In this episode, host Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann talks to Dr. Leonard Cassuto and Dr. Robert Weisbuch about their book The New PhD (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021) and ways of reforming graduate education in the United States.
Len and Bob discuss the role faculty, senior university administrators and other entities within American higher education infrastructure can work toward meaningful actions and reform that can prepare PhD students for careers inside and outside the academy. Full audio transcript of this podcast is available below.
GIVEAWAY! We are also giving away a copy of the book The New PhD to one lucky listener. For a chance to win the book, please follow us on Twitter (@phdfuturesnow) and let us know what was your favorite part of this episode. Giveaway ends on June 02, 2021.
Dr. Leonard Cassuto
Leonard Cassuto is the author or editor of nine books on American literature and culture, most The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. He is the author of “The Graduate Adviser,” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Other recent books include The Cambridge History of the American Novel (General Editor, 2011), and The Cambridge Companion to Baseball (2011), winner of the Best Anthology Award from the North American Society of Sports Historians.
His Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories was nominated for the Edgar and Macavity Awards and named one of the Ten Best Books of 2008 in the crime and mystery category by The Los Angeles Times. Cassuto is also an award-winning journalist who writes on subjects ranging from science to sports, in venues from The New York Times to salon.com. His website is www.lcassuto.com.
Dr. Robert Weisbuch
Robert Weisbuch is former President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and of Drew University. Weisbuch received a B.A. from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. from Yale University. He spent 25 years at the University of Michigan, where he served as chair of the Department of English, associate vice president for research, associate dean for faculty programs, and interim dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. He then served as President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for seven years. In 2005, he became the eleventh President of Drew University.
Jason Mierek [Intro] 00:04
This is PhD Futures Now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity in graduate education in the humanities. This podcast is a project of Humanities Without Walls, a 16 University Consortium, headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann [Episode Introduction] 00:36
Today on PhD Futures Now we are joined by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch co authors of a new book entitled The New PhD, how to build a better graduate education published earlier this year by Johns Hopkins University Press. Len is a professor of American literature at Fordham University, and writes the graduate advisor column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which focuses on contemporary issues in American doctoral training and advising. He is also the author of the graduate school mess published by Harvard University Press in 2015.
Bob is the former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and served as the president of Drew University from 2005 to 2012. Len and Bob, welcome to the Humanities Without Walls Consortium, and thank you for joining us today on HWW’s new podcast series PhD Futures Now,
Leonard Cassuto 01:26
great to be here.
Bob Weisbuch 01:28
It’s not only great to be here, but we’re so glad that you exist as an organization, it’s so important that you’re doing what you’re doing and promulgating a more public face. For the humanities that goes right along with what we talk about in our book concerning PHB. Education generally, you are heroes.
Oh, well, thank you so much. I know that means a lot to both Deepthi and I think we wanted to start the conversation really easily and ask why this book and why now?
Why now? Well, this book could have come out in 1985. If people had been willing to read it, then… the issues that we are talking that we talk about in the new PhD or issues that have vexed graduate education for about 50 years, that’s five, zero 50 years. The the idea that we are training graduate students, for jobs that don’t exist, and even worse, training them to want those jobs above all others, that’s been going on for a really long time.
But in 1985, 1990, 1995, the, the faculty and the administrators of graduate programs, they didn’t really want to hear what we had to say in this book. And they, and the students probably didn’t either. In 1997, Elaine Showalter during her turn as president of the MLA, the Modern Language Association, dedicated her term to what we would now call career diversity. And she met with enormous resistance and was attacked. And the issue again, went away for a long time.
So we could say in this, if we look at this, historically, that the 2008 financial crash, though a disaster in so many ways, had at least one virtue, which is that it made it even more difficult to claim that things would be alright, if we were only willing to wait long enough for them to change back to the 1960s when for a brief period of time, there were more academic jobs, and there were PhDs to fill them. That was true only in the 1960s. But there’s been a there was a long lasting nostalgia for that time. Post 2008, that, that it became impossible to to look away from the fact that we were facing a new normal.
And you know, there’s an origin story to our book, that’s probably worth telling. And that underlines some of what Len just said, By the way, I graduated with a PhD in 1972. And, and the job crisis so called, which is no crisis, because it’s been going on for 50 years had already begun then. And and we’ve had our blips up and our blips down, but it really has been essentially the same situation for what is now half a century. That’s enraging, frankly, when you think about the lack of decisive action in regard to the shortage of professorial positions.
The story of our book begins with a report to the Mellon Foundation That is to say, about 2014 Earl Lewis, who was then the president of Mellon told me that we had worked together on PhD reform when I was the head of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in the 90s and early 2000s. And Earl said, you know, Bob, I just met with a group of graduate Deans, my gosh, they’re talking about the same issues that we were treating 15 years ago. And it’s as if it’s as if nothing was moved, nothing’s changed, no lessons have been learned. Could you write a report on all of the reforms that took place between about 1990 and 2005, at which point the reform effort went quieter, basically? And I said, Sure, but it’s, it’s Len Cassuto, who knows what’s going on now. We do better doing this together in Earl was delighted by that. And we wrote the report, but his story, the idea that it’s the same issues over and over again, decade after decade. And and as one wag put it in, in a book that the title of which I don’t remember, everyone knows what’s wrong. The question is, whether there is a will to do something about it.
The emphasis in our book, then, is not just on naming the problems, although we do try to amplify, bring them out, characterize them, investigate what’s what, what’s wrong at bottom. But but more our emphasis is on how are we going to fix this? How are we going to make this better in practical terms? What do we do next? And what we do next is decisively not talk and talk, but talk and then do, do in a timely fashion.
Wonderful, I think that that’s a good segue into our second question, and thinking through what are some of the things that might mark that things are changing. And I know Deepthi and I talked a little bit about this in the past, which is the role of faculty in all of this work. And in your book you discuss in a number of places that one of the primary barriers to reform is what we would call faculty resistance. Why do you think that’s the case? And what incentives do administrators and faculty have in leading these reforms on their campuses?
I would, I would think about two aspects of human nature, shared by faculty, but not exclusive to them. One of them is habit, that we are all creatures of habit, I wake up in the morning, I take the dogs out for a walk, then I have my coffee, etc, etc. anything goes wrong with that, I am discombobulated. So we are creatures of habit. As Len says, academia is even an exaggeration of habit of tradition, of not falling for one or another giddy scheme as K 12, sometimes does. So that’s a virtue to some extent. But it also makes it just just innately conservative in its practices, and what I think really adds to the habitual nature of things, and the stoppage in a way of innovation, is that we all know as faculty, we’ve lived through this, that once you start something, it’s very hard to get rid of it. So if you feel like whatever you’re voting to start is going to exist long after you’re gone, you’re going to be very careful about what you agree to do.
And so one of our emphases in the book is to say, we need to have sell by dates. That is to say, any innovation in doctoral education should not only be continuously considered, because you’re never going to get it all right from the start, you’re going to have to make adjustments along the way. But also, after a certain number of years, let’s say three or four, you’re really going to take a close look at what you’ve decided to do. And you’re either going to say, Hey, this is working great, let’s expand it. This is working well, let’s maintain it, or this really isn’t doing what we hoped it would do. We agree to stop it. And I think once faculty have the sense that you can pull the plug on something they might be more willing to plug in at the start.
The second sort of human attribute that I think is a difficulty for us in doctoral reform, is that we all project out of our own experience, very natural thing to do. So faculty tend to say, you know, this has been my life and this can be your life, but it can’t be in reality. And and at the worst, it looks like a Ponzi scheme, almost. The number of people who are going to lead the same life as their professors after getting a PhD is very small. And the failure rate if that’s what you take to be a success is well over 80%.
So we have to get faculty to understand that their experience is not normative. It’s it’s been extraordinary and that they were able to grab the brass ring that they are almost like the equivalent of Bernie’s 1%. Maybe it’s more like 10% or 20%. But it’s their experience is not what they should expect their students to enjoy. They have to get beyond themselves and not project their own experience.So we have to get faculty to understand that their experience is not normative. It's been extraordinary and that they were able to grab the brass ring that they are almost like the equivalent of Bernie's 1%. Maybe it's more like 10%… Click To Tweet
A phrase, a phrase that is in common common use in the last 10 years is alt-ac or alternative academic. We don’t much care for that phrase, because it implies that anything that is not an academic job is a second best alternative, a plan B. It also echoes Alt Right, which has its own problems. But the the fact that the fact is that if we were going for going to talk about what the “alt job” is, now, it’s academia, that if we look at the numbers for PhD graduates, the majority of them are doing are going to do things that are not academia.A phrase that is in common use in the last 10 years is alt-ac or alternative academic. We don't much care for that phrase, because it implies that anything that is not an academic job is a second best alternative, a plan B. But the… Click To Tweet
Our book has three headlines. Those three headlines are student centeredness, career diversity, and public and a public face for graduate education. To talk about student centeredness, is already an innovation. So I’m, I’m in interviewing some graduate students in Ireland right now. Because I’m investigating a program that University College Cork has been been put in place a few years ago, to help graduate students and postdocs, particularly in the sciences, make the transition from an academic way of thinking to a more career diverse way of thinking. And one of the one of the postdocs who I’ve been talking to, is particularly eloquent on this, I just want to read a couple of sentences that she from from a, something she told me recently. She said, one of one of the biggest takeaways from her change of mind, she said was, “I’m more than learning that I’m more than what my research defines me as. I guess I always thought my professional experience and value was predicated on the research that I had done. But [this Odyssey program that she had just gone through], helped to show me that there are values in doing a PhD and postdoc that go beyond what one researches in. It’s so easy to compartmentalize oneself in academia.” And she felt she said that “the Odyssey program at University College Cork, helped to open up the many opportunities that are out there to me.” So this isn’t the plug for the Odyssey program. The Odyssey program is breathtakingly simple. It’s a matter of giving graduate students a shot of reality, followed by a dose of hope.
But it is that the idea that you’re more than the specific subfield, you’re more than this specific knowledge that you create, when graduate students believe that their that their research is the sum total of who they are, then it then it will make them hard, it will make it hard for them to look at the world as a place of opportunity, instead of becomes a place of threat.
You know, we all I think we all have success stories. That is, in fact, the occasion of this book being published the new PhD, but many of my former PhD students to write to me, people, especially who had left academia for other other sectors, and and their stories are so similar in in a certain way, which is Yeah, I’m not. I’m not necessarily interpreting the poems of John Donne, in my job at the World Wildlife Federation at in this or that government agency and this or that philanthropy and this or that, pharmaceutical or whatever. But I can’t tell you how much everything I learned in graduate school comes into play every day, often, subtly, often not directly. You know, there was a study about 20 years ago, at Berkeley when Joe Cerny was the Graduate Dean and Maresi Nerad was the head researcher. She’s now at the University of Washington and one of the real heroes herself of of graduate reform. And basically, they took five different areas of PhD graduates. I think that in the Humanities, it was English. And they asked them not just at Berkeley, but all over the country. They asked a sampling of these students, you know, what they were doing now, what the degree of happiness was with what they were doing, whether they would get the PhD again, what were… two results were especially interesting.
Those who had who were working outside of academia were slightly more pleased with their jobs than those who had stayed within the professoriate, who had remained in the professoriate. But secondly, those who had left academia by about a 90 to 10% count said that they would get the PhD again, that it had added either to their life to their career or both in such a way that they were glad they had done it, even if you factor in the, you know, the sense that people want to affirm their their lives in some ways past and present. That’s a remarkable result, and one that we should take as, as a kind of guide to what we should be doing in the future.
These are really interesting quote that Deepthi and I were particularly struck by as we were reading the book and talking about the questions we want to ask you today. So I wanted to read the quote, and then ask a couple of questions in relation to that, quote, as a follow up, so you say on page 124, “Let us put this in literally bold terms, we teach graduate students to want something that we know we can’t supply except to a very few. That means we’re teaching them to be unhappy. That’s a terrible thing for teachers to do that their students yet graduate school in the arts and sciences has institutionalized it. Above all, that is what we must change.” So one of our questions in relation to that is when you speak of reforming graduate education, how can such a reform movement be inclusive of the wide diversity of student interests and needs in the academy, as well as for jobs outside of it? And we are particularly concerned that this also extends to racial equity and social justice questions of which our society is really grappling with at the moment.
So what one one half has to do with the larger ideas that you began with. And the other has to do with this specific case of the underrepresented groups. How can graduate school look like America? How about if I take that first, the first part, and Bob takes the second. What unites graduate students, PhD students across the spectrum, is that they are information experts, they are very, very sophisticated in dealing with information they can, they can synthesize it, they can, they can distill it, they can gather it, they can expand it, they can, they can analyze it, and most of all, they can teach it. But what if they don’t know they can do those things? This is a big issue, that, I talked to graduate students, at campuses all over the country. And there is a very low awareness of the that on the part of graduate students of the vastness and the depth of their skill sets. And this gives them an insecurity. How can I do anything but what I’m doing.
And that’s and this is something that faculty, sad to say, the structure of the programs that we create for graduate students encourages this, it’s this idea of not simply of narrow specialization, but of belief in the narrowness of one’s skills. To use, to use an analogy here that we are teaching graduate students, that they are Lamborghinis, you know, high, high performance sports cars, that can only race on a racetrack. But what if there’s enormous traffic on the racetrack, and they can’t actually get anywhere. In fact, graduate students are all terrain vehicles, they don’t have to stay on the track. They can if they want, but they can go up. And they can have all kinds of adventures off the track because they’re equipped to do that. And when we are, when we teach graduate students, we need to teach them about that diversity of opportunities because there’s happiness, there’s pleasure, there’s fulfillment on on places other than the track.To use an analogy here, we are teaching graduate students, that they are Lamborghinis, you know, high performance sports cars, that can only race on a racetrack. But what if there's enormous traffic on the racetrack, and they can't… Click To Tweet
In terms of one of the other questions you raise, we say pretty bluntly in our book that the PhD overall is still too white and male. And, and that we lag many other social sectors actually in our attempts at diversity, which is especially odd in the sense that politically, most academics consider themselves to be generous, progressive, and so on in their attitudes. We perhaps unconsciously make the PhD feel alien to many people from underserved communities. And what we’ve learned in in survey after survey, report after report is the graduate students from those underserved communities and women as well have a greater desire than the overall average to bring their learning back to their communities to have their learning possess a social purpose. And so when we talk about a public facing PhD, when we talk about greater social engagement, greater sense of how the PhD can meet up with all of the urgencies of our time, we’re not talking about you know, the the tail wagging the dog, we’re talking about letting the dog out of its cage.
And to to to bring it back again, the these ideas become both recruitment and retention tools for students from underrepresented groups. That because if you don’t recruit and retain, if you don’t devote devote resources, devote thought to both of those, then you get nowhere. And graduate school does not look like America. It’s difficult, more difficult to make graduate school in the arts and sciences look like America because your applicant pool is smaller than when you’re recruiting potential undergraduates. But it’s not impossible. It’s not it’s not impossible, by a longshot, by doing a lot of the of the, the things that we’re suggesting. Our book, our book contains examples of best practice, from all over graduate education from from admissions, through the through academic job market and non-academic job markets, and public-facing graduate education. In the, in the case of diversity, we we provide examples of how, of programs that are doing it right also, because we want, we want our book to be more than just hortatory call. We’re doing some of that here, obviously. But the book is a toolkit. And it contains a lot of instructions about how to use the tools.
We spent a few a few pages in this book, which is to say a fair amount of time on the pipeline program at the City University of New York, which practices recruitment on an undergraduate to graduate level. That is, the the idea of diversity in graduate school, they recognize, starts with promoting it on the undergraduate level. But the the kind of the kinds of connections between the undergraduate and graduate level in the CUNY pipeline program, amount to a culture that they have created a a subculture within the larger culture of the CUNY Graduate Center that is devoted to first of all, giving students from underrepresented groups, a place to be, a place where they can talk to people who understand their concerns, where they’re coming from. This is not something that will necessarily work in the same way in every program. But the ethos of the pipeline program, we feel is exemplary, because it shows how you solve this problem of making a place to belong, using the resources that are present in your on your campus in your program.
I think having such a kind of consortium at a university where where students from underrepresented groups can meet can talk together and so on is very important. But it also doesn’t in any way, excuse a department or a program from thinking about that programmatically with all of its people. And so one of our emphases in the book is on something that David Grant in the Social Profit Handbook calls mission time. There has to be mission time and a program. When I think of all the conversations that I’ve never heard over 50 years in higher education. I’ve never heard a bunch of faculty talk about what it means to be an advisor. I’ve never heard a bunch of faculty talk about whether we should be considering applications in a more generous way so that people don’t have to all pretend they want to be professors in order to get into the program in the first place. I haven’t heard and so on and so forth. I haven’t heard much talk about the teaching that we give to graduate students so that they’re not just teaching over and over and over the courses that faculty don’t want to teach, but rather have an opportunity to become educators progressively through a very carefully designed program of graduated responsibility in pedagogy. Don’t hear those conversations. The problem is that what’s most urgent is often at odds with what’s most important. So the budget may be due next week. But how our students our diverse students are interacting with the program doesn’t have that urgency until perhaps the students get so upset that they say something they shouldn’t have to it shouldn’t be that hard. This is a conversation that should be occurring all the time. It can’t occur unless we schedule in intentionally mission time to talk about the various issues facing us and to look ahead and say what might we do better or differently in the future.And so one of our emphases in the book is on something that David Grant in the Social Profit Handbook calls mission time. There has to be mission time and a program.– Bob Weisbuch Click To Tweet When I think of all the conversations that I've never heard over 50 years in higher education. I've never heard a bunch of faculty talk about what it means to be an advisor. I've never heard a bunch of faculty talk about whether we… Click To Tweet
As we talk about graduate reform, it is also important to connect it to the job crisis and issues of career diversity writ large. On the one hand, the lack of tenure track jobs in academia is one of the most glaring problems for PhDs. So career diversity is the need of the hour as we have touched upon today. On the other hand, there are many universities that rely on graduate students to teach. So graduate labor is important to keep programs and departments running. We see this also as a problem. And how do we balance this problem against one another?
I wish the employment problem within academia were more of a problem in the sense that we now have an army of underemployed underpaid adjuncts who can take the place of graduate students in any of the introductory courses the graduate students are often assigned to. And so to me, that sounds like a complaint from 30 years ago, or 40 years ago, rather than the present situation. Unfortunately, there are all too many people out out on the street, who are willing to come in and do the work of TA. And all that we need to do really is to perhaps say to two graduate students, this semester, this one semester, instead of doing a TA ship, we have some internships outside of campus to offer you that will develop some other abilities that you already possess, but that will allow you to apply them in a way that you’ll see for yourself. Secondly, you know what, it doesn’t cost any money if I’m teaching a course, and and, and give an essay assignment of some kind of graduate students to say and by the way, while you’re doing this, what you’re doing is you’re developing your ability to, let’s say, compare alternative views, which is something that will come in handy, regardless of whatever it is that you do. In other words, faculty can help students to identify the transferable capacities that they possess.
So there’s, there’s no one solution to the problem. However, I think that what we can talk about here is how we frame the problem.
There you go.
What do our graduate students need? And if what our graduate students need is the kind of exposure to career diverse possibilities that, as you say, empowers them, makes them do better work, not only outside, but inside of the walls of the university, then we need to work from that and say, Okay, our students need this, how do we give it to them? And then how do we deal with the needs that have risen as a result?
You know, while we’re talking about career diversity, we’re sort of skipping over a particular subject. We want to pay attention to the fact that most graduate students who do stay within academia and end up in professorial or teaching positions are not going to be at research ones, or selective small colleges, which may be what they’re most accustomed to. At one of the Woodrow Wilson meetings that we had many years ago, a president of an urban campus said, you know, your graduate students, when they come to work for me, they really don’t like the students that our place attracts. They don’t understand that our students often have to drive 30 miles to come to class, but they can only meet at night, that they’re holding another job. They tend to look down on those students. And so the ability to get even within academia, to give graduate students a sense of the full ecology, the full landscape of higher education in the United States, and their capacity to adjust themselves to work in different situations, right now is quite lacking. And again, we can fix this, we can fix it without the expenditure of a great deal of money. It takes something but not as much as people would imagine, to establish networks like that to give people this opportunity. And again, it’s a matter of really thinking about first, what do students need?
What would your advice be for those grad deans who want to be empowered and are leading reform efforts, but seem to not have the labor capacity in their grad schools to implement these types of reforms? Or other types of resources? In that question, I am specifically thinking about my grad dean, but I know that there are other grad deans across the country who are probably in similar positions.
So when when you’re pointing to a, a structural problem of great import that we talked about in the book, that when the different deans in the liberal arts get together across and discuss their concerns across the table, you can tell which one is the grad dean because the grad dean is the one with the empty budget, and the cup that he or she is holding and going from one one or the other deans to the other, asking for contributions to fund his or her worthy initiatives. The idea that graduates graduate school deans are always the poor one at the table is something that we call for in the book as we it’s it’s, it’s a situation that we are calling for an end to. Now, how can you end it that will differ from institution to institution, culture to culture. But the but graduate Dean’s have to be very agile, and they have to be able to communicate the import of their, their penury, to not simply their fellow deans, but to those who would fund them. It’s not going to be an easy job. But if it’s going to start somewhere, it has to start with throwing a spotlight on the idea that graduate education is in many ways the intellectual heart of the of the of the university enterprise. And to to say that you’re the heart of the of the university enterprise, the intellectual heart, then and then to give give no support to it. Well, it’s it’s inconsistent yet, and it’s we encourage administrators at across the board to reconsider.
Let me answer in the same vein but a little less and a little less friendly spirit. Who’s responsible for this situation? Derek Bok noted as president of Harvard that graduate education in the in the arts and sciences was the least well administered aspect of the university. And I think we would all agree with that. Having been an interim graduate Dean for a year I experienced what it was like to have inadequate resources in order to incentivize good practice. It’s absolutely ridiculous. And who is most responsible for the problems that we are describing? University presidents and provosts. Really, it’s time for those in charge of universities to take this on. From on high. They have the capacity to restructure administration in such a way that graduate deaning becomes a much more dynamic activity. One that has a lot of carrots and a few sticks to help departments and programs become all that they can be for their students. The Graduate Dean is the voice of the student, but you have to give that voice a microphone. They don’t have it now, in many, many cases. In the few cases where they do you see an extraordinary amount of enlightenment activity going on.Having been an interim graduate Dean for a year I experienced what it was like to have inadequate resources in order to incentivize good practice. It's absolutely ridiculous. And who is most responsible for the problems that we are… Click To Tweet
Deepthi Murali [Concluding Comment] 33:11
If you can hear muffled thumping noises in Bob’s answer to our last question, that is Bob, passionately thumping hands on the desk as we were recording this episode. Bob’s and Len’s commitment to reforming graduate education in ways that will allow the university to adapt to the needs of its students now can be seen in their book The New PhD published by Johns Hopkins University Press. If you want to learn more about the history of reform of higher education in the US, and more importantly, what graduate education reform in the 21st century can look like, we invite all of you to take a look at their book. To celebrate the release of the third episode of this brand new podcast. We are doing a giveaway of the book The New PhD to enter the giveaway. Follow us on Twitter at our handle @phdfuturesnow and let us know what was your favorite part in this episode. For more details, please contact us on Twitter. Our handle once again is @phdfuturesnow.
DM [End Credits] 34:13
PhD Futures Now is produced by Humanities Without Walls Consortium. I’m the producer of this podcast Deepthi Murali and this particular episode was hosted by Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann. In the next episode, HWW’s PI, Dr. Antoinette Burton will host a conversation on racial and social equity in higher ed with two of our alumni, Lisa Betty, PhD candidate at Fordham University, and Timothy Emmanuel Brown, postdoc at the University of Washington. Thank you for listening, and we will see you back here in three weeks for Episode Four.