We're Not a Hierarchy, We're an Ecosystem

Graduate programs should ignore the rankings and find their niche

Leslie Herman for The Chronicle

February 25, 2013

Want to get ahead in the world? Rise in the eyes of your peers and colleagues? Then don't start a graduate program. Upward mobility for graduate programs typically means a higher ranking by the National Research Council or by U.S. News & World Report. But raising the ranking of a graduate program is like building a tower in the fog. You can erect a fancy edifice, but it will be hard for observers to see, so they'll just remember the old building that used to stand on that spot.

Nor will they always remember correctly. Malcolm Gladwell, writing for The New Yorker, recently cited a case in which the Pennsylvania State University law school received a solid ranking in an informal poll—even though Penn State didn't have a law school at the time the poll was conducted. Respondents reacted to the reputation of the Penn State name. (This was before the university's recent notoriety.) Imagine the frustration of a dean whose law school finishes lower than a nonexistent rival. How slippery the rankings pole, when greased by reputation. (Editor's note: This paragraph has been edited to clarify that Penn State didn't have a law school at the time of the poll, but does now.)

Not that graduate programs don't try to move up anyway. Upward mobility is a pillar of American ideology, and graduate-program administrators buy into it as fervently as ambitious new immigrants. If we could somehow harness the energy that graduate deans and departments spend in strategizing their ascents up the rankings, we might lower the price of oil.

Surely there's a better way. Only 20 programs can make the top 20—and that leaves dozens and dozens outside. And no wonder: What the National Research Council is looking for—research output—isn't necessarily what all programs do best. Rich research universities will produce lots of research. What should all the other institutions do?

For starters, they shouldn't get fixated on the behavior of the institutions in the top tier. In last month's column, I suggested that many lower-ranked graduate programs in political science do just that. They overlook and undervalue their own particular strengths and the strengths of their graduate students in an effort to mirror the top-ranked departments. This month I want to outline how a graduate program might shape and emphasize its own assets.

Graduate students at less wealthy, lower-ranked Ph.D. programs may graduate with less-specialized research interests than their more elite peers—but they're still researchers. Ernest Boyer's well-known 1990 classification distinguishes what he calls the scholarship of teaching, the scholarship of integration, and the scholarship of application from the traditional "scholarship of discovery." Compared with graduate students at top-tier departments, those at lower-ranked programs often receive wider preparation, combining the kinds of scholarship that Boyer identifies.

Such students almost always have more teaching experience, too, which can translate into a marked advantage in the pursuit of professorships at institutions that emphasize teaching. Moreover, those jobs at teaching-oriented colleges outnumber the more visible, research-centered positions.

Jonathan Auerbach, an English professor and former placement director at the University of Maryland at College Park, noted in an e-mail that "large public institutions and small regional liberal-arts colleges are looking for different things in candidates because the situations there differ as to expectations for research and teaching and service, and the balance among these three."

In English, said Auerbach, the issue is "not the education of candidates but rather the amount and kind of teaching experience they have." At Maryland, he said, Ph.D. candidates "do a hell of a lot more teaching than most candidates with Ivy League degrees"—including designing courses independently and teaching different types of courses (not only composition classes but also courses in literature, film, and even seminars).

That profusion of teaching experience is, of course, part of a larger ethical debate about the use of low-cost graduate-student labor to sustains large universities. Auerbach and his like-minded colleagues look to turn that disadvantage into a virtue for job candidates: "The very fact that, for financial reasons, our students are compelled to do more teaching than their counterparts at wealthier places actually works to their advantage!"

Graduates of wealthy Ph.D. programs rarely show that range of teaching, because their fellowship packages release them from having to teach. Graduates of more elite programs compete strongly at the top of the research scale, whereas Maryland Ph.D.'s often do not. But graduates of Maryland—and universities like it, many ranked lower—prove more competitive at institutions looking for skilled and experienced teachers.

Katarzyna Jakubiak, a recently tenured associate professor in the English department at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, praised the similarly practical virtues of her Ph.D. program at Illinois State University. The breadth of her preparation—"We had to take classes in all areas of English studies," not just literature—gave her "a certain flexibility as a job candidate," she wrote in an e-mail.

Although she taught fewer literature classes while a graduate student than her counterparts at the University of Maryland, Jakubiak gained "both experience and theoretical preparation" in teaching composition that served her well on the job market and which, echoing Boyer, also informs her research. By contrast, a New York-area community-college professor wrote in an e-mail that most of the job applicants she sees from elite institutions "seem to think anyone can teach composition and rhetoric," so they don't get hired.

How do graduate programs best position their students to compete for those jobs? To begin with, they teach their graduate students to value teaching.

Elite Ph.D.'s often do not even bother applying to teaching-centered colleges and universities. "I'm sure that some Ivy League Ph.D.'s would rather repair dishwashers" than assume the teaching load at a community college, wrote one New Jersey community-college professor in an e-mail. On the occasions that such candidates do apply to community colleges or other teaching-intensive institutions, the departments may subject those applicants to suspicious scrutiny. Teaching-intensive institutions have sensitive snob detectors.

One reason for such aversion is the belief that elite candidates are "slumming" out of desperation for a job, any job, and will leave at the first opportunity. The suspicions can cut both ways. A well-known English professor with an elite Ph.D. recalled a job interview he had years ago with a teaching-intensive university at which "they told me they didn't want to pursue my candidacy because they couldn't imagine keeping me." He subsequently endured a four-year job search before landing a position at a research university. "For all I know," he said, "I would have been happy teaching at that college."

The skepticism persists because Ph.D.'s from elite programs often don't fit the institutional culture of teaching-intensive colleges. "When we hire, we ask first: What kind of teacher will the applicant be?" said an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Stephen Spencer, the chair of English at the University of Southern Indiana, was more precise. "We are interested in candidates who understand who we are as a student-centered teaching institution and who are pursuing interesting, promising research," he wrote me in an e-mail. "The standard form letter that is not individualized to our needs," Spencer continued, "does not get a candidate very far. We tend to get more of these kinds of letters from candidates from higher ranking Ph.D. programs."

Auerbach, of Maryland's English department, recently created a nifty acronym to help his department's Ph.D.'s prepare themselves for this very large segment of the job market. It spells Devout, for:

  • Diversity, both in texts and the kinds of students taught;
  • Experience, the amount of actual classroom experience;
  • Versatility, or being able and willing to teach writing, literature, film, and theory;
  • Outcomes, for the learned ability to handle assessment tasks ("a big deal these days," writes Auerbach, "since older faculty are clueless, they want new hires to handle these increasinglyimportant administrative duties");
  • Usefulness, or being able to link yourteaching to real-world issues in convincing ways; and
  • Technology, or using technology in innovative ways in the classroom.

The Devout idea (further explanation of which may be found on the English department's Web site at Maryland) is more than a gimmick. It illustrates a larger truth: that our profession is not so much a ranked hierarchy as an ecosystem.

In the academic ecosystem, different institutions occupy specific niches, serving different populations according to the colleges' strengths. The job market has niches, too. An intellectual in one niche of the market is not "better" than another, no more than a bird is "better" than a squirrel or a tree.

So why do we persist in trying to understand everything in terms of top-down rankings? Hierarchical thinking warps our perceptions about what we do as professors, and can prevent us from preparing our graduate students for the work that they can get. Can we change? It is to be devoutly wished.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at