Should graduate school be producing technicians or public intellectuals?

In his rather contentious book about the current state of American sociology, Christian Smith makes an important argument about graduate training in sociology and the kinds of scholars US graduate schools will tend to produce. It echoes an argument I’ve read Steve Fuller making in the past:

Increasingly, sociology graduate programs are turning out not intellectuals, but specialized technicians. After a perfunctory sprint through some of the classics, most graduate students are drilled on methods and statistics, pushed through some seminar classes that review major debates in certain fields, run up and down the MA-thesis staircase, given doctoral qualifying exams that summarise and criticise relevant literature in a few fields, and finally are pushed to write “doable” (read: narrow, unambitious, publishable) dissertations in order to prevent extended strays in their programs. Lately, dissertations often consist merely of three somewhat-related empirical papers intended to become journal articles, with an introduction and conclusion serving as bookends. Specific techniques are taught to graduate students in workshops about how to write an article that “land” well (again, the Holy Grail being in ASR or AJS), which only a few are capable of doing. Time for sociology graduate students to read, think, and converse deeply is minimal, sometimes nonexistence. Professionalization and career development trump grad students’ intellectual formation in what would be truly interesting and important questions. So, such a system does not produce many broadly read, thoughtful, intellectually interesting scholars and teachers. It produces technicians, as I said, who have learned more or less well how to play the faculty-career publishing game.

The Sacred Project of American Sociology, p. 143

Leaving aside the obvious criticism that there are many factors other than programme design likely to be responsible for a squeeze on the time of graduate students, it’s interesting to see these aspects of graduate education in the US which I’d always seen as positive instead described in such negative terms. I’ve often thought my own graduate education, with the exception of my excellent supervision, would have gained massively from being much more structured (though, to be fair, I think I resisted what attempts were made by the institution to try and ensure it was structured). Perhaps the relevant absence of professional socialisation in the UK, though this is changing rapidly, should be seen as a virtue? Particularly when it’s coupled with DIY doctoral pedagogy of a sort that has become increasingly common. Fabio Rojas touches on these questions in an interesting way in a post about ‘Foucault kids’, a group I’d understand as overlapping with but not being reducible to public intellectuals in Smith’s sense i.e. all ‘Foucault kids’ are public intellectuals but not all public intellectuals are ‘Foucault kids’:

First, let’s start with a discussion of the Foucault kids. In the way that I used it, I roughly mean ambitious graduate students who are doing work that crosses or combines various areas of study. Foucault, of course, was a Foucault kid. His training was in philosophy, but worked with George Canguilhem, who did work on the philosophy of science. In his career, Foucault did this mutant form of work that combined philosophy, history of ideas, and other stuff. Similarly, the Foucault kid is the young scholar who sees himself as some awesome sui generis scholar that breaks boundaries.

Who is a Foucault kid? Not you, probably. In fact, during my graduate career in Chicago, I only met two genuine Foucault kids, this guy (who combined anthropology, ethnography, and hermenuetics) and, I think, one of his students. Later, I’ve seen them here and there, mainly at other elite programs in sociology. You also see them in idiosyncratic programs, like the Committee on Social Thought. But still, overall, they’re rare. I’ve met lots of brilliant people, but they exist mainly within the confines of sociology or some other discipline.

So, what sort of training does such a person need? It is unclear to me since we have little data. Many Foucault kids end up flailing, they can’t complete their dissertations, and you never hear from them. The license to “be great” is often interpreted as a demand for perfectionism, or endless procrastination, or being so weird that no one will take them seriously.

I can offer two hypotheses about what might work for a Foucault kid: (a) no training, just let them wander and demand a dissertation at the end, or (b) demand high quality training but allow weird or unusual combinations of fields.

Though Smith and Rojas are making different arguments, both seem to concern the extent to which the disciplinary mainstream is reproduced in graduate education. I suspect sociology in the UK would benefit from moving more in the US direction but Smith offers an important caution against this trajectory going too far.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education

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