The Duck of Minerva

Graduate school and the culture of conformity

15 May 2011


No sooner do I pen an intemperate, semi-coherent rant about the culture of pretending-to-know-things among graduate students, then Nawal Mustafa makes a probing comment:

From the student side of things Dan, it strikes me as a deeper problem that transcends the academy. Certainly, I concur students should take responsibility to ensure they are actually learning, and not view their seminars as merely an exercise in impressing others, or securing great letters of recommendation by purporting to “know” the material. That said, there is a deeper problem where success and achievement, even from a student’s early years, is equated with perfectionism, control, risk-aversion, and there is a genuine fear of making mistakes in the process of learning. Students are encouraged to be safe and risk-averse thinkers because that provides better pay-offs. I’ve referred others to Sir Ken Robinson’s rather infamous lecture on the matter:

As Robinson notes, “What we do know is that if you are not prepared to be wrong, you won’t come up with anything original.”Our schools are not teaching students to embrace this, but actively encourage them to avoid it. Whether it be the K-12 system, or the university, dissent is disciplined, conformity rather than creativity is the order of the day, and the academy is no different.

In my own graduate seminars, I’ve observed students who hesitate to question a professor’s particular standpoint because “that’s too much effort,” or he/she “won’t listen to what I have to say anyways.” Whether that assessment is correct or not, the point is there is a general pressure to conform and take the “safe” route. Students then write essays that they think are more agreeable rather than contrary, and refrain from providing their authentic, creative voice on exams given the fear that this will jeopardize their academic track record, unless they luck out and happen to have professors who agree with them. Sure, there needs to be standards, but true dissent, the willingness to take a gamble and be “wrong” is disciplined out, from an early age and especially at a more advanced level.

The other problem is incentives. If students have a negative experience where one professor does not encourage such creative, dissident thinking, it will likely not matter if they have other teachers who do so. The challenge at the PhD/graduate level is twofold: how to encourage graduate students to retain their sense of self, their creativity, and yet recognize the process of gradual professional socialization which does take place, and there are obvious tensions that exist between those two objectives, and secondly, how to encourage professors/advisors to still foster creative voices, while trying to steer their students professionally, which entails making them aware of the academic politics and unfortunate practical aspects involved in the profession. The general problem is that even scholars themselves struggle to embrace being “wrong” and attempting to be creative in an environment which often hinders such dissent. Not to say being creative entails making mistakes, but I contend originality is not necessarily possible without the latter.

I understand the temptation not to admit ignorance –especially when everyone around you refuses to admit ignorance. This is a pretty straightforward pareto-inefficient outcome, albeit one rooted in a mistaken understanding of the payoff structure of the “seminar game.” The unwillingness to challenge professors, on the other hand, befuddles me. It never occurred to me not to let my professors know when I disagreed with them; I went to graduate school with a number of people who had the same attitude, including PTJ. I’m pretty sure that we all learned a great deal more through the resulting, sometimes agonistic, discussions.

I have heard stories about senior professors complaining about a growing culture of conformity among graduate students. I had my pet theories about the causes, but if it (1) isn’t getting worse and (2) plagues British academia, then I’ll probably have to discard some of them them. At the same time, the fact that this culture doesn’t operate everywhere — it certainly wasn’t the case at Columbia in the 1990s, and I know of at least two major programs in the United States where the graduate-student culture is closer to my ideal — suggests that professors can successfully foster a culture of respectful intellectual contention.

One thing I’m not convinced by is the “one bad apple” argument. I know that some students will overgeneralize, but my sense is that even at places with a culture of conformity graduate students are savvy enough to distinguish between professors who like being challenged and those who don’t. Of course, there’s a secondary level to this, which we might think of in terms of a “range of tolerance.” Some professors are terrific about fostering a creative atmosphere, but only within a very circumscribed understanding of proper inquiry. Others are less effective, in part because they admit a broader range of perspectives into the classroom. The question is: how to combine the two.


UPDATE: Courtesy of Becky S., Erin Feichtenger’s “Grad School Explained” Chart: