Monday, June 19, 2006

Search for perspective on grad school and elitism

Warning: This is a fairly freeform working-through of a question. It meanders.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the purpose of the Master's degree. I was told recently by two students from the past year that they're "going to go to grad school". I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. I wouldn't have pegged either of them as grad school-bound. One, in particular, probably won't get in - I'm not sure she's aware of the kinds of grades it takes. The other might have a shot, and it alarmed me to realize this (and also raises the pressing question of grade inflation. If she doesn't have what it takes to go to grad school, why are her grades high enough to suggest that she might well get in to some schools? And how have I contributed to that inflation?). She's an ideologue; she'll be eaten alive in an environment that will laughingly dismiss her hyperbolic claims. Neither of these two have the analytical skills that would seem to be a prerequisite for advanced study. Maybe this is partly the fault of inept professors who don't know how, don't really know how, to teach critical analysis, as much as we think that's what we do all the time - yes, I include myself in this category. At any rate, these students are, I think, products of a culture that has come to view the MA as just another credential. This has been gnawing at me.

Am I an elitist asshole who would thwart the democratic promise of pedagogy? If I believe in the change-making power of education, why would I want to deny it to someone who is clearly getting something from it? If these folks - and others - want to go on to a Master's, what harm will it do? They're not C students. It's not like they're talking about staying in academia for the long haul, doing PhD's and becoming professors. They're pumped right now - why not encourage them in their pursuit of learning?

I see that my unease comes from a desire to preserve the grad school classroom and common room as spaces for deep analysis. Teaching puts me - most of us who teach, really - in touch with the failures of the contemporary classroom as a challenging site. Students who see their relationship with the academy as a business transaction; professors who get frustrated, throw up their/our hands, and retreat into bitterness, cynicism and grade inflation; administrators who have a convenient case of amnesia about the purpose of the university...I do think it's true that all of these have eroded the quality of classroom discourse. We spend a good deal of time on our blogs and in our everyday lives musing, ranting, and/or whining about this.

Of course, I am highly suspicious of my own assertion, here - I worry that I'm being dangerously nostalgic for a mythical golden age of universities that never existed, and that certainly didn't accommodate the perspectives and people and emergent disciplines whose presence in the academy I value and indeed depend on. But I do think something has been lost, at least in the universities I'm familiar with.* Things have changed even since I was an undergrad - tuitions have gone way up, meaning that students struggle with crushing paid workloads and debts that complicate their lives as students ans the conditions of possibility of genuine interest in what we do in school. Administrations have succumbed to corporate pressures in the face of cuts in public funding, and students have picked up on the resulting degradation of the value of an arts degree. I think that all of this finds its way into what we do in our classrooms every day; this is what I mean by an eroded environment - it's bigger than the students or their professors. I think, in fact, that if there's any nostalgia, it's nostalgia for a more progressive era, one in which we didn't spend our time in corporate-branded classrooms and watch as soaring glass temples were built for the business schools as we moulded in ancient, brutalist caves teaching arts.

So I've identified this as the reason I'm wary, very wary, of a grad school free-for-all featuring loads of students who don't have the skills to participate really effectively - it's because I'm dying for something that approximates sustained, engaged inquiry. But as I write this, I'm stopped in my own tracks again - because the students I'm talking about are, at least, interested, excited. Isn't that important? Isn't it enough?

Having written my way through this problem, I now see that it's larger than I realized. I can't endorse using the Master's as a democratic, radically critical site when the conditions don't exist to prepare many students for that before they get there. They come to grad school applications without the necessary skills in part because of the mess the neo-liberal model of the university has gotten us in. Letting them in won't fix that.

Might it do other good things, though? That's the question I'm left with.


*I am, obviously, speaking of the Canadian situation here. Its public university system and the very particular ways that has been threatened over the last ten years.

(In other news: Go Oilers.)


grumpyABDadjunct said...

My faculty (at a large, urban, Canadian Uni and in which I am a PhD candidate) has a Master's program with around 300 stdents in it at any one time. It is ridiculous, they take people who aren't cut out for it and have seriously eroded the value of the degree. Furthermore the two other programs (PhD and BES) get shafted regularly in terms pf attention, scheduling, name it.

The problem starts with too many BAs, then employers start to expect Masters degrees, what next, you need a PhD to run an NGO?

Hilaire said...

You're so right, grumpy. This is a huge problem, this under-resourcing that happens because of the over-production of Master's candidates. And even this comes back, sometimes, to the overall scarcity of resources that uni's are working with these days.

App Crit said...

Excellent post, Hilaire. Lately I've wondered myself about the purpose of an MA. Within the context of a PhD programme, it makes sense. But a terminal MA? I'm just not sure what they offer.

Like you, I agree that the graduate classroom ought remain a place of deeper inquiry. Whilst many students who seem sincerely interested in the field speak to me about taking an MA, I'm not quite sure that many of them belong there. Yet, who am I to impede the academic meritocracy? Perhaps they should pursue their interests and see what fits at the next level.

On the other hand, such passivity on my part (allowing for self-selection to run its course) engenders the hostility expressed by many who feel that graduate education and the institutions providing it *owe* something to those with advanced degrees, i.e some implicit guarantee of greater success.

This is, at least, something I hear much of in the US. Not so much in the UK.

In the US, there is also a tendancy for many to prolong the moratorium by taking advanced degrees, which raises my colleagues' 'gatekeeping' instinct towards graduate admissions.

In the end, I agree with you wholly. The problem is larger than the degree, its place in the academy, and those likely to pursue it. Something has indeed happened to undergraduate education that has made it something less than what it was.

I think about that often, too, and I used to dismiss my own nostalgia as just that. But there does seem to be something fueling it that we cannot ignore.


Hilaire said...

Yeah. It's a tough one. I don't think self-selection works the way it should, anymore, cause standards have changed pretty dramatically all around.

Do people not use the MA as a terminal degree in the UK, then?

App Crit said...

Yes, they do. But there is understood a greater difference between graduate level and below, i.e. more self-selection occurs before application.

But there are also various master-level degrees, ranging from the typically one-year MPhil to a two-year MSt to a three- to four-year MLitt. (Some schools have an MA as well, which often is above an MSt but below an MLitt.) An MPhil or an MSt, taught degrees, suit those who are simply interested in doing some more advanced work in a subject, wheras an MLitt, a research degree, is a weighty undertaking that will produce an often press-ready tome upon its completion. An MLitt will prepare one for a career as a university lecturer.

Now most pursuing an academic career take some master-level degree and then pursue a PhD, although a master-level degree is not required to take a PhD, but it is highly recommended. (The PhD usually requires one to two years.) Why are more and more doing this? Not sure, though I've always thought that earning the title 'Dr' was the motivating factor since Continental scholars seem to acquire the title at an earlier stage than Britons and North American universities will recognize that more readily than an MLitt. The PhD also allows one to take a faculty position in an American university, as so many Britons do. (If the North American market seems bad...)

Of course, there are issues in the UK, as well. The so-called 'red brick' universities typically have more streamlined graduate programmes and different admission criteria than the research institutions. And since all universities in the UK are facing a grave financial crisis, marketing and competition amongst the universities for a shrinking applicant pool is said to be taking its toll on master-level programmes. What's more appealing to someone simply wanting to do some advanced work: an MA from a red-brick university or an MSt/MPhil from a research university?

A rather long explication, but the system presents some options that eliminate the difficulties being discussed presently. In most cases students must ackowledge their goals, abilities, and purpose ab initio. The down-side is that there are great numbers of people in graduate courses. Too many. And the degree offers no promise upon completion, nor does it here.