Tuesday, April 12, 2005

How Grad School Fails, or, Playing Well With Others

I’ve been reading a whole bunch of grad student and junior faculty blogs lately, and enjoying them, but I couldn’t help but notice a persistent theme. They (accurately, to my memory) invoke the value systems of graduate school, which are hugely different from the value systems at a community college.

See if you can spot the subtle differences:

Grad School Ideals:

Break new ground, nonthreateningly.
Get famous.
Publish, publish, publish.
Climb the ladder.
Teach as little as humanly possible.

Community College Ideals:

Teach a lot, and at least fairly well.
Get along with colleagues.
Do something positive for the college as a whole (as opposed to your department).
Put down roots in the community.
Stay reasonably current in your field.
Do right by your students.

Grad school works pretty well at inculcating a crippling self-doubt, inuring academics to low pay and insecure work conditions, and reinforcing a (surprisingly brittle) prestige hierarchy. As far as training future academic employees for non-elite schools, though, it’s a colossal failure.

Most faculty don’t think of themselves as employees. They think of themselves as independent contractors, loyal to their discipline rather than their institution. This was, I think, a distinctly twentieth-century development, and a bizarre one.

The Harvards of the world can coast on their research money, and that’s fine, but most colleges and universities can’t, and never will. Most are, and will always be, tuition-based. To the extent that’s true, it would be rational for them to look for faculty who are good teachers, good institutional citizens, and good colleagues; good research is nice too, but peripheral.

That’s what every community college I know does, and a fair number of four-year colleges, too. (So do the proprietaries, for that matter.) Combined, these are the majority of colleges in the U.S. (I’m not as familiar with the Canadian system.)

Some midtier schools (you know who you are) try to emulate Harvard’s system, in hopes of ‘raising its academic profile,’ or climbing the hierarchy to where the research money flows like manna from heaven. Good luck with that. In reality, they wind up neither fish nor fowl, firing good young faculty (who are frequently better than their tenured executioners) in the name of recasting themselves as something they will never be. Meanwhile, their budgets suffer the strain of unrealized ambitions, the students get crabby as their increasingly-adjunct professors come and go, and the state legislature, smelling blood in the water, noses around for more.

Higher Ed suffers from Harvard Envy. As long as the prestigious research university is taken, whether explicitly or implicitly, as the only legitimate model, we’ll continue to waste tremendous amounts of money and talent. Training all those Ph.D.’s for jobs that (increasingly) only exist at the top of the food chain doesn’t make sense.

The Prima Donna model (the suffering artiste, the noble but misunderstood intellectual, etc.) works pretty well at Yale, but it crashes and burns here. We want serious thinkers, yes, but not so serious that they can't play well with others. I didn't learn that in grad school.