A Different Diversity

Following on Carl Edgar Blake II’s description of his abilities, let’s go back to the question of whether faculty in higher education ought to have doctorates, whether doctoral study in some form roughly resembling its present structure is the best kind of training for undergraduate-level teachers or academic researchers.

The research part of this question is easy: yes, at least until the nature of scholarship itself changes in some substantial form. (And there’s yet another issue for another day.) The fit between scholarship as practiced in a dissertation (however long it takes to research and write it) and the vast majority of scholarly work across the disciplines is close.

For teaching? For stewardship over a curriculum? Perhaps the fit is not so precise. Going back to Michael Bérubé’s address on the situation of the humanities in academia, the issue of how a department (in the humanities or any other subject) might train graduate students to do other things besides be professors if all the people in that department are professors who were trained to be professors. Louis Menand’s recent talk at Swarthmore remarked on the same problem, with Menand concluding that he couldn’t imagine how to advise or teach a graduate student who wanted to apply her degree to a profession outside of academia, even while he conceded that it is increasingly urgent that graduate programs have this kind of flexibility.

This Catch-22 sentiment is a common one. I hear it even at Swarthmore and other small liberal-arts colleges: the coupling together of a belief that any course of study can lend itself to any kind of working future (indeed, any kind of manner of living life) but that professors usually don’t have the training or knowledge to advise students about any specific profession except for academia itself.


Let’s start with that claim before asking what, if anything, needs to change about graduate training. When this point is made defensively (as I think it was in Menand’s talk), it’s troubling. It brutally undercuts one of the most common claims about the “liberal arts” as an ideal: that they enable students to learn how to learn, to become active agents in interpreting and imagining the world, to acquire knowledge as needed and wanted. If in fact this is true, how can it be that the faculty who teach within a liberal arts approach are incapable of enacting the supposed virtues of that course of study? Such that they cannot be expected to understand professions outside of academia or help a student see connections between what they have studied in college and their future aspirations or goals?

There is a legitimate point that we can make more carefully. I cannot really advise students about careers in museums, development organizations, non-profit community groups, carpentry or graphic design (for a few examples) if the advice a student is seeking from me is about the specific conditions of employment and specific ‘insider culture’ of those professions unless I just happen to have studied them in my own scholarship or have had past professional involvement with them. (In the latter case, that’s probably only useful if I’m a relatively junior faculty member.) The only job market where I have valuable insider knowledge is the academic job market.

But that shouldn’t be an excuse to shoo away a potential advisee. Because I do have two things I can help the student with. First, I should be able to help a student see how their own studies give them potential insight into the kind of work (or in other cases, the sort of living) done in any given field. If I can’t help a student see how their work in a history major can give them useful ideas about how to approach museum exhibition or advertising or law enforcement, I’m not much of a teacher, nor am I living up to the typical argument for a “liberal arts” approach to education. Second, if I can’t sit down with my student and learn together some of what there is to know out there about the “insider culture” of a given profession, find some contacts (maybe alumni, maybe faculty, maybe staff, maybe none of the above) and thus give the student a much clearer and more focused agenda when they do find themselves talking to a career advisor, I’m also not doing a great job as an advisor and teacher. I should be able to show students how to learn and understand what they want to learn and understand whether or not it’s my own area of specialized knowledge, because that’s what we claim our students are learning how to do.

It’s just that it is easier to do for an area where I have more knowledge and experience, and the texture and detail of my advice in those cases will be richer and deeper. When we’re busy, we naturally emphasize trying to match any questions to the person best qualified to answer them. If I’m talking to a student who wants to be a civil engineer, it’s inefficient for me to spend a lot of time acquiring the spot knowledge to help them get to the next step of that goal when there are a bunch of engineers on the other side of the garden at the back of my building. But if I’m talking with a history major who is interested in careers in design and technology and wants to know how history might help inform that future, I should have a bunch of ideas and suggestions readily at hand. It’s only when we get down to brass tacks like, “So what kinds of previous experience or graduate education do entry-level employees in product design typically have?” that I need to say, “Ok, I’m not the best person to ask.”


The question then becomes, does academia need more people who are the best people to ask about a wider range of life experiences and careers? Large research universities with professional schools often do have a bigger range of other kinds of training and experience within their faculty, quite intentionally so in many cases. Small liberal-arts colleges usually don’t: the primary training and work experience of most faculty is academic from beginning to end. When a faculty member has spent time doing other work prior to commencing doctoral study, that often doesn’t figure as much as it could in how the community knows that person and how that person produces knowledge and interpretation within the community.

Not long before he died, my father asked me if it was possible for a successful lawyer with long experience like him to teach the last five or ten years of his working life. I said that it might be that some law schools would be interested, but probably not if he did not already have a connection to them and not if he hadn’t done some form of legal scholarship in his field of expertise. I also thought that there were community colleges that might be interested, and in fact, he had taught a few courses in that setting already. I think he would have been a great teacher in almost any setting: I could easily see him teaching a course on law or labor relations in a college like Swarthmore.

So why don’t we recruit someone like that more often to teach? There are some practical barriers. One-off courses taught by outsiders tend to dangle from the edge of an undergraduate curriculum, poorly integrated into the larger course of study. You can’t plan around taking such a course if you’re a student or directing students to such a course if you’re an advisor. Increasing the supply of such courses more steadily is a short road to adjunctification, which is especially corrosive to small teaching-centered residential colleges.

And if we had longer-term contracts aimed at recruiting this kind of “experiential diversity” in a faculty, how would we know what the content of a candidate’s experience and thinking amounted to? How would we be able to assess who could teach well in a typical liberal-arts environment? You wouldn’t be hiring someone to be a pre-professional trainer: you’d be looking instead for someone who could teach about the ideas, the problems, the open questions, in a broad domain of practice and knowledge. Hiring someone like my dad to teach “NLRB Regulations I” at a place like Swarthmore would be totally out of place with everything else the institution is doing. But a course like “An Insider’s Look at the Culture of Legal Practice in American Society, 1960-1995” might fit in perfectly. While I think he was a natural teacher, I don’t think he could have walked in off the street to teach a course like that any more than I could have walked into Swarthmore at the start of my first year of graduate school and taught a survey in African history.

If you set out to consciously diversify the range of experiences and training present in a typical liberal-arts faculty, you’d really have to be looking for and having an active preference for people like Toby Miller: compatible with and knowledgeable about the internal cultures and practices of academia, trained in some fashion close to the normal course of study, but with a much more wide-ranging set of previous experiences and a conscious dedication to using those experiences to provide a different angle or interpretation of “the liberal arts”.

Miller recounts his working history: “radio DJ, newsreader, sports reporter, popular-culture commentator, speech-writer, cleaner, merchant banker, security guard, storeman-packer, ditch digger, waiter, forester, bureaucrat, magazine and newspaper columnist, blogger, podcaster, journal editor, youth volunteer, research assistant, suicide counsellor, corporate consultant, social-services trainer, TV presenter and secretary”. If a candidate showed up in a job search for Swarthmore with that resume, I don’t think we’d actively discriminate against him if he had his i’s dotted and t’s crossed in a ‘normal’ form of graduate training. But we would neither see any of that past history as a qualifying asset likely to make the candidate a usefully different kind of teacher or advisor.

I’m as guilty of this perspective as anyone. Tenure-track hires are weighty decisions that can have consequences for thirty or forty years–and therefore tend to produce risk-adversity in even the most flighty or idiosyncratic person. Someone who has an innovative, edgy research project or teaching style but whose graduate training is otherwise familiar seems about as much of a risk as most of us want to take: hiring someone whose professional identity is as much vested in what they did before or outside of academia is often too unnerving unless the discipline in question has a particular preference or tolerance for certain kinds of outside-of-academia work (say, as in the case of economics). Considering that Toby Miller’s idiosyncratic path is partially what informs his sharp critique of the institutionalization of the humanities in American academia, it might be that that legitimate worries (“can this person teach? can they do well those things that we’re confident the institution should be doing?”) can’t easily get away from fears about what an outsider sensibility can do to an insider’s lifeworld.

I don’t underestimate the practical problems. I criticized Menand for saying that he can’t imagine how to advise anyone but an aspirant professor about their career choices, but here I’ll have to cop a similar plea. I can’t easily imagine in actual practice how we’d go about having a few Toby Millers by deliberate design rather than happy accident. But I can imagine that students, faculty and staff would benefit a lot if we could dream up a way to accomplish that objective.

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2 Responses to A Different Diversity

  1. Tony Grafton says:

    A secondary problem is that people (even Toby Miller) need PhDs if they’re going to teach. And it’s not just employers who fight shy of people with varied records. Many elite graduate programs in history–to stick with the field I follow from the inside–have also become more conservative in their admissions policies than they were back in the day, when they had more places per year and committed fewer resources to each student.

  2. Iosif says:

    Unfortunately some people are kinda forced to get a PhD. For instances, I am a psychologist. If I want to practice psychotherapy in the US, I must have a PhD. Which kinda sux.. There are many many countries where we do not need a PhD to be a psychotherapist..

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