Thursday, July 23, 2009

Are Advanced Degrees More Than Intellectual Masters-bation?

A Stranger (who in fact is not at all a stranger, although he is stranger than most) asked me to comment on this a while ago. Many of the writers contend that a Masters degree is a waste of time and money, a meaningless degree propped up by institutions of higher ed because it is profitable.

I will admit that I am of two minds here. On the one hand, in an intellectually hostile environment like ours, any chance to set aside time for education is a good thing. We have a culture that thrives on marketing and this drives us to the lowest common denominator, meaning that informal learning happens infrequently. We as a culture just don't go to lectures, performances, or museums for fun, have book club discussions of probing texts, watch challenging documentaries often. As such, we unfortunately have the classroom model of education imprinted on us where we set aside sacred spaces of instruction. If a group of folks who have undergraduate educations and real-world experiences re-enter the academy as a group to seek additional intellectual engagement, wonderful things can and do happen.

At the same time, however, this pure image is often far from the reality on the ground. The Ph.D. is one thing. It is an extended hazing ritual/apprenticeship where you learn how to be a professional researcher at the feet of a famous scholar along with others who are so excited about a given field that you are willing to live in poverty for several years to join the union. There is a level of commitment and drive that is part of the doctoral program, but many students see the Master's degree in nothing more than utilitarian terms; it is a piece of paper they want to help advance their careers (read, make more money to buy more stuff). It is not about doing the work, thinking the thoughts, growing their minds, it is about doing just enough to to check off the boxes and get their accreditation. It is a means, not an end, and there is a hostility towards the genuine cares of the scholar. This cannot but infect the classroom.

But it isn't just the student who are cynical here. Institutions of higher learning have been in financial straits well before the current meltdown. On the one hand, what attracts students and their tuition dollars is not academic success, but state of the art gyms, student unions, and on campus bowling allies. These cost money. Further, students are more likely to go to schools they have heard of and what is the only way folks outside the academy hear of schools? Championship sports teams. So, cash pours into athletics. At the same time, faculty clamor for raises, increased travel money, and funds for research. Colleges and universities looked for alternative revenue streams and seeing this urge for quick, evening master's degrees responded to the demand by ramping up the supply.

But rapid expansion can affect quality, especially when the consumer comes in with a WalMart mentality. So, many of these programs are not run out of academic departments, but out of a completely different evening school that gets instructors wherever, whenever. Now, this is not, is not, IS NOT an indictment of adjunct instructors writ large. I was on the circuit for years as an academic migrant worker, following the work, moving with the seasons and semesters. Many of the folks who adjunct are very qualified teachers who are finding it tough to find a job in an incredibly difficult academic job market, many tied to a location because of a spouse's job. These people are often better teachers than their tenured or tenure-track colleagues who have to give their classroom time time shrift to focus on research -- that which gets them raises, tenure, and recognition.

But at the same time, the night schools have a limited pool of these folks and also hire -- especially in professional areas like business and technology -- people who are are supposedly qualified, not from an academic background, but from their work experience. These are people who have no classroom chops and don't understand the student/instructor dynamic. I have witnessed and heard many horror stories. and to some degree, the programs are often stuck with these folks because they need these classes taught and don't have the recruiting mechanisms that regular academic programs do. They don't have hundreds of qualified candidates from all over the country dying to come teach for them. They need people who are willing to work for a small paycheck at odd hours who live in their particular area.

Additionally, because these programs are either not run out the main schools' departments or when they are compete with the undergraduate classes, the curricula are often not the most rigorous. Because they are not staffed with full-time faculty whose main job is dedicated to it, the Master's programs are often slow to respond to new developments because there is not someone pushing for the change from the inside and when it is, it is often very difficult to staff. As a faculty member in a full-time department, there is constant discussion by experts in the field about what we should offer to our students and how to tie different profs' classes together in coherent ways. But when you have only part-time adjuncts who do not know each other and only show up to teach their own class and have no connection or input to the larger curricular aspects, you get a very fragmented, less effective path through the program.

To be fair, there are good, committed people running these programs who do care about very much about them. I know, like, and respect the folks I've met over the years. Many masters programs are wonderful processes for their students. But they are seen as red-headed stepchildren by their institutions who consider them cash cows and their students -- some of whom are the best, most interesting folks it has ever been my privilege to share a classroom with, but others who see them as nothing but stepping stones and who resented the idea that this is "real school" -- as just an ATM.

All of this is part of the "No Child Left Behind" mentality where education is a product. We see it as certification, not as education. It is about getting a degree, which makes each class something to get out of the way, not as an opportunity to grow. Some of the best experiences I've had in the classroom were teaching non-credit classes where the people were there for the sole purpose of being intellectually excited. Sadly, I didn't see that as much on the credit side of the house (and to be honest, all too often see it here in the undergrad world) where the end is merely materialistic and not intellectual.