a quarterly reflection from the Director of the Insitute
By Max Stephenson Jr., Director of VTIPG
Rediscovering the Ph.D. as a Milestone in a Lifetime of Discovery
My principal mentor in graduate school was a distinguished scholar of public administration. I was, so far as I am aware, the last student he asked to work with him before “retiring” from teaching to a research role at the White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. That fact provides a clue to the character of my intellectual preparation and interests. By the time I studied with him, Frederick Mosher was deeply concerned with what today would be called governance issues. He was one of the first, if not the first, scholar to recognize the emergence of what would become the neo-liberal or proxy state. He was also among the first to comment on the explosive pace of change in the institutional office of the presidency and in the nature of public organization itself. Nonetheless, however sharp eyed and insightful he may have been as an observer, Mosher always was concerned foremost with the challenges and possibility of democratic governance as these were unfolding daily in the uniquely American governmental experiment.
When I enjoyed the privilege of working with him, Mosher was, in short, thinking both generally and deeply about the changing nature of American governance, broadly understood. He was widely known as an expert on the evolution of professionalism in public life, as a prominent scholar on the import of federalism and as an acute observer of modern organizational life. His interests were wide-ranging, his gaze equally expansive and his curiosity unquenchable. As it happened, these qualities perfectly suited my own emerging intellectual personae. My own doctoral preparation was unusually broad, encompassing five separate subfields, including public administration, state and local government, ancient and medieval political theory, American institutions and international politics.
I have remained interested and engaged, literally, in all of these areas since and each has deeply informed my intellectual development. Notably these domains of inquiry deal with many of the so-called “big questions” that all human civilization must constantly address: the meaning of life and of the good; what it means to be free and how to sustain that possibility against the natural avarice and lust for power that partly define the human condition; whether and how peoples of different gender, race and ethnicity can learn to live together peaceably; whether nations may find ways to compete and to cooperate in peace; how our own nation might fashion its institutions to realize its cardinal aspirations despite the tensions among those; and so on. My intellectual preparation led me to consider these and like concerns at multiple analytic scales and contexts. And like my academic mentor, I have spent my career thus far seeking to capture or describe contexts with theory, to grapple with issues that transcend a single level of inquiry and always to try to connect these to bedrock questions linked to the claims of our common humanity and our regime’s foundations.
While I developed these enduring concerns I could not know in graduate school that I would one day have a continuing and specific interest in democratic theory and democratization, or in civil society and civil society institutions these many years later. I surely did not know that I would one day be privileged to co-lead doctoral seminars on Africa and development or international humanitarian intervention, as I did recently. Nonetheless, I was equipped to undertake these responsibilities because of my lasting interest in their subjects and because I had been prepared to be open to just such intellectual possibilities. Indeed, they were a special joy with which to be involved.
I share this personal intellectual journey not out of any sense of hubris or as an exemplar. Instead, I want to suggest that the academy is today too often preparing our graduate students far too narrowly, whatever their disciplines of choice. Some of this, to be sure, is the product of cultural claims and some arises from personal predilection born of fear, but much is pressed upon students by faculty members with pinched views of intellectual possibility sharply constrained by disciplinary perspectives. Indeed, I recognize that students’ own personal perceptions and fears often triumph. I have often seen many excellent students in our interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs here at Virginia Tech, which are surely as strong as any in the nation, forego opportunities because they did not immediately perceive them as directly linked in an instrumental way to their specific research focus of the moment. I always react viscerally to such choices since they often imply too ready and too early a closure of imagination and a willingness to decline learning by analogy. Such choices also do not permit students to challenge assumptions and enlarge understandings by grappling with alternate epistemological or even ontological frames. If one cannot fall in love for life with learning and begin to develop and test one’s critical and reflexive capacities in graduate school, I do wonder when that propensity can be developed. And it seems especially sad when students decline potentially enriching opportunities out of a sense that somehow they are not permissible in a headlong rush to “prove” devotion to capacities, whether to impress specific professors or to serve supposed market preferences.
I think of the old adage, especially apt in our ever more thoroughly instrumental and commodified culture that, “if you give an individual a hammer and all he or she knows is that instrument, everything they encounter will be treated as a nail.” While interdisciplinary programs represent a step in the right direction to address this challenge, faculty, too, must engage outside of their comfort zones and test their own frailties and assumptions so as to grow and deepen their knowledge and capacities. In so doing, they may fail, as I have surely done on more than one occasion, but they will learn from such turns and model for their students a true passion for learning and for their collective enterprise.
Ultimately, professors privileged to be involved with doctoral students are not afforded that trust to tread narrowly and instrumentally, but to prepare the future leaders of our colleges, universities and nation. Seen in that light, it seems extremely important that students be exposed to a wide range of theories and analytical frameworks and that faculty be willing to consider those with them, rather than demand obeisance to one or another frame because it is comfortable or because they favor it personally.
What seems most critical instead is that faculty members adopt an attitude of support for those who entrust them to help shape their academic journeys, in lieu of constricting their mentees’ choices to accord with their own. Professors should encourage those with whom they work to open the proverbial box of crayons and explore its full palette. That opportunity will perhaps blossom into a lifelong quest to learn and to open new doors that can only result in the realization of fresh insights for the individual involved and for their chosen fields, and for those with whom they later interact and mentor themselves. In short, the professor’s ultimate responsibility is an intellectual one at its heart, rather than simply a professional one. Far better to open possibilities for those with whom one is privileged to work than to encourage their innate fear and to diminish the possibilities they explore. The trick is to help them discover those for themselves and to stand ready to support them as they do. It is both an exhilarating and fearsome responsibility. But it is likewise rewarding and one cannot help but grow in the process, a deeply felicitous combination.
Finally, I am struck that this argument is ultimately an ethical one that demands much of professors. It asks them to stretch and to bind themselves to assisting their students as they chart goals and possibilities, rather than simply to assign those or to use mentee’s talents for their own advancement. It also demands that faculty slow down long enough themselves to listen and to care about their students’ goals for their own sake, rather than as instruments of their own purposes or goals or “another meeting to attend.” Since mentoring is hard work for typically little professional recognition, these are tough hurdles to clear but they are the right questions and challenges. One may hope more professors will address them successfully. I was surely most fortunate to have a mentor with these qualities and I have delighted in the possibilities his farsightedness and openness have provided me as I have developed my foundational views since.
April 2013 Rediscovering the Ph.D. as a Milestone in a Lifetime of Discovery
January 2013 A Modest Précis on “Cliff Diving”
October 2012 Hard Questions at an Ugly Moment
July 2012 Aung San Suu Kyi: Lessons in Human Freedom and Democratic Possibility
April 2012 Health Policy Reform Redux
January 2012 Moral Claims, the "Government" and Campaign Rhetoric
October 2011 Pondering America's new found "Governance by Brinksmanship"
June 2011 On Peacebuilding, Patience and the meaning of Accountability
April 2011 Once Upon a Time in America
January 2011 Reflecting on the Cruel Realities of Poverty
October 2010 The Social Ontology of Fear
July 2010 Counting the Costs of the Dark Politics of Fear and Loathing
March 2010 American Democratic Politics and Deliberative Possibility
January 2010 Pondering Citizenship, Governance and Deliberation
October 2009 Cultural Values, Policymaking and Deliberation
July 2009 A Free and Ordered Space
March 2009 Reflections on Peacebuilding and Radical Hope
January 2009 Reflections on Idealism, Realism and the Human Condition
October 2008 Governing Collaboratively
July 2008 Governance in Conflicted Landscapes of Memory and Action