Interesting article in the New York Times about efforts to reduce the amount of time that it takes to get a Ph.D. While I have no objection to many of the strategies discussed — give students guaranteed funding for five years, dissertation-writing groups, a culture in which advisers actually check up on how their students are coming along — this line about the impact of increased funding gave me pause:

That means students need teach no more than two courses during their schooling and can focus on research.

On one hand, sure, that probably helps people finish faster. But at what cost? The article depressingly, if not uncharacteristically, points out that many universities benefit from the cheap labor of Ph.D. students teaching undergraduate classes, and links this on the student side to the need for students to finance their educations somehow — as if the primary benefit here was a financial one.

I think this is a short-sighted perspective on both counts. Yes, universities benefit financially if they use Ph.D. candidates to teach classes, since Ph.D.s cost less than tenure-line or even most temporary faculty, but they also benefit in that young teachers just starting out can be some of the most dynamic presences in the classroom. Everything is new and fresh — there’s no possibility of getting bored with one’s material, since one won’t have taught it for decades already. And those Ph.D.s can also be the sources of classroom innovation for the same reason: they don’t yet have bad classroom habits to break, so they may be more easily able to experiment with novel techniques and technologies.

As for the students: the primary benefit of teaching while still a Ph.D. candidate is that hopefully that experience will make you a better teacher once you get your degree and move out into a more permanent job! When one is a professional academic, which is still what I think a Ph.D. in basically anything but the natural sciences (where there’s a well-established pure lab research track) is actually for, your actual day-to-day job is — this should not come as a big surprise — teaching students. Is it too much to ask that Ph.D. candidates perhaps get a chance to learn how to do the thing that they’re going to be doing for the rest of their professional lives, and to learn that while they’re, you know, in training? All of this reinforces the attitude that the academics are scholars first and foremost, that Ph.D. training is purely about acquiring research skills and experience, and and that teaching — especially undergraduate teaching, because how often do you see departments offering Ph.D. students the opportunity to teach graduate seminars? — is something that can be safely externalized onto untrained students and overworked adjuncts. And that’s depressing, both for the undergraduate students who are paying for the experience of attending institutions where their famous faculty never see them because they’re always out doing research, and for the Ph.D.s socialized into a culture where teaching is decidedly secondary, a culture they can and will then bring with them when they are hired elsewhere.

What I’d much rather see is something like the famous Contemporary Civilization program at Columbia, in which Dan and I both taught, where Ph.D. students are selected to teach their own section of the famous Plato-to-NATO course that is required of all undergraduate students in their sophomore year. These preceptors — from the Latin for “not a professor so not paid as much” — teach alongside members of the permanent faculty, many of whom are quite senior; they also participate in weekly seminars designed to help them develop into better classroom teachers. Thus graduates of Columbia who have taught in “CC” are not only junior scholars, but junior teachers. If CC had only paid enough that I didn’t have to maintain another adjunct gig downtown at NYU, that would have been perfect: learn to teach and work on my dissertation, without having to worry about where the grocery and rent money was coming from.

I just hope that the push to have students finish their Ph.D.s quickly doesn’t end up exacerbating the split between teaching and research even further — and doing this by further denigrating teaching. In the modern academy, any effort to value and enhance undergrad teaching faces enough challenges as it is; it doesn’t need any more.

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