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