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How do you solve a problem like doctoral education in the humanities? (Part 1) | How do you solve a problem like doctoral education in the humanities? (Part 1) – Paige Morgan

Paige Morgan

How do you solve a problem like doctoral education in the humanities? (Part 1)

Last week, the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature released its first report of its findings. I have been looking forward to this report since I knew that it was in the making — it is good that it exists. However, I am conflicted about its content, which I find great and problematic in equal measure. Before I explain why, I should say a little bit about my credentials in critiquing the report.

Next week I will defend my doctoral dissertation and graduate with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. It will be the end of my tenth year of graduate school (including the M.A.). I am very proud of the dissertation, which is quite traditional, rather than being digital or even digitally-inflected. However, the dissertation is one of three current major projects that I expect and hope to continue working on throughout my career.

The first of those projects is Visible Prices, a digital humanities database project that I have been working on since autumn 2009. My main project website is here, at http://www.visibleprices.org; but for a useful précis and demo, I recommend a version of the project that I built in USC’s Scalar platform.

The second is Demystifying Digital Humanities (DMDH), a series of workshops that provide an introduction to DH practices and methodology. The workshops are primarily for graduate students at the University of Washington, though we have had faculty and staff participants as well in the past two years. DMDH is funded by the Simpson Center for the Humanities, and supported by invaluable encouragement from UW-IT, UW Libraries, and faculty and staff from several offices. I developed the workshops with my colleague Sarah Kremen-Hicks, also in the English Department; and this year we have been joined by a third team member, Brian Gutierrez, also of English. Yesterday, we learned that the workshops have been renewed for a third year. Together, we help our workshop participants start learning, or often, start discovering how to learn about the digital humanities (from scholarship that incorporates technology in a minor way to projects that are fundamentally digital, and would be impossible without computing techniques.)

I mention these two side projects in order to explain that I am, as I understand it, the sort of graduate student who might well be very excited by the MLA Report, were I embarking on my dissertation, rather than newly finished with it; and also because I have experience with precisely the sorts of projects that the Task Force is recommending be considered as alternatives to the dissertation.

I saw two problems with the report: one is a matter of framing; the other is a matter of logistics. While separate, they do intersect, as I will explain. This post is primarily about framing; I hope to have to post about logistics up later this week, though I am currently at DHSI and prepping for my defense, so it may appear shortly after June 10th. I have been reading and annotating the report, and in the interest of transparency of interpretation, I am making my annotations available via DropBox for anyone who might like to examine them.

The problem of framing

The report places a lot of emphasis on the dissertation as central to the two problems that the Task Force is dealing with — the sharp increase in the time that it takes a graduate student to complete a dissertation, and the decrease in traditional academic jobs.  I understand why time-to-degree is a major subject; the dissertation is arguably the stage at which graduate students get bogged down and where productivity seems to stop. It is easy, then, to see the dissertation as an object that needs reform; especially given the other pressures on it, in particular, the problems of the academic publishing market and the issues of accessibility that arise from the publishing market.

The Task Force’s stance in making this argument is symptomatic of a broader tendency throughout humanities academia to handle graduate students at a distance, as a population to be taught and/or acted upon by departments and faculty. Throughout the report, the phrase “departments should” appears 22 times: “departments should rewrite requirements … should encourage new forms of scholarship and require new models of preparation” (13). Midway through, it briefly switches to the 1st person plural, in a section titled “Maintaining excellence,” to say that “We can demand excellence in course work and in internships, in the seminar paper and in alternatives to the seminar paper, and in whatever form the dissertation takes” (11). We, the department, can demand excellence from the graduate students.

I agree wholeheartedly with many of the changes that “departments should” make. New forms of scholarship, yes; new opportunities for skill acquisition, certainly; clarified expectations for the dissertation, absolutely! My concern is with the framing of departments (which I read as “faculty”) acting to make these changes and graduate students reacting by finishing their degrees within five years. Implicitly, the changes come from the faculty and are directed at the graduate students. Perhaps this framing is unintentional; perhaps I am wrong to read “departments” as acting upon graduate students, rather than including them. I would be very glad of clarification from the Task Force itself on this point. One of the first and most enduring principles that I learned as an English major, however, was that framing and word choice matter – and that is no less true in this instance.

The framing of departments setting new standards for graduate students to meet is problematic for two reasons.

The first reason is that researching and writing a dissertation is a process of managing and developing an especially robust type of confidence as well as one or more argument(s). To emphasize the department as authority and arbiter of scholarship is unlikely to help graduate students develop confidence, regardless of how traditional their project is or isn’t.

Many factors can impede confidence, including a poor job market, or a lack of clarity regarding expectations – or, too much emphasis on one party as authority, and the other as non-authoritative learner. Even though confidence is intangible, and often discernable only to each individual, nearly every experience during graduate school impacts graduate students’ confidence in some way: positively, negatively, neutrally. (I have written about the problem of time to degree as a question of emotional energy in another recent post.) The state of the academic job market affects confidence, too, as the Task Force clearly recognizes when it urges faculty to support graduate students who are exploring alternate career paths. But I am suspicious of the suggestion that the academic job market is the primary depressor of confidence that is making it difficult graduate students to write their dissertations, or that factors relating to the job market are the primary opportunity for intervention. The anecdotes in the appendix also suggest otherwise when their authors reference the success of courses focusing on how to write a prospectus, a publishable article that might then become a chapter, etc.

While the report suggests that departments consider non-course-based activities (i.e. practica & workshops) and small credit activities (13) as ways of redesigning doctoral programs, it is problematic to consider these changes simply as ways of better preparing graduate students for the job market. They are also potentially confidence-building activities – not only for the job market, but for dissertations, or dissertation projects. However, every confidence building activity is potentially a confidence-depleting activity as well. If departments are going to be providing such activities, and encouraging graduate students to take part in them, then faculty and staff need to be alert about the situations that they are setting up – otherwise, it is more likely that an activity intended as a boost will become a drain.

The second reason that the framing of departments setting new standards is problematic is that it puts an immense amount of pressure on faculty to get up to speed on an incredibly varied and dynamic set of practices. Now, I suspect that the Task Force is imagining that many graduate students will develop and bring their own expertise to the table, and this may well be the case – however, if it is, then faculty will be substantially shifting the way that they advise graduate students, and the limits of their expertise. And these shifts will (I think) almost certainly be more enduring and dramatic than any technological proficiency that faculty develop. They will be acting as amateurs in a quite different way than, say, a Victorianist whose student decides to work with a particular niche of Victorian culture that the professor is less familiar with.

Graduate students who are writing dissertations inevitably feel vulnerable (it is the nature of the beast); but I would expect faculty advising graduate students on new forms of the dissertation to also feel newly vulnerable. And I am concerned at the effects of the friction that is likely to arise from two vulnerable people at different power levels working together. While it seems to me that graduate students are more vulnerable than faculty, I am concerned for faculty as well, because they too seem asked to deal with ever more tasks as part of their jobs. As someone who has taken on extracurricular projects while working on a dissertation and teaching, I know all too well that doing more means that I am able to do less with everything else. In addition, developing knowledge and advisory competencies in regards to using technology requires an embrace of not only the tools of the digital humanities, but the ethos behind it – the tacit assumptions that failure is valuable, that process matters as much as the final product. These assumptions are not necessarily opposed to “traditional” humanities – but they do require an intentional awareness from graduate students and faculty – from anyone who is involved in the doctoral degree completion process.

The solution to this problem of framing is, in some ways, simple: faculty (and their departments) need to be engaging in open dialogue with their graduate students about the dissertation format and about the factors that are contributing to the length of time-to-degree. Let me phrase that more bluntly: departments need to listen to graduate students.

I fear that this sounds revolutionary, and I don’t think it ought to be, but I understand why it is. It’s disruptive in much the same way that the shifts proposed by the Task Force are a monumental change to the way that graduate students and faculty work together. The idea that faculty are the experts on dissertations is a central premise of doctoral education in the humanities. I know that I am challenging that premise when I suggest that graduate students, even those who are struggling, may well be the best source of information for understanding why the diss isn’t working. But they have to feel comfortable and confident enough to be able to think about it clearly, rather than utterly terrified that someone will dismiss any admission of difficulty as not trying hard enough, or laziness, or as being intellectually inferior. It sounds to me as though these sorts of conversations are taking place at schools with courses focusing on aspects of dissertation and prospectus writing. They can be very difficult conversations, because it is much easier to either a) blame a students’ perspective as being somehow wrong, or b) blame an non-human factor (the dissertation format is out of date; the job market is changing), than it is to admit that one’s expertise regarding the dissertation (the very expertise through which the doctorate was conferred in the first place!) might grow fragile, or less fresh. Admitting such a thing puts faculty and staff, or anyone advising graduate students, in a position of feeling vulnerable about their own contribution to the process. Feeling vulnerable can lead to great progress and new insights – but only if individuals are comfortable with that vulnerability, and know how to manage it – and doing so is a learned skill, rather than instantaneous.

Let me be clear: I think that the Task Force is genuinely interested in improving doctoral education, as are many faculty members. I know two of the Task Force members (Kathleen Woodward and Bethany Nowviskie), and I am 100% certain of their commitment to improving graduate education, and their confidence in graduate student knowledge. Rarely does a week go by in which I am not grateful for the experience of learning from each of them. Put simply, I would not be where I am now without their scholarship and their direct and indirect support, and I can list off specific choices that I have made because of their leadership.

I also think that the report is actually advocating for the changes that I have suggested in the previous paragraph: they are implicit in many of the changes that the Task Force proposes. But by presenting these changes as alterations to the dissertation without clearly and directly discussing what the changes mean for the relationships between students and professors, I fear that the changes will fail, or that attempting to execute them with a top-down departments –> students authority structure will actually exacerbate the current problems (particularly time-to-degree), rather than solve them. Thus, one of the best sentences in the report is also one of the worst sentences in the report:

In other words, graduate programs are for graduate students’ learning needs and career development. (12)

This sentence is one of the best because it is excellent to acknowledge that graduate students’ learning needs are changing, and that programs need to adjust to meet those needs; but one of the worst because the changes that are being proposed cannot be only for graduate students’ learning needs and career development. They require substantial shifts for faculty and staff as well; and making those shifts will involve a different use of both institutional and personal resources and energies.

To close, let me draw a parallel between these changes, and between digital scholarship itself. Any product of digital scholarship is dependent on various technical choices that need to be articulated  in the project’s technical documentation, because they are fundamental to the product as scholarly criticism. Those choices may be small or large — often they are subtle and invisible to the end user — but they cannot be entirely hidden. In the same way, the changes in resources and energies that the Task Force proposes are the equivalent of technical statements on digital projects. To be successful, they too must be transparent, visible, and subject to explicit discussion.


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