NOT EVERYBODY at its graduate schools is happy about Yale's sweeping plan to tighten the graduate-student teaching program, putting more teaching duties on senior faculty in the process. Some graduate students are sufficiently alarmed that they are attempting to unionize. But the fuss is a sign that Yale is doing something significant about two problems that have been gnawing at the humanities and social sciences: among students the growing amount of time, now averaging eight years, it takes to complete a PhD in those fields, and among senior faculty the wildly disproportionate emphasis now placed on research to the detriment of teaching undergraduates.
Yale plans to reduce the number of graduate-student teaching fellows from 1,O00 to 800 over three years, starting this fall. More dramatic, it will stop paying students to teach if they haven't finished their dissertations within six years. The fifth- and sixth-year graduate students who now support themselves by teaching discussion sections of lecture courses will instead be offered "dissertation fellowships" -- one-year inducements to sit down and finish writing. The ensuing shortage of teaching fellows would probably nudge senior faculty a little deeper into undergraduate teaching -- most likely by teaching another section or two of their own courses or else limiting enrollment in some of the largest ones. All this is contained in a report by two Yale deans, unanimously adopted by the faculty last year.
The process of getting a PhD bogged down severely in the '70s and '80s, as job markets for graduates tightened and aid cutbacks made teaching a necessity for more and more students. But while the so-called time-to-completion crisis is important to the profession, the teaching-research imbalance has much more debilitating effects on higher education as a whole. The decline in faculty teaching loads and the progressive loss of emphasis on teaching ability and enthusiasm for teaching in evaluating and rewarding scholars have eaten away at the quality of undergraduate education. Higher education spokesmen from Stanford to the University of Pennsylvania have decried this slippage, but doing something about it is an after-you-Alphonse proposition.
The top academics are already hotly sought after, universities argue; they fear losing them to the competition unless they, too, offer ever lighter teaching loads. To break the pattern, someone had to step forward whose prestige would continue to draw fine faculty, as Yale's undoubtedly will. The changes may cause some friction on both student and faculty accounts. But even the most traumatized of graduate students, for whom finishing the dissertation is a gigantic psychological as well as professional trauma, will benefit from a more rational program.