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Our turn: Some thoughts on reanimating the Ph.D. (with poll!)

"Classic Comics: Frankenstein" by Chordboard (public domain)

Over the past few days, we’ve discussed how MLA President Sidonie Smith has put forward some provocative ideas for reforming the dissertation process.  We’ve been “admiringly skeptical,” as I put it on the MLA Twitter feed–admiring because Pres Smith seems committed in her attempts to make the lives of very vulnerable MLA members better, but skeptical because we’re not sure what will end up happening and when.  So while the MLA seems sincere in responding to the concerns of grad students and recent Ph.D.s, help can’t come soon enough for those facing the Worst. Job Market. Ever.

I think the main reason for skepticism–or at least, anxiety–has to do with whether or not recent Ph.D.s and current students are going to be made even more obsolete in any kind change over to a new way of doing things, unless the MLA has come up with the academic equivalent of a digital conversion box or something.  I’d wonder what would happen in the transitional phase, if it gets to that: Practically speaking, how would changing the system affect both those playing by the new rules or those playing by the old rules, the latter who have dutifully finished a long, long dissertation as they have been expected to?  This might be too petty on a personal level, but I wrote a 400+ page dissertation that included some very thorough argumentation and extensive research.  What took me a long time was to figure out the connective tissue within and between chapters, so am I going to be penalized for the time and effort I spent above and beyond the “suite of essays” approach PresSmith mentions that doesn’t seem to put a premium on thinking of the dissertation as a holistic thing?

On the flipside, I might also be somewhat hesitant of being the guinea pig for composing a whole new kind of dissertation, although, considering what the market is like, what would you have to lose, especially if you finish your Ph.D.a few years earlier?  The reason why I wouldn’t be so sure I’d want to be in the vanguard here is that I wouldn’t have confidence that the folks–i.e., long-time tenured faculty–judging my scholarship or even advising me on what to do would know how to evaluate new forms of scholarship.  In any case, I guess what I’m saying is that any kind of transition should have a principle of fairness built into it, even if that sounds naive.

We’re not really sure how to resolve these issues, but nobody voted us to represent anyone else either!  Below the fold, we’re–finally!–offering some suggestions on how to streamline the process that might not require the daunting task of overhauling the entire conceptual structure of what the Ph.D is.

Here are some solutions we came up with, based on my own experiences and a lot of folks like me…

1. Some uniform standards: Rather than completely scrapping the dissertation as we now know it, perhaps there are ways that MLA/ADE Ph.D.-granting institutions could offer some basic guidelines about what a diss manuscript should look like.  No, we’re not advocating some kind of thought police, but maybe a requirement that the dissertation be, say, no shorter than 200 pp and no longer than 300 pp would help to reconfigure what people expect out of the manuscript.  In my dept, I think dissertations varied in length from the low 100 pp to somewhere around 500 pp and 2 volumes!  Chopping off a few hundred pages from the latter types might improve normative time, which would help folks who write 400+ pp dissertations like me get on with our lives, whether it’s in or out of academia.

It might also make things a little easier of those who cram through a shorter diss, mostly likely because they have a job lined up and everyone just signs off on what they’ve completed to that point.  Forcing those folks to get past a finish line that’s a little more rigorous might help them in the long run, since they’ll be further along the way in turning the diss into a fully-fledged MS, which might help in the tenure process  But what do I know about that, and maybe that’s just me being bitter that there are a bunch of folks who wrote dissertations that are less than half the length of mine with plum R1 jobs!

2. Easier, more transparent filing process: Another way to expedite the dissertation process would be to make the final submission of the document a lot quicker, easier, and logical.  This probably has to do with each school having its own idiosyncratic system, but it just seems like there’s an unnecessary amount of bureaucracy involved and it’s not the sort that is used to strengthen or validate the dissertation itself.  Speaking from my own experience, I really think that the final say-so and handshake should be taken out of the hands of librarians measuring column sizes and checking paper thickness, though you can’t blame ‘em for doing their jobs.  Why doesn’t the MLA (or UMI or depts) create a template on a word processor for all students to use, that way we don’t have to worry about whether the margins are right or if we’re using the right footnoting method?  Also, maybe there should be a more efficient way for UMI/ProQuest to process the dissertations and abstracts, so that they’re more readily available on databases, which might help circulate research a little more efficiently.  You’d be surprised how much time and anxious energy streamlining things would save at the very end of the Ph.D. obstacle course.

3. Legitimating options outside the academy: One reason why normative time seems so bad (avg 9.3 years in the humanities!) and why the odds of getting a job are so low (less than 1%, roughly!) is that Ph.D. students stay on longer than they should, because–and I’m extrapolating a bit from myself and people I know–it’s unclear what options there are besides the tenure-track and lecturing (or law school, I guess).  We hang on not just because of hope, but because we might be a bit clueless about other choices.  And as I mentioned last time, faculty, no matter how much they want to help, are mostly unsure about non-academic career advice themselves, since many haven’t really had to deal with those contingencies.  A posting of the blog Uncollected Thoughts explains powerfully how this issue isn’t just a structural one, but a cultural one within Ph.D. programs:

“The career center was right to get a [non-academic careers] program like this up and running, but I don’t know how to respond to it. Does being seen attending it, or heard talking about it here, broadcast that I’m hesitant about pursuing the path that I’m on? If I’m caught investigating other options does that call my commitment to my project into question? And does that theoretical lack of commitment somehow practically or cosmically disqualify me from an academic path? It shouldn’t, but I’m not sure that I would be surprised if it did.”

Pres Smith’s suggestions on rethinking the diss as public scholarship would be bolstered by the institutionalization and legitimating non-academic options for Ph.D. students, beyond the more practical advice offered by the campus job center.  It might not seem obvious, but maybe there are a lot of folks who aren’t cut out to be profs *not* because they aren’t qualified, but because they don’t want to teach and/or research the rest of their lives.

4. Funding (duh!): I’d think everyone would agree the last point here is a no-brainer.  Without more funding, everything else is just rearranging deck chairs.

What do you think would help the most in reforming the process of getting a humanities Ph.D.?  You can vote in our poll, but also offer your comments below too.  We’ve got the ear of the MLA on this one via Twitter, so let’s come up with a list of things we want or at least some stuff we think Pres Smith, et al. should think about!

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11 Responses to 'Our turn: Some thoughts on reanimating the Ph.D. (with poll!)'

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  1. SarahK said,

    Definitely the combo of 3) and 4): increase exposure to/training for non-TT options while forestalling the lengthening of the Ph.D. process that stems directly from scrounging for part-time work to pay the bills.

    I’m about to submit my dissertation and it actually seems like the digital submission process is fairly smooth: while you still have to meet with a Margin Monitor with one hard copy, you can also submit a PDF copy that gets posted immediately online through something called Scholarly Commons, and then archived eventually by ProQuest. I have no idea how common this is but it seems quicker and easier than having to submit 2 paper copies.

    My dissertation is on the shorter side (c. 200 pgs.) so I can’t speak to 1), really, other than to say I never felt pressured to make it longer — all the pressure was to finish, like, now.

  2. Arnold Pan said,

    Thanks for the response, Sarah! It’s great to hear about Scholarly Commons, which seems like a much more efficient and environmentally conscious way of doing things. I did a quick Google search on it and it looks like a lot of schools are moving in this direction. For instance, Stanford apparently just started providing full-text dissertations online via Google, starting in November 2009. So maybe a lot has changed on this front since I submitted my diss in late 2006.

    I did always think it was rather anticlimactic that the last person to congratulate me for completing my diss was a (very nice) librarian. Maybe it’s different at schools where you have to defend your Ph.D., but we don’t have an oral defense at UCI. I suppose you could drag your advisor to the archives with you, but maybe you don’t want to give him/her any last chances to make you go back to the drawing board!

    As for the dissertation length, my 200-300 pp idea was totally arbitrary. Most people I knew came up right around 200 pp, so maybe 300 seems too much?

  3. SarahK said,

    Indeed, even with the defense, the Margin Monitor (in our case, at the grad admin offices, not the library) is our last moment of approval as well!

    In terms of length, I’d guess that as administrators put more and more pressure on grad students to get out soon (as they seem to be doing at a lot of places), dissertations will become increasingly shorter, on average. What I’d be curious about is the role that individual advisors play in this: my own committee never said anything about length one way or the other, but I can imagine more hands-on advisors dictating approximate chapter length, for instance.

    • Arnold Pan said,

      Good point about chapter length guidelines. I wonder if Sidonie Smith’s “suite of essays” idea isn’t something advisors are already suggesting, since I know some folks have been told to write chapters as if they were essay-length pieces. If you were to combine, say, 4 essays at around 30-40 pp, plus about 40 pp of intro+conclusion combined, that’s almost 200 pp, before the bibliography and formatting stuff. That seems pretty reasonable, especially since I’m not sure if you can write a chapter or even a publication-length essay much shorter than that (maybe 25 pp for the latter?).

      I have heard of some people just basically using seminar papers as diss chapters, but I’d say that would be going too far in trying to streamline things. In my case, I know I’d want no part of anything I wrote in my first 3 years even near the diss! Efficiency is one thing, but some standard of not-crappiness should be maintained.

      • SarahK said,

        I support your impulse to non-crappiness! While I did revise part of a seminar paper into part of my first diss chapter, revision was definitely involved, and it became part of a larger argument.

        After revising my second diss chapter into article form for submission to a journal, I wrote my third and fourth chapters much more like articles. Easier to publish and (in my case) more coherent than a “dissertation chapter,” whatever that is.

      • Arnold Pan said,

        Though I have heard of people who just appended a seminar essay as a diss chapter (probably in a rush to finish the diss), I definitely don’t want to impugn all seminar papers, just my own! Actually, the essay that ended up not being published after being in limbo for forever was culled from a very long chapter that added substantially to my MA thesis–which was first a seminar paper and which may have actually been part of the worst grad school final exam essay I’ve ever written. So I guess maybe a little bit of a seminar paper may have tainted the dissertation, though hopefully not in any significant way.

        I guess our experiences navigating the dissertation chapter vs. publishable essay approaches only highlights how crazy the push to publish is for Ph.D. students at the end of the degree process. I wish that the powers-that-be would either decide that dissertators don’t have to publish to be competitive on the job market or make it a more regularized thing for them to get published. Why weigh grad students down with all the baggage and anxiety of publishing when it’s hard enough just to write a dissertation? Setting one goal of finishing the Ph.D. is hard enough without having to worry about the next steps of professionalizing and getting a job.

  4. Len said,

    I really enjoyed reading the exchange between Arnold and Sarah, where I thought some interesting things were being sorted out in a way that we can only hope is happening at doctorate-granting institutions. The “suite of essays” approach may actually be a return to an older way of seeing the dissertation. My former department chair had a dissertation that was simply a collection of four completely different essays, Don McQuade at Berkeley did basically the same thing, and I’m sure that there are many other examples. Back then, the more open job market made this kind of diss fine, but now this approach may have a different kind of appropriateness as the academic book industry is essentially vanishing (and even a great book may get a press run of 100 copies). I like Arnold’s option of having grad students approach publishing as just a “regularized thing,” simply because it is a competitive necessity. I remember a member of my job search advising committee telling us to hide our first publications if they are embarrassing, but that advice now seems to me applicable only to the very, very elite research institutions that require publications to appear in very distinguished journals. The rest, like my own, don’t have the luxury of having hiring committees that know your field inside out, and the reality is that there’s simply a lot of counting rather than close reading. Anyway, I know that I probably got my job because the search committee didn’t how just unimportant the journals I was submitting to are! and, yes, I’m embarrassed by most of what appeared under my name but I guess it’s the only way I felt I could get by. Rather than writing the bloated dissertation that I did write, in which I was struggling to find connections among chapters that really didn’t connect, it would have been better to conceive of the whole thing as a set of distinct essays designed for specific journals.

  5. David Murray said,

    Face facts, please.

    Most graduate programs in the humanities must be shut down permanently.

    They are overproducing graduates for whom there is little or no demand, reducing lifetime earnings of graduate students who will end up working in fields they could well have begun instead of graduate school, contributing to the flood of substandard dissertations and scholarly articles, and causing “credential inflation” in an overcrowded workplace, leading to a loss of respect for humanities degrees in the larger culture.

    No amount of tweaking can re-purpose programs designed to produce professors into something else.

    The workplace has changed, and will never change back.

    Of course, this means a reduction in staff and prestige of faculty and administrators who busy themselves administering graduate programs. That’s the special interest that’s holding back real reform. Besides the delusions of thousands of graduate students, that is, cultivated by said administrators.


  6. I think your argument regarding overproduction and overcrowded workplaces is valid. Perhaps grad programs themselves could shrink, but should they be shut down permanently? Absolutely not. Universities need full-time humanities instructors to teach classes that fulfill core humanities requirements, not just the more specialized classes. Today, universities are turning to cheaper adjunct labor instead of hiring replacements for tenure-track faculty who are about to retire. Even if they don’t wind up entering grad school, college students must know how to read critically. It’s a major skill for workplace survival.

  7. dhume said,

    No, David, the argument regarding “overproduction” and “supply and demand” is absurd. Read your Marc Bousquet. There are something like 17 million college students in this country. There is more demand for the services of people who are qualified to be university instructors than ever before. There are plenty of “jobs,” it’s just that 90% or something of those jobs are not desirable, i.e, they pay slave wages, have no benefits and no security, have no opportunity for advancement, etc. Desirable jobs don’t exist because the people who control demand (administrators and, in the case of public institutions, legislators) have decided that desirable jobs should not exist. The demand gatekeepers are getting what they want–cheap labour from serfs who can’t hold them accountable for their venality–so they have no interest to change an immoral system.

    Now, how does shutting down “most” humanities programs change this (I put “most” in quotes because I have no doubt that once we start down that road, it will become “all” pretty fast)? I would suggest it only makes things worse. The wolves in human flesh who run our universities can just sit back and wait for the tenured folks who remain to retire in disgust, and then all university instructors will be powerless, impoverished adjuncts. Eventually the wolves won’t even need those miserable wretches to make their universities work, since I’m sure they’ll take every opportunity to move teaching online. Or maybe they’ll just eliminate the liberal arts entirely, since everyone “knows” the assorted paradigm shifts in the global economy mean we don’t need those anymore. We need more business school graduates! Also people to program the computers that will teach those business school graduates (but we can import them from India with H1B visas, so no problem there)!

    All snark aside, my point is that as bad as the current system is (and it is), it’s the best we can hope for in the short term. In the long term, we need to do better at explaining why an education in the liberal arts is essential for all students, and should therefore be funded at a level that enables professionals to provide high-quality instruction. This, obviously, will require professors and those who aspire to become such to make compromises we may not all like (like limiting the size of grad programs, as Caroline suggests). In addition, though, we need to do more to demand fair treatment from administrators and politicians. We need to force them to recognize that the current labour system in higher ed is viciously immoral to faculty and bad for student learning outcomes. We need to bring an end to the research arms race (which is largely driven by administrators) and admit that not every university can be Harvard, and that’s OK. We need to force universities to quit wasting money on student luxury and sports.

    All of these things require us to work from within the institution, however brutal and horrible it is. If we give up our institutional positions, or allow them to be taken away from us, we lose whatever power we have to make these institutions less brutal. If we abolish grad school in the humanities, we’re basically admitting that what is now, always should be in the future and that negative changes in the workplace should just be accepted without a fight. Real form means improving the system we have, not burning it to the ground and hoping that things will just turn out somehow.

  8. dhume said,

    oops, typo: in the last sentence of my above post, that should be “Real reform, etc.”


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