The Graduate School Mess

Leonard Cassuto, an English professor, has given us the latest critique of American higher education in his The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015). In this analysis of admissions, teaching, comprehensive examinations, advising, dissertations, and other aspects of doctoral education, Cassuto offers a stinging rebuke of higher education. Experienced faculty will find an astute assessment of what they mostly have known, and administrators, if they take the time to read the book, might find much to contemplate. The author tackles the heart of the problem right from the start – “The notion that graduate school is a specialized training ground for future professors has been untenable for more than two generations” (p. 2). No one reading the book will walk away unconvinced of this problem.

Of course, one’s perspective of the book will depend on what discipline and part of the university they labor in. Cassuto writes from the vantage of the humanities, “because,” he states, “they’re the proverbial canary in the coal mine” (p. 3). Cassuto argues that the length of completion times have become excessive, often over a decade, in preparation for jobs that do not exist. Other fields have different experiences to report, such as my own where we have had a shortage of qualified faculty and many other professional opportunities for those acquiring doctorates. While Cassuto makes comparisons to other fields, many in the academy might feel as if it is not strong enough and perhaps the book should have been titled to reflect a focus on the humanities. Nevertheless, the book should be read and discussed.

There are several aspects worth careful consideration. Cassuto’s comments on the lengthy time it takes to finish humanities dissertations seem spot on, arguing that too many are trying to write these as books (at a time when many scholarly presses have curtailed what they publish). The author bluntly states that this is a “mistake,” but it is one that is so ingrained in academic culture that it will be difficult to shake. Cassuto also is excellent in his commentary on the responsibilities given to doctoral students, to learn to become professors by serving as underpaid faculty with little authority or options. In considering this Catch-22 situation, universities dependent on doctoral students who generally have little hope for securing permanent and/or better paid positions, the author considers this to be an ethical issue: “The collective academic obsession with qualifications has caused us to lose track of an ethical issue of great pragmatic importance: time to degree” (p. 170). But he reveals that the ethical quandary goes far beyond just the years involved in the completion of degrees; his commentary on student debt and shallow job market are also part of this sordid picture.

As the title promises, Cassuto offers many ideas about how to fix the problems he investigates. His comments on restructuring the dissertation and providing much more professional preparation for doctoral students are solid, although how an entrenched faculty loaded down by tradition might rally to tackle such issues seems a stretch. His ideas about shifting the focus on research to one that is more balanced with teaching and other activities reflect some of the better notions that have been offered up by others over recent decades. Cassuto’s reflection on the purpose of the university, with the need to reach out beyond the academy to form new partnerships that will benefit graduate students, is an effort to demonstrate the extent of the crisis that is now facing higher education. Again, Cassuto finds the nature of a new purpose for higher education in its need for a “new ethic” (p. 210). This will, he argues, require university faculty and administrators to look more closely at themselves and their assumptions and practices.

It may be difficult for individuals like myself, tenured and at the end of their careers, to tackle such challenges. At the least, however, I can encourage some of my own students to read this book and advise them about how to consider other career options. It fits neatly on the shelf with other critiques of higher education offered up former university presidents such as Derek Bok and an array of faculty such as Michael Berube and Louis Menand. Still, it is hard to be optimistic. Cassuto’s consideration of the business model of the university, and how it does not really work as a societal mission reveals how deep in a hole we have dug ourselves. Movements to reform can be ignited by individual departments and universities, but it will be quite a struggle to have much impact.


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