Last week, I wrote about the strengths and weaknesses of the Indiana style of graduate training. In summary, Indiana succeeds by creating a very structured type of graduate education where we hammer people into the mainstream. Formally, we have a zillion requirements and informally, we do lots of 1-1 work with students. I also discussed the limits of the system. Specifically, I wrote about “Foucault kids,” graduate students who are aiming for unconventional careers. In the comments, someone asked for clarification. Why exactly would the Indiana model not work for these students?
First, let’s start with a discussion of the Foucault kids. In the way that I used it, I roughly mean ambitious graduate students who are doing work that crosses or combines various areas of study. Foucault, of course, was a Foucault kid. His training was in philosophy, but worked with George Canguilhem, who did work on the philosophy of science. In his career, Foucault did this mutant form of work that combined philosophy, history of ideas, and other stuff. Similarly, the Foucault kid is the young scholar who sees himself as some awesome sui generis scholar that breaks boundaries.
Who is a Foucault kid? Not you, probably. In fact, during my graduate career in Chicago, I only met two genuine Foucault kids, this guy (who combined anthropology, ethnography, and hermenuetics) and, I think, one of his students. Later, I’ve seen them here and there, mainly at other elite programs in sociology. You also see them in idiosyncratic programs, like the Committee on Social Thought. But still, overall, they’re rare. I’ve met lots of brilliant people, but they exist mainly within the confines of sociology or some other discipline.
So, what sort of training does such a person need? It is unclear to me since we have little data. Many Foucault kids end up flailing, they can’t complete their dissertations, and you never hear from them. The license to “be great” is often interpreted as a demand for perfectionism, or endless procrastination, or being so weird that no one will take them seriously.
I can offer two hypotheses about what might work for a Foucault kid: (a) no training, just let them wander and demand a dissertation at the end, or (b) demand high quality training but allow weird or unusual combinations of fields. The Indiana model doesn’t do either (a) or (b) well. In fact, our model is the opposite where we require people to be strongly grounded in a disciplinary mainstream. I don’t think it would hurt a Foucault kid, but it would probably frustrate them and probably waste their time. In the end, I think it mainly comes to having just a few faculty members who can tolerate the weirdness of the Foucault kid and teach them the academic survival skills so that they won’t become the legendary 12th year grad student whose dissertation went uncomplete and unread.