Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Students as Such

I'm always glad to serve as a foil for Pat Thomson's stimulating "patter" about academic writing. In this case, the occasion is a post from February that she tweeted in response to Nick Hopwood's provocative "There is no such thing as a doctoral student." As Nick rightly points out in his response to Pat, doctoral students themselves often take offense at the label. Pat even shows the courtesy of referring to it as the s-word, acknowledging its almost slur-like status in these circles.

The reasons for dropping the s-word when referring to researchers at the doctoral level are well put by both Nick and Pat, and I'm not going to try to refute them. Instead, I'm going to offer a positive defense of the idea of treating doctoral students as exactly that. Perhaps, this will really only offer a foil for their remarks, a background against which they can shine. But hopefully also a context in which to think about the wisdom of promoting PhD students to status of peers before getting their degrees.

First, to take offense at being called a student is, of course, a slur against students. What's wrong with being a student? Should a BA or MA student feel somehow inadequate? How does getting an MA, or being enrolled in a doctoral program, get around the fact that this is a program that, like any other teaching program, is directed at inculcating necessary skills for a future career in research? At the end, you graduate. You earn a degree. And the dissertation and defense really is a final exam. There is absolutely nothing shameful about seeing your time in a doctoral program as an "education" in the formal sense of that term.

And this brings us to my second point. The label "student" is also a good way of putting the (very real) possibility of failure in perspective. Like any exam, you can fail your dissertation. But, like any course, failing an exam does not mean failing at life. It is just a way of finding out that you were not, after all, suited for the job. (On this, consider also Jonathan's ideas about alt-ac.) Since you are "only" a student, discovering that research isn't for you is just part of the process. By not insisting on calling PhD students students we are actually committing them too early to an identity as researchers. If they don't succeed, the resulting crisis becomes needlessly existential.

Finally, the role of the student stands in a reciprocal relationship to the role of the teacher. If there are no students in doctoral programs then there are no teachers either. But the idea of learning from people who already know the things that you want to learn remains entirely relevant at the doctoral level. You will want to seek out people who understand the theories you hope to use. You will want to learn methods from the relevant master craftsmen. Indeed, what is being lost by disparaging the very idea of a PhD "student" is the master-apprentice relationship, and by this means a great deal of the (often tacit) craft knowledge that constitutes every academic field.

In Denmark, this problem is quite advanced, and steps are in fact these day being taken to reverse the trend, creating more explicitly school-like environments for doctoral training. Most PhD students (myself included when I got mine) have long seen their entry into a doctoral program not so much the final phase of their formal training as their first research position. This has not had uniformly positive effects on the quality of the training they get before graduating, where they are too often left on their own, or, just as often, prefer to be by themselves, almost looking down on the very people they should be looking up to. Since they think of themselves as being at the beginning of their careers, they have the attitude of having gotten an "entry level" position in the university, and this makes them less choosy about their "teachers". The scare quotes often entirely obscuring the idea that they have something to learn from these people. Ultimately, less choosy means less respectful.

Universities have to re-assert themselves as institutions of higher learning. And one way to do this is to insist on the respect that the word "student" implies. They can't, to be sure, just demand that respect. But they must find a way to command it again. Otherwise we will no longer have a university that conserves knowledge. We will just have a place where smart people can be told how talented they are. They really are talented, of course. It's just that they also really do have a lot to learn.


Jonathan said...

Also, the use of "student" as " a person who takes an interest in a particular subject." Student as studier, as in "In this book I study the..."

Anonymous said...

This is what I get for international travel: jet lag that provokes thought about "things I do not think about" (a cheeky reference to the trial scene in Inherit the Wind).

I passed prelims in 1977 and was promoted from doctoral student to doctoral candidate. The status change was real and meaningful at the university. My pay went up and I had different reporting responsibilities about "my" progress, even though the working relationship with my mentor was unchanged. His expectations for my collaboration were governed by the facts that his research grant paid my salary and my productivity was intimately tied to his delivery of outputs to complete his grant. He gave me some slack when I was neck-deep in courses, but after I became a candidate I needed to recognize my obligations to our collegial relationship and put aside fun courses for real work.

So, to all the persons pursuing PhDs and who are offended by some implied denigration of status when they are called "student", I will call you what you deserve to be called. If you behave as a colleague, I shall refer to you as such. We will be on a mutual first-name basis. I will pay for you to attend professional conferences and to travel as a scholar-colleague. If you want to spend 6 years after prelim exams following your muse and reading everything that has been written on "your subject", you are a student. Not a colleague.

I have been a (choose one) dissertation supervisor, mentor, academic advisor, major professor, and/or co-author with 13 doctoral students. The latest finished two months ago. He was as much a colleague as any, since we co-taught courses and he has been co-PI on $1.3 million of research grants. He was a so-called mature student -- he says middle-aged -- and had serious obligations to be the CEO of his family business. Unlike some of the persons who whined about their status in the threads that you linked, Thomas, he relished student status and delivered what he must as a colleague. Status-laden identity was what he earned, not what he demanded.

In all cases, the 13 PhD students/researchers with whom I worked as research supervisor began as students. Most ended the doctoral program as colleagues. I learned a great deal from them; the apprenticeship was bi-directional. We still work together, even over vast distances. A few remained as students. They did not earn their putative status as researchers.

So, one grumpy old professor takes issue with the substance of this status-demanding conversation. Claim whatever title a doctorant wishes, but recognize that eventually the title will be conferred by others based upon performance, not on identity claims.