on the issue of the over-supply of advanced degree-holders in the liberal arts. It is an issue, to be sure, and you probably run up against it on a continual basis. Still, I would like to think that there are more pressing issues in 2-year academia.

Too many students follow their hearts in pursuing advanced degrees in the fields they love, and end up making (in retrospect) ill-advised career decisions. Fair enough, and certainly a discussion-worthy topic, but I'd suggest that it is time to move on. This is reminiscent of ongoing (an in the end, futile) faculty discussions over the low level of high school preparation on the part of our students. You can only gnash your teeth for so long on the problem, and then get to work fixing it through remedial courses.

If I were writing a CC blog (which I couldn't because I don't have the time or writing skills), I would be complaining about the LACK of well-qualified individuals with advanced degrees in the sciences, who want to teach at CCs in math, and engineering. At the adjunct level, it is nigh near impossible to find anyone. So, it is hard for me to read about your issues of too many evergeen degree-holders ad infinatum.

Let's hear about your daughter instead.
Thanks for the interesting and informative post. I look forward to more in the future.
I haven't read the book, but I can see some ways in which it would be beneficial to reduce the duration of Ph.D. training:

1) First and foremost, it would be more humane for the students if they spend fewer years on a Ph.D. Whatever happens next in the job market, if there's a way to get a degree in shorter time with too many academic compromises (and perhaps even with some more focused planning that yields academic benefits) so much the better.

2) Once they're out of grad school, there's still the problem of what to do next, but if you can get them to that decision point sooner, while they are younger and (allegedly) more flexible, that's a good thing.

3) If you admit the same number of students but reduce the time to degree, you reduce the total number of grad students hanging around at any point. Fewer cheap grad student instructors to rely on might not make the job market much better (some of those grad students are Ph.D.-level adjuncts instead) but it certainly won't make it any worse. Indeed, an adjunct with a Ph.D. might not have many options, but he or she is at least not tied to the institution in the way that a grad student is. The adjunct can pack up and move if something better comes along, but the grad student is stuck.

So while I'm not optimistic that reducing time to degree will radically transform the academic job market, it certainly won't make things much worse, and will at least be beneficial to the junior people trying to navigate this system.
I completely disagree with Andrew regarding the value of discussing these questions. The oversupply of humanities (and social science!) PhDs is, I think, the core problem in academia as a whole. If we didn't have a glut of degree-holders, we wouldn't have the Ricardian pool of adjunct and temp labor at the bottom of a pyramid of tenured faculty, the top of which shrinks every year. This imbalance feeds the insecurity (expressed as an extreme sense of entitlement) in the tenured classes, which seriously complicates governance and management, it encourages short-term solutions to structural problems in funding at state schools, and I can't help feeling that the country as a whole pays an enormous opportunity cost in K-12 education when people fruitlessly pursue a PhD for higher education employment, then cannot or will not move up the stream of students.

I think every undergrad thinking about going to grad school should be required to answer two simple questions:

1. What do you want to do with your life?

2. Do you absolutely have to get a graduate degree to accomplish that?

If they can't answer question 1, or answer question 2 with anything other than "yes," they don't belong in grad school.
Regarding the length of time to complete a PhD:

In the UK, universities whose post-grads take more than 4 years to complete a PhD find themselves penalised in various ways - and from the student perspective funding (grants from central bodies or individual universities) is standardly only for 3 years.

Are US and UK PhDs markedly different?
@JohninCambridgeUK - The short answer is yes, they are markedly different. In the US, PhDs involve further coursework, which extends the time to degree. Also, it's expected that PhD students will TA and teach their own courses. Time to degree differs by discipline, but for the humanities (with which I'm most familiar) probably the shortest time within which one could do MA+PhD is ~6 years. 3-4 years of coursework, 3 or so years of dissertating. Even if one enters a PhD program with an MA, he/she would still need to do PhD coursework, so probably the absolute quickest time for the PhD alone would be around 4 years. My understanding, though, is that many programs are trying to eliminate really really lengthy time to degree (say, 10+ years, and yes, I know some people who took about that long).
@Dr Crazy

Thanks. The big difference seems to be the extra coursework (PhD students in the UK tend to do TA work,lab supervisions etc and may also lecture).

Are they valued differently? Is the extra coursework an "extra" compared to the UK, or is it there to "make up" for US first degrees tending to be much broader than in the UK. (Please don't read that as value judgement - specialising early is different, not better).

This discussion may be tangential to the main thread, but I think it has relevance. Reducing the length of a PhD might reduce the number of grad students available to adjunct, but if it also reduces the amount of teaching that those grad students need then supply and demand both reduce - possibly even leading to a fall in demand for tt faculty.
I'll second what AI said. There were twice as many applications for a humanities position at my college than for a math position. By the way, the number of applications for the former were WELL under 100.

I'll also second what Andrew said, since I know that a Masters is becoming the norm for many engineers, particularly if they go to a university where liberal arts classes limit the number of engineering classes they can take before graduating. It just isn't possible to fit it all into a 4-year program.

The answer depends on whether the UK requires an MS to start a PhD program in physics, and what the MS (and BS) entails. In the US, half of the 4-year BS degree consists of liberal arts classes that my colleagues from Australia completed in high school. (However, my experience is that many of them had little more than a basic HS grounding in the arts and humanities compared to US grads of comparably ranked universities.) In that sense, some of the US coursework toward the PhD is "makeup" for topics that might have been learned earlier.

In physics, the norm (for a well-prepared student) is two years of graduate courses, a comprehensive examination on literally everything, and the remaining time spent on one or two more advanced classes or formal seminars (for a grade) and your research and writing. You might or might not earn an MS along the way. The total time after the BS averages out around 7 years (6.5 to 7.5 covers the top quartile programs that generate the majority of PhDs in the US). The time to degree can vary by field, since, for example, people in high energy physics may have to wait years to get data to analyze. It is also longer if a student enters with a terminal MS degree that did not cover the material needed to pass a PhD comprehensive exam. Those students need to take some additional classes.
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