Sunday, September 16, 2007

To the nth degree UPDATED

You will be stunned to learn that I found Duke professor Alice Kaplan's account of life in Paris as a scholar of French history and literature a worthwhile read. Replace "Paris" with "Tel Aviv," or better yet, "Paris AND Tel Aviv," and that's my dream life. I find it hard to believe anyone would read her article and not think how amazing it would be to spend one's days doing research at the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporain and taking breaks for the city's best espresso. And maybe this is, in fact, everybody's dream life.

In other academic news, Jacob Levy weighs in on the Times story about the rise of the unfunded MA program. I agree that there is a problem with these programs re: social mobility, although my sense is that people whose main concern is escaping from an impoverished childhood rarely go on to any humanities or social sciences grad program, funded or not, doctoral or MA. It is possible to support yourself on a grad stipend -- so studying Renaissance poetry is not in the same category as being a competitive horseback rider -- but supporting anyone else would be another story. But... just because life isn't fair does not mean it cannot be made more fair. But how?

As for the fact that some kind of graduate degree is often necessary to get the jobs one seeks as a recent college grad, is the answer better-funded graduate degrees? A system (as in Belgium and, if I understand correctly, Canada) in which an MA is often the degree for which one goes to university? Or is the problem the liberal arts degree itself? Should education from 18-22 be centered on future employability? Perhaps, if four years of 'learning to think' often mean a few more years getting credentials without which employers will assume you incapable of thought.


Via the ever-useful Arts & Letters Daily, Yale prof Anthony Kronman says the exact opposite of my last suggestion above. He suggests that college students should spend more time learning the meaning of life (which is...?) and less being channeled into professions. College, he argues, should be time spent free from practical concerns, with Plato and Hegel rather than marketing and communications. He attributes the lack of universal enthusiasm for a 'Great Books' education to political correctness, to campuses where anti-colonialist gender studies now dominate. This probably has some truth to it, although the appeal of more practical majors is far more threatening to such a program than is an opportunity to read texts through a gender lens. The 'dead white men' argument is hardly the best against an overly involved liberal-arts education. Once they have gone far in figuring out the meaning of life, once they have had the admittedly exciting experience of finding the works of Rousseau and J.S. Mill decipherable... where are these humanities majors going to find jobs, let alone make it into the "leadership class"? Or is he really just referring to the three schools from which one can graduate and, the idea is, find work on the basis of the school's name?


Jacob T. Levy said...

although my sense is that people whose main concern is escaping from an impoverished childhood rarely go on to any humanities or social sciences grad program, funded or not, doctoral or MA.

True-- if it's your *main* concern you go to law school-- but the ability to make financial progress upward can still be a consideration. I write in part out of my own sense that a mandatory $30,000 MA degree between the BA and the PhD would have killed my ability to go to grad school cold. The stipend didn't *maximize* my income in my 20s, but it made grad school a conceivable option.

Phoebe said...

I think we agree on this--the stipend makes grad school possible in a vast number of cases in which it would not be otherwise. I wonder, though, how much a prior MA is mandatory for admissions to PhD programs (neither I nor most of my classmates came in with MAs); my sense both from the Times article and in general is that an MA is (seen as) necessary for finding a good, high-paid job outside of academia.

Miss Self-Important said...

Is this MA racket really that different than the investment in law school, which also offers very little financial aid? You go into debt, then you land a $100K+ job and easily pay it off. At least, that seems to be the case with the people interviewed for the NYT article. If that's the case, then what need is there to fund these programs? However, I had always been under the impression at Chicago that MAPH and MAPSS students were PhD rejects who weren't ready to give up on their academic ambitions. Aren't rejected applicants to the grad schools automatically offered admission to the MA program?

Incidentally, you seem to be in a minority of one in your belief that grad school is not a calling. The majority of my commenters have implied that my contingency plan to drop out if grad school goes badly is simply evidence that I am not of the elect. There is no Halfway Covenant in academia, evidently.

Phoebe said...

It does seem from ample anecdotal evidence that Chicago accepts people it turns down for PhD programs to MAPH or MAPSS; who knows if it accepts all people who apply, but anything's possible. I think it's only automatic in that, when you apply to Chicago, you can check a box that you're willing to be considered for an MA and a PhD, so it is possible to get into a program you never explicitly applied for. This seems to be true at other schools as well, and I can't imagine it's literally open admissions for a terminal MA.

As for the other point... Part of why I haven't seen academia as a calling is that, to stay calm, for the first year I had to keep a certain amount of psychological distance from the future/career aspect of it all. When you have yet to take an MA exam, or even to know your grades for the first semester, or to teach a class, it seems silly to answer questions like, 'So, are you going to be a professor?'

Miss Self-Important said...

I read parts of the Kronman book. They were lame. But I don't understand your argument against a liberal arts education when you in fact had one. Are you wishing you'd had the option of majoring in packaging?

Phoebe said...

"But I don't understand your argument against a liberal arts education when you in fact had one. Are you wishing you'd had the option of majoring in packaging?"

At this moment, no, but at others, yes. Chicago's fantastic preparation for grad school; when I was working on apps and looking for a job for my year off, I would very much like to have had some more practical credential. Friends from Chicago and schools similar to Chicago -- elite but not enough so to impress every last employer -- have found themselves in similar situations. This is where, for those not interested in academia (and thus a funded grad program), who are without a trust fund, a law degree or MA starts to look like a good idea.

Miss Self-Important said...

This seems like too vague a complaint to me. What does a practical credential consist of? If what you want straight out of college is a lot of money, then Chicago does a good job placing grads in banking or consulting, no matter their major. People in these industries don't seem too concerned that you studied Latin or whatever for four years, as long as you have evidence of some quantitative skills (a few econ and stat classes are probably sufficient). If you want to go into media/publishing, getting a job is primarily about networking, not prior skills. Primary and secondary education require a liberal arts degree, so it can't be a setback there. Other industries--law, medicine, academia, etc.--require graduate degrees that Chicago prepares you to work toward. What's missing that Chicago should provide? It could probably benefit from a teacher certification program, I think (something more general than UTEP) and it could definitely use a better career services program, but aside from these things, I don't see huge problems with Chicago's career preparation. Students know going in what they're getting into. If they want to major in packaging, the option exists at state schools. American higher ed in general offers a lot of specific job preparation, but that need not mean that every single school should offer every job preparation program under the sun.

Phoebe said...

I should backtrack a bit and point out that a more pre-profession BA was only one of my ideas as to how the unfunded-MA dilemma could be solved. I think your (Rita's) suggestion that Chicago improve its career services is a better one than my implicit one, that it offer degrees in air-conditioner repair. But as for the ease of getting into banking regardless of major, I'm not sure where econ and statistics classes would fit, given the number of courses you need for your major and the Core, so econ is in a way the real pre-professional degree. But I'm sure it's possible. Here's where I disagree: "If you want to go into media/publishing, getting a job is primarily about networking, not prior skills." While this is largely true, schools with journalism/communications majors have departments dedicated to bringing about such opportunities for those with an interest in those fields. Whether such students end up shortchanged academically in other areas is another story.

Miss Self-Important said...

That's true; I guess banking prefers econ majors. But we have that option. (Although if you take four classes every quarter, you can easily fit in a minor's worth of classes outside your major and likely a second major. Writing two BAs, of course, is a different story.)

However, I don't see how a communications degree offers any intrinsic employment advantage in media versus a real humanities degree. (Wtf is communications anyway? Watered-down English?) If the advantage lies in the school's ability to provide students with internship and networking opportunities, then that's really what schools should focus on, not creating meaningless majors.

CAPS's media job placement services are a disaster. They didn't even know what publishing was when I talked to them last winter. They told me to collect clips. But they could do students a huge service by sponsoring more media internships or subsidizing internships that students find on their own, since media internships are usually unpaid. There are a lot of Chicago alumni in journalism and publishing. CAPS needs to find these people and hook students up with them. None of these changes require offering courses in "Cross-cultural Communication."