A Qualifying Paper on Social Work Education

This is one in a series of posts that describe aspects of my experience as a PhD student in the School of Social Work (SSW) on IU’s Indianapolis campus (IUPUI).  These posts proceed, for the most part, in reverse chronological order.  For example, the Introduction starts at the very end, and the post immediately preceding this one summarizes events that unfolded before the end of my doctoral studies.

So far in the sequence, the posts have been written from a conclusory perspective, wrapping things up as of early 2011, when I was dealing with the SSW’s response to my qualifying paper.  Basically, they flunked it without offering a coherent explanation.  Now this series of posts begins to move back in time to earlier developments.  This one describes the qualifying paper itself, before I submitted it.  The next post in this series takes another step backward, to the pre-qualifying stage, when I was still taking PhD-level classes in the SSW.

It was difficult to write the qualifying paper.  As described in more detail in another post, IUSSW’s PhD Student Handbook provided instructions that students had found confusing.  I described a number of problems with those instructions in petitions to the SSW’s PhD Committee.  I also alluded to those problems in the cover letter and epilogue to the qualifying paper.  Despite repeated indications of problems experienced by a number of students, the PhD Committee still had not bothered to fix those problems as of this writing in early 2012.

This blog is devoted to my experience as a PhD student at IU.  That is not the subject of my qualifying paper, so I have not presented the chapters of that paper in this blog.  One of those chapters was published in a peer-reviewed social work journal.  This was apparently the first, and may still be the only, time when an IUSSW student actually published a part of a supposedly “publishable” doctoral qualifying paper.  It is surely rare, at IUSSW or anywhere, for a qualifying paper to be deemed a failure when journal editors conclude that a chunk of its contents should actually be published.

Another chapter from the qualifying paper, discussing the future of social work education, appears in a different blog.  I may present the other chapters of the qualifying paper in additional posts later, as time permits.  These materials may demonstrate that the graders declined to provide the supposedly mandatory, valid reasons for their failing grades because, in fact, there were no such reasons.

This post does present the epilogue to the qualifying paper.  The epilogue conveys a bit of additional information about my experience at this phase of the process.  As the epilogue indicates, political difficulties at IU Bloomington were making it difficult, at this point, to write a more precise statement.  But that seems immaterial, since the graders disregarded the epilogue in any event.

*  *  *  *  *

 A Qualifying Paper:  Epilogue

Ray Woodcock, MSW, JD, MBA
Indiana University School of Social Work

This paper constitutes my qualifying paper for advancement to candidacy in the PhD program within the School of Social Work (SSW) of Indiana University – Purdue University – Indianapolis (IUPUI).  The paper consists of this epilogue plus the four preceding chapters, each comprised of a distinct publishable article.  The purpose of this epilogue is to highlight some links among the articles, so as to explain where they will lead in my future research.  I originally wrote this epilogue as an introduction, but then realized it might make more sense and be more enjoyable if it came after.

In terms of the writing process, the four articles began with the second one, the reply to Reid and Edwards.  Those authors juxtapose social justice against clinical practice as two competing drivers of the future of social work education.  As I explored their views, it appeared that I, and others within social work, might benefit from a simple, practical introduction to some major political perspectives.  Hence the first article was born.  As may be evident there and elsewhere in these articles, I do have a long-term interest in philosophy, though generally for applied purposes rather than as a pursuit in itself.  I expect that a philosophical orientation will continue to characterize my work to some extent.

During this qualifying process, I hoped that I would have time, after writing the article on political philosophy, to write a separate piece on social justice.  I have an article coming out in Families and Society later in January [2011], the second of a two-part set, that pays some attention to the frontier between social work and law.  That frontier, which I hope to explore further, seems to be determined in part by a vague and perhaps exaggerated distinction between justice and social justice.  In my impression, the argument by Reid and Edwards, regarding the future of social work education, was not very well framed, insofar as it depended upon mischaracteriza­tions of both clinical education and social justice.  I could not fit all of that within the second article.  Time and the page limit argued against adding a fifth article to this qualifying paper.  So in addition to what you see here, I have some material on social justice that I expect to develop into a separate article.

The third article in this qualifying paper, regarding unemployment, is the culmination of the three others, so let me turn to the fourth article and then come back to the third one.  The fourth article is a philosophical piece on the definition of leisure.  I have placed the fourth article last, in this paper, because it is not a social work article, and thus would interrupt the progression of the three other articles for purposes of social work readers.  The fourth article is designed for publication in a leisure-related journal.  (Leisure, within Indiana University’s Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Studies (RPTS), is my doctoral minor.)  As a definitional piece, the fourth article is somewhat parallel to the early pages of the third one.  Both seek to get their arms around their respective fields of inquiry.  The third one does so by subsuming complex philosophical debates under a simple definition of the profession.  The fourth similarly acknow­ledges the sprawling vagueness of the concept of leisure.  I did not attempt a comparably simple definition of leisure study because there is not the same degree of professional demand for it.  Leisure study is more like philosophy, in that scholars are interested in taking it in various directions; it is a much smaller and generally non-licensed field and, as such, is not quite so constrained by the need to lead hordes of practitioners along clear lines.  Hence, the fourth article focuses more on the method of definition, and proposes explicative and antonymic approaches to accommodate open-ended exploration.

I have done that definitional groundwork for a reason.  Leisure behavior is not just my doctoral minor; it is, in fact, a second doctoral major for me.  Assuming RPTS and I are able to resolve certain bureaucratic irregularities in that department’s handling of my separate qualifying paper in that major, I will be going further with this approach to defining leisure.  The case to which I will apply it is leisure within graduate study.  In other words, I want to move toward a refined understanding of leisure, such that I can aptly characterize the extent to which the process of going through graduate school entails leisure experience.  I will probably focus particularly on social work education in that analysis.  We are not there yet.  Depending upon RPTS, it may not materialize.  But I did want to explain how it will unfold if RPTS comes around.

I say the third article is the culmination of articles one, two, and four.  It culminates articles one and two in that it follows their treatment of certain social work topics.  After offering a definition of social work, article three looks at the topic of unemployment.  The question at issue there is, why has social work education so grossly neglected the palpable human need of unemployment? Part of the answer is political philosophy.  Unemployment is likely to be more neglected by neoliberalism than by, say, socialism.  Another part of the answer is social work’s clinical focus, which itself is something of a neoliberal preoccupation.  As developed in the third paper, people who are struggling with material hardship are not necessarily able to afford the pecuniary cost or mental luxury of clinical treatment that dwells upon their anxieties and moods.  They have other fish to fry.  There is, in other words, a class aspect to social work’s neglect of unemployment.  And there is also a gender aspect.  Unemployment has tended to be more of a male concern.  Article three suggests that, if social work education wishes to remain viable both financially and intellectually, it will have to get past its parochialism in such areas.

Meanwhile, the third article also culminates the fourth article, in that it leads to a next step from the definition of leisure.  Work and leisure, treated in article four’s final section, comprise Siamese twins at the core of human experience.  Together they account for the bulk of who we are and what we do.  Unemployment, with underemployment and other forms of work/leisure experience, comprise their junction.  In other words, when article three looks at unemployment, it is not merely saying that social work should be more attentive to needs like that.  It is also saying that unemployment is a substantial component within the future of society.  This has long been appreciated in end-of-work literature.  I plan to explore and develop concepts in that literature.  I think that doing so will contribute to a markedly different future under­standing of what social work and leisure study are all about.  There is much more to say about this.  Again, though, my development of the leisure aspect depends upon progress in RPTS.  This is not a qualifying paper in leisure research, so I will not outline that aspect further here.

For purposes of my social work major, the next step after this qualifying exam is to propose a dissertation.  I expect that proposal to focus on the future of social work education.  As just described, the articles in this paper culminate in a sense that, in the best case, social work education will become more responsive to problems, like unemployment, that lie well within its bailiwick but largely outside of its current comfortable preoccupations.  Article three prefigures the dissertation in its analysis of factors that have prevented social work education from developing that kind of responsiveness.  The dissertation will have a philosophical flavor, possibly combining a Foucauldian critique of current social work education with a left-­communitarian vision of where social work education should be heading.  I may seek my dissertation committee’s permission to configure the dissertation to accommodate treatment of these and other conceptual issues in distinct articles, consistent with the rationale underlying this qualifying paper.  As such, the dissertation will probably expand upon article three:  it may provide further attention to issues discussed there; it may develop other issues (e.g., power within social work education; law-related social work education) that now seem important but that, for various reasons, did not make it into article three; and it may uncover additional problems or opportunities.

In short, the dissertation will identify one or more key barriers to responsiveness in social work education and will try to sketch out a clear and practical transition route around those barriers and on to a better form of social work education.  Except where parts of the picture can be pared off into distinct conceptual articles, I expect the core of this inquiry to develop from an exploration, probably qualitative in nature, into relevant aspects of social work education.  I could speculate further as to the shape of the dissertation, but it seems the most productive next step will be to develop elements of the project through discussions with committee members.

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