Post Academic

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.


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…


The latest from the MLA: Acknowledging the problem is the first step

"Dinosaurs Attack!" by akaalias (Creative Commons)

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.