A four year PhD?

So, MLA president Russell Berman says we need to reform the literature PhD. He frames the argument in terms of cost: “Doctoral programs are expensive.” They’re expensive for the universities who fund their doctoral students, and they’re expensive for the students who assume the cost of their education at programs where they’re not funded. And time to degree takes forever: 9 years on average in English and comp lit. Those two things are not unrelated, although Berman doesn’t talk all that much about that. Students in poorly-funded graduate programs take a lot longer to finish the PhD because they’re doing things like working extra jobs, adjuncting on the side, waiting tables in the summer. Across the board, there are other things that affect time to degree. Parenthood’s a big one, but other life-related things also get in the way. People rethink the work they’re doing. And in my program at least, folks will often defend a dissertation but not graduate for a semester or more so that they can remain funded by the department while taking a second go at the job market.

But sure, no one wants graduate students languishing in grad school for almost a decade. Berman’s solution is to completely reform the PhD in literature to make it a four-year professional degree. To make that feasible, programs would have to streamline the coursework required for the degree so it can be completed in two years. They would replace the dissertation with a capstone project. In addition, Berman emphasizes the importance of language facility and digital literacy, as well as increased professionalization for careers outside the academy.

That last part sounds great to me, but everything else seems pretty ill-advised. Berman doesn’t even address the MA that many graduate students receive in the course of the PhD–I assume MA theses and reports would have to go, as well. It’s also not clear where teaching would fit in. Berman divides graduate programs into “universities that provide generous, multiyear fellowships” and places where ” where graduate study depends on teaching assistantships.” My first two years of graduate school were funded with teaching assistantships, but after I completed my MA, I have taught classes in introductory rhetoric and writing, a survey of American literature, and an introduction to  African American literature. Designing and teaching these courses has been essential professional training, not only in the event that I manage to land a tenure track job, but also for any teaching I go on to do. But it’s also taken time on my part. Teaching literature courses have required a significant amount of knowledge and preparation, knowledge built through two and a half years of coursework, an MA report, and a field exam, not to mention observing tenured professors’ courses as a TA. I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified to teach the classes I do without that preparation.

But teaching doesn’t seem to be among Berman’s primary concerns in reimagining the literature PhD, which strikes me as odd, given that I and most of my colleagues came to graduate school because we wanted to teach. According to Berman, “the literature PhD can lead to careers in the public humanities, in cultural sectors—publishing, translation, journalism, the film industry—or, frankly, anywhere in business, government, or the not-for-profit world where intensive research skills are at a premium.” All true, and I’m glad to see these options being publicly discussed as valid career choices, rather than some sort of shameful course of last resort for those who can’t hack it in the academy. Graduate programs should absolutely prepare students for these careers, and should work to integrate professionalization outside the academy into the curriculum.

But does that necessitate the creation of a professional degree in literature? And will that professional degree also prepare to teach literature at the university level? More practically, would departments looking to hire assistant professors want to hire someone with a four-year professional degree in literature? I’m betting no on that last question, and I can’t say I’d blame them. I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified to teach graduate students after just four years, and would still have a lot to learn about teaching undergraduates, as well. And we can worry about time to degree all we want, but those lucky folks who get tenure track jobs tend to have spent longer in graduate school. Some of that is because it’s often necessary to go on the job market two or three times. It also takes time not only to write a dissertation, but to publish and develop a solid teaching portfolio. If departments continue to maintain the same requirements for hiring, then I don’t see how anyone with a four-year PhD would be able to fill them. Would I want a professional degree that gave me a shot at a wide and somewhat poorly-defined field of careers but left me unqualified to even try my luck on the academic job market? Not in the slightest.

I’m also unconvinced by the argument that we need to ditch the dissertation. Berman notes that the scholarly monograph is increasingly useless, and he’s right. But why do we have to see the dissertation as a manuscript for a book? Practically speaking, because you need a book for tenure. But if you didn’t need a book for tenure–if you could get tenure on the strength of articles, or other projects–then we might be able to think about the dissertation in different terms. There is a great deal of value in conceiving of an executing a project of the scale of a dissertation. It takes entirely different skills than the seminar paper, which is generally written in a panic-induced frenzy and quickly forgotten about. Just as we must give graduate students the opportunity to teach if we want to train them as teachers, we must also give them the opportunity to write if we want to train them as writers. And the writing skills one acquires in writing a dissertation are far from incidental. Revision, for instance, which is something I never had time for when writing seminar papers. Conceiving of an argument large enough to need multiple chapters, and showing how those pieces are connected. Breaking an enormous project into multiple pieces, and addressing those pieces at a manageable, sustainable pace. Those are important skills.

Finally, it strikes me as disingenuous at best to address the state of graduate training without also addressing the state of the job market and how that might be changed. More to the point, without addressing the inexcusable exploitation of adjunct labor in the humanities. If I were inclined to take a conspiratorial view of things, I might see this proposed four year professional degree as exactly the sort of thing that qualifies people to be adjuncts but unfits them to be professors. Sure, it’s aimed at getting people jobs outside of the academy, but the need for adjunct labor won’t dry up on its own, meaning that people will continue to take these jobs, particularly if they went to graduate school, as many of us do, with the explicit goal of teaching. Rather than seeing the MLA take this unfeasible stand on graduate education, I would like to see it offer some solutions to the problem of adjunct exploitation. Let’s deal with that before we muck around with a deeply-entrenched educational system. Right now, the job options if you want to teach undergraduates are the unattainable tenure track position and the soul-sucking prospect of multiple adjunct jobs. There are a precious few options in between, and there should be many more. It should be possible to teach undergraduates to read and write, work that desperately needs to be done, without committing to the research and publishing work of a tenured professor, while still being paid a reasonable wage and provided with benefits. Why is that a pipe dream? And why is that not a better systemic issue to tackle than time to degree?


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