Post Academic

The latest from the MLA: Is the diss extinct?

"DMSN dinosaurs" by Luke Jones (Creative Commons)

Last week, we explored MLA President Sidonie Smith’s discussion of the role that the lengthy dissertation process has played in the latest crises in the humanities.  Over the weekend, we answered a Tweet by MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal soliciting responses to Pres Smith’s thoughts on the dissertation, telling her of our “admiringly skeptical” view on the possibility for reform.  And we also committed ourselves to considering her solutions to the problem, a promise we keep below.

Before we go into greater detail about our admiring skepticism as to how plausible the possibility of change is, we do have to give Pres Smith credit for her foresight in attempting to take on the most ingrained and daunting of academic hazing rituals, the dissertation writing process.  Beyond any issues folks have at a personal level maintaining their own sanity, balancing their finances, and figuring out their day-to-day lives through grad school, Pres Smith identifies the consequences the dissertation process has on the profession as a whole, stunting the development of young scholars at the start of their careers who may be investing too much into the diss manuscript as the end-all, be-all first book:

“They have brought with them a demonstration of expertise, not the draft of a publishable book, no matter how bold or sophisticated or deftly written. They must refine the project’s conceptualization, condense the research apparatus buttressing their arguments, pare down those arguments to the essentials, and subordinate disagreements with theorists of reference. When all this is done, the assistant professor in pursuit of a book may be left with the equivalent of one or two articles worth salvaging, anxiety about not yet knowing the large argument, and a sense of disappointment that more of his or her work hasn’t entered scholarly conversations.”

In turn, the overly specialized dissertation has a broader impact on scholarship as a whole, both in terms of research that has become too self-referential that even specialists in other sub-fields can’t understand it (much less the public) or pedagogy that hasn’t kept pace with the times.  So what Pres Smith is proposing would require reform of the whole grad school process, from changing the expectations of students starting Ph.D. programs thinking that they need to write a diss that’s a future book to the tenure requirements when/if someone needs to turn that faraway vision into a reality.

Below the fold are a few alternative forms of the dissertation that Pres Smith proposes…

Here are the ideas that Pres Smith brainstormed, with some snarky but hopefully helpful comments of our own, it goes without saying:

1. “A suite of essays”: Pres Smith describes the “most commonly proposed alternative” the current dissertation as a “suite of (three or four) essays” that are shorter, more targeted, and better written pieces than your typical diss chapter.  I read this idea as thinking of the diss as a collection of publishable pieces, although we know that it would definitely take longer to publish 3 or 4 essays than even to write a manuscript.

2. Digital projects: This idea sees the diss as a resource, under “the rubric of curation rather than argumentation,” Smith puts it.  While incorporating new media into the reinvention of the dissertation seems to be an obvious and fruitful next step, I wonder how this would work: That the profession seems behind the times with even using digital media as tool for facilitating research makes me question just how ready the faculty powers-that-be, in lit fields at least, would be in evaluating digital scholarship.

3. Collaborative project: As appealing as it would be to rethink the diss as a collective effort between a group of students and faculty, have you ever tried to get opinionated grad students all of who are neurotic about who will get the credit–especially if a job or a publication is on the line–to work together?  And what about scheduling multiple students to meet with multiple faculty to write together?  I think part of the reason why academics want to write dissertations is so they don’t have to get along with other folks, even if it comes back to bite them later on!

4. Translation projects: Just wondering, but does this already happen in foreign language and comp lit fields?  If not, can a comp-lit type explain why it isn’t and/or shouldn’t be?

5. Public scholarship: This strikes me as the most provocative way of reforming the dissertation process, because it might acknowledges the likely possibility that many Ph.D. students won’t be working in the specialized field of their choosing or even in academia.  Thinking of the dissertation as a public publication might also open up grad studies for folks interested in learning more and shaping knowledge formation, but who don’t want to pursue academic careers.

If the goal of reforming the diss process is to expand horizons through public scholarship, I’d ask what kind of commitment is there to non-academic careers within English and lit depts?  The problem here is two-fold: A lot of well-meaning advisors who care about the well-being of their students just don’t have experience of working outside of academia, while “everyone else” in the hamster world don’t know how to value Ph.D.s and, reasonably, don’t understand them.  It’s great for Pres Smith to use the MLA as a venue to talk about all this, but, to be really cynical here, this discussion probably means nothing to anyone who’s not familiar with the conversation in the first place.  So the question would be how can academics reach out to the public to get the conversation started?

Next time, we’ll put ourselves on the line and offer some of our ideas for how to make the diss process a little less painful, even if they are more like things to think about than solutions.


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  1. […] more directly available to general publics, either through pedagogies or digital dissemination. Post Academic describes themselves as “admiringly skeptical” of these solutions, which seems about right to […]

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