Friday, January 16, 2004


Graduate Student Attrition and the Question of Blame

So, graduate student attrition rates are the topic du jour in the blogosphere. I’ve spent the better part of an hour navigating from site to site, reading a lot of opinions. Some excellent criticism has been made, but there are also some seriously sour grapes out there.

Let me address the excellent criticism first. I’ve been complaining about the number of students allowed into the program at my present institution pretty much since the year after my arrival, when a decision was made to more than double the number of admissions from the year before. I assume that this was done in part because the number of undergraduate admissions had gone up, and somebody had to teach all those additional sections of freshman composition. The professors in the department have never really discussed it. That they realize the necessity of a large pool of graduate students to guarantee (1) that they are allowed to continue to teach—or rather moderate, since very few seem to do more than preside over graduate student presentations—and (2) that they not have to teach the dreaded freshman composition is quite clear. I confess myself guilty of the second desire—I never want to teach freshman composition again—ever. As far as teaching graduate seminars, I would be happy not to teach graduate students at all, but if I do land a job at a school with a graduate program, you can be damned sure I will be teaching the class, not listening the students deliver presentations on things they are not yet expert on. Just today, I was asked by an undergraduate class to lecture rather than having them work on questions in groups—that, I was reminded, was why they had chosen to come to class that day: to have the expert guide them through the text. I had simply wanted to give them a break from listening to me drone on, but that was not what they wanted. So, I lectured.

Yes, the institution, from the individual professor to the department straight up to the university administration, is to blame for this problem. I find John Bruce’s (I always want to say Jack Bruce, but he’s the bassist from Cream) suggestion that a class-action lawsuit be filed an attractive one. Graduate school, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is a bit of a scam. But most of us know it’s a scam, and we seek admission willingly. Those who are not aware of this are woefully uninformed. Unlike a fellow blogger, I would instead use the phrase caveat emptor. Here comes the conservative side of my personality: it’s the individual’s responsibility to find out what he or she is actually purchasing. I entered the Ph.D. program realizing that I was (1) allowing myself to be exploited as cheap labor for the English department, and (2) that what I was purchasing was about a 40% chance of getting a tenure-track job in my field (I believe that is the current percentage—I have not checked in a couple of years). I also knew more than enough ABDs to realize that many people—through the fault of their program, their committee, or through their own fault—never completed their dissertation. From this point-of-view, suing the university is like suing McDonald’s because you’re overweight.

Yet I’m still enough of a lefty to want justice to be done in this instance, regardless of the fact that people are stupid enough—and I include myself in this—to purchase the lottery ticket which is graduate school. A severe house-cleaning, perhaps. But I’m not so sure about the lawsuit.

Yet there is a fact that remains unstated in a number of these blogs and the comments sections. In increasing the number of graduate students admitted, the quality of the graduate student also drops. That has been true at the institution I am currently attending, it is true at the institution where I pursued my MA, and it was true at the schools I taught at when I was an adjunct. To provide a more-or-less objective example, the qualification exam pass rate at my current institution has dropped considerably in the years I have been here.

Let me provide a brief description of the exam, so it is clear what I am talking about. The qualification exam is a three-part essay exam. There is a section on British literature up through 1789, British literature from 1789, and American literature. The exam reading list has undergone only small variations in the time I have been here, and is thus well-known to students from the day they begin the program. While some professors have added their own little obscure favorite texts to the list, it is surprising canonical. I would think any well-prepared undergraduate—and certainly someone who had gotten high enough GRE to gain admission—should have little trouble passing the test, and spending some time with the non-canonical works should pretty much guarantee a passing score.

In the past, one or at most two students may have failed a single section of the exam each year, but in recent years, this number has risen. The exam itself hasn’t changed—the same questions, with only minor modifications, have been asked since at least four years before I arrived. They are very broad—as you may imagine—and don’t require much in the way of secondary criticism. Basically, you just use a selection of the works you read to illustrate some major point. It’s not particularly difficult, unless you’ve come into the program poorly prepared.

And poorly prepared these new admissions are. So poorly prepared that after much whining and crying about how difficult the exam was, a group of students managed to have the exam changed from being administered in a single day to be administered over two days; having to write three essays in the course of a single day was too anxiety inducing for these new students. Shockingly—at least to me—whining actually had the effect of making the test easier.

The quality of student work in seminars has also dropped. This is the origin of one of my gripes about theory. I’ve taken courses with people who basically write the same paper for every seminar they take, merely changing the primary text or texts being examined. These students appear to have mastered the construction of a single reading, and then apply it with a few variations to any book they pick up. As students of British and American literature, they really don’t measure up, as they know very little about British and American literature. I would not hire them to teach survey courses, for example. You need to know something about the historical context in which a piece of literature was written and the continuity—or lack thereof—that exists between the various eras of British and American literature. This is the knowledge base of our profession. Without this knowledge base, the granting of a degree—even a BA, to my way of thinking—is taking part in a lie.

The point of all the blogging over the last few days seems to be the placement of blame. I’m not sure this is as simple as some would have it. Yes, universities and departments are guilty of using graduate students to meet their budgets and of demonstrating a considerable lack of concern for their future success. I have seen this at my own institution, but I have been very lucky in this respect. I would not trade my dissertation advisor for the greatest scholar in my field, and the rest of my committee, though often busier with things other than my dissertation than I would like, is genuinely concerned with my success and my future as a scholar. Yes, they profit from my labor, in that they are not required to teach composition, but they put in their dues the same as I, and are quite sympathetic to what a complete pain in the ass teaching composition is.

But, in my experience, there are those who leave graduate school because they are not cut out to be graduate students. Grand success as an undergraduate does not guarantee success as a graduate student. This is particularly true, in my experience, of people who attended small liberal arts colleges. Graduate school requires you to be a self-starter—it requires you to take a great deal of responsibility for your own education. You are, after all, at least 22 years old by the time you enter graduate school. Expecting to have someone hold your hand—even your advisor—strikes me as rather childish. This is not your advisor’s job. If you’re not prepared to take this degree of responsibility—professionally or emotionally—chances are you are going to wind up as a negative statistic in the 50% attrition rate. Good Lord—if you expect to be allowed to teach courses in your field—literature courses, not composition courses—then you had better have some idea of how to prepare yourself to stand up in front of students and display expertise.

Obviously, my above response largely avoids the question of theory, and the asinine assumption of many professors that graduate students must engage in theory, even those who prefer to be students of literature instead. Certainly we must be familiar with theory; contrary to the opinions of foolish ideologues elsewhere, I have mastered theory. I spent several years enamored of it, before discovering its many, many flaws. Like it or not, graduate students are required to understand theory. I have no problem with this. I simply think that a class in theory should also contain a strong critique of theory. But, like it or not, it is a part of literary studies, the same as Philip Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry,” or other works people dread being required to read. If you are student of literature, then you should be required to understand the history of literary criticism, even those schools of criticism that strike you as idiotic.

But, I do agree with those who complain that they should not be forced to adopt a theoretical stance that they do not agree with, or, indeed, any theoretical stance. It is sad that many good students of literature have been driven out of programs because they refuse to adopt theory, and even sadder that many professors and graduate students have simply accepted it as fact that no good student of literature will not adopt a theoretical position. This is ideological totalitarianism, and its practicers need to be admonished. If admonishment does not cure the problem, these professors need to be dismissed from their positions. Graduate students unable to master the primary subject matter of their field—in this case, literature—should be required to do so.

In any case, the present situation is, for many reasons, unacceptable. But I refuse to feel sorry for all those who have decided to leave their graduate programs.

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