Can the Seminar's Death Bring Life to the Ph.D.?

December 16, 2013

Many of us in my generation (I received my Ph.D. in 1986) have compelling memories about the graduate seminars we took in our formative years. Those seminars, a professor and 10 or 12 students, were crucial to my graduate-school experience. They formed the threshold of my graduate career, part of the process by which I learned to think on my feet. Only by experiencing them did I reach the point where I could write a dissertation.

So I certainly don't want to argue against graduate seminars—but I wonder if they remain a viable means of delivering graduate education. Do we in the humanities need to rethink the traditional graduate seminar and educate graduate students in a different way?

Reducing Ph.D. populations seems the only ethical move in light of an academic job market that, even in 2012, was down roughly 30 percent from its most recent high, in 2007-8, and that has been in steady decline for the last 40 years. At the same time, we in the humanities, English for example, have had no choice but to hire new faculty members to keep pace with emerging fields in our discipline—Latino/a studies, sexuality studies, Native American studies, digital media, and so on. That leaves us, however, with an impossible personnel problem: Year after year, we simply don't have enough graduate students to go around, and as a result graduate seminars are canceled due to underenrollment.

This is not just a curricular problem, but a personal one: The privilege of teaching a graduate seminar every year has long been a standard perk for faculty members at research-intensive universities. This clearly cannot be the case anymore, but the annual question of who gets seminars and who doesn't has had a significant impact on faculty morale. My informal poll of directors of English graduate studies at universities in our Big Ten Conference yielded remarkably uniform results, with everyone facing the same problem as Ohio State—sizable faculties, declining graduate enrollments, and a dwindling number of graduate seminars. Clearly, this is a widespread quandary, the terms of which are the same at many places.

Despite the consensus of a cautious outlook about the future of graduate education, I come to two contradictory conclusions: I don't think the traditional graduate seminar is in as imminent danger of disappearing as I had initially assumed. Too many departments are committed to seminars for them to fail anytime soon. I also believe, though, that the seminar will disappear in time; too many reports of systematic cuts in incoming graduate classes have convinced me of that.

The disappearance of the seminar would most directly affect faculty compensation and Ph.D. attrition. First, if the traditional graduate seminar cannot ultimately be sustained, could there be some standardized way for faculty members to be rewarded for working with graduate students? Currently (at most institutions, I suspect), professors are not rewarded, either financially or in the form of course releases, for supervising independent studies. Could we change that inequity if the seminar disappeared and a variety of Oxford-style tutorials became the way we delivered graduate education? Faculty members would need somehow to be compensated for doing what now constitutes extra work, or serious morale problems would result, since our teaching loads—especially at research institutions—would be silently increased.

The other key factor to consider is attrition from Ph.D. programs. According to the Ph.D Completion Project, compiled by the Council of Graduate Schools in 2010, half of all attrition in the humanities takes place in the first three years, that is, while students are still taking courses. As Leonard Cassuto said of the report in The Chronicle, however, "The other half of incompleters—25 percent of those who enter graduate programs—trickle out over the following seven years," a pattern he rightly characterizes as horrific.

Seminars are, as of now, crucial to this pattern: They are structured learning environments familiar to all of us from grade school forward. Only when coursework ends must a graduate student develop what David Damrosch has dubbed the "scholarly personality," the highly individualistic scholarly self that is essential to success in academic life. Seminars figure (though not always successfully) in this developmental process: They typically meet once a week, meaning that the student experiences considerably more solitude than in undergraduate coursework, and they culminate in an extensively researched paper that sometimes serves as a dry run for a dissertation chapter.

If, even in the current environment, so many students fail to develop the scholarly personality, what would happen if there were no seminars, but instead an array of tutorials for which faculty members were fairly compensated and in which students were taught individually or in groups of two or three? First, guaranteed one-on-one time between students and professors might well cause attrition rates to drop. The students would have to be accountable to, say, three professors a week, and their conversations with those professors would ideally be detailed, open-ended, and productive. In short, there would be nowhere to hide, as there is in even a mid-size seminar.

Students would emerge from their coursework with a substantial range of professional relationships with faculty members. This in turn would help them once they entered the dissertation phase of their careers since they would have built a network of advisers and counselors whom they could still consult. They would not, in other words, have to adopt the scholarly personality as fully or as suddenly as graduate students do today. Thus, reluctant as I am to admit it, the demise of the seminar could turn out to be a good thing for the professional health of the humanities.

Frank J. Donoghue is a professor of English at Ohio State University.