The Instrumental Postgraduate
Tony Myers (Postgrad., University of Stirling)
THE pertinence of my own experience to any anecdotal history of the postgraduate proceeds from its increasing irrelevance. For I began my studies, as I know did many of my contemporaries, motivated by one factor: indulgence. Here, to my astonishment, was an institution willing to pay me a tidy sum each year for- three years specifically in order that I may read, think and write about books. It seemed at the time to be a fantastic privilege; six years later there are times when it still does.
Speaking to postgraduates of a more recent vintage, however, it is clear that when they begin a Ph.D., they are no longer embarking upon their studies but, rather, commencing their careers. Which is to say that instead of pursuing doctoral research in order to acculturate themselves to the values, modes of questioning and knowledge associated with the discipline of English Studies, as I and my contemporaries did, the new postgraduates approach Ph.D.s as vocational qualifications. Whilst no doubt Ph.D.s have always aided the acquisition of tenure to some degree, they are increasingly viewed as a means to that end, instead of being ends in themselves which incidentally procure beneficial effects. If this is more a matter of emphasis, than of the bold dichotomy I have suggested here, it still, I think, indexes a series of issues affecting postgraduate study.
These issues are effects of the postgraduate's position in the academy: its subjection to forces from both above and below. It is perhaps stating the obvious that todays postgraduate is usually yesterdays undergraduate, but as the latter is currently changing in character then it may be assumed that this will alter the former in turn. What I have in mind here is the way in which pedagogical practice has come to privilege operational over academic competency. Certainly, in the 4 '/2 years since I have been teaching I have noticed that more and more of the training courses I attend promote the production of a certain type of graduate. This is not just necessarily a graduate that possesses "transferable skills," but, rather, one whose discursive horizon is limited to the acquisition of such skills. Within such an horizon educational criteria inevitably take second place to vocational ones.
For postgraduates, the effects from above are currently even more telling. Of particular interest to myself has been the institutionalisation of the 3-year Ph.D. There will shortly be very few who, like myself, have taken 6 years to submit. I am, as my Head of Department fondly phrases it, "one of the Old Guard." This 3-year limit on doctoral research (and anything more than 4 years is probably illegal in most universities now) again seems to ventriloquise the same instrumental
ethic that informs undergraduate teaching. For the new postgraduate must be utterly task-focused, as corporate rhetoric has it, in order to submit within 3 years. One must know what is to be researched before starting and that must be rigorously adhered to until submission, because there is literally no time for digression. Indeed, in most universities there is now a strict programme of targets to be met that stipulate the production of a certain quantity of research by a certain time. Such an approach, it seems to me, fosters an indicative mode of thought, rather than, in reference to the indulgence of the Old Guard, a subjunctive mode of thinking. Under these brave new conditions fact fearlessly replaces doubt, the assertion of inherited truths substitutes for the painstaking interrogation of dictum, and "bluffers' guides" effortlessly displace the patient assembly of a large library of knowledge. In the short term only the gifted and the guileless have any hope of cheating the disciplines of the calendar and the clock. In the long term it may be assumed that a kind of circularity will be spawned. For the value of the subjunctive mood proceeds from its role as the basis for that thought which is canonised as most valuable, whilst the value of the indicative mood lies in its relevance to vocational expediency. Again, I think this is a matter of emphasis rather than of opposition, but such accents betray their own message.
The new postgraduate is trained to perform the function of a professional academic, rather than educated to re-invigorate that function. Nowhere is this more clearly articulated than in the matter of publication. In line with other universities, my own institution now expects its postgraduates to publish a certain amount of papers before they finish their research. This, it seems to me, is an advisable expectation, for which departments will employ someone who cannot make a substantial contribution to their research rating? Postgraduates are not publishing in order to be read, however, but in order to be relieved; relieved, that is, that they have squared the accounts and made themselves employable. Once more, quality is secretly alchemised into quantity, form privileged over content.
It is, of course, extremely important to be employable and there can be little doubt that the new postgraduates will be the most employable postgraduates ever. This should be the case not only in the University but also in, as it likes to refer to itself, the Real World. For in the Real World nothing is more employable than task-focused competencies. Indeed, Human Resource Managers employ a whole range of tests specifically designed to measure these in prospective job candidates. The question that I hear emerging amongst postgraduates is, then, one directly issuing from this convergence of the University and the Real World: for if education is increasingly seen as "product knowledge," students as "customers" and research as "outcome targets," in what, effectively, resides the difference between the two? We may, as our senior colleagues do, think the difference, but it is much moredifficult to act the difference, which is, ultimately, what matters.
One major discrepancy that does persist between the University and the Real World, however, concerns the vocational expediency of the Ph.D. If a graduate undertakes an M.Sc. in Information Technology or an M.B.A., such a student may reasonably expect that upon receipt of this qualification s/he will be able to take up some kind of related employment. Unfortunately, this happy trajectory is not mirrored in the University. Quite simply, there are too many postgraduates chasing too few vacancies. This would not, perhaps, be quite such a problem were it not for the fact that the vocational character of the new Ph.D. advertises a promise upon which it is unable to deliver. For rather than pursuing doctoral research, a substantial number of postgraduates are training for a job, a job that is not, and is not likely to be, there. In the Real World, of course, expectations are "managed" and it is this principle, possibly, that the University may safely, and profitably, adopt from its counterpart.
Although it is still a fantastic privilege to be paid to read, think and write about books, it is one, then, that increasingly has to be negotiated with a whole series of alien concerns that do nothing but erode it. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a key effect of the troping of English Studies by the new managerialism has been the production of a certain scepticism towards the academic profession, a scepticism that is manifest as a divorce between content and form. If this is not surprising, what might be is that such scepticism has not, at least in the postgraduates I have talked with, affected their enthusiasm for the subject itself. This, I think finally, represents something of an optimistic foil to the partial and gloomy picture of crisis in the subject that currently seems to prevail.
Reproduced with kind permission from CCUE NEWS, bulletin of the "Council for College and University English" 10 (Winter 1999).