The Ph.D. Trap Revisited

by Wilfred Cude
333 pages,
ISBN: 1550023454

Post Your Opinion
Re-visiting and Re-visioning the Ph.D.
by W. Lambert Gardiner

Wilfred Cude published The Ph. D. Trap in 1987 and now (at over twice the length) The Ph. D. Trap Revisited in 2001. One major theme of a "revisit" is the changes since the "visit". The verdict here is "no change". This is no surprise. In what other profession would reform be described as moving graveyards and management as herding cats? We study everything but ourselves. We refuse to look at problems within our own institution for the same reason perhaps that children refuse to look under the bed to confirm whether there is a bogeyman there.
Why should we change? The author focuses on one central feature of the institution¨the Ph. D. As the only recognized credential for researching and teaching in the university, it often traps many students in a frustrating and sometimes futile struggle to enter the academy. The first two chapters document this problem and the last chapter offers some recommendations for its solution. The intervening chapters place the problem in its larger chronological, logical, psychological and ontological context. Cude is intelligently aware that the Ph. D. is an element within a system, which can not be understood and reformed without studying and changing the whole system.
Here's the argument: Time-till-completion and attrition rates in the Ph. D. program are notoriously higher than in the programs necessary to acquire the credentials for other professions. Within Ph. D. programs, the figures are progressively higher for the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. By aping the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities set impossible standards. The social sciences are at an earlier stage of development than the natural sciences, partly because they are younger disciplines and partly because they are dealing with more complex systems. This is not rocket science. Rocket science is easy.
Expectations in the humanities are totally unrealistic. The humanities are not sciences at all. They are concerned with values rather than with facts. By imitating the standards established by the various sciences, they leave no place for values in a world of facts. We "Doctors of Philosophy" have long been embarrassed by such questions as "Is there a doctor in the house?" The author argues that we should be equally embarrassed when hearing "Is there a philosopher in the house?" Since there is no concern with values in a fact-obsessed Ph. D. programme, the holder of a Ph.D. is not a "real" philosopher either. My own university boasts of providing "real education for the real world," and sends students out into the world fact-up and value-free. How then can those young people deal with both ends (the domain of values) and means (the domain of facts)? Idealism and realism are not incompatible¨we must pursue idealistic ends by realistic mean. But more importantly, it is the idealistic goals which lend value to the means.
The problem is not with courses but with the thesis. All but dissertation (ABD) is the consolation pseudo-degree of many candidates for the Ph.D. Since education is viewed as an outside-in process in which the student assimilates information from the professors and regurgitates it in the examinations, it is not surprising that they can deal with the courses which are a continuation of the outside-in system but can't deal with a thesis in which they are suddenly required to turn the process inside-out by generating novel research. Cude points to a surprising finding that GPA predicts success in course work but not in thesis completion (p39) and indicates later why this is to be expected¨students are put into "a lock step of learning by rote during what ought to be their most creative period"(p285).
Until the thesis stage, acceptable academic papers are collages of content from experts. Here is an enlightening conversation with my 12-year-old niece Dorothy:
She: How do you write books, Uncle Lambert?
Me: (Hand sweeping over books I had assembled to write a chapter of an introductory textbook in psychology) I read all those books by and about Freud and then write a chapter on Freud.
She: Oh ű you copy?
Me: No. If I take it from one book, I'm copying; if I take it from many books, I'm doing research.
She: I don't see the difference.
Me: Beat it, kid.

There are excellent summaries of previous critiques of the Ph. D.¨for example, The Ph. D. Octopus by William James (p71-72) , Higher Learning in America by Thorstein Veblen (p72-73), and The Credential Society by Randall Collins (p232). The author is aware that the problem can not be understood or solved in isolation. He considers, therefore, parallel critiques of other aspects of the structure of the academy. In Killing the Spirit by Page Smith (p82) and in Petrified Campus by David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell and J.L. Granatstein (pp219-223), the authors focus largely on the tenure trap. The Ph. D. trap guards the entrance to the academy and the tenure trap guards the exit.
Between those twin traps, sits securely (and some say smugly) the scholar, entrenched in what Collins calls the "sinecure sector" where they receive "disguised welfare"(p78). Other critiques document the various ways in which the resultant power corrupts: Profscan by Charles Sykes (pp99-102) focuses on the various inadequacies of professors, The Invisible Faculty by Judith M. Gappa and David W. Leslie (pp223-229) looks at the exploited part-time teachers who fill in the gap left by professors, Ivory Power: Sexual Harassment on Campus edited by Michelle A. Paludi (pp268-269) unveils the abuse of power by professors, and The University in Ruins by Bill Readings (p203) outlines the transformation of the university from a community of scholars into a corporation.
There are case studies to illustrate his argument in concrete terms¨for example, the case of Frank Bourgin (pp12-14), who finally received his Ph. D. in a wheelchair at age 77, the case of George Grinelli (pp202-206), who struggled at length to acquire his Ph. D. because he took an unpopular position, and the case of Bernice Grohskoph (pp207-209), who abandoned her Ph. D. studies after failing a Kafkaesque oral examination. Two of the case studies¨the murder of his advisor by graduate student Theodore Streleski (pp194-200) and the murder of four of his colleagues by professor Valery Fabricant (pp114-129) could be regarded as the tip of an iceberg of resentment with respect to the Ph. D. and the tenure traps respectively. However, any one who makes such an argument is met by as much resistance as those who made the same argument with respect to the events of September 11, 2001. The academy remains unchanged with its twin towers intact.
Cude recommends that the Ph. D. should not be the exclusive credential for university teaching. The M.A. and the Ph. D. degrees developed independently as credentials for teaching and doing research at the tertiary educational level. Over time, however, because of the relative prestige of research over teaching, of creating new knowledge over passing on old knowledge, the M.A. became subsumed within the Ph. D. as a sort of consolation prize. The author phrases this elegantly in terms of "teaching loads and research opportunities"(p95) and argues for the reinstatement of the M.A. and a corresponding respect for teaching.
Demonstrated competence in the real world should also be considered as an alternative credential. The author marshals an impressive list of undoctored scholars¨Kenneth Boulding, George Lyman Kittredge (pp245-246) in the United States and Michael Ondaatje, Northrop Frye, Robertson Davies, George Woodcock, and Farley Mowatt (pp279-281) in Canada. Since those illustrious scholars had at least some academic qualifications, they are grudgingly admitted into the academy. Autodidacts, like Eric Hoffer and Robert Fulford are, however, excluded. While Chairman of a Department of Communication Studies, I tried to hire Pierre Juneau, who had just completed an illustrious career in which he had been President of CBC and Chairman of CRTC. My colleagues balked. He didn't have a Ph. D.! The scholar believes that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and the retort from outside the cloisters is "the unlived life is not worth examining."
Another recommendation from Cude is that we should explore the old adage that the professor is to graduate student as master is to apprentice. Analogies are useful even when they break down¨especially when they break down. This one breaks down because subjectivity in judgement increases with the abstractness of the product being judged. This pinpoints the essence of the Ph.D. problem.
Here's an analogy which comes closer to the real-life situation: professor is to graduate student as king is to knight. The king sends the knight off to fight the dragon in order to get the hand¨and the rest¨of the princess. Fighting dragons is not useful preparation for keeping up the mortgage on half a kingdom, just as writing a thesis is not the most useful preparation for teaching in a university. Both tasks are more tests of motivation than of competence. Besides it's a way for the king to get rid of the dragon without suffering the fate of Beowulf who got killed fighting it himself, just as professors too often use graduate students as unpaid assistants on their own projects.
After reading this book, I realize that my own graduate experience was benign only because my committee was benign. Its members were gentlemen as well as scholars who had no axioms to grind. Thus, total immersion in a scholarly environment for four years produced that magical metamorphosis¨student turned into scholar. This is what should always happen ideally. David Solway argues in Lying about the Wolf that an academic discipline is a high-context sub-culture. We have to pay our dues in order to participate in the Great Conversation. However, I've heard the horror stories, in which the various demands for dues could be considered unreasonable. The author has the courage to tell such tales out of school.
One academic tradition that the author does not honor is the provision of an index. This may be a conscious attempt to avoid one of the TRAPpings of scholarship. Some scholars insist this is a capital offense. Though not so strict, I would have appreciated an index for re-visiting sections I wanted to take a closer look at and for re-locating all the examples of case studies listed above.
The author concludes that there has been little change in the Ph. D. program in the period between his visit and his revisit, implying that the academy is a rigid institution. This is somewhat unfair. Between 1987 and 2001, the academy has been flexible in admitting women and minorities into its tenured ranks. Indeed, some male WASPs (who view themselves as the only underprivileged group left) argue that it has been so flexible as to have bent over backwards¨and forwards?¨on this issue. The author states that there are "over 550 distinctive fields in which the doctorate was awarded"(p61). Such numbers suggest that the academy has been, if anything, too flexible.
Despite this quibble, I agree that the academy is a very conservative institution. Conservatives are, of course, those who have something to conserve. Professors seek to preserve their virtual monopoly over valuable old and new knowledge. Priests resisted print because it threatened their position as middlemen between God and their parishioners. That's what the Protestants were protesting about. When Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door, the medium was part of the message. The knowledge monopoly passed from priests to professors, who are in turn resisting video- and computer-based media which threaten their privileged position. Our best hope for reform is to embrace video- and computer-based media so that we do not go the way of the priests who initially resisted print. In his limited examination of new media as means of delivery for long-distance education (pp220-221), the author is far too quick to dismiss it.
This is a tough-love plea for reform. Wilfred Cude has spent his life-time in and out of the institution and is obviously fond of it. He has acquired all the tools and mastered all the skills of the scholar. The sound you hear as you read his book is not the hammering of yet another nail into our coffin. He's one of us. It's a wake-up call, a heads-up message to ostriches unaware that they may be in vulnerable position. We would do well to heed it. ˛

Apart from the decade he took off to write The Psychology of Teaching, W. Lambert Gardiner has been teaching at Concordia University for 35 years.

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