Friday, October 24, 2008

The fear of doing it differently

i have grading on my desk, so i’ve taken the opportunity to prepare a meaty missive "on the question of a second-year doctoral seminar," a hot-button issue in our department right now. essentially, we're exploring the possibility of developing a year-long, team-taught doctoral seminar that will provide structured support for students, help them prepare a thesis proposal, and engage with each other, and with a group of professors, on a topic of general interest (conspiracy, the book, e.g.).

here's what i have come to. what follows is long, which you might welcome if you, too, have a desk full of deadlines and a passing interest in academia. if not, wait for tomorrow or sunday: i'm working on a "grumpy old man" episode on this very theme.

point 1: the “timely completion” issue is disciplinary
according to the research on canadian graduate studies, the problem of long doctoral degrees is disciplinary, not program- or university-specific: “On average, it took doctoral students in canada 5 years and 10 months to complete their studies. However, while all required more than five years to graduate, only social sciences and humanities students required six years or more” (Garth Williams, Doctoral Education in Canada 1900-2005, available at

in part, degrees can be shortened by reducing degree requirements. but CAGS research tells us that it’s not the number of program requirements alone that determines timely completion, but the ways in which students are supported. one of the 12 recommendations in The Completion of Graduate Studies in Canadian Universities: Report and Recommendations, 2003 (rev. 2004, and also available at is: “Foster academic and social integration into research teams, scholarship discussion groups, teaching and other departmental affairs. This is especially important in areas of scholarship where graduate students have typically worked in relative academic isolation, engaged in solo scholarship.”

point 2: we should prepare students for a big job market
too often, arguments about graduate studies become anecdotal. professors cite their experience (“i loved being left alone!”) or their assumptions about who their student are and will become (“this is the only unstructured time in an entire career!”).

i’m sympathetic, but i’m not convinced. the thing is – graduate student readers, stop up your ears, put your hands across your eyes! -- most of our students are not going to get the jobs we profs currently hold. my job is marvelous: the dep’t is collegial, our students are talented, our teaching load is reasonable, our research profile high. sadly, most academic jobs in the country today are not this plum. so i think a seminar that provides opportunities for students to negotiate complex ideas with people unlike themselves could provide essential collegial skills.

moreover, we might want to think about a doctoral degree as a bit broader than pre-professorial. to paraphrase williams (cited above): graduates from engineering and the life sciences routinely find employment beyond the academy as well as within it. HSS doctorates, on the other hand, are prepared for academic jobs alone. as a result, only 34.8% of humanities PhDs make over $55,000 per year (2005 figs). i have read this report many times, and still can't believe i've read it correctly, but those are the numbers.

that can't be the best we can do. as i watch world capitalism crumble, i worry that a doctoral degree in english is about to seem as wise an investment as a fannie mae mortgage. i wrote the metaphor lightly, but it works: it's like a subprime mortgage, a don't-pay-now-pay-later boondoggle on a life without the market value you might prefer.

which leads me to my next point:

point 3: humanities research matters to public intellectual life
this wasn't my point; a colleague made it; but it's a good one. all the thinking i'm aware of suggests that we need labile lateral thinkers if homo sapiens are going to live to see the twenty-second century. my sense is that people in other disciplines as well as non-academics in general are interested in the perspectives that students of literature and culture have developed through long study (and i mean "students" here in the broadest possible sense, the sense in which we are all students of life). my worry is that we sell ourselves short, hide behind obfuscation and the fear of getting things wrong, fret about the impurities of politics, and put the safe thing (that batch of papers, that editing deadline, and so on) ahead of the messy and imperfect engagement in public life. hardly surprising, since we haven't been trained for it. why not start by giving graduate students a chance to try out their voices as public intellectuals in a (relatively) low-stakes seminar?

the peroration:
if the problems at the root of our doctoral programs are disciplinary, i’d love to see us take this opportunity to re-imagine our discipline’s possibilities. if we were to offer the heather zwicker school of doctoral studies (takers? anyone? uh, hullo, is this thing on?), students would work in inter-disciplinary learning partnerships for the entire four years of their degree. we would abolish the standard dissertation-as-monograph requirement; instead, students would work in genres appropriate to their specific area of research and the contours of the problem they’re taking on. there would be no courses and no exams, but plenty of colloquia. and, of course, these innovations would attract fame and funding enough that I could retire at, oh, 51. but I digress.

can a single proposed seminar accomplish these things? of course not. but to the extent that it carves out a space for students to work with each other, and not just with a supervisor; for students to collaborate intellectually across fields within the discipline, if not beyond it; for doctoral students to develop the networks of support that might sustain them through the grind; and for all of us to think just a wee bit more imaginatively about how to educate ourselves and each other – to the extent that the proposal carves out a space for all of these possibilities, i am in favour of it.

or, to put this slightly differently, particularly for those of you whose eyes glazed over some time ago and are searching for the punch line: yes, we need to teach our students to research; yes, much of this work is solo; yes, we all made it through our own doctoral programs, sinking, swimming or treading water – but I can’t believe that’s the only way to do things. If we remain committed to virginia woolf’s harsh dictum that “we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone,” could we not put it off for just one more year?

1 comment:

jen alabiso said...

um, can i go to your school even if i don't want to get the Ph.D.? Intelligent conversation between energized, engaged, intelligent people??? this is nirvana.