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    The Humanities Are In Crisis - Science Is Not
    By Michael White | April 27th 2009 03:56 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael

    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,

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    Graduate education in the humanities may have its problems, but don't try to tar science with the same brush. In a NY Times Op-Ed, by Dr. Mark Taylor, the chairman of Columbia's religion department, we're told that graduate education in general is in need of a major overhaul.

    Graduate programs train students for jobs that most of them won't get:
    Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).
    Graduate programs are a cover for slave labor:
    The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.
    As a cure, we need more interdisciplinary training involving all disciplines:
    Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
    That last suggestion scares me: I can think of nothing worse than to take a science graduate program, or even a scientific problem, and lard it up with input from the humanities. Don't get me wrong - I love the humanities and arts (my B.A. is in music), and I think they are worthy academic disciplines. But the last thing a physics PhD student needs to do is take a course on "Space" or "Networks" taught by an English professor. The humanities aren't sciences, they don't solve problems like sciences, and they shouldn't try to be sciences. Throwing some engineers, biochemists, historians, and philosophers in a room with the assignment of solving the problem of water or alternative energy is a recipe for a large waste of time.

    Collaborations need to be nurtured but not forced - they have to grow naturally. A political scientist may very well want to consult a historian or philosopher, and an economist may want to get together with a psychologist, but that doesn't mean that every discipline has something relevant to say about every issue. I don't need to hear from a religion professor about networks, and the English department doesn't need to hear my opinions on narrative theory or the influence of Wallace Stevens.

    When it comes to grad programs, the humanities may want to take a page out of the playbook of the sciences, because many of the problems faced by humanities graduate students are non-issues in the sciences.

    1. Graduate students in the sciences aren't "being trained for teaching positions that do not exist." Science grad students actually do very little teaching; they do research, acquiring skills which they can use in a variety of careers. It's true, there are more science grad students interested in university faculty positions than there are positions available; however more and more students are aspiring to and choosing other career paths for which a PhD in the sciences is appropriate.

    You can't get around the fact that someone with a PhD in Medieval Studies is going to have more limited job opportunities than someone with a PhD in biochemistry, and thus Medieval Studies programs should limit the number of students they take on. But providing more flexibility for students, as Dr. Taylor suggests, is a good idea - one that is already being implemented in science graduate programs.

    Taylor suggests that suggests "the division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network." I don't know what a "complex adaptive network" means when it comes to curriculum design (ironic, given the name of this blog), but again, the sciences are ahead of the curve. Most science graduate programs have now been, for years, extremely flexible about which departments students work in. Student are brought in under an 'umbrella program', and they then get to choose a laboratory home in a variety of departments.

    Even undergraduate science programs are getting into the interdisciplinary act.

    One could envision something similar in the humanities - new graduate students choose a theme based on their interests, and then, as their ideas for a dissertation shape up,  go work in the English or History or Art departments. Students (who should be helped to come up with realistic career goals) should tailor their programs to match their career aspirations.

    2. Overspecialized research is not the problem in the sciences that it is in the humanities. A thesis project "on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations" may be of interest to very few people. In the sciences, interdisciplinary work (as opposed to specialization) has been the name of the game for some time now.  By the time most grad students finish, they have acquired a broad scientific backrgound, even though, by necessity, their thesis projects are fairly specialized (which is the only way to make progress on a scientific problem - think big, but then get to work on the details).

    Here, Dr. Taylor has a worthwhile suggestion, one that, again, is already implemented in the sciences:
    Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible.
    Grad students in the sciences don't write books - they write papers that may or may not be thematically related. All graduate students shouldn't be forced to carry out a book-length treatment of some specialized topic; by writing papers, they have the freedom to shift gears, tackle new problems, and gain breadth as their research interests develop.

    The second part of Taylor's suggestion is less plausible:
    For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.
    Writing clearly and persuasively is a key skill that should be honed in grad school, so why throw that away by producing these in alternative formats? If the concern is that students graduate without job skills, the response shouldn't be to get rid of one major element of a grad program that develops the most broadly applicable job skills.

    3. Science grad students aren't exploited quite so badly as their humanities colleagues. The grad student-slave labor problem is real, but there is an important distinction when it comes to the sciences. Humanities students who have to teach classes in order to get any sort of living stipend are being drawn away from their ultimate goal - a dissertation. Every hour spent teaching or preparing for a class is one hour away from the research needed to graduate.

    In science grad programs, students don't get paid to teach - they get paid to work in the lab. The key difference is that the lab work, which grad students are getting paid to do, is in fact the dissertation research necessary to graduate. So while humanities students have to spend much of their time away from their dissertation research in order to earn subsistence wages, science grad students get paid subsistence wages while working on their dissertation research.

    In the sciences, that hardly counts as a "dirty secret" - you get paid to work in a lab on your PhD thesis, and you're fortunate to have a faculty advisor who did some heavy lifting to get the lab funded.

    Unfortunately, the humanities don't have any hope of getting the kinds of funding that scientists get, so the problem of slave labor in humanities graduate programs is more intractable. Every grad student should be guaranteed at least some time free of teaching to make progress on the dissertation. To make sure there is money for such teaching-free time, departments should make an effort to cut down on the slave labor: it's better to spend the limited money providing a healthy research environment for a smaller pool of students with real career prospects in the field, than to spread the money thin on a large group of graduate students without realistic career prospects, but who can teach for next to nothing.

    Comments

    The problem with graduate studies in the humanities is that it is at its core a ponzi scheme. One prof teaches n students to do what he's doing, teach students to do research. Even teaching students to be High School teachers is beneath them. No amount of tweaking is going to change that. We simply do not need as many humanities Phds as our system produces.

    logicman
    Michael: as a BA in music, could you perhaps enlighten me as to what the heck Wallace Stevens meant by 'palms squiggling like saxophones'?  My own English isn't up to gleaning the least bit of sense from it.
    adaptivecomplexity
    Uh oh, now you're trying to get me to do what I shouldn't do.  I haven't read that Stevens' poem yet, but if you want to hear a squiggling saxophone, I think almost any recording by John Coltrane or Cannonball Adderly will do.  I'm not sure I've seen a palm (as in tree?) squiggle.
    Mike
    Hi Michael,

    I stumbled across your blog. I think you make excellent points about why a science PhD has better training than the a humanities PhD.

    Just to play devil's advocate, I'd like to suggest some reading for you that would argue still that the career prospects for scientists are not that good. Phil Greenspun has an excellent article that explains his thesis for why there are not many women professors in science: http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science . I think he makes some very good points that we often don't like to like to admit in sciences.

    adaptivecomplexity
    Phil Greenspun has a point:
    Why does anyone think science is a good job?
    The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:
    age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
    age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
    age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
    age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
    age 44: with (if lucky) young children at home, fired by the university ("denied tenure" is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s
    It depends on the field, but in biomedical research, the pay is a little better than Greenspun lays out.
    The bigger point though is that fewer grad students in the sciences are choosing this route - they're getting good jobs outside of academia.
    Mike
    Stephanie Pulford
    Hi Michael, you're right: the problem-focused undergrad curricula sounds like a pretty bad idea.  From my perspective, in your undergrad (in engineering, anyway) you spend a lot of time building a toolbox and a certain logical frame of reference with which to attack problems later.  Breaking up the training with too many broad hand-holdy round-tables between an amorphous bunch of students waiting to differentiate into aerospace engineers, physicists, space historians, and space journalists sounds like educational filler to me: fine for electives, great for soft skills, but not so good for establishing a good foundation in a subject. 

    In grad school, on the other hand, you essentially are working within one of Dr. Taylor's problem-focused programs (or at very least, have the opportunity to do it).  Armed with some proficiency in your own field, you can actually bring something useful to the table. 


    adaptivecomplexity
    Right - and to even learn how to build a toolbox of cognitive skills, you have to get specific. You have to study some area in detail, even if later on you change your mind about what you want to do.
    Mike
    Let's see is it better to be a waiter or band member on the Titanic? Is this what you should be evaluating as the boat begins to tilt. At least it would make some sense, if you were a man to contemplate putting on women's clothing. The world is going to crash. We are destroying the environment as we continue to overpopulate. It's time to end scientific babble and begin to take action. Please join the discussion and become part of the solution.
    I would suggest, before even getting into the details of your post, that University isn't necessarily about finding a job. At least in a historical context, a university is a place to get an education. (Community) college is a place designed with the workplace and future employability in mind.

    With that perspective in mind, the fact that a university degree doesn't net a good job opportunity becomes a problem for the students to consider and not the University system.

    adaptivecomplexity
    I would suggest, before even getting into the details of your post, that University isn't necessarily about finding a job. At least in a historical context, a university is a place to get an education. 
    When it comes to undergrad education, I agree - Universities are not, and should not be, simply vocational schools.
    The problem is when you get to graduate school. You shouldn't be going for a PhD in English just for the educational value (unless you're independently wealthy) - people seeking graduate degrees, especially PhDs in the humanities, should be sure to have some specific and realistic career plans in mind.
    Mike
    Great post!

    It's becoming a cliche to point out that a master's degree is the new bachelor's degree. I keep wondering though, how far can education keep going? Funding higher (& higher) education is seen as a way to boost the economy; to promote social equality; & to improve US' standing in the world. & clearly it does all those things, & is good for more than just pumping out academics. But clearly there's some limit, whereby more education gives you diminishing rewards.

    College education as a whole has always baffled me, just like the healthcare system: It keeps growing, more people keep going to college - a very predictable trend given its social & political import - & yet tuition costs keep rising. A common criticism of the growth of high education in third-world countries is that the graduates feel like they're 'above' the menial labor of their peers, & so they achieve gov't positions where nothing gets done. I sometimes wonder how much this disconnect btwn education & real world demands might apply to in more developed nations.

    You raise a good point that people w/PhD's are branching out further & further into other jobs. But I've always received the impression that this is an accident; that many traditional graduate programs - even science ones - see their students who then go out into non-academic work as mis-directed outcasts at best, & shameful failures at worst. I find that stay-in-academic sentiment rather incestuous.

    I mean, imagine a world where the most reputable science professors are actually proud when their new PhD students go out into non-academic world & improve things, rather like Zosima's wishes towards Alyosha, if you've ever read the Brother's K. That would be a world where the interests of academia - be it science or humanities academia - are actually in line w/reality. Until then the relationship btwn academia & the real world seems like an odd marriage out of convenience & compromise, be it w/some nice perks for each party.

    adaptivecomplexity
    see their students who then go out into non-academic work as mis-directed outcasts at best,&shameful failures at worst. I find that stay-in-academic sentiment rather incestuous. 
    In the biomedical science this is not really going on any more - the culture has changed rather quickly (and you're right that it has been bad), partly due to the fact that so many biomedical professors are getting involved in biotech start-ups. Many of the most well-known, high-profile academic scientists in my own field have been deeply involved with biotech companies.
    College education as a whole has always baffled me, just like the healthcare system: It keeps growing, more people keep going to college - a very predictable trend given its social&political import - & yet tuition costs keep rising.
    This is a serious and disturbing problem, and if universities don't get proactive about solving it, the rest of society will in the not-too-distant future - and universities may not like the imposed solution. I'm not sure what the solution is, but a college education should be open to anyone who has a serious desire to go.
    It's becoming a cliche to point out that a master's degree is the new bachelor's degree. I keep wondering though, how far can education keep going?
    Even though a Master's is required for more jobs now, I still think there is an important distinction: the most important skills to pick up in an undergrad education are the critical thinking skills that come with a good liberal arts education. A graduate degree should, by contrast, be much more career-specific, even if it's something like and MBA that is relevant to a broad range of careers.
    In other words, college should be a continuation of the general education you're supposed to get in high school (with some specialization through your major, obviously). A Master's is not, or should not be, about continuing a general education.

    Mike
    I've just come across your blog and can't help but shake my head in acquiescence to everything you've said Michael. I've just quit a PhD in the Humanities (having completed an MA) so I feel I'm coming from a well-informed position! The Humanities are in serious trouble. Our department is losing 22% of its staff this year, a figure that we were told was set to rise in the next five years. I know that like many others in my field, I began my PhD blind to the realities of future prospects (or more appropriately, lack thereof!), and undertook the PhD for the sheer glory of the pursuit, not heeding the advice I was being given at the time by tutors, who informed me that the ratio of grad students to tenured academic posts was staggering. I persisted nonetheless, and now find myself in an impossible situation in terms of securing employment--a 'non-completer' who has wasted nearly two years on a PhD project which came to nothing. In many ways, though I've learned a great deal in my time on the PhD, I wish I'd never pursued postgraduate studies.

    adaptivecomplexity
    a 'non-completer' who has wasted nearly two years on a PhD project which came to nothing.
    It can be frustrating to lose time and money, but there is a positive way to look at this: instead of being a non-completer (and you do have an MA, nothing to sniff at), you saw the light and got out early. 

    (Plus, and I feel very strongly about this, dropping out of a PhD program is not a reflection on someone's intelligence, motivation, or ability to complete projects. I don't think people should be denigrated as  'non-completers'. There are all sorts of reasons that a given PhD program is not a good fit for someone, and it's much better to figure that out early.)

    I'm a big fan of music, art, and literature, and we still need graduate programs in those fields, but they need to be much, much smaller - the size of the programs should correlate more with the size of the job market. 



    Mike