Stanford’s Five Year Ph.D. (continued): In Which The Blogger Responds To Comments On A Prior Post

December 7, 2012, 9:51 am

Maybe I could turn this post in as a dissertation and get another Ph.D. by Sunday? Photo credit.

Yesterday I posted about Stanford’s new plan to shorten up the humanities Ph.D. to five years.  Then I went to the movies, specifically, a documentary about why the children of the poor attend four year colleges in far lower numbers than the children of middle-class or wealthy people. During the course of the evening, the post metastasized all over the interwebz, attracting a number of comments. My original Twitter posting notched more re-tweets than any item at Tenured Radical  has probably ever had.

Awesome. Keep talking, and while you do, here is a response to some of what I have heard.

Just to be clear: I do not defend an endlessly long Ph.D. But that said, many defenses of a forced time to degree metric are based on individual experiences, and disciplinary differences, that obscure a great deal when taken out of context. When you compare the sciences to the humanities, for example, you are comparing two entirely different kinds of dissertation. A dissertation in the STEM fields is normally comprised of a relatively short write up of research done as part of a larger program designed by the supervisor, and the research is performed in the supervisor’s lab.

A dissertation in the humanities, on the other hand, is expected to be the first draft of a book manuscript. The research is performed in archives that are usually far from campus, and the much longer writing process requires an entirely different kind of supervision. Were the humanities dissertation to change in its conception and design to better match the timetable of a science dissertation, it would have to create a cascade of other changes in terms of what expectations for hiring and tenure in the humanities were as well.

Doctoral programs in science also have very high levels of federal and corporate funding which allow graduate students to be supported as they train. Humanities doctoral candidates have very low levels of funding overall, even at elite institutions. To the extent that Stanford is willing to provide financial support for quick completion in the humanities that will enable graduate students to forgo teaching and other kinds of work, that will surely speed up time to degree.

Stanford, however is an exceptional institution, and cannot set an example of any kind for institutions that rely on dwindling political support for public education. The vast majority of Ph.D. granting humanities departments rely on low-paid grad student labor to meet curricular obligations and, at the same time, meet a shifting budget target that is set by state legislatures. Thus, while well-endowed humanities departments can provide compact grants that focus the graduate student on completion, poorly funded humanities departments (most of them) cannot afford either the financial aid for graduate students or the loss of labor in the classroom.

But what assumptions are built into the five-year plan? Who does it include — and who does it exclude? Some graduate students — single, without debt, from well-employed families who support their career ambitions and do not require economic support from them — will be able to focus exclusively on graduate study. Many other aspiring graduate students, equally ambitious and intellectually capable, will not have the economic liberty to live as independent, unfettered people.

In this context, the “time to degree” metric that articulates the shorter degree as more virtuous is no more of a “reform” than is the insistence that seventh graders attend school year-round. Less school is not better; more school is not better: both are punitive, and neither deal with reality as it is lived by students. The reality is that the vast majority of undergraduates are not free to choose their time to degree. It says volumes about what kind of student Stanford, or any other elite institution, wants in the first place, when its administration presumes that a five-year calendar can be achieved by “anybody” who has intelligence, integrity and discipline.

Now, what about the teaching mission in the humanities? Can you really do the academic work of a Ph.D. to the standard those of us who are hiring expect and learn to teach at the same time? We don’t know, because the programs that make Ph.D.’s more compact generally eliminate teaching from the educational mix. Articulated as a distraction, a burden and mere exploitation, such a “reform” preserves the arcane notion that any Ph.D. worth his or her salt will have a research oriented career in an elite university where the students practically teach themselves.

Here we at Tenured Radical must protest the unspoken assumption, made popular by Teach for America, that teaching is just an inbred talent, or something that any enthusiastic person can learn to do in three months, or avocation that any intelligent person of good will can learn on the job. Indeed, the idea that an “internship” in (whatever) fits a Lit or History Ph.D. for well-paid work outside the academy strikes me as enormous hubris on the part of the vast majority of academics who, themselves, have never worked outside the university context and can’t imagine an intellectual world that doesn’t occur entirely on paper.

I am also unmoved by the “I did my doctorate in 48 hours and so can you” arguments; or assertions that British humanities Ph.D.’s are better and smarter than the rest of us (unproven.) Part of what is weird and fun about university life is that we have multiple generations talking to each other as if we have all had identical educations and trajectories. We have people in their twenties talking to people in their seventies about work that has changed dramatically over the past half century, and yet all the signposts — coursework, comps, orals, dissertation, job search, tenure — are the same.

This plays out, I suspect, in some mistaken notions about what time to degree really means. Does it include masters work or not? What kind of job market did your cohort encounter? Where did you attend university? What were the costs (anyone, for example, who attended graduate school in the 1980s faced accelerating costs, diminished federal aid, and a flat job market.)

Common disciplinary experiences obscure these generational differences. For example, I used to work in a history department where a whole cadre of senior faculty (all men but two) were awarded jobs at the institution prior to completing their dissertations, which means that they left grad school after 3-5 years. Non-Americanists in this generation also had access to ample amounts of Cold War funding; at least one learned the languages necessary to his field as an alternative to serving in Vietnam. These colleagues would finish the diss in the years following their appointments; they often received tenure on a partially completed book; and all the while they taught, or team-taught in some cases, seminars of a dozen students. Some of my colleagues went on to be very distinguished in their fields; all of them went on to become amazing teachers and university citizens.

But my point is: we no longer live in that world, and few of those fellas actually finished the degree during their time in grad school. Mapping their experience onto a humanities cohort entering in 2014 is not a reform: it is incoherent.

Finally, minus the reservations expressed above, in the previous comments section, @graddirector points to important areas for reform in the humanities. If the department is clear about its expectations (to faculty and grad students) and supports its own expectations concretely, it will get a graduate program that trains and credentials its students to a high level, and perhaps does not keep graduate students in school past their sell by date. But, as s/he points out, @graddirector also implicitly and explicitly operates within a job market in science, and a set of institutional supports, that is more capacious than that in the humanities. Summer funding is not going to fill this gap, nor is it going to ensure jobs for new Ph.D.’s in a tanking market for full time work in the humanities.

But I also worry about a “standard for completion” that arbitrarily turns students who don’t meet it into university welfare queens, that further separates “the best” from “the rest,” and that doesn’t turn a clearer eye on the realities of what needs to be done to save the educational project of the humanities at all levels.

I worry most of all about universities and departments that would rather abandon doctoral training than re-envision it. Almost no grad program in the humanities is training students for the humanities world that is happening next, or for where it is happening: in the traditional media, in new media, in the non-profit sector, in progressive education reform, in policy — and there are no plans to do so. The Stanford plan adds a nip and a tuck here and there, but is entirely unimaginative about what humanities docs should be doing and where they could be doing it.

The five year metric is, like so much in education today, an accounting reform posing as educational reform.

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