• November 28, 2014

The MLA Tells It Like It Is

Its new report on reforming doctoral study is finally saying things that need to be said by the profession

Who Prepares Humanities Ph.D.'s for a Nonacademic Search? 1

Linda Helton for The Chronicle

"We are faced with an unsustainable reality," states the Modern Language Association’s long-awaited report on doctoral study in literature and languages. That reality includes a median time-to-degree of nine years and a weak academic job market that places a deplorably low percentage of Ph.D.’s in tenure-track professorships, often after years of postdoctoral purgatory.

There are many positive things to say about this report, but let’s start with the fact that the MLA is saying things that need to be said by the MLA. In particular, the report exhorts us to "validate the wide range of career possibilities that doctoral students can pursue."

The MLA gets behind other important positions, too. Its report urges an overhaul of doctoral training from the current model of "replication" ("in which students imitate their mentors") to "transformation" (to meet the different and diverse needs of today’s graduate students—a student-centered approach). It asks us to "reimagine the dissertation" and cut time-to-degree down to five years altogether (including any time spent earning a master’s).

That is good news coming from the MLA. It’s not the kind of news that blows the doors off. Many commentators, including yours truly, have been saying these things for some time. But they sound different (and louder) when the largest disciplinary association in the humanities says them.

One might argue that the MLA is late to the party, but it’s not the sort of guest you should expect as soon as you set out the hors d’oeuvres. Disciplinary associations are understandably wary of fads, so wary that they have too often followed the philosophy of "no idea before its time." That strategy limits immediate blunders but also leads to irrelevancy—which is itself a blunder. The American Historical Association bravely and wisely spotlighted the idea of alternative careers for Ph.D.’s a couple of years ago. In following this lead, the MLA task force on doctoral study—chaired by Russell A. Berman, a professor of German at Stanford University and a recent MLA president—is bestowing a much-needed imprimatur on a plan that Ph.D. programs need to follow.

"When I’m mentoring a graduate student," Berman told me, "it does no good to say, ‘I wish there were more tenure-track positions’" and then sit around waiting for them to materialize. "I have to teach them," he said, to prepare for the jobs that they can get.

Berman stressed that "doctoral training can prepare students for lots of things." People should take it on because they’re committed to the work, he said, not just to land a professor’s job. While they’re doing that work, "they should be exposed to the multiple other paths available to them." Graduate programs, he said, will have to offer different kinds of instruction to make those paths visible.

The MLA report is terse. Too many details would distract from the larger message: Ph.D. programs in literature and languages have to change, and without delay.

The endorsement of alternate careers leads perforce to the report’s most controversial recommendation: Preserve accessibility for all kinds of applicants to graduate programs—including those unusual or off-center candidates who might not get a look if admissions are restricted. That’s not a divisive battle cry in itself, but the idea gets prickly when you apply it. Because the way to preserve accessibility, according to the report, is to keep doctoral programs from getting too small.

There’s a national trend toward shrinking the size of graduate programs. Some are undoubtedly too big, especially to meet these new employment goals. But reduce too much, says the MLA report, and you deny access to "qualified students."

I’m not sure what "qualified" means in this context, because humanities graduate programs use a lot of different criteria when they admit applicants. But I do know (and argued not long ago) that if we shrink graduate programs to a nub, we will trim the diversity—intellectual as well as socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic—right out of them.

"Students who want to study the humanities," the report says, "will make contributions to academic and public life in their work." That argument presumes there’s an inherent value in having more Ph.D.’s in public life because an educated population leads to a healthier democracy.

But that position makes sense only if those Ph.D.’s are contented in their work. The question shouldn’t be how many Ph.D.’s we produce, but whether they’re happy or unhappy. When we teach Ph.D.’s to be satisfied only with professors’ jobs, we are, quite simply, teaching them to be unhappy. That’s more than just an ethical failure. It’s a moral one, and one of the worst that teachers can be guilty of. Across the humanities (and also other disciplines), we have been collectively guilty of it for years. Legions of embittered adjuncts are the living evidence.

On the other hand, if we make graduate students’ prospects clear to them when they enter (i.e., that professorships are thin on the ground, and here are the numbers), we help them choose. And if we emphasize their diverse career options from early on (not just let them know that other choices are out there somewhere), then we are teaching graduate students how to be contented in the world in which they actually live. The data on career outcomes—finally being collected, notes Berman—show that lots of people who get Ph.D.’s and work outside the university are happy in their jobs. And learning how to be happy in your work is maybe the most important—and most neglected—part of graduate education.

So we need to change minds, not count heads. In the end, this is not just about saving the Ph.D. in a recognizable form—a goal that not everyone may support. The MLA report doesn’t say this directly, but saving the Ph.D. is really a key part of saving the humanities.

"Save the humanities" books have proliferated in recent years. In the aggregate, they suggest a town meeting in which the people in attendance argue soberly for the social value of water while noting that, by the way, their hair is on fire. We can advocate better for our vocation if humanists work throughout society, not just in universities. Then they can contribute to the common cause while also making an argument for their own training, just by doing their jobs.

For that to happen, their graduate training has to change. Now. So what might that new training look like? Next month I’ll examine some of the options that the MLA suggests.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at lcassuto@erols.com. Now on Twitter: @LCassuto.

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