Monday, April 16, 2012

82. Teaching is moving online.

No matter what ambitions people may have when they enter graduate school, they are likely to find themselves looking for academic teaching positions when they leave (see Reason 29). With a future of teaching and research in mind, graduate students come to imagine that their lives will be quite different from those of the “cubicle drones” to whom they like to compare themselves. But an academic spends very long hours at his desk. Classroom teaching is the one aspect of his working life that looks fundamentally different from what an office worker does, and even that--dramatized by an unfortunate recent episode in Florida--has lost much of its charm (see Reason 65).

Traditional teaching, however, is increasingly being replaced by alternatives made possible by the Internet. Academic job announcements posted by all kinds of institutions now routinely include references to course management software, distance education, and “virtual learning environments.” Because of the enormous oversupply of PhDs (see Reason 55), people who once envisioned themselves lecturing in front of classrooms are being squeezed into teaching jobs in which much (if not all) of the “teaching” involves sitting at a computer. Even those jobs are scarce, and may become scarcer in the future as technological advancements allow fewer professors to teach more students. In Wired, Steven Leckart reports the prediction of Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun that in 50 years “there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education.” In 2011, Thrun and his colleague Peter Norvig offered an online version of a Stanford computer science course in which 160,000 students enrolled. Whether or not Thrun’s prediction proves to be accurate, technology has already turned a sizable share of college teaching into cubicle work (minus, perhaps, the cubicle). That share will only grow.

Monday, April 2, 2012

81. Comprehensive exams.

American doctoral programs are divided into three major components: courses, comprehensive or general exams ("comps" or "generals"), and the dissertation. Some programs include an extra step, a battery of qualifying exams that precede comprehensive exams. (When master's degree programs were more rigorous than they are now, their structure mirrored that of doctoral programs: courses, comps, and the master's thesis. Only a few master's programs still require all three. See Reasons 5 and 55.) Of the three components, exams are often the least understood by prospective graduate students. It is difficult to make generalizations about comprehensive exams, because they are handled so differently from one department to the next, even within the same university. In one program, you might have to pass four five-hour written exams over a period of weeks, in another, three six-hour exams over a period of days. Written exams are typically followed by oral exams. In some programs, a high percentage of students fail these exams and consequently have to end their graduate studies involuntarily. In other programs, faculty members don't allow students to take exams until they are confident that they will pass. Regardless of their form or pass-rate, comprehensive exams are designed to be intimidating.

Theoretically, your courses familiarize you with the major works and issues in your discipline, and then exams test your broad knowledge of the field before you're allowed to embark on the dissertation (a focused study of a specific issue within your field). Your courses, however, are not intended to prepare you for your comprehensive exams. On top of your coursework, plus any work obligations that you have as a research or teaching assistant, you are assigned an absurd amount of reading by the members of your faculty committee (see Reason 39). You are expected to prepare for your exams by reading and “mastering” this academic literature. 

In many cases, preparing for exams proves worse than actually taking them. Months of anxious anticipation and intensive study are accompanied by the unease of not knowing what, exactly, is most important to glean from your reading. Passing your comprehensive exams means "advancing to candidacy" and acquiring the dubious distinction of being ABD ("all but dissertation"). Because the exam phase is so draining and bears so little resemblance to what comes next, the achievement of passing can quickly turn bittersweet. Making the transition into the dissertation phase requires a jarring pivot from frantically consuming academic writing to frantically producing it. For many, the nerve-wracking experience of surviving comprehensive exams leaves them without the energy necessary to complete a dissertation (see Reason 60). It is safe to say that most of those who drop out of doctoral programs do so after passing their comprehensive exams (see Reason 46). Their ABD status does them little good anywhere, even within the walls of academe.