Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Would You Like an Exam with That?

The strong divide between “research” and “coursework” postgraduate programs here, means that Australian universities don’t tend to put social science postgraduate students through any additional coursework or comprehensive exams, beyond what they completed for their undergraduate degrees. US postgraduates, by contrast, usually have to pass specific postgraduate coursework as well as a comprehensive exam, in order to be admitted to full PhD candidature. The existence of coursework and exam requirements in postgraduate research programs confuses some Australian academics: I was asked some fairly… er… basic questions about academic research during my interview for PhD candidature – this in spite of the fact that I had completed two theses (and other research) in the US prior to moving here. It turned out that my interview committee was confused by the coursework listed on my postgraduate transcripts, and thought that my US degrees must have been from a program that did not require research…

I gave an ambivalently-received talk at a postgraduate conference a few months back, where I discussed this difference between US and Australian postgraduate programs in the social sciences. I noted that postgraduate students at my current university often complain that they are very socially isolated, and also that they have difficulty orienting to the history and the theory of their fields. I argued that the US coursework and exam system, although it has drawbacks, does address both of these issues, and I suggested that it might be worthwhile to consider whether some version of the US model could be adapted to Australian universities.

When I say this talk was “ambivalently-received”, I mean: it appealed to some of the faculty in attendance, and resulted in an offer to teach Research Strategies (a social science methods course that is the sole coursework requirement for research students); on the other hand, it emphatically did not appeal to the postgraduate students in attendance, who – quite reasonably – didn’t want additional hurdles placed between them and their thesis.

My personal position is that you don’t need to follow the US model religiously in order to gain a good cost-benefit ratio: the amount of coursework, followed by exam preparation, in the US does place a large additional burden on research students – and also privileges theoretical and academic perspectives that would benefit from the corrective experience of doing actual research. At the same time, I think that the quality of research can be substantially improved, if students can spend some dedicated time exploring the history and theory of their discipline before writing research proposals and plunging into the field.

All of this is by way of introducing Scott Eric Kaufman’s latest project over on the Acephalous blog. Scott is hosting a “distributed intelligence” project, trying to determine the best overview/introductory works for a range of topics in Literature and Literary Theory. The list is already quite interesting, and should become more so as further contributions are assimilated. While the compilation of this kind of list will seem very familiar to US postgraduates, who likely will have been asked to study, or even compile, such a list for their own exams, it may be an even more valuable resource for those who are not routinely exposed to such lists in their postgraduate careers.

If you’d like to contribute, or just look in on the project, the original post is:

Temporary Comment Section for ‘Best Introduction’

The current (revised) version is: Best Introduction

I have to confess I haven’t yet contributed – I keep hesitating over whether books I’ve found useful would actually “count” as introductions to literature and/or literary theory, and I also have a closet sympathy for those who argued, in the original thread, in favour of including original works, rather than secondary introductions. Scott has indicated that he’d rather save this primary-vs.-secondary source debate for another thread, and concentrate on secondary works for purposes of this project. I agree with him that developing a list of good secondary introductions has value in its own right, regardless of the snobbery of primary-source purists like me… ;-P

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10 responses to “Would You Like an Exam with That?

  1. MT April 7, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    I wonder if Australia like Canada & the U.K. produces more specialized high school and college students than the ones US schools produce. The “liberal arts” concept seems still to dominate here, rounding students at the expense of focus. So it may be that a social science major emerging from an Australian bachelor’s program and entering into a social science graduate program just doesn’t need the course work that an American student would need to be ready to pursue independent research.

  2. N Pepperell April 7, 2006 at 7:24 pm

    I’m not sure that the Australian high school system itself produces more specialised students – although the public system here (pace lots of local press about the crisis of Australian education, etc.) produces students who are better prepared for college on a basic skills level. So the “common core” dimension of US colleges, which conveys some standardised knowledge, but also doubles as skills training for higher-level reading, writing, math, science, etc., skills, is not necessarily reproduced in Australian universities. (The University of Melbourne, though, has recently proposed replicating the US notion of a proper undergraduate generalist “arts” degree, with more specialised postgraduate professional training.)

    The Australian university admissions process, though, requires that high school students stipulate the profession in which they wish to be trained – which has the effect of flattening and vocationalising the university education students receive.

    Personally, I think it’s not the best idea for students to try to choose their career path during high school – high school students are simply not exposed to the range of potential adult occupations, let alone potential academic specialisations. I don’t see how they can possibly make a meaningful choice. (If any of my students are lurking, and want to disagree with me, I’m happy to hear it – since I didn’t come out of the Australian system myself, it may well be that I don’t appreciate how high schools here provide students with a much better basic for making this decision so early, than US high schools…)

    Students normally complete a 3-year undergraduate degree – in many fields, this will be sufficient for a BA. Students interested in advanced work then do a fourth honours year, in which they write their BA thesis. (At my university, all planning students do a fourth year, although some use this year to receive research training, while others use it to receive additional workplace-oriented training.)

    Students can then jump directly from this honours year into a PhD, although many will test the waters with a research MA first.

    My worry with this system is that, in the US, there is a substantial difference between undergraduate coursework and postgraduate coursework (at least, there was at my university, and I don’t believe it was atyptical in this regard). Postgraduate coursework provided, among many other things, professional socialisation for people interested in academic work. It gave students an opportunity to learn what sorts of work have been done, what sorts of questions have been asked, what sorts of methods have been used, what issues are currently being debated – it’s this element that seems to be missing here.

    Instead, students jump straight into proposals – and may or may not find the time and institutional support to broaden their knowledge outside of the narrow specialisation of the PhD.

    The Australian system does have its own strengths, however – particularly for someone like me, who does interdisciplinary work. Because you aren’t asked to jump through a series of courses and exams for every discipline with which you desire to work, because the system institutionalises the faith that students can be trusted to be autodidacts, etc., there is considerably more freedom here for creative research designs. The different marking and supervision system in use here also frees you, to some degree, for interdisciplinary eclecticism. Etc.

    Basically, both the positives and the negatives derive from that fact that the Australian postgraduate system is not so specifically geared to socialising you into an academic discipline. It is a fantastic system for me – but I’ve done the postgraduate coursework drill in the US, and have a strong theoretical background in a variety of disciplines as a result. I’m happy to have the opportunity to burrow immediate into my research and writing process – and I’m more than happy that interdisciplinary work doesn’t raise the sorts of alarm bells here that (in my personal experience) it did in the US.

    But, leaving my personal experience aside, I feel that there ought to be a “best of possible worlds” middle ground between this system and the one used in the US.

  3. Russ April 8, 2006 at 5:00 pm

    Nicole, that’s a terrible indictment of US high schools. A reasonable proportion of my Australian high school class were struggling with basic primary school skills. Mind you, this was a particularly poor Australian school.

    I agree that high school students aren’t really capable of making a career choice that early, however a few factors mitigate that:

    - When you apply you get to see ever possible course in a big book, so there is a fair level of discovery and debate about what to put as your preferences (for the benefit of overseas readers, Australian university applications are conducted through a central body rather than directly to the institutions).

    - Most course have a general component to them (albeit inadequate, but I’ll get to that), particularly in the first couple of years, which makes switching between courses relatively trivial. Four-five year degrees across several courses are quite common.

    - Your mileage will vary between universities. RMIT is particularly vocational, while the University of Melbourne was already predominately theoretical in approach. When I did my Computer Science degree at the latter it started as a broad Science degree — no arts though. Research oriented students were directed into research oriented computer science classes from second year so we were fairly aware of both the current literature, and the particular research schools of the department by the end of honours.

    Having said that, I think education in Australia is far too vocational and narrow at all levels (it is relatively easy to avoid subjects after year 10 and still get into university). The real benefit of a broad education is that you can apply a range of approaches to problems and see the connection. This is particularly important for innovation and research. In my experience, most graduating students have very narrow frameworks to view things from, to their detriment.

    One thing I’ll add though, I’ve yet to meet an academic who didn’t think there was some benefit in everyone learning about their particular field, and despite my general agrrement with that, it is probably impractical.

  4. N Pepperell April 8, 2006 at 6:01 pm

    There’s an academic conference version of the phenomenon of every academic thinking that you should know their field, which is: every academic thinking that what you *really* should have written is *their* paper, and standing up during the Q&A session and effectively asking you why you didn’t do that… It’s a bit of a running gag…

    I’m not personally fussed about whether people know my field (then again, I’m not completely sure I have a field, properly speaking), but I tend to think there is a value in people knowing the history and theory of their *own* field(s), however they choose to define them – it’s this element that I worry about, when I mention the vocational flattening that results from the Australian system.

    Obviously, this will be more pronounced at a place like RMIT, because the university originated as a “working men’s” college, and retains very close ties to policy-making and industrial sectors. I have to admit that I largely enjoy this aspect of RMIT, and deliberately chose to work here, rather than a more theoretically-oriented university, because, although my personal work is very theoretical, I wanted to work in a place where the university valued the integration of academic work with more practical concerns. Many US universities, in my opinion, did terrible damage to themselves and to the broader intellectual culture by accentuating their “ivory tower” orientation in reaction to the political swings of the 1980s and 1990s… But that’s probably a matter for another post… I do think, though, that the greater vocational emphasis of the Australian university sector has helped, at least a bit, keep the universities from separating themselves from wider political and cultural discourses, and I think this is an important and positive thing.

    On whether my comments are an indictment of US high schools… Yes – particularly of high schools serving urban public school populations… I’m not trying to paper over issues with the Australian public school system in saying this – and I find it particularly distressing that the public system here seems to be dramatically under-valued and under-prioritised at the moment. But the problem in the US is still, I think, more acute – in part because of how schools are funded in the US (local property taxes play an important role) and in part because of a general underinvestment in distressed urban areas. And this of course has ramifications for the skills even of those students who “succeed” in US high schools and go on to university.

  5. helmut April 10, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Umm. A picky point. Charles Sanders Peirce’s last name, in your Hacking quote in the headtext and for Peirce, is spelled “Peirce,” not “Pierce.” Hacking spells it correctly in his text.

  6. helmut April 10, 2006 at 11:42 am

    …rotating headtext, apparently.

  7. N Pepperell April 10, 2006 at 7:12 pm

    Many thanks for that – it’s more difficult for me to catch typos in the rotating headers (not just because they rotate, but because the edit screen where they’re originally entered is microscopic), so I appreciate the feedback. I’ll fix it now.

  8. MT April 11, 2006 at 7:09 am

    You could turn up the rotation speed and no one will notice. I’m used to hearing it pronounced “purse” and still I never noticed the odd order of the e and the i.

  9. helmut April 11, 2006 at 9:11 am

    Not to be a pesky punk, but the Peirce spelling and pronunciation (“purse) is a pretty good indicator of someone who’s spent at least a little bit of time with Peirce’s work. I often find art types, for instance, having seen reference to Peircean semeiotics, saying “pierce.” [and, yes, Peirce spelled it "semeiotic"].

  10. MT April 11, 2006 at 9:52 am

    A pretty good indicator, but clearly not fool proof.

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