Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Taylor Editorial

My students and colleagues today pointed me to this New York Times editorial by Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department of Columbia, that begins with "Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning." As pointed out by my students and by my colleague Matt Welsh on his blog, a lot of his arguments seem to break down when viewed from the perspective of computer science and engineering departments -- where, generally, we do try to train students to possibly do something besides becoming an academic -- and it's fun to deconstruct his article with this in mind. In particular, let's look at his 6 steps to fixing American higher education.

1. Restructure the curriculum, to become more cross-disciplinary.

I think CS (and in particular theory) does a very good job with this already, thank you, what with algorithmic game theory, quantum computing, the study of social networks, etc. And outside of theory I can point to my colleagues like Matt Welsh using sensors to monitor volcanos or Radhika Nagpal studying cell behaviors as multi-agent systems as further examples. (Yes, I know David Parkes and Yiling Chen are also obvious choices of cross-disciplinarity in action...)

One thing I generally think people (or perhaps just chairs of religion departments) fail to understand when saying education should become more cross-disciplinary is that before trying to do cross-disciplinary work it is, in my opinion, extremely beneficial to actually be an expert in (at least) one field so one has a base to work from. The corollary is that you can't just erase traditional structures and expect wonderful things to suddenly bloom.

2. Abolish permanent departments and create problem-focused programs.

Again, my opinion (and to be clear, it's an opinion) is that while problem-focused programs have their place, you need a solid base to work from. In his own example, to handle the problems with the future of water, he suggests bringing together people from humanties, arts, social science, natural sciences, law, medicine, and business together to deal with the problem in the large. That's great, but it implies you need experts in these areas in the first place to get together, which means you still need a great deal of specialized training.

3. Have smaller, more focused institutions; use technology to offer best-of from all over.

This is certainly an area for exploration, though I know it's the subject of wide debate whether distance education methods are as good as "being there". Certainly, many universities are already doing this to various degrees. I don't think we know all the answers on how to best make use of technology in this way yet, although our understanding will keep getting better.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation.

I don't think he explains exactly what it should transform into, but he seems here to be speaking to humanities people whose dissertations are essentially books nobody ever reads. Computer science dissertations are rarely read, but generally they're a collected form of papers that hopefully some people have read. I think we're fine here.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students.

Good idea. CS graduates can, as again my colleague Matt Welsh pointed out, go into work in academia, research labs, industry, and government -- never mind entrepreneurial opportunities. (As a whole, theorists are perhaps a bit behind in this regard -- we really should make sure our graduates obtain some practical CS skills as well -- but apparently we're much better off than our other university counterparts.)

6. Abolish tenure.

In CS, tenure has always seemed less about "academic freedom" (a common argument for it for humanities) and more about providing a perk (commensurate with academic traditions) to make up for the generally lower pay scale versus industry. And it's a perk that demonstrates its value in periods like the current economy. What would abolishing tenure do to the university system? Who knows. It seems a situation ripe for the Law of Unintended Consequences, and I'm loathe to try to predict whether it would be a good or bad thing. Mark C. Taylor, naturally, is more confident of the benefits.

For several other criticisms of this editorial, there are plenty of comments at the NY Times site. I know these anti-University diatribes come out from time to time, but it's sad to see such a poorly argued one. While it's beneficial for universities to be self-reflecting, in this case the article just made we wish for some clearer, more rational, dare I say more SCIENTIFICALLY thought out criticism.


chris said...

before trying to do cross-disciplinary work it is, in my opinion, extremely beneficial to actually be an expert in (at least) one field so one has a base to work from.As a Ph.D student in a cross-disciplinary computing subject, this comment strikes a chord. There is a chicken-egg problem in cross-disciplinary work, that only really suits polymath professors with no pressure to justify their existence. For Ph.D students, producing good cross-disciplinary science is a lot of hard work: entirely different from your undergrad training; and with almost no supporting materials with your situation in mind.

So, in part I agree. It is good to be an expert in something. But to do non-superficial work, you need to be competent in both domains, which really should require something entirely different from your base training.

you can't just erase traditional structures and expect wonderful things to suddenly bloomAbsolutely. But while computer scientists are fortunate enough to have the opportunity and hubris to wade into other domains, are they adequately prepared for producing (or recognising) good science in those domains?

chris said...

On a second read, my comment above seems a little confrontational. That was not intended, so apologies if it was taken that way.

Its just a subject that is on my mind a lot :-)

Panos Ipeirotis said...

I will be cynical...

I might have taken some of the suggestions seriously, if at least some of them included some sort of sacrifice for the author. Unfortunately, the article is so much self-serving, that it cannot be taken seriously.

I was commenting on this article earlier today:

It is funny that none of the recommendations are going to personally affect Prof. Taylor.

He is a “philosopher of religion” (i.e., does not need a lab or graduate students).

He is also 64 meaning that he is going to retire soon, so tenure is not of importance to him anymore. He enjoyed the benefits of tenure for much of his career though.

Advocating interdisciplinary programs is interesting but is rapidly becoming the norm in physical sciences and engineering, so he is kind of late in his suggestion. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary programs that Prof. Taylor advocates are the ones that include religion as one of the themes, and definitely would help him get more positions that are related to his own research interests (let’s face it, the department of religion is not the most important one in a university).

Sorry, I cannot take seriously articles have such an obvious self-serving agenda. Prof. Taylor can start his own blog and write such pieces. For a NYTimes Op-Ed, he'd better do some research...

Anonymous said...

"Computer science dissertations are rarely read, but generally they're a collected form of papers that hopefully some people have read. I think we're fine here."

You seem to agree that dissertations are useless (if a student has published papers). So why should we keep them?

Anonymous said...

2. Abolish permanent departments and create problem-focused programs.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students.

These points also seem a bit contradictory. Who is going to seek out students who have majored in "water problems"? Crickets.

I agree with some of his points, but overall he seems to have no understanding of science---which is a huge part of modern universities. Moreover, you can't implement his suggestions piecemeal, restricted to liberal arts departments, because they would marginalize these areas (which are very important and already under siege).

Anonymous said...

The thesis is usually not terribly useful to the outside world, but writing it is a very useful part of a students education. It is probably the only forum where instead of a page limit, they are encouraged to provide complete discussions of background and fill in every detail.


R said...

Actually, I still find well written dissertations quite useful. They provide more context and background than journal papers that cover ground much more tersely. In my first two years as a PhD student, I must have read at least a dozen theses cover to cover!
Also, writing a good theses is practice towards writing really good research monographs later on. And while such monographs cater to a small-ish audience, they are not quite as useless as they are sometimes made out to be. During my time in an industrial position, I have used at least one very specialized monograph quite seriously to create a piece of software that was commercially marketed! So, anyone who claims that all knowledge has to be broad doesn't really understand how knowledge gets used in the sciences.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...


Just because I said computer science theses are rarely read one should infer that I think they're not useful. (Most papers are rarely read too, but writing papers is useful.)

I agree with other posters -- writing a thesis is both an important educational experience (and milestone) for students, AND in rare cases theses can become important references for a body of work. The ACM doctoral dissertation award, for example, publishes prominent dissertations as books, and I know these are used as references. I still hear people tell me they've read my thesis (which induces, to this day, something of a cringe -- I didn't know anyone would really read it, I'd have written it better... :) )

Anonymous said...

> In CS, tenure has always seemed
> less about "academic freedom" ...
> and more about providing a perk
> (commensurate with academic
> traditions) to make up for the
> generally lower pay scale versus
> industry.

Is this really true? I am a tenured professor, currently considering research labs because I am unhappy in academia. But I found I would take an (effective) pay cut by leaving academia -- I would make maybe $10-15K more but have to live in a much more expensive city. Plus as a professor I get to do consulting to supplement my income. True, as a professor I am only guaranteed 9 months of income, but even so I don't see tenure as a needed form of extra compensation.

David said...

I'm fascinated by the fact that none of the machine learning guys have piped up to the philosophical types about the development and value of expertise.

Anonymous said...

The aspect of the Taylor editorial that immediately bothered me was the vagueness of its advocacy of interdisciplinary work. Sure, some of the most important work these days in interdisciplinary. But interdisciplinary work is also the refuge of the scoundrel and the charlatan.

Mike, I agree with you that a solid disciplinary background is essential in making lasting contributions. Perhaps as important, since the allocation of resources is a perpetual problem, a disciplinary structure gives us the best hope for reasonable evaluation of the importance of proposed work and the quality of completed work.

Mark Knell said...

I was an undergrad at a school Taylor taught at. I never took a class from him but many of my friends were religion majors. Classes with Taylor were a rite of passage there, and usually involved stages of infatuation and infuriation, sometimes cyclically.

This is by way of background in responding to Panos Ipeirotis, who might be "cynical" but is not alone in his appraisal of Prof. Taylor's style as self-serving, or at least lacking self sacrifice. Taylor is a brilliant and influential critic and (by many accounts) an often brilliant teacher, but he is also a professional provocateur. I don't know whether MM's aim to "deconstruct" Taylor's piece was a winking choice of word, but Taylor's career has been closely tied to the rise of deconstructionism as a literary/philosophical/cultural theory. He lives to re-evaluate things (institutions, icons, ideas, anything) in terms of what they have not been--especially in terms of what they've suppressed in order to become what they are. If it's not new, revolutionary, and challenging, Taylor's not interested. As far as I can tell, being empirically correct or historically proven is not high on his list.

CSProf said...

The NYT editorial is a horribly argued, bombastic, and ill-informed piece of demagoguery.

While some of the criticism may be valid, it is squarely focused on liberal arts graduate studies. As many pointed out, CS is an example of a field with many interdisciplinary studies. In TCS I would point to the flourishing areas at the interface of Theory/Machine Learning/Statistics, the results on embeddings of topological spaces for algorithms, Bioinformatics, and threshold phenomena and Statistical Physics, as four obvious examples where the supposed "compartamentalization into obsolete departments" did not impede research -- at least not at the universities I am familiar with.

Clearly, on the whole US universities have been doing an exceptionally good job. That is why graduate students are coming here in large numbers, and other countries are imitating the American model of higher education.

PhD dissertations in the humanities are important for two reasons
1. They contain the equivalent of experimental data: obscure sources, hard to find manuscripts, archival data, and copious examples of analysis of these data supporting the claims of the dissertation.
2. Unlike theorems, few dissertations in the humanities offer irrefutable conclusions.
Rather, the author has to argue and defend her point of view. Persuasive writing is an integral part of the work.

It used to be the case that the research was further validated by being published by some university press. This was made financially viable by de facto permanent subscriptions of the monographs of major university presses by university libraries. Cuts in library budgets (mostly driven by escalating cost of periodicals and data bases) broke the financial model, and humanities departments are at a loss. Administrators find it easy to deny tenure to faculty with no books, and results are not widely disseminated.

There are remedies less stringent than dismantling the university to solve this particular problem--on-line publications of dissertations is just one of them.

Getting back to the problem of supporting interdisciplinary research, many universities have had institutional structures that are doing just that. I am familiar with the University of Chicago "Committees" (e.g on Social Thought, History of Science, etc.)
that have been around since the 20s, and are credited with much superb interdisciplinary work. There are numerous "Centers" for particular interdisciplinary areas (from "Cognitive and Social Neuroscience" to "Italian Opera Studies") as well as interdisciplinary Institutes, including a Computation Institute, and the Franke Institute for Humanities.
Hardly the insular picture of the NYT article.

Finally, I am bothered by singling out a specific dissertation topic, (how Scotus does references) as an "obviously bad" idea. It may well be, but this is a far from obvious conclusion, given only the topic.

I ran out of time much before I ran out of objections.