Of all the hyperbole surrounding the fate of the humanities today, the problems facing graduate studies seem the least exaggerated. The number of PhDs has far outpaced the number of available full-time jobs. Financial support is both inadequate and unevenly distributed, requiring students to defer earnings over long periods of time, assume unneeded debt, and compete against differently funded peers.
Overspecialization has made knowledge transfer between the disciplines, not to mention between the academy and the rest of the workforce, increasingly difficult. The model of mentorship that largely guides student progress, now centuries-old, seems increasingly out of touch with a culture of non-academic work, so that students are ill-prepared to leave the academic track. Time-to-degree has not only not sped-up, but increasingly it also correlates with lower success rates—the longer students stay in the PhD track the lower their chances for full-employment.
The hegemony of the seminar as the only model of learning is also at odds with much recent thinking about learning and intellectual development. Undoubtedly, numerous teachers and students alike would describe at least some, if not many, of their seminar experiences as profoundly uninspiring. Add to that the way we largely operate within a developmental model premised on major phase-changes that dot otherwise stable, and largely flat, plateaus. The long time between exams or their sink-or-swim nature does little to promote long-term incremental development of students as thinkers, writers, or teachers. We think more in terms of a ninteenth-century-inspired model of botanical metamorphosis, with its inscrutable internal transformations, than we do incremental, cumulative performances.
There are also bio-political aspects to the crisis that have recently been raised, where the most intense periods of work and the most intense periods of insecurity overlap precisely within the normal timeframe of human fertility. This PhD model seems downright Saturnalian, consuming its own offspring.
What is there to like about this scenario?
Luckily, the MLA has issued a report about graduate education. “We are faced with an unsustainable reality,” the report states. Indeed. And then come the all-too-familiar platitudes. Maintain excellence. More teaching. Shorter time-frames. Innovate. Better connection with non-academic jobs. Advocate for more tenure-track positions.
As the clichés pile up, so do the contradictions. Get out faster, but spend more time teaching. Keep up those rigorous standards of specialization, but do it with haste (and be interdisciplinary about it). No teaching positions available? Look for another kind of job! Persuade the university to hire more tenure track positions—whom do I call for that one?
Will the MLA report lead to changes? It’s doubtful. Sure, we’ll crack down on time to degree without really changing requirements. We’ll spice up course offerings and maybe throw in an independent project or two (digital portfolios!). We’ll scratch our heads and say the PhD would be a great fit for a job in consulting, or in a museum, maybe even Google—and then do absolutely nothing. Five or ten years from now, we’ll talk about a crisis in the humanities, the shrinking of the field, and notice that, once again, there seem to be fewer of us hanging around the faculty club.
Nothing will change because we don’t have to. As long as there are too many graduate students, there is no problem for faculty. And no matter what we say, what we do is always the same thing. Try approaching your department and saying you need to change the scope, scale, content, and medium of the dissertation. You’re in for a fun conversation.
Try implementing a mandatory time-limit with yearly progress reports and consequences for failure and you’ll be barraged with so many exceptions your Agamben will start to hurt. What do employers want from PhDs—good writing skills, general knowledge, analytical capability, facility with numbers, strong work habits, works well with others? Sorry, can’t help you. None of our students has those skills since our program doesn’t emphasize them (but we have a writing center!).
Nothing will change because we don’t have to. We’re so conservative at heart we’d rather die out with our beliefs intact than do anything that might actually better serve the student population. We’ll continue to point to the exceptions without realizing how much they still look like something we didn’t want to change.
The PhD did something once, or rather it did one thing and it did it reasonably well. It still does that one thing, which is now, quantitatively speaking, vastly unnecessary. Some have suggested scaling up to meet the sciences on their own ground (and here at The Infernal Machine, too). I would suggest that we scale down to meet the needs of the world at large. More modular, more flexible, more creative, more varied, more timely, more general, more collaborative, and more relevant. Until we have any proof that our programs are feeders for jobs outside the academy, we’re just failing by another name.
We can either change in substantive ways or pretend to do something else while actually continuing to do the same things we’ve always done. The MLA report looks a lot like the latter and no doubt so will most of the responses to it.
I’m looking forward to next year’s report. How many ways can you play the same tune?
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