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“Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.”
April 27, 2009 9:41 AM   Subscribe

Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia, offers a radical proposal in The New York Times for the restructuring of the American university system. Two key components of the proposal entail ending tenure and shuttering academic departments—replacing disciplines with problems, and then tackling them with a cooperative and multidisciplinary approach, e.g. The Department of the Future of Water made up of geologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and ethicists. Should we End the University as We Know It?
posted by Toekneesan (84 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Can we wait and do this after I have tenure?
posted by wittgenstein at 9:44 AM on April 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


Another radical idea: Don't have the primary source of research funds as the Department of Defense.
posted by DU at 9:49 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


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.

As a professor of Religion, does he have a different definition of "secret" than we do?
posted by Joe Beese at 9:51 AM on April 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


Fuck, no. How will students receive training in the disciplines used in the interdisciplinary approach?

Besides which, there are some problems you're just not going to solve with interdisciplinary approaches.
posted by kldickson at 9:52 AM on April 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


It seems to me that it'd be a bad idea to predefine our questions. Part of advancement is figuring out what new questions to ask, and that might be hard when your degree/job is defined by a specific, old question.
posted by cmoj at 9:52 AM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


This may seem like an obvious point to Mark Taylor, but what determines whether a problem is "genuinely important" or not? Who decides? I venture to say that a number of the "problems" that Taylor has explored in his own published work would be deemed, given the right set of circumstances and the right set of decision-makers, "narrow" and "irrelevant."
posted by blucevalo at 9:53 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow. I didn't think it was possible to come up with a system that placed even less priority on undergraduate instruction than what we have right now. I guess I was wrong.
posted by pjdoland at 9:53 AM on April 27, 2009 [9 favorites]


So how do you have geologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and ethicists to make up the Department of the Future of Water if all the departments are multi-diciplinary?
posted by Pollomacho at 9:56 AM on April 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think his imaginary university sounds cool as shit; would attend.
posted by The Straightener at 9:56 AM on April 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


Wow. The chairman of the religion department, huh. And he wants to remake the entire university system.

My guess is, he's got some tenured people he's sick of, and he's bored in his department and would rather work on some multidisciplinary stuff.

--

But seriously, why is this even interesting? If you asked anyone involved with the university system to come up with a "radical" plan to change it all around I'm sure they could come up with something, most likely their plans would have the side effect of curing every pet-peeve they happen to have at the moment.

But why exactly do we want to radically restructure the university system? I mean, it's not like we are lacking smart people capable of dealing with "the future of water", and furthermore, what happens when certain problems are no longer problems? I wouldn't want to be in the "how to best build vaccum tubes 'department'" or whatever.
posted by delmoi at 9:57 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


His proposals are batty but his main argument is difficult to contest.
posted by proj at 9:58 AM on April 27, 2009


I'm struck by how this seems similar to the transition in science from pure to applied research and wonder if it makes more sense to consider this approach as part of the educational system and not a complete replacement. It certainly seems to make some sense at a graduate level but is significantly less attractive at the undergraduate level.
posted by sfts2 at 9:58 AM on April 27, 2009


replacing disciplines with problems

That sounds about right. It just wouldn't be the problems that you'd want to work on.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:00 AM on April 27, 2009


The graduate student thing is a result of the university having a monospony on labour, and universities are always having budgeting issues. Students can't really change universities for better pay, for example.
posted by delmoi at 10:02 AM on April 27, 2009


Fuck, no. How will students receive training in the disciplines used in the interdisciplinary approach?

Absolutely right. Distinctions are important. Further: Life is not about solving problems. I would hope that a religion professor, at least, would understand that life is not a problem to be solved, but

a mystery to be explored
a poem to be read
a trial to be endured
a sickness to be cured
a song to be sung
a tingle to be satisfied
a breath to be inhaled...

The only problem your average student should be expected to solve is "How the hell am I gonna make a living when this is over?"
posted by Faze at 10:04 AM on April 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


Hmmm. A couple of things spring to mind:

1. 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.

No, the dirty secret of Ph.D.-granting institutions, of which there are comparatively few, is that they run on the labor of underpaid graduate students. The rest of us are running on the labor of underpaid adjuncts, which is a separate issue that needs to be addressed. (A problem which Taylor doesn't solve, since he is proposing, in effect, to make everyone temporary faculty--although see below.) Leave it to someone at a R1 like Columbia to not know anything about the actual conditions under which most faculty teach, administrate, or do research.

(As someone who teaches at a regional comprehensive, this blithe assumption that so goes the R1, so goes the rest of the country drives me up the wall and out my second-story window. That extends to Taylor's assumptions about what might be attractive or useful to different undergraduate populations.)

2. Dear lord in heaven, the administrative horrors this proposal is going to generate are positively Gothic. (And I'm going to bet that faculty would do their damndest to recreate tenure by effectively making contract renewals automatic. Or am I just being cynical?)

3. I take it that Taylor is excepting himself from the charges of irrelevant scholarship? (Yes, I've read some of his work.) I guess I've always operated on the assumption that you never know what might turn out to be useful information.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:05 AM on April 27, 2009 [10 favorites]


"Are" going to generate--and that's three things, not two. Must drink more caffeine.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:06 AM on April 27, 2009


To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.

LOL. The world economy is not going to collapse because some tenured professor in the religion department decides he wants to study something that doesn't mesh well with what the guy running the department wants.
posted by delmoi at 10:06 AM on April 27, 2009


Taylor notes that universities require cheap graduate student labor in order for their continued financial existence. This drives up the supply of PhD.s seeking tenured jobs that won't be there for all but the best of them, but his suggested fix-that universities do more to prepare graduate students for jobs outside academia-is unworkable for those in fields where the non-academic employment market is negligible within their field.

I had lunch with my old adviser a few weeks ago, and he said that he had decided to recommend to all of his students-even his best, which I was not-that they should view going to graduate school in philosophy as a nice way to spend one's twenties with an eye on figuring out a new career once you PhD. Meanwhile, my friends still in the department are gritting their teeth for the coming job crunch and trying to decide how long they're going to adjunct and move every year before packing it in and going to law school or whatever.

This is at a top thirty department; the old saw about how you shouldn't bother going to philosophy graduate school unless it's in the top fifty should probably be revised to top fifteen. Maybe top ten. Get into Pitt or NYU? Go for it.
posted by Kwine at 10:07 AM on April 27, 2009


I don't think Mr. Religioprofessor has much of an understanding of how scientific interdisciplinary problems work. Yes, you can bring together chemists and political scientists, but you need a BACKGROUND in chemistry to understand the chemical side of it. Not only that, but you'd have to tailor the degree completely towards the field (no room for elective classes, no room for choosing different classes to fulfill a requirement, et cetera - for comparison, look at the university system in Romania, where there is no such thing as electives and they cram a good deal of subjects with an EXTREMELY broad focus into the degree - and it's broad even within, say, biology - and as a result, no Romanian university is in the top 500.) The American system is BETTER than what Parker suggests.

I still think we should do away with most gen eds. Require a certain amount of introductory classes as a breadth requirement, but allow enough opportunity for students to really gather relevant information in their field and include classes in the major that have a mildly interdisciplinary focus - for example, a seminar might be on 'Atmospheric Chemistry' or 'Biology in Extreme Environments' or 'Neuroethics'. Introduce students to interdisciplinary problems through special seminars in their major.
posted by kldickson at 10:08 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Isn't this something like the difference between a university and an institute? The university has a provost and an ongoing preservation of predefined academic requirements, and an institute is more about individuals getting funding to pursue particular projects.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:13 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think Mr. Religioprofessor has much of an understanding of how scientific interdisciplinary problems work. Yes, you can bring together chemists and political scientists, but you need a BACKGROUND in chemistry to understand the chemical side of it.

Plus, getting a PhD in a technical field isn't anything like getting one in religion or philosophy. a Chemist or physicist with a PhD isn't going to have trouble finding work.

This kind of thing might make some sense for the humanities.
posted by delmoi at 10:14 AM on April 27, 2009


Okay, the dude's name is Taylor. Fuck.

At the graduate level, there still needs to be a certain amount of discipline focus. Graduate degrees train one to do a number of things that require a specialization in the field beyond what you get from a bachelor's degree, and it gives you experience in research. Research is different, to an extent, in every field even within a discipline, and one has to learn how to do research in their own field before they negotiate the tough field of interacting with other disciplines. There's a reason there are various philosophies of different subjects that philosophers study - because every field has a different 'philosophy' about it and people are attacking it from a different angle. For example, my first impetus when I look at a bit of writing that contains statements that claim to be factual is to investigate whether those statements are true from an empirical standpoint, not to deconstruct the fucking thing (which is postmodernist anyway and I hate postmodernism .)
posted by kldickson at 10:15 AM on April 27, 2009


Mark C. Taylor? Really? Taylor is the flabbiest bag of hot air this side of Stanley Fish. His persistence at the vanguard of the academy is an ongoing proof of the triumph of style over substance and rhetorical flourish over careful intellectual labor.

Ponder this "wisdom," would you?
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.
This is not pedagogy. It's rank buffoonery. The long form research paper is probably the finest mechanism for developing critical thought ever invented. Mastering the art of the footnote is an essential means to understanding the dependence of one's own thought on that of one's predecessors. Learning how to deploy it effectively teaches one to clarify a main line of argument and to subordinate (though not ignore) peripheral considerations as that argument develops. For Taylor to give this up in favor of "hypertext" (what is this? 1996?) "Web sites, films and video games" is tantamount to privileging medium over argument, without elaborating the intellectual benefits of the new medium over the old one.

The academy is the last place in our cultural life where people are encouraged to slow down. To think hard. To weigh alternatives and countenance critique. To recognize the limitations of their own prejudices and to learn how to expose the prejudices of others. The academic department is infinitely superior to some hypothetical, seven-year problem based "zone of inquiry". Academic specialization is one of the great gifts of the enlightenment. To work within a department is to be exposed to a range of topics and concerns which are cognate without being eclectic. It focuses thought and privileges a community of like-minded researchers. To do away with it (and tenure) would be to create a generation of monsters, ever hungry for the latest fad and always clamoring for the microphone in order to justify their own position.

It would create, in short, a generation of Mark C. Taylors. Lord, save us from the prescriptions of the celebrity scholar.
posted by felix betachat at 10:15 AM on April 27, 2009 [26 favorites]


For further reading, see The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity, and Alienation by Bruce W. Wilshire. Review.
posted by No Robots at 10:20 AM on April 27, 2009


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.

Oh, you mean like Psychology, Medicine, Law, Library Science, Computer Science, Linguistics, Physics, Physics, Art, Economics, Biology, and Civil Engineering?
posted by equalpants at 10:21 AM on April 27, 2009 [28 favorites]


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.
I thought this was stupid too. Much of my PhD involved creating several pieces of software, but I couldn't just turn them in as the work. Rather I had to produce a report on the design and use of this software to produce interesting research results. My thesis is heavily hyperlinked and will be placed on a web site, and I have no problem with the idea of including multimedia in theses, but none of these alternatives should be a wholesale replacement for the dissertation.
posted by grouse at 10:25 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I found the notion of a set retirement age hardly in line with what has been taking place over the past few years in so many fields. Easy to say, retire at 62--after all, you may be alert, a leader in your field, a great teachers--but you make too much and we can get a new hire for much less.

Is there a required retirement age for deans, provosts, presidents, heads of boards of trustees?
posted by Postroad at 10:31 AM on April 27, 2009


There are ways to reform the university system without remaking it. For example, the vast majority of universities siphon off ~50% of incoming grants for 'overhead.' At one of my alma maters, the figure is 54-56%. This has two bad effects: first, it's an inefficient wealth transfer mechanism from fields that are financially valuable to those that are not; second, it forces donors to write a much larger check than they would otherwise need to, which sometimes results in donors that don't write checks at all because they can't cover the inflated cost. We should force departments to stand on their own, rather than maintaining the university as a welfare state.

All of that said, I think his notion of problem-oriented programs has some merit. In the medical research field, for example, grants often pay just enough to get the next paper out. It would be much better if schools and funding agencies would create large, sustained, problem-oriented projects where some failure was not only acceptable but virtually expected. It would be especially nice if the researchers in that environment had an incentive system that gave them access to licensing revenue, shares in spin-off startups, etc. Basically I envision an academic version of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC except with stock options.
posted by jedicus at 10:33 AM on April 27, 2009


Another radical idea: Don't have the primary source of research funds as the Department of Defense.

You do realize you're reading and writing all of this on what was a giant Defense department research project, yes?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:35 AM on April 27, 2009


You do realize you're reading and writing all of this on what was a giant Defense department research project, yes?

So? How does that conflict with what DU said? That money could have been appropriated and spent by another part of the government.
posted by delmoi at 10:38 AM on April 27, 2009


felix betachat, you're just a sourpuss because no one is making you movies and videogames for your personal enjoyment.

I agree with y'all - learning sciences and math is generally a structural thing. Start with the basics, build up. There is no "problem" I can imagine that would help students learn calculus without knowing much about math beforehand. And the Undergrad system of general education courses provide the "rounding out" that Taylor is requesting. Yes, at higher levels, people will focus on a career path, but that's so they can become experts at something. Jack of all trades, master of none, or something like that.

But I concur with getting rid of tenured positions, or at least allowing some shaking up of those set in their ways. This is an issue not only at the college level, but in all education systems. Other professions require constant education to keep licensed professionals up on the current trends, and to keep them thinking about the profession. Teaching the same class over and over and over and over and over can drive you into a rut of comfort, or worse, not caring.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:39 AM on April 27, 2009


it's an inefficient wealth transfer mechanism from fields that are financially valuable to those that are not

This is a moronic statement. Is the sole determinative of a field's value its ability to be monetized? If so, why have an academy at all? The business world seems to do a superb job of spinning thought into gold. The best of all possible systems is one in which an attractive field of inquiry, say neuroscience, draws resources that can be allocated to that field as well as other, less sexy though no less essential areas such as, say, biomedical ethics. Donors and funding agencies are driven less by a concern for the total community of inquiry within which knowledge is fostered and more by the particular problem being addressed by that community. Just because everybody wants to sponsor the stained-glass windows doesn't make them more important than the building's foundation.

Now, the tendency of academic administrators to proliferate to the detriment of research in the University is a serious issue. We need fewer prescriptions for change and more focus on how to sustain the intellectual traditions which have given us the finest academy the world has ever known.
posted by felix betachat at 10:42 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, no, no! Don't get rid of tenured positions. Those are vital to academic discourse. Continuing education, on the other hand, should be a requirement. I am all for extending my education into my professor career and making sure I'm doing my research with the right knowledge and teaching lectures with current knowledge.

Gen eds need to be trimmed down just a little.
posted by kldickson at 10:45 AM on April 27, 2009


So? How does that conflict with what DU said?

Because DU's point was that defense spending in academia is wrong for universities. Which is inherently shortsighted, and especially so coming in an Internet communication. There's plenty wrong with universities, as we're discussing. But this isn't it, and neither is it related to the article.

That money could have been appropriated and spent by another part of the government.

And if unicorns could fly, we'd all be happy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:46 AM on April 27, 2009


Cool Papa Bell, my understanding of military spending at universities is generally limited to the extent to which developments are politicized. For example, the bombing at my university during the Vietnam War of Sterling Hall, which was by then home to a major Army mathematics and physics project, and protests against Dow's occupation of part of campus got extremely violent, and they eventually left campus. DoD funding often has some sort of stipulation to it that can require some parts of the research to be classified. This goes against the public nature of university research, which requires that information on research be available to the public for examination and information and generally has an open-access sort of ethos (except for some journals, but that's another story). Wisconsin is one of few universities that explicitly rejects funding that requires the research to be classified.

So I can see why anyone would be angry about DoD funding. I would, too, if it meant I'd be more beholden to the whim of the government for my livelihood than I already would be (the NIH is generally where biomedical research gets funds from) .
posted by kldickson at 10:55 AM on April 27, 2009


No, if unicorns could fly, the pegasus/unicorn cross-breeding program would have been successful, and a terrible plight will be upon us all!
posted by filthy light thief at 10:55 AM on April 27, 2009


Dude, you don't get to breed unicorns and pegasi until you take Moon and Spirit Animal so I think you're getting a little ahead of yourself.
posted by The Straightener at 10:57 AM on April 27, 2009


Also, this guy is a typical postmodernist shit. Discount everything he says. (The dude was even friends with Derrida.)
posted by kldickson at 11:01 AM on April 27, 2009


I find it (to say the least) strange that the humanities get mentioned exactly three times in the article, every time in passing: once to mock a dissertation on Duns Scotus (this from the chair of the religion department?), another time to note the perceived obsolescence of "medieval dissertation," and a throwaway mention that the humanities will help with Water.

Really?
posted by Bromius at 11:04 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here a duhhhh,
Derrida,
Everywhere a Dada
Old McFoucault had a farm, e-i-e-i-o
And on this farm he had some cattle, because to call them 'cows' would be an example of female chauvinism and to call them 'cows' and 'bulls' would suggest that somehow they are unequal and calling some Holsteins and some Herefords would bring a racial dynamic into it and OH HELP I'M BEING REPRESSED AND I DON'T CARE IF YOU DON'T HAVE EVIDENCE FOR IT I'M BEING REPRESSED BY YOUR COLONIALIST CHAUVINISM! FOUCAULT! DERRIDA! DECONSTRUCTION! PARADIGMS!
posted by kldickson at 11:07 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I had lunch with my old adviser a few weeks ago, and he said that he had decided to recommend to all of his students-even his best, which I was not-that they should view going to graduate school in philosophy as a nice way to spend one's twenties with an eye on figuring out a new career once you PhD. Meanwhile, my friends still in the department are gritting their teeth for the coming job crunch and trying to decide how long they're going to adjunct and move every year before packing it in and going to law school or whatever.
I don't know much about the philosophy job market, but I'm having a hard time imagining why this would come as a surprise to either you or your adviser.

What philosophy-specific jobs are there? Or have there ever been?

I mean, outside of "philosophy professor". But unless there are less grad students getting their degree in any given year than there are professors who are retiring that year, you and your adviser can't possibly have seriously expected -- couldn't ever have seriously expected -- that the typical philosophy grad student was going to get a job as a philosophy professor.

Is there some common type of employer that I'm overlooking, that specifically looks to hire philosophers?
posted by Flunkie at 11:18 AM on April 27, 2009


Whoa, which French intellectual peed in kidickson's Cheerios?

Answer: All of Them, evidently.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:20 AM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


I work in a small "trans-disciplinary" graduate department in a traditional university. I think it's a pretty cool idea -- experts from all sorts of backgrounds working together to solve tough problems that require strengths from these backgrounds. Keyword there is "expert." I'd say one of the biggest problems we're facing in my department is figuring out how to structure courses so that people who aren't already domain experts can build their skills and knowledge, while still providing training in trans-disciplinary collaboration.

Thus, my feeling is that abolishing the disciplines probably isn't going to work. Both approaches are necessary.
posted by Alterscape at 11:32 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I second joe lisboa's surprise at kldickson's sudden outburst of crazy. What do Derrida, Foucault, or any "postmodernists" have to do with any of Taylor's proposals?
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:41 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Everything that you've said is correct, Flunkie. The two points that I was trying to make were:

1) Taylor's suggestion that graduate students receive preparation for career paths outside of academia is thoroughly unhelpful in those fields where no such career paths exist.

2)The surprise comes because it has been the case that the average PhD. coming out of a very good but not outstanding department like my former department could count on getting a tenure track job somewhere. You're right that the typical graduate student should never have had expectations of employment, but these graduate students are stronger than typical. I couldn't in good conscience recommend that you go to graduate school today if your best offer was from my department or a similar department; that hasn't been the case in recent memory.
posted by Kwine at 11:51 AM on April 27, 2009


Taylor is a post-modernist whose work employs a lot of the rhetorical and deconstructive flourishes popularized by Derrida. Puns, wordplays and aphorisms stand in for argumentation in a lot of his writing. It drives some people mad, since there seems like an argument there, but its propositions and defense are never laid out in a form that one can engage with. It's a kind of hermeticism posing as scholarship that was very popular in the '90s and which is fast falling out of fashion within the orbit of the humanities. Taylor, by contrast, seems to have achieved escape velocity and is bucking for a deanship.

This op-ed crystallizes a lot of older, critical theory ranting against disciplinary canons, wrapping it up in the outcome-based, quasi-corporate argot that is so fashionable in academic administrations these days.

More power to him. I hope it's not my college he winds up ruining.
posted by felix betachat at 11:52 AM on April 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


A friend of mine who's a condense matter physicist had this to say:
I must say this prospect fills me with horror at an aesthetic level -- "I'm a professor of Time. I don't know none of that Space stuff." Besides, Taylor doesn't seem to get the rationale behind specialization, which is that there's an internal coherence to certain bodies of knowledge, e.g. physics, that has very little to do with what they're ostensibly about. This coherence is useful because it helps you see that some problems are like other, apparently unrelated, problems, which saves a lot of effort. E.g. percolation is like the onset of magnetism, which is like the vulcanization of rubber, and many of these problems -- because they're percolation-like -- can be solved by similar techniques. The original percolation problem is not particularly interesting in itself, but this is often the hallmark of a good problem to study -- most problems of actual interest are messy and intractable as posed.
posted by grobstein at 11:55 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yes, you can bring together chemists and political scientists, but you need a BACKGROUND in chemistry to understand the chemical side of it.

This, and once again. Just because we're all special flowers and are entitled to our very special opinions on things doesn't mean the geologist can start give pointers to the geometrist (very specialized math, geometrics). I don't want a society filled with jacks of all traits, masters of none. Scientific specialization is what's gotten us to the moon, what's destroyed polio, the atomic bomb, the computer on which I'm typing this stupid diatrabe and brought an audience from around the world together to read it. Some of that specialization simply takes a shitload of time to master. Particularly medicine or chemistry.

The Department of the Future of Water made up of geologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and ethicists.

See, I don't get this. How do you get to even call yourself a geologist in the first place? Is it just "that thing" you did in high school? I played around with computers so I'm a programmer? This makes no logical sense. You can't have these groups of people made up of multi-disciplinary backgrounds until they've actually had the background yet, right? Which is sorta' the whole point of university, right? Am I missing something?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2009


Because DU's point was that defense spending in academia is wrong for universities. Which is inherently shortsighted, and especially so coming in an Internet communication.

Let's suppose I get a job punching people in the face. I'm able to use the money to buy food for my family. That does not mean punching people in the face is a good idea.

If something is suboptimal that doesn't mean it's entirely negative. Whether or not defense spending on universities is a net positive can't be illustrated simply by referring to a single positive outcome.

Also, it's not like DARPA just shat out the entire internet, HTTP and cold fusion and all in 1989. HTTP was developed at CERN (not part of the military, obviously) and it's actually independent of the underlying protocol transport, so you don't actually need TCP/IP to do "the web", as long as the underlying OS or networking library understands how to turn the authority part of a URI into a connection you can read and write data too.

It's impossible to know if the internet would have come about if it wasn't for DARPA, or if it would have come about just from non-military funding, assuming the government provided funding by some other means.
posted by delmoi at 12:20 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Because DU's point was that defense spending in academia is wrong for universities. Which is inherently shortsighted, and especially so coming in an Internet communication. There's plenty wrong with universities, as we're discussing. But this isn't it, and neither is it related to the article.


Well, just to continue the example: a large percentage of artificial intelligence research in cs is funded through the DoD/DARPA. I think it's hard to argue that this has no influence on what counts as a successful research problem.

The modern research university is hardly medieval: it's really a creation of 19th century romantic Germany.

The other obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.

Prof. Taylor wants to be a Dean.
posted by geos at 12:36 PM on April 27, 2009


We should force departments to stand on their own, rather than maintaining the university as a welfare state.

It is vanishingly unlikely that a university in the US would be allowed by its accrediting bodies to grant a BA or BS to students who had only completed coursework in physics, or chemistry, or whatever, or at most in his major and math support courses. That's a professional certification program, not a college of arts and sciences.

So what would happen in this world is just that the Deparment of Physics would have to pay the Department of English Language and Literature for its majors that were in its courses. Not as "welfare," but because the English department is an important and integral part of turning out college graduates who majored in physics.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:01 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


]Taylor's suggestion that graduate students receive preparation for career paths outside of academia is thoroughly unhelpful in those fields where no such career paths exist.
I think the point here is that they receive preparation in working outside their immediate fields--that they learn to leverage the advanced cognitive skills they're learning (they are learning those, aren't they?) into real-world careers, even if it means that a trained philosopher ends up as, say, an ethics ombudsman, or--as in my particular case--a CompLit PhD ends up as a culinary writer.

That said, the rest of the article sketches out as perfect a playing field for inertia, infighting and intellectual chaos as could possibly be imagined.
posted by Splificator at 1:09 PM on April 27, 2009


Doesn't this cluster of issues point to one of the more pressing failures of capitalism? I am one of these poor schlubs that is faced with knowing that it is simply not economically feasible to attempt to break into the professional academic market, however much I may wish to.

On the one hand, I am still trying to stay committed to the natural selection of market forces. For example, if the American car industry cannot survive the market forces, then it should be allowed to die out and those actual people that made cars should probably get out now and find something else to make.

But for me the parallelism begins to break down when I consider the same for my chosen field: philosophy. I, along with many more thousands of working professionals, think philosophy is hard work. Teaching it is probably even harder. On the face of it, looking at the number of openings versus the number of applicants, and then the wages those openings would bring to the winner, it doesn't appear as though the American market finds much value in philosophy. So does this mean philosophers should find something else to do? It's hard, interesting, and valuable work when done right (like everything else) so if I'm willing to do the work shouldn't be I be compensated for that?

Like Aristotle said, you can only do quality intellectual work after your basic physical and psychological needs are met. Why should my colleague across campus who brought down that huge grant from the Defense Department for her work on fluorine be secured a life that allows her to do her work and I have to struggle to figure out a way to eat while trying to find even a temporary job even though, on the face of it, I am equally qualified and does a comparative amount of hard work?

If everything comes down to the bottom line, then that means a lot of people can't get to do the things that they want to do and have genuine aptitude for because it would be a one way ticket to living on the street. Perhaps that is a bit hyperbolic but I really have to question this system that drives away passion by assigning everything a dollar amount.

Now while Taylor may be ultimately wrongheaded on how to reform the system, it is painfully clear that it does need to be reformed. Undergraduates rarely get the education they deserve or pay for, graduates are institutionally deluded to thinking their futures are more optimistic than they really are, and post-docs are made into nomadic slaves. It sucks from top to bottom. When I say the phrase out loud it does seem strange to be "bemoaning the plight of the working intellectual" but the evidence seems to point to there being a serious economic threat to America's intellectual community. I think moves like this one that Taylor made are in the right direction toward the first steps to fixing a real problem.
posted by T-Slice89 at 1:10 PM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Here a duhhhh,
Derrida,
Everywhere a Dada
Old McFoucault had a farm, e-i-e-i-o
And on this farm he had some cattle, because to call them 'cows' would be an example of female chauvinism and to call them 'cows' and 'bulls' would suggest that somehow they are unequal and calling some Holsteins and some Herefords would bring a racial dynamic into it and OH HELP I'M BEING REPRESSED AND I DON'T CARE IF YOU DON'T HAVE EVIDENCE FOR IT I'M BEING REPRESSED BY YOUR COLONIALIST CHAUVINISM! FOUCAULT! DERRIDA! DECONSTRUCTION! PARADIGMS!


Good god, you're an idiot.

You like what I did there?
posted by nosila at 1:33 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


This cracks me up:

It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body,...

Paging Dr. DesCartes!
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:34 PM on April 27, 2009


Paging Dr. DesCartes!

We need a pineal gland transplant, stat.
posted by joe lisboa at 1:42 PM on April 27, 2009


So what would happen in this world is just that the Deparment of Physics would have to pay the Department of English Language and Literature for its majors that were in its courses. Not as "welfare," but because the English department is an important and integral part of turning out college graduates who majored in physics.

Alternatively, research grant overhead could not be used to subsidize undergraduate education. The overhead associated with top institutions is a little crazy, but why and how to fix it is a different topic that I think bears little resemblance to parasite unprofitable departments.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:43 PM on April 27, 2009


A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

Sounds like a perfectly good topic to me.

I wonder how the student will react on reading, in a newspaper, that his chair considers his work ridiculous.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 1:45 PM on April 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


I wonder how the student will react on reading, in a newspaper, that his chair considers his work ridiculous.

Or the colleague. I realize academics can get catty, but mocking the guy openly in the NYT? Meaooooooow! That next faculty meeting is going to be awkward!
posted by mr_roboto at 1:50 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Taylor's suggestion that graduate students receive preparation for career paths outside of academia is thoroughly unhelpful in those fields where no such career paths exist.

Wouldn't his suggestion mean, in that case, that the entire graduate program is misguided, then? That's certainly how it seems to me. If you can't get a job outside of academia, and academia is flooded, then you're pretty obviously in the wrong line of work.

I'm not sure where the entitlement attitude held by some people comes from, but it's frankly off-putting. If nobody wants to pay you, voluntarily and without coercion, to do your thing, you have no right to demand to be paid for it — regardless of how many years of school or tens of thousands of dollars you spent on it. We have a word for avocations that don't make money and for which nobody is willing to pay: they're called hobbies. People typically do them on their own time, after they're done doing doing something productive enough that someone else is willing to pay them for it.

Speaking as someone who has a number of very serious hobbies, I don't mean that too pejoratively; just because something is a "hobby" doesn't mean you can't be passionate about it, or take it to a very serious level of mastery. It's simply an honest admission that whatever you want to do, it's not going to pay the bills — but that you want to do it anyway. (My personal experience has been that sometimes, admitting that something is a hobby and is unlikely to ever be a source of pecuniary reward is freeing, after the initial disappointment.)

There are a whole lot of undergrads and graduate students (and some PhDs) who seem to have failed to grasp that they're paying a rather large sum to hone their hobby skills. It's unfortunate for them, and represents what I consider to be at best unethical behavior and at worst outright fraud on the part of their advisors. The solution, however, is not to try and make these hobbies financially rewarding, it's to clobber anyone encouraging students who aren't independently wealthy, or at least aware of the limited job market, to go into them.

I'm not criticizing broad-based liberal arts education in favor of pure job training; there's clearly a need for a well-rounded knowledge base on which to build specialization. (And in order to accomplish this, a small number of specialists in those fields to act as teachers.) But there's a huge demand/supply disconnect in many fields, and the problem originates — as should the solution — from the supply side.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:00 PM on April 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


The best of all possible systems is one in which an attractive field of inquiry, say neuroscience, draws resources that can be allocated to that field as well as other, less sexy though no less essential areas such as, say, biomedical ethics.

I didn't say I had a problem with the wealth transfer system or that I disagreed with the notion of the academy or the comprehensive university. I said only that the tax on grants was an inefficient way to go about it. I think the 'less sexy though no less essential areas' should be supported primarily by tuition dollars rather than by taxing grants and donations to other areas, which are often made with a specific purpose in mind.

It helps that those less sexy areas are generally inexpensive, relying more on books and chalk than supercomputers and particle accelerators. Let's face it: many of the humanities can be run very cheaply, and so they ought to be as a way to save money both for the university and for students. It is ultimately detrimental to students that they must pay the same $30k/year (or whatever) for a philosophy degree as a chemical engineering degree. I say force the philosophy department to cut down to its essentials and let the students pay far less.
posted by jedicus at 2:17 PM on April 27, 2009


There are ways to reform the university system without remaking it. For example, the vast majority of universities siphon off ~50% of incoming grants for 'overhead.' At one of my alma maters, the figure is 54-56%.

I think you are mixing up indirect rates and percentages of total award. According to this, the indirect rates for universities average a little over 42%, which represents only about 30% of the award, not 50%. I have heard that some of the biggest grantees used to get 70% indirect, which translates to 41%, but that pertained to a handful of institutions and they no longer get that kind of rate.

On the other hand, your institution may have siphoned off even more than the F&A (indirect) money. In which case, the faculty should have (and would have, in my experience) screamed bloody murder.

It is important to note that universities require indirect to support all the activities that allow them to obtain and administer the grants the faculty are awarded. The costs are not inconsiderable and can't be charged directly to the grants. If the investigator were allowed to keep the indirect, the university would have to charge the department for the costs of preparing proposals, financial reporting, oversight, incremental facilities (light, heating, laboratories, floor space amortization and maintenance, incremental library costs, computer infrastructure, etc.). That's the way it works in some places, but it doesn't leave the investigator with any more money than the old-fashioned way.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:28 PM on April 27, 2009


Or the colleague. I realize academics can get catty, but mocking the guy openly in the NYT? Meaooooooow! That next faculty meeting is going to be awkward!

I once heard it said that the reason the in-fighting in academe is so vicious is that the stakes are so small...
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:30 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I say force the philosophy department to cut down to its essentials and let the students pay far less.

I've taught (and continue to teach) philosophy at several colleges and universities in southeastern Michigan and, without exception, the idea that there is fat to trim in *any* of the departments is kind of quaint. I mean, at the moment I share a small office with three other instructors. We have one computer. Everyone in the entire Humanities Department (yes, it's one big department for all of us) shares one copier and one network printer. And this is at the "big name" institution: the community colleges and the Jesuit university I've taught at are even harder up.
posted by joe lisboa at 2:35 PM on April 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


The aforementioned copier and network printer are one-and-the-same, by the way.
posted by joe lisboa at 2:36 PM on April 27, 2009


I've taught (and continue to teach) philosophy at several colleges and universities in southeastern Michigan and, without exception, the idea that there is fat to trim in *any* of the departments is kind of quaint.

I'll admit I don't know much about the internal budgeting of humanities departments, but I do know that at every school I've attended, applied to, or heard of that tuition rates vary very little between departments. Clearly costs are extremely variable between departments, however, so somebody is subsidizing somebody. Apart from a certain minimum necessary to maintain the liberal arts model such subsidies should end. If that means, for example, cutting the number of graduate student positions, well, that should help with the oversupply problems complained about upthread.

If the investigator were allowed to keep the indirect, the university would have to charge the department for the costs of preparing proposals, financial reporting, oversight, incremental facilities (light, heating, laboratories, floor space amortization and maintenance, incremental library costs, computer infrastructure, etc.).

That kind of argument makes some sense in the lab sciences, perhaps, but it falls down completely in other disciplines. Take law, for example, which I have more experience with. If we get a grant, we aren't taking up any more light, heat, lab space, or floor space than we would otherwise. Incremental library costs and computer infrastructure are similarly minimal. We prepare our own proposals. Yet the overhead tax is basically the same as for a lab science department.

Here's my ultimate point. Taxes are a method of cooperation to achieve common goals. Redistributing endowment wealth makes sense because it is explicitly commonly owned. Redistributing tuition makes sense, at least to a point, because students take classes from many areas and make use of a broad range of university resources. Specialist researchers, however, do not, and their grants are often made for a specific purpose. It makes more sense, then, to redistribute tuition and endowment wealth rather than grant money.
posted by jedicus at 2:53 PM on April 27, 2009


I once heard it said that the reason the in-fighting in academe is so vicious is that the stakes are so small...

Only once?
posted by yoink at 3:24 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


It makes more sense, then, to redistribute tuition and endowment wealth rather than grant money.

I think this is sound, and I'm with you. I'm a law school grad, too, so I hear you on that front as well.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:34 PM on April 27, 2009


T-Slice89: I, along with many more thousands of working professionals, think philosophy is hard work. Teaching it is probably even harder. On the face of it, looking at the number of openings versus the number of applicants, and then the wages those openings would bring to the winner, it doesn't appear as though the American market finds much value in philosophy. So does this mean philosophers should find something else to do? It's hard, interesting, and valuable work when done right (like everything else) so if I'm willing to do the work shouldn't be I be compensated for that?

Compensated by whom? It's a matter of supply and demand: there isn't that much demand for philosophers. There's more than enough philosophers to fill the demand that does exist; hence wages are low and jobs are scarce. I'm afraid I can't construct a plausible "public good" argument justifying additional government subsidy of American philosophers.

A 1985 USENET post by Siu-Ling Ku on equal pay for equal work:
I agree it is unfair that teachers and nurses make less money than plumbers and truck drivers, but I don't agree that the problem is inherently sexist in nature. It is simply a matter of demand and supply. If we should really implement a "comparable worth" payscale based on level of skill and training required, than all Bachelors, and all Masters and PhDs who could find a job in his/her field should earn the same amount of money. That implies that chemist and biologist in their respective research labs should get a pay raise, or computer scientist and electrical engineers take a pay cut....

I am not saying that teachers and nurses has lower self worth or qualification than truck driver, but if the teacher and nurse want to be PAID as much as the truck driver, than BE one! Hence, the remedy we should work on is to strike down those BARRIERS that prevent the potential teacher and nurse to make the choice to be a higher paying truck driver.
posted by russilwvong at 3:35 PM on April 27, 2009


Riposte from Marc Bousquet (whose How the University Works many of the invisible-hand party-liners here ought to read ASAP). In brief, the argument that there's an "oversupply" of Ph.D.s and a lack of "demand" ignores what's actually happened to academic labor: the reallocation of much of the teaching away from tenure-stream jobs and toward adjunct labor. The amount of work to be done ("demand") in academia is constant or rising, it's just being done under steadily worsening conditions for steadily less pay.
posted by RogerB at 5:02 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


The amount of work to be done ("demand") in academia is constant or rising, it's just being done under steadily worsening conditions for steadily less pay.

Fair enough. Unfortunately graduate student unions appear to have hit a roadblock.

That said, this isn't a new problem. I'm reminded of Philip Greenspun's Career Guide for Engineers and Scientists (1998). The obvious answer is to leave academia (to "do something else", as T-Slice89 put it), and I assume a lot of people do.
posted by russilwvong at 5:56 PM on April 27, 2009


It's hard, interesting, and valuable work when done right (like everything else) so if I'm willing to do the work shouldn't be I be compensated for that?

You suggest that valuable work ought to be compensated, and I think that's true.

However, you are compensated: you get to do philosophy. Want money too? That's harder. There will always be many more people who would like to engage in philosophy than can be supported at it, precisely because the contemplative life is one of the best lives a person can live. The problem for a market trying to distribute goods efficiently is that the 'value' of philosophical work is primarily enjoyed by the philosopher and her friends. How many of your students do you leave better than they came to you? If you're like me, you inspire bright students and entertain dull ones... but that's not much value-added: the philosophy you teach does a lot of the work for you.

In brief, the argument that there's an "oversupply" of Ph.D.s and a lack of "demand" ignores what's actually happened to academic labor: the reallocation of much of the teaching away from tenure-stream jobs and toward adjunct labor.

I think Bousquet is the smartest person working on this problem right now: he's dead-on accurate in his account of the problem of administrative cruft, and he's even better at attacking the mistreatment of undergraduates, some of whom are roped into 'work study' options that make finishing the degree impossible and leave them with a mountain of student debt.

However, I think he needs to broaden his analysis a little. For one thing, higher education is about to experience its first major contraction in sixty years, for purely demographic reasons, which will probably be exacerbated by the financial crisis and the damage to credit markets. Many universities consciously chose to deal with the demographic bubble at the beginning of the millennium using adjuncts because they knew they couldn't sustain a tenure track workforce large enough to deal with the temporary demand. Of course, a decade is a long time to be talking about 'temporary demand,' but tenure is for life. The alternative, as we've already seen, is something like the American auto industry where companies made long-term commitments to deal with short-term demand, and weren't able to reduce costs as they lost market-share.

As a nation, we're lucky to have educated so many undergraduates and gained so many PhDs, but some of us PhDs need to do one of three things: (1) drum up some new business for the academy by expanding the population served by higher education, (2) find a way to prove the real productivity of our discipline doing non-pedagogic research, or (3) find something to do with our degree other than teach.

I am not saying that teachers and nurses has lower self worth or qualification than truck driver, but if the teacher and nurse want to be PAID as much as the truck driver, than BE one! Hence, the remedy we should work on is to strike down those BARRIERS that prevent the potential teacher and nurse to make the choice to be a higher paying truck driver.

Any decent philosopher can make much more money as a lawyer (and not even one of those overworked firm attorneys doing document review, a fun lawyer, possibly even a law professor.) I dither about this all the time: I teach philosophy of law, it'd be easy to make the switch, but for the time being, at least, I'd still rather work in philosophy.

Right now, of course, I'd be tempted to give up a lot of my salary not to have to grade the load of final papers and exams I have coming in the next two weeks.

"What would be a reward suitable to a poor man who is your benefactor, who desires leisure that he may instruct you? There can be no more fitting reward than maintenance in the Prytaneum, O men of Athens, a reward which he deserves far more than the citizen who has won the prize at Olympia in the horse or chariot race, whether the chariots were drawn by two horses or by many. For I am in want, and he has enough; and he only gives you the appearance of happiness, and I give you the reality. And if I am to estimate the penalty justly, I say that maintenance in the Prytaneum is the just return."
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:25 PM on April 27, 2009


See also.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:34 PM on April 27, 2009


I work in a small "trans-disciplinary" graduate department

Being trans-sectional is nothing to be ashamed of.
posted by ornate insect at 10:02 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Taylor's argument is a false dilemma. (Imagine that, a Religion prof arguing a false dilemma).

The interdisciplinary approach is being done by many Universities today. They still have traditional academic departments, but also have Institutes or Centers that focus on applied, interdisciplinary approaches to issues. These research entities within the University pull resources, including research faculty, from multiple disciplines.

The combined approach seems to work pretty well and doesn't require radically dismantling academic departments to do it.
posted by darkstar at 11:12 PM on April 27, 2009


You do realize you're reading and writing all of this on what was a giant Defense department research project, yes?

Hahaha. You said "was."
posted by rokusan at 5:14 AM on April 28, 2009


Wouldn't his suggestion mean, in that case, that the entire graduate program is misguided, then? That's certainly how it seems to me. If you can't get a job outside of academia, and academia is flooded, then you're pretty obviously in the wrong line of work.

Well, I realized this and got out, which was absolutely the rational decision for me especially given my other marketable skills. Almost everyone who can get into a good graduate program in philosophy has enough brains to make a much better, easier living doing something else, as anotherpanacea points out. However, if you also want this...

...there's clearly a need for a well-rounded knowledge base on which to build specialization. (And in order to accomplish this, a small number of specialists in those fields to act as teachers.)

...you'd better hope that not every grad student figures it out like I did, because I'd have been more marketable than at least 75% of them had I stuck it out and finished. The university system depends on them reaching for a brass ring that isn't really there and adjuncting forever. We're headed towards a situation where there are ten (five?) viable graduate departments where actual philosophers are produced and the rest of the graduate departments will be full of suckers who don't even realize that they're fifth tier at what they do but will be willing to work cheap; they'll be eventually teaching your kids along with maybe one tenured chair at all but the best universities, while the potential second through fourth tiers get jobs that offer them reasonable compensation and security. Maybe that's how it should be; hell, maybe we're pretty much already there, and the professionalization of philosophy will quickly be a historical footnote.

I assume that a parallel argument applies in any academic field without market viability.
posted by Kwine at 9:31 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


From a classmate:
"This would simply move tough competition earlier in life (grad school admissions) and basically solidify the tenure at an earlier stage, with all the resulting problems of lack of motivation and learning new skills."
posted by k8t at 1:22 PM on April 28, 2009


One confusion Dr. Taylor seems to have, and it was echoed several times in the discussion here, is that PhD students pay to go to school (thus leave school with $100,000 in debt, etc). The vast majority of PhD students in any field do not pay tuition. The good ones in the sciences actually get paid a stipend on which one can live, or at least muddle along. In the humanities, most do get paid, but it may not be enough to live. Many of them work additional part time jobs or even spend the summer working full-time to make ends meet. Still, if your conception of grad school is that it is financially anything like undergrad, or a professional school like law or medical school, you are way off.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:47 PM on April 28, 2009


Compensated by whom? It's a matter of supply and demand: there isn't that much demand for philosophers. There's more than enough philosophers to fill the demand that does exist; hence wages are low and jobs are scarce.

Because God knows what the world needs is another fucking software developer.
posted by joe lisboa at 1:24 PM on April 29, 2009


Sorry about that. My girlfriend got carjacked today, so I'm a bit testy. Everyone's okay. Carry on.
posted by joe lisboa at 1:27 PM on April 29, 2009


The ever-wise FSP weighs in
posted by hydropsyche at 2:06 PM on April 29, 2009


Sorry about that. My girlfriend got carjacked today, so I'm a bit testy. Everyone's okay. Carry on.

Sorry to hear it. Hope she's doing okay.

posted by russilwvong at 10:06 PM on April 29, 2009


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