Why have graduate students?

by Jonathan Sterne on October 23, 2007

I often say that I went to graduate school to become a grad student, and not a professor. And that my goal as tenured prof is to approach the state of graduate-studentness as much as possible (minus, of course, the poverty and angst). It is fair to say that during my stint as department chair I’m not doing so well on that particular goal but I’ve got a whole life ahead of me. In the meantime, it is my students who keep me connected to the reasons why I got into this business. That and a few good books, public lectures and conferences here and there.

That’s why I read with horror this column in the Chronicle of Higher Edutainment. The author claims that the problem is that the “bad apples” don’t “get” the “purpose” of graduate school, but I think that it is she who does not understand the role of the graduate teacher. Sure, it’s wonderful when my students write brilliant dissertations and go on and get good academic jobs and contribute to their fields of study. But there are about 1000 other things my students might hope to do with their lives, and my job as graduate teacher, is to — within the range of the reasonable — facilitate that. Presumably students are in grad school because they love the material and have a passion for some set of intellectual questions (if those are lacking, one ought to ask why one’s in school), but that doesn’t always translate into a single career narrative upon finishing. Sure, all I’m equipped to do is to train people to be college professors. But that doesn’t mean I have to expect every student’s life to follow that narrative arc.

Most importantly, a PhD takes a long time — an average of 7 years in the humanities. Leaving aside the very real necessities of professional mentoring, is it really wise to focus single-mindedly on a desired end result for one’s students, or perhaps is there also something to be said for enjoying the ride? The point of teaching graduate students is the process, not the results. Now that I’m busier than ever as department chair, my students often apologize for taking my time, perhaps not believing me when I say that meeting with my grads to talk about their ideas and their work is one of the best parts of the job.