Friday, October 08, 2004


In and Out of the Box

A very interesting discussion has been floating around a number of blogs, which relates to faculty expectations, and particularly to the expectations that junior faculty have for graduate students. I've contributed to the discussion a bit on others' blogs, but I want to think more about a side issue that's come up in a number of places, the issue of "thinking inside/outside the box."*

First, some background to catch up those who haven't been avoiding work by reading blogs. People first started talking about this Box over at Profgrrrrl's blog, where she had posted about her concerns about the quality of graduate student work and specifically about the inability of many graduate students to respond off-the-cuff to questions about their work. In comments, Carla notes that the problem may be that those who are "most likely to be admitted are the people who are least likely to be able to think outside of any box whatsoever. They got the admittable profile they got precisely by correctly identifying box boundaries and staying within them." Then, on her blog, Sharleen asks, "Is it fair for faculty at a university to claim that graduate students can't "think outside the box" and are simply copying the ideas of other professors, and that this is how they got into graduate school, when faculty at that university (in the same department!) were responsible for admitting that "box thinker" in the first place? Again, do faculty who simply cross their arms and complain really have no responsibility for the supposed box thinker phenomenon?"

Reading all of this stuff (oh, the joys of procrastination) got me thinking about this question of the Box, or Boxes, and about how it works post-graduate school. Because it occurs to me that bemoaning the fact that those entering graduate programs (or even undergraduate programs) are so afraid of failure that they don't have original ideas or can't respond to something that they haven't prepared for, etc., in some ways ignores a crucial aspect of academic culture: in academia, even after receiving a terminal degree, one cannot be successful if one is "thinking outside of the box" all of the time. In fact, one needs to learn to negotiate the edges of the Box and move in and out of it as different situations demand. In other words, it's only ok some of the time to be original, openly responsive, and honest and forthright in expressing one's opinions. Other times, one needs to get her ass back inside the Box or she will have absolutely no credibility in the profession (which is different from one's credibility as a thinker).**

Ok, so now that my basic argument is on the table, I'm going to circle back to Sharleen's question as a way of getting to the ways in which post-grads still have to be in the Box:
"Is it fair for faculty at a university to claim that graduate students can't
"think outside the box" and are simply copying the ideas of other professors,
and that this is how they got into graduate school, when faculty at that
university (in the same department!) were responsible for admitting that "box
thinker" in the first place?"

To be blunt, yes. I think it is fair. Graduate school is not about doing something you love or about having original ideas. You may love your subject and have original ideas, but that isn't what going on for a doctoral degree is about. One can love literature and survive quite well with a library card. There is no need to get a doctoral degree in order to pursue that passion or to think original things about it. The same is true for those passionate about history, computer science, whatever. Thus, graduate programs are admitting people who want to work in a particular profession, and that profession requires one throughout one's career to jump through hoops that look a lot like the hoops of the graduate school application. Good writing samples. Good letters of recommendation. A solid CV. If you can't fill in the boxes of the graduate school application appropriately, then you will never be able to manage the boxes that will await you after receiving your degree. But - and here is the important part - graduate school and academia is not only about jumping through hoops. Sometimes, one needs to have original thoughts and to be able to articulate those thoughts in a way that is both engaging and substantive. Thus, having demonstrated that you can "think in the box," professors then expect that graduate students will learn how to leave the Box in order to do something original and that contributes to the field of study in a substantive way. Graduate school - and this seeming contradiction about expectations - demonstrates that academia expects one to move in and out of the Box, an essential skill first for surviving the job market and second for surviving one's probationary period on the tenure track (if one is so lucky as to attain tenure-track employment).

Basically, I think that some of the comments about the Box in other places set up a false dichotomy wherein students are evaluated (negatively) as box-thinkers and where those of us with the fancy letters evaluate ourselves (positively) as out-of the-Box. That, to my mind, and not the expectation that graduate students learn how to deal with off-the-cuff questions or to demonstrate originality, insight, and curiosity, is the thing that isn't fair. Because as professional academics, we are not the most wildly original or insightful or curious people in the world all of the time (though it pains me to say such a thing). While we may be these things on rare and specific occasions, most of the time we have to "be smart" about the kind of research we choose to do, the kind of ideas we express amongst colleagues, the way in which we design syllabi and evaluate students, the service that we choose to do, and how we present ourselves as professionals. We have to get very comfortable with and in the Box in order to achieve and maintain solid professional reputations. And I think that this is true both before and after tenure, though perhaps it is more intense before one is tenured.

Still, we're not only in the Box. On those rare and specific occasions, those occasions when we are thinkers first and workers second, we move or try to move out of the Box. It's these forays out of the Box (one hopes) that get us published, that get us good teaching evaluations, that make us feel that the work that we do is meaningful. Nevertheless, in order to be a successful academic - somebody who thinks for a living and not just for fun - one has to be able to do both. And, even more than that, one needs to be able to turn the juicy things that one does out of the Box into dried up little morsels that one can put back in the Box so that others can invite them for job interviews, recommend them for reappointment, accept that conference paper proposal, or decide to publish their book.

Whew! Well, I think, having thought all of that out, I'm going to go get some lunch and work on In-the-Box-related tasks that I've been using this post to postpone. Ah, the joys of academic life!

*Caveat: I detest that this kind of corporate-speak has entered into our vocabulary in this way. "Thinking outside the box," being a "team player," and other like phrases entering the space of academic discussion underscores for me the way that the University has become a corporate space just like any other. It's disheartening.

**Perhaps one more reason why so many blog pseudonymously?


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