The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It
reviewed by Rosemary Perez & Michael DuPont - June 08, 2017
Title: The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It
Author(s): Leonard Cassuto
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 067472898X, Pages: 320, Year: 2015
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The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It by Leonard Cassuto examines current, systemic problems within graduate education in the United States. Specifically, Cassuto cites growing discontent from the public, lengthening time-to-degree completion periods, mismatched skills for alternative academic career pathways, and increased levels of credentialing and publishing required for faculty positions as key forces contributing to a fractured graduate education system in need of holistic change.
With these concerns in mind, Cassuto systematically examines major components of graduate education, exploring problems within each component. He situates his exploration of each issue by historically tracing their causes and evolutions from the early 20th century through contemporary graduate education, using the humanities as an illustrative example. Although examples are rooted in the humanities, Cassutos reasoning and recommendations should be of interest to all faculty, institutional leaders, and graduate students. Each possible solution Cassuto offers to the graduate school mess grounds itself in graduate teaching approaches and responsibilities in the broadest sense of teaching. The central argument is that effective graduate teaching must acknowledge the professional and environmental systems in which graduate education is situated. By providing cultural and historical context, reasoning through the anticipated critiques about his claims, and describing possible of solutions through examples of innovative practices, Cassuto outlines what faculty should acknowledge and do to improve graduate education.
Chapter One explores the admissions process and how a strong focus on research shapes new students experiences. Cassuto asserts that graduate admissions needs to be understood in the context of the cultural values and economic issues of higher education. Three historical eras frame examples of influential institutions in the development of graduate education within selectivity, funding, teaching loads, and the rise of the research culture. Programs must balance enrollment numbers while preserving the expectation of diverse individuals, broaden the idea of productivity, support students in alternative academic careers pathways, and provide consistent course offerings. In Chapter Two, Cassuto scrutinizes graduate coursework and the role of professors as course instructor. Cassuto offers three areas of consideration: teacher-centered versus student-centered curriculum, content-driven approaches, and teaching multiple career pathways. Programs should provide courses that allow students to develop skills that are relevant to an array of careers informed by their disciplines, not just tenure-track positions, through recognizable credentials, practical dissertation topics, and blending of requirements to allow for multidisciplinary competency.
Chapter Three questions the purpose of the comprehensive exam beyond serving as a milestone to determine whether a student is qualified to move on towards the dissertation. Cassuto argues exams limit if not discourage students creativity, and make it harder for students to write strong and timely dissertations, given that most exams are designed to regurgitate information rarely retained for future use. The solution is to create opportunities for students to develop skills like professionals in their field: through implementation of relevant disciplinary content within realistic problems in more diverse contexts than currently offered.
Chapter Four explores the role of advising as the most important relationship in a students formal education. Cassuto introduces the current issues around advising in four subsections: an introduction to the student-adviser relationship, the need to recognize differences within and between students, exploring student progress, and advising graduate students who have alternative academic career paths. The goals of advising are to maintain open and honest communication between the student and the adviser, to help students finish their degree, and to construct experiences that lead to competitive ability for employment. The author explores racialized and gendered experiences that advisers need to recognize, engage with, and support appropriately. Cassuto shifts towards giving advice for advisers working with students writing dissertations from proposal, to draft, to the final manuscript.
Chapter Five broadens the conversation to investigating the history and purposes of graduate degrees. At the center of the structural problem is the dissertation by way of two central issues: what should a dissertation look like, and how long should it take to write. Realizing the connectedness between purpose and requirements, any innovation for the dissertation will require a reinterpretation of what it means to be a scholar and graduate student. The masters degree has never had a clear purpose throughout history; to some it is a degree for those who do not want a PhD, and to others it is a teaching degree, a professional degree, or something in between. Cassuto hopes that the professional masters degree will solve the time-to-degree problem of the PhD while providing necessary and relevant skills and credentialing for those seeking industry jobs, or alternative academic pathways from the professoriate.
Chapter Six critiques professionalization habits within graduate programs. Cassuto laments that the easiest way to evade the pressure of conforming is to be established already. This emphasis on attainment over potential increases students debt as they work on getting enough experience for employment. Socialization and professionalization needs to continue, but in newly imagined ways, as the race for credentials and qualifications has caused time-to-degree completion to soar. As part of the solution, hiring committees need to recognize those that complete the degree in a timely manner. Graduate programs should also establish appropriate standards for students progress and reward them for timeliness.
Chapter Seven expands the notion of the job market, moving beyond a focus on tenure track roles. Faculty have failed to teach the realities of the current academic job market. Cassuto recommends graduate programs need to move away from creating highly specialized researchers and toward embracing the principle of comparative advantage. As only so many programs can be highly ranked and those rankings are questionable, other programs can better prepare students for the scholarships of teaching, integration, and application, not just discovery, in order to better serve an array of institution types. Programs should improve on tracking placements and employment, and make that information more readily available.
To end, Cassuto searches for a new ethic for graduate educators, and outlines one such plan that incorporates solutions from previous chapters. The author connects the fractures of graduate education with the problems between the university and society. Cassuto explores the history of the business, mission, environment, and responsibility of the university and where it needs to go as it creates a new ethic for itself. The university today often experiences governing issues, a loss of public trust, and increased isolation. Graduate students need to be taught a new way to interpret the business, mission, environment, and responsibility of life both within and outside of their university. This merges the ideas of teaching and public service into a call to re-create a shared equilibrium between university research and societal engagement.