‘Failure’ of Graduate Education is No Joke

Author: Melonie Fullick
Original: University Affairs | Speculative Diction


Recently University Affairs published an interview with Kevin Haggerty and Aaron Doyle, two Canadian professors who have written a book of advice for graduate students. The book’s gimmick, if you want to call it that, is that it’s presented as a guide to failing—an anti-guide, perhaps?—as evidenced by the title, 57 Ways to Screw up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students. According to Haggerty and Doyle, “students often make a series of predictable missteps that they could easily avoid if they only knew the informal rules and expectations of graduate school.” If only! And this book, we’re told, is designed to help solve that problem.

Dropping all sarcasm, the first thing I have to say is: really?giphy

… grad students’ “failure” is somehow all about the mistakes they make? How many times do we have to take this apart before faculty giving this kind of “advice” start realizing how it sounds? Maybe this is just a part of the “joke” and I’m not getting it, but how long is it going to be before the irrational and erroneous assumption that student success is entirely about individuals and their intrinsic merit and skills, is displaced with a more realistic perspective?

Haggerty and Doyle have been promoting their book in the higher ed press for a couple of months now. While the University Affairs interview is relatively subdued, I want to bring your attention to their August 27th piece in  Times Higher Education (THE), in which we were treated to a lively sample of just 10 of the ways grad students can ruin their own chances of academic success. Back when the article was first published I shared a series of critiques on Twitter; I’m going to risk boring you by repeating them here, because the book is receiving attention and there are some fundamental problems with the ideas that it reflects and reinforces.

At the outset, the authors explain how they’ve “concluded that a small group of students actually want to screw up. We do not know why. Maybe they are masochists or fear success.” This sort of set-up trivializes and dismisses serious problems; but things get worse from that point. Here are a few of the “screw ups” listed in the THE article, along with some of the criticisms they provoked from me and others:

  • “Stay at the same university” for all your degrees. This assumes students have unimpeded mobility, and a degree of financial security, from an early stage. Mobility is also affected by your family situation, for example—if you’re married with a partner who can’t relocate, or if you have dependents who need to stay where they are, this is a problem.
  • “Choose the coolest supervisor.” Bad supervision can be career-limiting. But who is going to be really honest and tell prospective students about a faculty member who is (for example) a research “star” but also a terrible supervisor? Not the program chair; not the other faculty; and not the students who are happiest to represent the program. It’s also possible that your prof is new to supervision and not equipped to handle it. The student is being imagined here as a consumer who has the responsibility to make an informed choice, even when the relevant information isn’t available or when they don’t actually have the option.
  • “Expect people to hold your hand.” The issue of responsibility is already a sketchy one in graduate education, and we don’t all arrive with the amount of cultural capital that’s required to be autonomous or “just know” what we’re responsible for—and what we can reasonably ask of a supervisor. So, what constitutes appropriate mentorship and guidance, and what is merely “hand-holding”? Who gets to decide? (Hint: not the students.)
  • “Concentrate only on your thesis.” Assuming, of course, that this is an option for everyone. When the authors suggest non-thesis activities, though, these are not things like family time or self-care (and definitely not a job), but other academic professionalization activities such as authoring journal articles and attending conferences—as if grad students don’t already receive the message that they must do All The Things if they want to be minimally employable.
  • “Have thin skin.” As with other things on the list, this is a difficult call because it’s so subjective, and the party giving feedback is often also in a position to define its appropriateness. As I said in a tweet, giving and receiving feedback, like most professional skills, requires practice and modeling—and that’s a two-way street.

I hope you’ll forgive me for not finding the topic of grad student “failure” an amusing one. Usually I like a good joke (especially at the expense of academe), but I just don’t see how it’s appropriate for this issue. The “light-hearted” approach is grating to me, and I wasn’t alone. Reactions to the article included: “horribly smug”; “their post is not amusing”; “I’m a Professor who has supervised dozens of PhDs and I disagree with almost all of what the authors said”; “this is ridiculous”; “clickbait, consumerism, classism”; “I had trouble getting past #1”; and “much could be turned around into ‘do your job, grad schools.’

What’s even more frustrating is that almost every point made in the THE article could have been made in a helpful, critical and inclusive way, and simply wasn’t. In choosing this particular approach to “advice” the authors render their points not only unpalatable, but also condescendingly uncritical. Even if the advice is potentially of use, why put it in terms that are exclusionary to some students, and infantilizing to all? The authors make the argument they’re sharing tacit knowledge, thus doing us all a favour. But they also seem to be ridiculing students from not having this knowledge at the outset. The use of the word “guilty” (in their interview) just reinforces the feelings many students already experience when they discover something’s going wrong.

Haggerty and Doyle aren’t alone in their assumptions, and that’s why these kinds of articles and books represent a problem. They aren’t mere one-offs; as I’ve argued before (and no doubt you’re all sick of hearing it), it’s still too convenient for graduate programs and supervising faculty to dismiss students’ “failure” as a problem with selection of students, students’ lack of commitment, and/or a bad “fit”—an approach that shifts the blame away from problems of supervisory competence, appropriate social and academic support, and departmental climate and culture. That this perspective is espoused publicly by respected senior faculty members who not only supervise grad students but have also spent time as graduate chairs, shows how pervasive and influential it is in academe.

As always, I’m not trying to argue that students have no responsibility for their own success. What I’m responding to is the framing of this as a problem almost entirely in their hands. We already know (from research, in fact) that this is an inaccurate depiction, and that students’ experiences in graduate education are affected at least as much by the supervisor, department, and peer group—as well as by structural factors such as class, race, gender, and disability—as they are by individual merits and choices.

I’m aware that the book will provide more detail than a short post on THE, but because it’s the framing rather than the content that’s a problem, maybe “less is more.” You don’t need a book like this when the same or better advice is available from people who’ll give you a constructive and critical perspective on professionalization and the norms and values of academe—the latter having been taken for granted by Haggerty and Doyle. I recommend you check out those diverse perspectives instead—there are too many to list here, but a few online sources that spring to mind are Pat Thomson, The Thesis Whisperer, Conditionally Accepted, PhDisabled, Explorations of Style, Gradhacker, and also (for some background) the bibliography of research on doctoral education that I linked to above. You can also try #phdchat on Twitter, where you’ll find a wealth of resources.

Given the variety and quality of the research and resources available, surely at this stage there’s no excuse to reiterate the same old tired themes about irresponsible students and the silly mistakes they make. I only hope we can move beyond this in future debates about graduate education.

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