• November 29, 2014

Restructure the Humanities Ph.D.

The Modern Language Association’s report on doctoral study in language and literature, released last month, does well to avoid framing the question of the humanities Ph.D. in terms of a "crisis in the humanities." Instead, it focuses our attention where it belongs—on the underlying institutional structures that inhibit the evolution of the humanities Ph.D.

The report acknowledges that there is a "crisis in academic publishing in literary studies" and that "the crisis that has beset university presses in the last decade makes the scholarly monograph an endangered species." But the rhetorical decision not to speak of a crisis in the humanities itself opens a space less fraught with existential anxiety in which we might have a serious and sober conversation about the opportunities new forms of scholarship offer us in the humanities.

For example, what might be possible if we did not presume that the proper presentation, or genre, for every extended humanities research project was a traditional printed book? While the report wisely reaffirms that "an extended research project is and should remain the defining feature of doctoral education," it also invites us to consider other genres, including but not limited to multimodal forms of digital scholarly communication, be it through video, images, audio, or interactive texts. That proposition would require students and their doctoral committees to think in nuanced and innovative ways about the connection between the ideas the research project investigates and the form through which they are most effectively communicated.

In fact, the form of the dissertation and how it might best express the ideas for which it advocates should be as much a matter of academic concern to doctoral students and their committees as the content of the dissertation itself.

Making that kind of scholarship more central to doctoral education in the humanities would also allow students to engage more deeply with technology, expand their exposure to a more diverse set of professionally marketable skills, and more easily explain their research in the humanities to those outside the academy, including potential employers. The MLA report emphasizes each of those aspects as an area of opportunity through which we might develop a revitalized vision of the humanities Ph.D.

But besides those practical benefits, the selection of genre has a long history in the humanities, dating at least to Plato’s decision to write dialogues, if not to Parmenides and his attempts to put philosophy into dactylic hexameter. It mattered then, and it should matter now.

Expanding career opportunities for humanities Ph.D.’s is a central recommendation of the MLA report, but it is important to find ways to do that without shifting the emphasis of the humanities doctoral degree from excellent scholarship and research to vocational training. Building questions of genre and specifically of public scholarly communication into the institutional and pedagogical structure of the Ph.D. is one important way to do that.

In related findings, the report seems slightly at odds with itself regarding the question of admissions and accessibility. On the one hand, it warns that reducing graduate programs will restrict access to qualified students. On the other hand, it invites us to rethink admissions practices by calibrating admissions to "the changing character of doctoral education." It seeks to navigate that tension by advocating for a broadening of professional opportunities for humanities Ph.D.’s. With a broader market, it is hoped, the pressures to shrink graduate programs in the humanities will diminish.

At issue, however, is that changing the character of doctoral education is a condition for expanding those opportunities. Without tying admissions explicitly to placement success (or the lack thereof), it is difficult to motivate departments to develop programs that will create humanities Ph.D.’s capable of competing for the best professional opportunities within or outside of the academy.

While there are, of course, wider structural problems related to how higher education is funded and assessed that threaten the future of humanistic study, re-envisioning the structure of the humanities Ph.D. by rethinking the genre of the dissertation itself might give us a better handle on dealing with those larger structural problems. At the very least, it will enable us to cultivate more technologically savvy and publicly engaged Ph.D.’s in the humanities.

Christopher P. Long is associate dean for graduate and undergraduate education in the College of the Liberal Arts at Pennsylvania State University at University Park.

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