I have been griping with my colleague the Golden Child about coursework lately. She has caught a couple of pretty awful courses this semester, and I’ve had a couple over the past couple of years. I think that we’ve both hit a point where we feel that, at least some of the time, we could learn just as much by having a professor hand us a syllabus and turning us loose as we do by slogging through a semester of inane comments from classmates and other-structured learning.
It extends well beyond just bad classes, too; my spatial stats class this semester has presented me with a lot of intriguing theories and methods, but most of the applications we hear about are in the environmental sciences. It’s bad enough that my friends in the department have started using “watersheds” as a key term for anything they think I’ll hate. My semester project is all about the contagion of violent political protests; everybody else’s are about aphids and bobcat sex. Don’t get me wrong, I love some large-feline thrust-and-yowl as much as the next guy – I just don’t like the statistical analysis of it. On top of it all, I’m not going to have enough time to do the final project that I really want to do; instead, I have to do a watered down version because the end of the semester looms.
I’ve been thinking about this, and I think that part of the problem is a conflict between higher ed’s structures and culture and the actual point of graduate school. Most people say – and I concur – that grad school is not about education; it’s about apprenticeship. You are working closely with the masters of your trade to learn how it’s really done. That sounds great to me.
But contrast this scholar’s apprenticeship with the classic apprenticeship model. We do have an appointed master who supervises us; we do pass through a variety of ranks as we prove our skill; and we eventually become masters ourselves and train the next generation. We, like most other apprentices, do a lot of the shitwork of our craft while fanatically cherishing the moments when we get to show our skills. We work right alongside our masters as they practice their trade. If said master thinks we would learn a particular skill better from someone else, they boot us out until we come back properly trained. Grad school certainly has elements of this, but it’s got an odd structure – the semester-long course – that I think is ultimately detrimental to the apprenticeship.
The semester puts a limit on how long you get to explore a topic. There’s a distinct timeframe within which you learn about this aspect of the trade, and it’s the same timeframe you have for getting your project done. Sure, you can keep working on the project beyond the end of that semester – but classwork also supports a “get it over with and never look back” attitude (which I’ve noticed is especially prevalent toward stats classes…). Good courses are certainly run with the intent to give students the basis for something publishable by semester’s end, but it’s still so rushed. The speed of undergraduate coursework is decidedly not the speed of research. Most of the time, I get a really sweet research idea about three weeks before the semester ends. No time to get it done for that semester. Just hammer out some shit, show that you learned the material, and get to it later. Bah.
Ultimately, though, I think that the reason we have semester-based graduate education isn’t because somebody experimented and found it to be the best structure for training new scholars. I think it’s because of culture, habituation, and limited cognition – essentially, it’s a product of the argument Jenna Bednar (my very first scholar-crush, from way back in my undergrad days) and Scott Page make here. Building on what they say and putting it in my own words:
As humans, we start out with very few behaviors. Whenever you’re short on brain candy*, you scream until some big person makes it right. As we get older, our growing mental capacity unlocks other built-in behaviors (e.g. language) and allows us to develop more. Ultimately, though, these behaviors are all in pursuit of the same thing: brain candy. But we still have limits to our cognitive abilities – so we develop habits, ways of getting brain candy that worked before and therefore are plausibly likely to work again. We start paying attention to other people, too – theirs brains process different stuff, and so their behaviors are presumably things that provide brain candy too, and mimicking them saves us work. That, I believe, is the central thesis of Bednar and Scott – culture arises because we have limited cognition and it behooves us to learn behaviors from others. Nothing special here (besides the fact that they used agent-based modeling to demonstrate it quite elegantly). But this is just parenting, socialization, all that. We just try to minimize cognitive effort while maximizing brain candy. Simple.
Until, that is, we go and make it all complicated. Not only can we rewire our own brains to make odd things taste like brain candy, we also get involved with other people – who may reward us for behaviors that don’t themselves generate brain candy for us. This interaction underlies many, many aspects of social life, but the classic example is selling your labor. Oftentimes your work doesn’t provide much in the way of brain candy, but the money you get from it provides you with other things that do. From here, you get into crazy nth-order effects: since earning money provides you with brain candy, you habituate yourself to keep pursuing money, long after it’s stopped buying you happiness. Because it saves you a lot of effort to just keep doing what you do.
And I think, ultimately, that’s part of the problem with graduate education. Professors know how to teach undergraduates. The roles and statuses are more clearly defined; the content isn’t as challenging to prep; most professors teach the young’uns far more than the teach apprentices. Professors lives are ultimately structured around the semester system: it dictates when you teach, when you research, a whole slew of deadlines. And so it makes total sense for them to structure graduate education around the semester system, too.
I’m just convinced it makes as much sense for us.
*Brain candy is basically my way of saying “stuff that it gets your neurochemistry all in order.” Humans are basically just big walking chemical reactions, you know. It’s just that we have a lot of complex behaviors that are hard to analyze at that level.