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The Trouble with a “New Normal”

By Tina M. Kelleher

The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

The New PhD, which went to press before the global pandemic, inventories noteworthy doctoral reform experiments and argues for ways to rethink terminal degree programs to avoid “reinvent[ing] the same faulty wheels—and get[ting] the same flat tires.” But how do we move forward with­out further burdening graduate students? The authors assert that “The New PhD is ‘new’ because it puts students’ needs before faculty interests.” However, heralding progress doubles as spin when the same external conditions in the academic profession persist as roadblocks to systemic change.

Cassuto and Weisbuch aim to repair mechanisms that result in a mismatch between individual and collective needs. The first two chapters provide an overview of significant doctoral reform efforts; the authors then turn to ways these developments can effect programmatic changes. Chapter 1 covers the periods from 1990 to 2008 and from 2011 to 2020 with a notable hiatus tied to the fiscal crisis caused by the hous­ing bubble. Doctoral reforms in the 1990s and 2000s ranged from money pits—expensive endeavors with little to show for their high cost—to “fixer-upper” projects, in which the investment of sweat equity garnered mixed results, with the goals too mod­est and oversight too laissez-faire. However, perceived failures often yield valuable insights: the Mel­lon Foundation spent millions on “promising students” (mostly those with advantages and means) to diminish attrition and time to degree with negligible gains; the Preparing Future Faculty pro­gram, sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools, broadened exposure to teaching and service roles beyond the usual emphasis in graduate training on research but offered inadequate incentives for institutions and students to participate.

Cassuto and Weisbuch describe how the second reform era span­ning from 2011 to 2020 has marked decisive shifts: a growing number of foundations, includ­ing the Institute for Citizens and Scholars (formerly the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation), have reduced or abandoned efforts related to graduate education and shifted resources to K–12, while profes­sional organizations, such as the American Historical Associa­tion and the Modern Language Association, have ratcheted up efforts to connect scholars to more varied career opportunities. Over the past decade, the Ameri­can Council of Learned Societies Public Fellows Program (funded by Mellon) has provided recent PhDs two-year fellowships that subsidize salaries in government and nonprofit sectors, though the authors question why the program excludes for-profit employers. Online tools like ImaginePhD, a humanities and social science career-exploration platform, and myIDP (Independent Development Plan), for those planning non­academic careers in STEM fields, provide robust repositories that enable job seekers to cast a wider net in their searches.

The coauthors acknowledge that “adjunctification” matters to this story’s unfolding but sidestep the need to reckon with corporate influence on higher education, emphasizing instead the agency of administrators, faculty, and gradu­ate students to tackle the issues. For instance, to mend aspects of what Michael Bérubé has charac­terized as a “seamless garment of crisis,” they contend foremost that an “empowered graduate dean” enables “change from above and within.” If stripped of decision-making powers and resources, however, this hypothetical admin­istrator is unlikely to have any real impact on the decentralized gradu­ate education–industrial complex.

From the standpoint of mobi­lization for racial justice during the pandemic, the book’s bundling of “diversity” issues into discus­sion of postdoctoral careers begs disaggregation to weigh inequi­ties among disciplines and institutional types. For example, it could address in more detail the fact that first-generation and other scholars from underrepresented groups generally earn lower aver­age salaries, while remuneration and support decline further for those working at underfunded predominantly minority-serving campuses. The authors advocate broader public outreach about doctoral education and recom­mend “time-neutral” strategies to enhance teaching and research training, underestimating the obstacles that underrepresented scholars encounter. The COVID-19 crisis has heightened demands for better accommodations for those affected by racial and gender disparities and for those shouldering extra caregiving responsibilities; it should also help to expose the gaslighting necessary to maintain the illusions of meri­tocracy in higher education.

The book’s largest section, “The Fix,” focuses on doctoral program elements that need tune-ups (or outright scrapping as clunkers). Chapters 3 and 10 can be read back-to-back or in their intended order to highlight the liberal arts principles that frame most doctoral education. In between, chapters 4 through 9 consider how to align degree requirements with the forms of public scholarship discussed in chapter 10 and elsewhere. In these middle chapters, the authors make a number of noteworthy observa­tions: holistic graduate program admissions processes should minimize the use of unreliable indicators of future performance, like GRE scores; funding based on “merit” rather than need perpetu­ates inequities; portfolios could substitute for exams to cultivate expertise, without becoming academic hazing rituals; dys­functional single-adviser models could give way to collaborative mentoring techniques; insufficient compensation and low status con­ferred upon teaching (particularly in the sciences) has far-reaching consequences; and the traditional dissertation limits what forms scholarship can take, so widen­ing the possibilities could qualify graduates to pursue work in a range of sectors.

Some “rehabilitation” around doctoral studies and applied research exists already at institu­tions in the Carnegie classification categories R2 (doctoral universi­ties with high research activity) and D/PU (doctoral/professional universities), yet most founda­tions have not invested as much in such institutions as they have in R1s (doctoral institutions with very high research activity). It’s worth speculating why that is, and why many public universities and nonelite privates increasingly face pressure to expand doc­toral program offerings, without commensurate funding available to support the research of their faculty and graduate students.

Ultimately, this book prompts questions about the virtues of “returning to normal”; however, cruising toward a “new normal,” in which the promotion of career diversity justifies doctoral edu­cation as a means of exploring nonacademic options, raises other contradictions. For starters, deeper research and more perspective on shifting professional expectations are required: placement outside academia existed prior to and during the post–World War II tenure boom and subsequent bust; more recently, underrepresented scholars have been routinely and disproportionately encouraged to pursue alternative academic or “alt-ac” careers as a result of systemic discrimination. Tell­ingly, most PhDs without faculty positions do not regret attending graduate school, despite the dif­ficulties they have encountered. In fact, those who did not become professors report higher job sat­isfaction than those “making it” into the professoriate.

Cassuto and Weisbuch, who assert support for unions, dis­regard the fact that most recent organizing activity calls for greater social equity, not just for better employment conditions for faculty and better learning conditions for students. Many activists question why foundations and universities celebrate the legacy of Gilded Age imperialists, industrialists, and other moguls (including Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Wood­row Wilson, Michael Bloomberg, and the Koch family) as “philan­thropists.” When the coauthors criticize ranking systems but then offer as a counterweight a “public service” that might function as a Yelp for graduate students, “a national website that rates (not ranks) programs and graduate schools”—imagining that specific rating “categories can provide an agenda for foundations to reward or incentivize graduate schools and their departments in particu­lar areas”—they raise potential concerns about academic freedom, which should take priority no matter what forms corporate or donor influence may take.

Notwithstanding the points mentioned above, this book engagingly portrays the work of conscientious administrators and dedicated professional association staff, suggesting that participa­tion in governance cultivates skills vital to civic life and graduate training. The authors occasion­ally conjure the specter of “faculty recalcitrance,” which they asso­ciate with “snare” rather than shared governance, but they also document paternalistic practices (for example, graduate students not being invited to participate in decision-making). Moreover, the costs to the profession of widespread reliance on contingent faculty exacerbate the stalemates in doctoral reform, blunting the impact of foundation-supported initiatives and contributing to declines in professional associa­tion membership.

When the coauthors note that “the American university has enshrined the idea of academic freedom, but it has proved less comfortable with the idea of academic responsibility,” it sug­gests to me that beyond careers, there needs to be more “care” about the harm caused to those historically underrepresented in the academic profession. Since the first American PhD was granted at Yale University in 1861 (the same year as Lincoln’s inauguration, the Battle of Bull Run, and the start of the Civil War), doctoral educa­tion’s value in our democracy has been debated without an inclusive action plan. Moving forward, administrators, faculty, and graduate students need to sustain academic freedom’s fullest range of possibilities, in ways that defy nos­talgia for higher education as we have known it and the danger of settling upon a “new normal” that flattens the curve of intellectual curiosity. While many readers may not agree with some of the authors’ claims in what they refer to as the “melancholy history of graduate school reform,” most will concur with their conclusion about ruling out one option: inaction.

Tina M. Kelleher is a lecturer at Towson University, where she has taught in English, gender and women’s studies, and computer and information sciences. She has been involved in the AAUP for more than a decade, serving in a variety of roles at the local and na­tional levels. Her email address is tkelleher@towson.edu.

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