Wednesday, March 04, 2020

A Voice in the Hinterlands

Sharon O'Dair wrote "The Lies Graduate Programs Tell Themselves" recently over at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I'm sure O'Dair is absolutely right in some of her analysis, especially in recognizing that graduate school acceptances for PhD programs are driven by the needs for cheap labor to teach introductory and writing courses.

And yet I can't help but feel my hackles rise when I read the following sentence:
The decades-long overproduction of Ph.D.s has spilled highly trained graduates of elite programs into assistant professorships in the hinterlands, "places like East Podunk University or West Jesus State College," as Jeffrey J. Williams memorably put it in 1995.
Does she not think that students at schools in rural areas or the Midwest (which is what I think she's after with her "hinterlands" comment) deserve to be taught by highly trained graduates?  Or is it graduates of elite programs?  (Surely she doesn't think only elite programs produce highly trained graduates.)

Who does she think should teach at our schools?  Unqualified people?  People who didn't go to elite schools?

Well, [expletive deleted] that.  My students deserve great scholar/teachers every bit as much as anyone from whatever elite university you can think of.

NWU also benefits from the abundance of stellar graduates from PhD programs.  We don't tend to get many applicants from Grand Old Ivy type places, but we get really superb applicants from public R1s.  And that means we have highly trained graduates coming to become highly trained assistant professors, and developing into associate professors and so forth.  Even our non-tenure track  colleagues tend to be pretty darned amazing.

If PhD programs all agreed to accept only 10% of the students they currently do, we'd have troubles down the line.  But at 50%, we'd probably still be in great shape.

I'm guessing economically, the only ways R1s could do that would be by increasing the teaching loads of faculty or by hiring even more non-tenure track faculty.  So, R1 folks, you can make that choice.  Everyone teach an extra class or two a semester, and cut your grad program acceptances in half.  (No worries for O'Dair, since she's retired.)

I'm in total agreement that PhD programs should produce fewer graduates.  And yet, I don't want that to happen at the expense of people such as myself or my students.  As it is now, I'd be willing to bet that 90% of the PhD students in English at Yale or Harvard come from pretty elite educational backgrounds.  They don't come from places such as NWU.  And if PhD programs reduce their graduate student acceptances by cutting off people from less elite undergraduate schools, then that seems totally wrong.

But whatever happens, don't think that just because we don't live on the coasts or live more rurally that we're somehow less worthy of educational opportunity than someone from a coastal or more urban (or, really, suburban) area.


  1. That bugged me a lot, too. A LOT. If the purpose of a Ph.D. program is to produce more scholars who will teach in top-ranking programs in the fanciest parts of the country, then...what happens to the rest of the country? Obviously the system as it is is a mess, but I don't think that the biggest problem is that new faculty might only get jobs in the Midwest (or whatever else the "hinterlands" refers to). The problem is the lack of jobs, full stop. And yes, we could do more to make *positions* equitable (it is much easier, professionally, to be in my current R1 position than when I was at an unknown school with no colleagues in my field, lots of teaching, and limited resources--I seem to be more immediately "recognized" now and have access to some opportunities that I lacked before), but that problem is, in part, simple snobbery on behalf of academics. And part of the solution to *that* problem is to STOP USING TERMS LIKE "PODUNK U."

    OK must get back to class. Thanks for posting on this!

  2. So, so true! And so needing to be widely heard!