This Academic Life
TheoryOur graduate program, like many others, consists of both MA students and Ph.D. students. Because the Ph.D. program is rather small, there are very few Ph.D.-only classes offered; outside of the five core courses, Ph.D. students either take classes with MA students or engage in directed independent study. In many cases this means that the Ph.D. students are simply mixed in with the MA students; professors might ask them to read and write a bit more, or to do so at a higher level of competence, but much of the time there is no qualitative difference between the two categories of graduate students.

I well understand the financial aspects of this arrangement: MA students pay for their educations, by and large, while Ph.D. students generally have stipends and fellowships provided by the institution, and those fellowships and stipends need to be funded somehow. The available options seem to be an endowment (which is very difficult to produce if you don't have one already), massive external grants (which are more plentiful in the natural sciences), and tuition -- specifically, MA tuition. The MA students pay for their educations, and this allows us (and many other institutions) to support a Ph.D. program.

But if the MA students are providing the cash, then the program has to have adequate resources to attract them. In addition, it takes several MA students to give the institution enough surplus to support a Ph.D. student, especially in the absence of an endowment that could close the gaps or a grant that could provide other funding options. It is thus not surprising that the majority of our graduate course offerings are targeted at MA students, and that many of our hires are of people with practitioner backgrounds: MA students, after all, are generally interested in employment outside of academia, and are enrolled in their graduate program as a way of maximizing their chances of gaining such employment. The MA is a practitioner's degree, a certification that the person has mastered a certain set of practical skills -- the institution vouches for the training of the student, which streamlines the hiring process.

The problem is that MA education and Ph.D. education are not the same thing, because MA students and Ph.D. students are neither heading in the same direction nor concerned with the same issues. If the MA degree is a certification related to skills-training, the Ph.D. is a certification of an intellectual rigor and a commitment to "thinking" -- which does not mean the clever solution of practical problems. Problem-solving as a mode of practice means taking the parameters of a situation for granted and then greasing the gears of the machine to make it run more efficiently, which is what I believe is meant by "analytical skills" when we are talking about MA students. But Ph.D. students are supposed to be "critical" in their approach, which means not taking things as parametric but instead reflexively questioning how those parameters came to be and whether those are the appropriate parameters to maintain. "Analytical" for a Ph.D. student means something quite different: it means the ability to apply theoretical literature to a situation or issue and generate a compelling response.

To put this more bluntly: one expects a Ph.D. student to generate knowledge. One does not expect an MA student to generate knowledge; one expects an MA student to generate solutions, perhaps, or maybe innovation. The classical model of the relationship between these two is that the Ph.D. students produce the bedrock knowledge that the MA students subsequently apply, on the model of theoretical physics and engineering. I think that this is silly, even in the natural sciences -- engineers aren't narrowly "applying" much, and communities of practice have their own embedded forms of knowledge -- but it is particularly problematic when implemented in graduate educational programs.

The error is two-fold. First, the "skills" that the MA students are supposed to learn aren't really skills so much as craft dispositions, and thus need to be taught in an apprenticeship environment wherein one learns by doing. It should be an older guild model, in which experts communicate the benefits of their wisdom and experience, benefits that can't be completely summed up in abstract formulations and generalizable rules. Second, Ph.D. practice is not about participating in a fact-producing-machine that simply churns out findings and laws and the like; obtaining a Ph.D. does not mean that one is becoming an "expert" in the sense of being able to rattle off the answers to Final Jeopardy trivia questions about Pakistan or globalization. But it is about engaging in deliberate and systematic efforts to produce insight into empirical situations, and doing so reflexively.

The point is that neither of these two educational pathways is free of theory. But the theory involved is of different sorts, and has different goals: MA theory is distributed practice, while Ph.D. theory is both disciplinary (since it necessarily relates to a body of written literature) and conceptual (as it provides tools for interrogating empirical situations in a way that breaks with mere description). This means that Ph.D. students and MA students will approach the same texts and the same issues in very different ways. These senses are qualitatively different; the Ph.D. is not simply an advanced MA degree, and the kinds of theory that are embodied in the distinction are not simply more and less strenuous forms of the same thing.

Thinking that the two modes are continuous is dangerous -- dangerous to the Ph.D. kind of theory, a.k.a. "thinking." Conflating the two modes of practice means, in this Protestant-ethic-dominated, practical-results-obsessed culture, that the Ph.D. kind of theory vanishes from view, as Ph.D.s are transformed into expert-certification diplomas, such that a Ph.D. student is just an advanced MA student. And if one's graduate program is dominated by MA students and by faculty who are teaching to and for MA students, the danger grows: MA students are not interested in reflexive inquiry and in puzzling through epistemological issues, because such an exercise is not relevant to their goals. So the faculty plays to the crowd, for the most part, which is perfectly understandable at the same time that it is, to my mind, deeply problematic.

There is, IMHO, a meaningful difference between the two pathways and the two kinds of theory that they embody, even if that distinction is neither the hoary old "practice/theory" distinction nor the distinction between inexperienced youth and wise old age (practice summed up in pithy anecdotes is not "theory" in the Ph.D. sense, even if it is pedagogically useful for training MA students). I should be clear here that I am speaking in ideal-typical terms: sometimes someone ends up in the MA who is more like a Ph.D. student, and vice versa. I think that admissions committees should be more clear about the distinction, so as to minimize these kinds of confusion. The only way that a Ph.D. program will survive in an organization numerically and financially dominated by MA students is if the Ph.D. admissions process is extra careful to assemble a group committed to a particular kind of learning, nurtured by a subset of the faculty dedicated to a particular kind of teaching.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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