• November 27, 2014

MLA President Offers a Sobering Critique of Graduate Education in the Humanities

On Thursday afternoon, on Day 2 of the Council of Graduate School's annual meeting here, Michael F. Bérubé was scheduled to give a plenary address titled "The Future of Graduate Education in the Humanities."

"There is no way to talk about the future of graduate education in the humanities without talking about everything else involved in the study of the humanities," he told a rapt audience of about 700 graduate deans, most of whom were not from humanities fields.

The theme of this year's meeting, which continues through Saturday, is "Creativity and Innovation in Graduate Education." Debra W. Stewart, the council's president, said that over the next few days deans will be discussing various aspects of graduate education—what's taught in programs, how students experience graduate school and finance their education, and ways institutions can do a better of job of tracking career outcomes.

That the humanities are in crisis is not a surprise to the deans attending the meeting, Ms. Stewart said. Mr. Bérubé was invited to speak because "he will give them a much deeper perspective of the core issues that will challenge us in the humanities today, that will help deans be more effective when they return to their campuses."

In his sobering one-hour presentation, Mr. Bérubé laid out longstanding institutional problems, gave an overview of graduate-student activism in the 1990s, and summarized past attempts to reform how programs train students for careers. He then left it up to the attendees to decide how they would apply that information to graduate programs on their campuses.

Some deans here said they expected a provocative speech. But in an interview before his talk, Mr. Bérubé, a literature professor at Pennsylvania State University who is president of the Modern Language Association and is known as an outspoken advocate for the humanities, adjunct professors, and graduate students, said, "I'm not here to push buttons. I have no polemical ax to grind."

His goal, he said, was to get deans to think about the goal of graduate studies in the humanities, to ask that graduate students be given adequate financial support so they can finish their degrees more quickly, and to make sure viable careers await new degree holders.

'A Seamless Garment of Crisis'

Mr. Bérubé opened his remarks by saying that every aspect of graduate education in the humanities is in crisis, from the details of the curriculum to the broadest questions about its purpose. "It is like a seamless garment of crisis, in which, if you pull on any one thread, the entire thing unravels. It is therefore exceptionally difficult to address any one aspect of graduate education in isolation," he said.

Among the problems he cited were high attrition rates among graduate students, the many years it takes students to get their degrees, the need to revise the content of graduate courses so that students are prepared for jobs outside of academe, whether alternative forms should replace the traditional dissertation, and if some programs should be reduced in size or eliminated altogether.

Mr. Bérubé also noted the glut of Ph.D.'s in the academic-job market and the 1.5 million people now employed as adjuncts, with no hope or expectation of ever getting a tenure-track position.

"For what are we training Ph.D.'s in the humanities to do, other than to take academic positions in their fields?" Mr. Bérubé asked the audience. "What does one do with a Ph.D. in philosophy or history, other than aspire to teach and conduct research in philosophy or history?"

Some deans here said that one response to the shrinking number of available tenure-track jobs has been to guide graduate students to seek jobs outside of academe. Though that approach has generated much debate in the humanities, Mr. Bérubé said that, so far, there is little sense of what viable alternatives to academic employment might be. There also appears to be a sharp disconnection between student expectations and the realities of the job market.

"One criticism is that we can't simply announce that alternative academic careers are now OK without rethinking the graduate curriculum accordingly," Mr. Bérubé said. "If indeed our programs are designed to produce teachers and researchers, perhaps we need to remake them from the ground up if we are going to see them as producing teachers and researchers and something else."

Many of the deans were surprised to hear that much of the current opposition to alternative careers has come not from faculty and deans, but from students who are nearing completion of their dissertations. Mr. Bérubé said that Ph.D. students in the humanities feel betrayed because they "have spent their 20s and perhaps their early to mid-30s in graduate programs hoping for tenure-track jobs. They have spent their youth in the lowest reaches of the tax code, and some of them have put off having families."

He also acknowledged that some frustrated job seekers have blamed the MLA for not doing more to improve the working conditions of adjunct faculty.

At the end of his talk, Mr. Bérubé left the audience with more questions to ponder: In the future, should there be two doctoral tracks, one hard-core, old-school research with a traditional dissertation, and another more like a rigorous four-year master's program? Should academic jobs be confined only to Ph.D. holders to eliminate the "overproduction" problem? Or would that produce a shortage of professors? Should doctoral candidates who stopped short of completing a dissertation be "frog-marched" back to graduate school to finish their degrees?

There's no consensus on any of those questions, Mr. Bérubé said. But one thing is clear: "When we look at the academic-job market for humanists, we can't avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do … simply isn't valued by very many people, on campus or off."

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