The latest from the MLA: Acknowledging the problem is the first step
I know it’s totally lame that I’m reading the MLA Newsletter (registration req’d) with more gusto than before, even though my status in the profession is more precarious than ever. But with all the various crises facing humanities doctoral programs–from the existential crisis of being and extinction to the mundane day-to-day crisis of funding to second-order crises like academic publishing–it’s interesting to see how the biggest academic professional organization is dealing with these problems. In particular, current MLA President Sidonie Smith of U Michigan has been focusing on ways to rethink the dissertation and how that might reshape graduate education. As Smith sees it, one of the main hurdles to timely time-to-degree (see that NYTimes article on humanities Ph.D.s taking 9.3 years on average to complete their degrees) is the unwieldy dissertation process as it is now, which impacts not only the personal lives of grad students, like those who might want to start families and have no idea where they will live, but also professional development in delaying time-to-tenure–if you’re even lucky enough to get on the tenure track, I might add .
It’s great that Smith is taking such a sincere and proactive stance challenging one of the sacred cows of the Ph.D., the dissertation, so it’ll be interesting to see how her words translate into actions. While I hate playing the naysayer–OK, maybe I don’t hate it so much!–conceptual solutions can only go so far in a profession that is, in many ways, defined by looking backwards and not forwards. Below the fold, I walk through what Smith identifies as the problems and possible solutions to the syndrome of crises that converge in the literature Ph.D.
Intellectually, Smith identifies a few areas in which the current form of the dissertation has impeded progress in the profession:
1. Diversity: Smith suggests that it is the daunting process of obtaining a Ph.D. and writing a dissertation that have hamstrung efforts to diversify the profession:
“If our programs are to be successful in recruiting and admitting students of color, first-generation students, and returning adults, we need to define scholarly structures that allow them to imagine themselves as future professors of literatures and languages.”
While it is heartening that Smith points to diversity as one of the main reasons to reform the literature Ph.D., the problem isn’t so much a matter of students-of-color imagining themselves as English profs–which, right now, is hard enough for anyone to do so. I think she’d agree that the problem is more ingrained and structural than the constraints on imagination, when a state school that is supposed to be serving its diverse community like UCLA is admitting only 193 African American students in 2009 and that’s considered an improvement from 100(!) in 2006. Or that, through the entirety of my association with my grad program at UCI (around 10 years), there was not a single African American student pursuing a Ph.D. in the English and whatever counted as diversity was lamely propped up by a handful of upper/middle-class Asian American students like myself. The solution here is more basic and probably more difficult, that we need to get underrepresented minorities into college before we can worry over how to get them to *think about* being professors.
2. Overspecialization: Relatedly, Smith wants to broaden the scope of ever-narrowing humanities research in ways that reach out beyond a community of specialists and to, you know, the actual community, borrowing a page from Louis Menand’s diagnosis of what ails Ph.D. programs. Here’s where the exercise of reimagining can help, since it would require both rethinking what counts as “rigorous” research as well as the means through which such research is relayed, as Smith acknowledges in promoting the use of digital media…
3. Digital media and new forms of knowledge production: Rightly, Smith notes that digital media has changed the nature of scholarly work, questioning, “Why should the dissertation remain inflexibly wedded to traditional book-culture formats?” One big step has to be overcoming the print fetish, as we’ve discussed on the blog before: It’s not just that we have to re-set our expectations for what looks, feels, and smells like a dissertation, but we also have to change the standards of what is acceptable published work. That means, like we’ve been promoting here, pursuing more online periodicals that can circulate research faster and more frequently, rather than seeing digital media only as facsimiles of paper and ink on JSTOR or Project Muse. There needs to be professional incentives for a digital conversion to work–so maybe they should start by experimenting with one of the most prestigious journals in the profession, the MLA’s own PMLA!
Again, it’s great that someone willing to pursue creative ideas and solutions like Smith is at the helm, but this is one unwieldy ship to turn around. It’s not only a matter of how we value research that is done in new ways when we’re so used to the old ones, but there’s also an anxiety over what to do about what’s left of soon-to-be obsolete research. To look at it from my own perspective and those similar to mine, why should a future Ph.D. who might compose an abridged, less specialized diss according to this new, more flexible model have an advantage over someone like me, who has written a 400-page dissertation and has followed all the rules set by the profession? And when you have nitpickers like me who are interested in how to change the profession but who have no real stake (i.e. a tenure-track position or one in the future) in the matter, making things happen is likely to be very hard. That’s not even mentioning the people who actually have the power to reform the profession, but–and maybe I’m being overly cynical–would seem to have no vested interest in doing so either once they’re made men and women with tenure or on their way to it.
Next time, we’ll discuss Prez Smith’s solution to the problem: her version of the leaner, meaner dissertation…