Thursday, April 16, 2009

Inside the bubble

I was noodling around on the internet today when I came across a document I'd never seen before: an internal study of INRU's graduate program in English. Once I saw it, I remembered having completed a survey a few years back--but I'd already graduated and never received the final product.

It's a satisfyingly comprehensive report, describing the shape of the program and how it's changed over the past 10 or 15 years to address various problems or meet various goals (and recommending new changes going forward). Everything's covered, from funding, recruitment, and matriculation rates to requirements, retention, and job placement. Probably the most interesting parts are those last two, retention and placement, and there's a ton of data--not just numerical summaries (how many people got jobs in which years and at what kinds of institutions), but also detailed, gossipy information in spreadsheet format naming names and tracking professional progress from degree date to the present.

But among the report's many unobjectionable and often quite perceptive remarks is one that made me shriek aloud. The committee observes that, although the department isn't displeased with its placement rates, it would still like to increase the percentage of graduates who get jobs at research universities and decrease the percentage who leave the academy involuntarily. They continue,

Some faculty worry that mid-level graduate students at INRU are not engaged in research that is ambitious enough to win them places at major research universities--although we realize that not all students seek careers that place an emphasis on research. Some faculty are pleased at our success in placing our graduates in liberal arts colleges, and this surely does indicate one of our strengths: that we train our students in the broader field of literary studies rather than producing narrow specialists.*

There, in one paragraph, we have an implied causal link between not having research ambitions and not getting a job at "a major research university"--after all, if you were doing the right kind of research you'd get the right kind of job--followed by the suggestion that only some INRU faculty consider liberal arts colleges to be good jobs (and that although the committee finds this position mildly eccentric, they're dutifully reporting it).

Now, on the one hand, this doesn't surprise me: probably the vast majority of us encountered some version of this attitude at our graduate institutions, wherever we attended. But although I never doubted that many of my professors held such beliefs, my department nevertheless did an excellent job of professionalizing us. My first year I attended a job-market roundtable featuring some recent graduates who were teaching at a wide range of institutions. One of the speakers had only just landed a job after six or seven years on the market--and although he jokingly presented his talk as "everything you should NOT do in your job search," his underlying message was that the job market is a mess and unpredictable, and it might take years to find a job even if you are doing everything right. At the same event I remember one senior faculty member telling us not to rule out community colleges--that they not only had growing student populations, but were at the forefront of pedagogical innovation.

In other words, the fact that the job market is random and terrible (and that, market notwithstanding, people are happy and productive at all kinds of institutions) has finally filtered down to pretty much everyone. But although our advisors and mentors see these proofs and even speak these truths, what they still believe is that there's a single hierarchy, that everyone wishes to scale--and that it's a meritocracy.

*I've altered the wording slightly, but both the sense and tone remain.


Susan said...

It's really kind of mind boggling, isn't it? I was always at teaching/research places, so never hit that message. But in this day and age, that anyone thinks that way? And there are so many ways of wanting to do research.

Bardiac said...

Just imagine how much disdain they feel for those of us who teach at regional comprehensives.

squadratomagico said...

I think there are a lot of different issues one might comment upon here, including the suggestion that R1 positions are self-evidently the most desirable, and the use of the word "ambitious" to convey that agenda. But I just want to point out that saying that some degree candidates do not pursue sufficiently "ambitious" research to compete for R1 jobs is NOT the same thing as saying that those who do not receive R1 offers, pursue unambitious research. The logic of the first statement does not imply the second one.

medieval woman said...

Ugh - this kind of stuff (and I dealt with it too) makes me want to spit venom - it's not overt, but it's just subtle enough to pervade an important part of our graduate experience. After all, how many of us were not cultivated *as much* as another student because their research seemed more cutting edge and worthy of an R1 job?

heu mihi said...

If I weren't in my campus office with the door open, I would have shrieked aloud at that, myself.

I think that some of my grad profs (at an ivy R1) had that attitude; I remember hearing of professors LAUGHING at an offer that one of my classmates got at a 3/4 regional comprehensive (which embittered me greatly, as this was in April and I still had NO job); another student told me that her advisor had described her new job--at a pretty well-known SLAC--as a good "starter job." Since my job is arguably worse than either of these two, this does make me feel mildly resentful and self-conscious.

And dude, I have an "ambitious research agenda." So don't even get me started.

(You know, this is something that I need to work on: I'm actually quite happy in my job and life right now, but when I start comparing myself to people with lighter teaching loads or higher salaries, I very quickly get dissatisfied and envious. It's not good.)

Flavia said...


You're correct that that is what the statment says on its face--that there are some "mid-level" (as opposed, I guess, to "superstar") graduate students whose research is not sufficiently ambitious, and that this lack of ambition is imagined as the reason they are not getting or would not get certain kinds of jobs.

But the fact that this is phrased as a "worry," rather than as a simple explanation for the placement rates--"some faculty point out that not all graduate students are pursuing the kinds of research ambitions that would attract the attention of major research schools"--suggests to me that there is, at least on some level, the belief that those who do not get R1 jobs pursue unambitious research. As MW says: it's not overt, but I think it's there.

Flavia said...

And "mid-level," too, really kills me. To me, "mid-level" means average--or in other words, the majority of grad students. If the average grad student at INRU really isn't pursuing an ambitious enough research agenda. . . well, wouldn't that be a problem with the program, not the students? Surely it would say something about the faculty who trained (or, earlier, admitted) them.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Yes, it's "mid-level" that gets to me, too. INRU is, after all, Instant Name-Recognition University. If the mid-level PhD students there aren't "ambitious" enough in their research ... who is? Apparently only the best and brightest of INRU students.

That the faculty thinks about their average students as "mid-level" and therefore views them as somehow wanting (not "ambitious" enough in their project, etc.) betrays, shall we say, an unusual perspective.

Sisyphus said...

Yeah, it's troubling that the problem is one of "ambition" in the research project ---- it's not because of competition or scarcity or writing problems or _flawed_ research plans --- no! you just didn't dream big enough!

Um, do we really want to push grad students _further_ out in that direction?

(and what does it say about me that I always read those initials as INRI? grad school, crucifixion --- it's all the same!)

Flavia said...

". . . I always read those initials as INRI? grad school, crucifixion --- it's all the same!"

Ha! I love you, Sis.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Bwuh? Were these people all hired in the 1960s by the phone-call-to-the-advisor method? Or are they from Mars? I mean, how can you not be aware that there are many, many more qualified graduate students in any given field than there are "places at major research universities"?

Thankfully, the prevailing attitude in my graduate program was that any tenure-track job was a good job. The faculty may have been pretty clueless about how to teach students to market themselves to SLACs, regional comprehensives, and community colleges, but at least they recognized that such job offers were worth celebrating.

Anonymous said...

I'm not an academic, but as a lawyer/creative writer/fashion journalist, I completely agree with this: "what they still believe is that there's a single hierarchy, that everyone wishes to scale--and that it's a meritocracy." The same holds for the seemingly disparate fields of law, publishing and journalism. I am getting freelance writing gigs today, not because of how great my writing is (which I'm hoping it is), but who I know at those particular magazines. BTW, I am planning a trip your way soon. Let's hang out! Miss D.

i said...

I'm going to go ahead and play devil's advocate for a bit, not so much because I disagree with the claim that there's a (spoken or unspoken) bias at INRU towards jobs in research universities, but because I'd like to throw in a few points that would complicate the conversation a bit:

1. A re-reading of "mid-level graduate students at INRU are not engaged in research that is ambitious enough to win them places at major research universities": What if some students expect R1 jobs as, well, their prize for going to INRU, but are just not competitive enough for them? Could we re-read that sentence to mean, "Our students expect top jobs but aren't always doing the necessary work?"

2. Graduate school at INRU is, as far as I'm concerned, an education in learning to put aside what other people think. Whether it's faculty, admin, or fellow grad students, often enough, other people just do not have the answer for you.

3. That said, to a limited extent, that kind of pressure to compete can be useful. There's always going to be someone who has published more, who has a more polished thesis, who's won more prizes or who got more job offers. And although I try not to compare myself to those people too much, sometimes doing so for a little while motivates me to push myself harder. And that motivation is necessary to do well on the job market at all, not just for the attainment of fancy R1 jobs.

4. I suspect that report would look very different if written today. I think this year's job market has been a cold splash of reality in everyone's face. (Terrible metaphor, I know, but it's late.)

The Bittersweet Girl said...

And even after the recent release of information about the MLA job list's dramatic decline in numbers of jobs offered ... there are still going to be folks out there with this out-moded but influential mindset!

Flavia said...


Apologies for replying so belatedly!

I think your point #1 isn't necessarily incorrect (although I definitely don't think that was what was meant in the passage itself), but when and to the extent that it's true, the faculty and the program as a whole bear almost full responsibility. If the department isn't doing a good enough job of promoting jobs at other kinds of institutions as desirable and rewarding--in large part because the department doesn't have a full enough understanding of the existence of those jobs and what their rewards might be--then it's to be expected that students wouldn't value them.

I also think there is, or at least used to be, a problem at the admissions end. In the past 5-7 years, the entering classes have struck me as admirably diverse when it comes to educational background. This was not true when I started the program. Aside from Berkeley or UMich or maybe one UTexas, I can't think of a graduate student who came to INRU with a state-school degree (and forget about entering students who began their education at a CC!). Indeed, even graduates from extremely selective liberal arts colleges were infrequent: there used to be exactly one per entering class, and the joke was that this person was INRU's "diversity" admit.

Again, things have changed. But if you have a group of graduate students virtually all of whom did their undergraduate work at a very small number of (usually private, usually R1) schoools, and a faculty with the same background, other kinds of institutions just don't show up on the radar screen.

I agree with your point #3, but in practice I think it's totally incompatible with #2, in part because I'm not sure #2 is really possible inside the bubble mentality that I'm describing. As a grad student, one may suspect that one would prefer being at a teaching-oriented institution (for example), but unless one has real experience at that kind of institution--either personally or through the experience of a close friend or family member--I don't think it's possible to say that one would be happier there.

Despite what I said above, in the end I don't really "blame" anyone; we're all limited by the experiences we've had, and although I think the faculty at INRU have an obligation to help their students get a wider perspective on academia (and certainly to be supportive of them and applaud any jobs they do get!), their failures aren't malicious, or even consciously elitist. They just know what they know, and want what they probably quite honestly believe is best for their students and will make them happiest.

i said...


I'm utterly horrified to think what admissions might have been like before incoming classes at INRU became "diverse." Admittedly, my own class had five, FIVE!, grads from (top research) public schools. Since then, however, I've stared each year at the admit list wondering how in the world we ever made it in there once the necessary spots were doled out to Ivy league grads and students who had done an MPhil somewhere fancy in England. My current operating theory is that it was possible because most of us were medievalists and had attended public schools that were much stronger in medieval studies than INRU is, where we took graduate seminars on topics too specialized even for INRU. And we had a faculty member in our department who knew that.

(I could go on about this, and about how and why I doubt that the top twenty grad students each year come from private schools, but that will really veer off the point.)

All that vented, I think you're right that students who come from different kinds of schools might be interested in different kinds of schools -- and I'd add that they might also be more interesting to, say, a liberal arts school or a public school. That's certainly the way it played out this year on the job market.

I was thinking of points #2 and #3 more in terms of how one plans out the course of a graduate degree and, subsequently, a career. And even then it is, I acknowledge, hard to be both motivated by ambitious peers and detached from them.

Finally, I wanted to say something similar about the faculty not being malicious in their general priviledging of a certain kind of job. Think about it: this is what they've worked very hard, and in some cases, sacrificed for. It's natural that they should think R1 jobs desirable. And it's possible that some have had their opinions confirmed by students who really were primarily researchers who wound up in teaching-heavy jobs and were unhappy there, or by students who wanted to do some amount of research but wound up at a school that didn't have the necessary library resources.