academic wysiwyg, cont. (74)

Sun, 30 Apr 89 19:29:58 EDT

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 910. Sunday, 30 Apr 1989.

Date: Sat, 29 Apr 89 19:28:44 EDT
From: Brian Whittaker <BRIANW@YORKVM2>
Subject: Re: academic wysiwyg, cont. (93)

Like all advice, recomendations on how to choose a graduate school are easy to
make, if only because those giving the advice don't have to live with the
consequences. Moreover, the candidate would do well to remember that the theme
of appearance and reality operates as profoundly in the world of graduate
school as it does in renaissance literature.

I did my undergraduate work in one of the older universities on this continent,
with its full share of grand old scholars whose names are still spoken with
respect, and I did my graduate work at one of the newer universities which
still had its reputation to make. Nonetheless, I found some similarities.
First of all, I found in both schools that among the generation of academics
now over sixty, most of the really big names only had MAs, whereas the less
illustrious were more likely to have doctorates. Once upon a time the real hot
shots were hired before completing their degrees and prefered to get on with
writing a real book rather than a thesis. This paradox characterizes an older,
almost mythic age of the university that current doctoral candidates think of
not without a touch of the cardinal sin of envy.

The present age has its own paradoxes as well, not the least of which is the
wandering wood of the annual bibliographies. Every school, alas, has a
larger contingent than it would like to admit of professors who neither learn
nor teach, at least not as far as anyone can tell, and the latter incapacity
may embrace inability to teach students in the classroom or peers in the
scholarly press; incapacity can be very versatile indeed. Scanning the
bibliographies can be a useful way of determining if a department is totally
inert, but such a determination would require very thorough searching indeed.
(Proving that NOTHING is happening requires a more exhaustive methodology
than proving that something is happening.) The real paradox of publication,
however, is that some of the very best scholars publish at long intervals
because of the time required for profound research, whereas some of the less
impressive scholars have had to earn their job security by maintaining a
constant flow of mediocrity. I am not suggesting that all (or even most)
prolific academics are churning out mediocrity, but I am suggesting that
quantitative impressions gained from a quick scan of an annual bibliography
may be misleading.

Finally, a cautionary tale. Some years ago, I knew some people in a field
remote from my own who had the misfortune to work with a professor who
was prolific almost beyond belief, producing at least one article a month
and sometimes more. Each paper, moreover, was of the highest quality in a
particularly difficult field. One reason for his output was that he never
appeared in the classroom, although he was assigned a full teaching load. Nor
did he plan his evasions in advance. When it was time for one of his classes
he would look into the labs and order one of his graduate students off to
give the lecture for that hour. Of course, he didn't bother meeting with or
supervising his graduate students, beyond insisting that they put in full
attendance in his lab (for obvious reasons). Their general consensus was that
that they learned absolutely nothing from him, and the constant threat of
being dispatched on five minutes' notice to give lectures (sometimes in
subjects they had not studied themselves) made it difficult for them to teach
themselves much of anything. However, his influence in his field was such that
he would get their theses published somewhere, no matter how bad, and his
reference would guarantee them jobs somewhere. While this was an extreme case,
I doubt that many have gone through graduate school without encountering at
least one professor whose scholarly output was built on the exploitation of
graduate students.

Brian Whittaker.