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