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MLA president says reforming graduate education in the humanities requires hard decisions

Fixing Humanities Grad Programs
December 7, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Graduate education in the humanities is in crisis. Michael Bérubé, president of the Modern Language Association and director of the Institute for Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, acknowledged that it isn’t exactly news, but he wanted to say it anyway Thursday during a speech on the topic at the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools.

“It’s just bad,” he said. “[It’s] like a seamless garment of crisis; pull on any one thread and the entire thing unravels.”

Although the troubles are easy to diagnose, prescribing a better future for humanities graduate students and Ph.D.s is much harder. Questions about attrition and time to degree raise questions about curriculums and size of programs, which in turn raise questions about the purpose of those programs and graduate career trajectories. Those questions then fall on the state of the academic job market.

In short, Bérubé said, “There’s no way to talk about the future of education in the humanities without talking about everything else in the humanities.”

But that’s exactly what reform will entail, he said, calling the apprenticeship model of academe no longer appropriate, if it ever was; currently, doctoral candidates are being trained to “fill the ranks of the [professoriate]," but graduates outnumber available jobs  by great numbers (indeed, data released Wednesday by the National Science Foundation show that 57 percent of new humanities doctorates had a job or postdoctoral commitment in 2011, down from 67 percent in 2006).

Still, it’s not just a supply-side problem; Bérubé said 1 million of the 1.5 million professors in higher education are non-tenure-track, and 62.5 percent of contingent faculty have achieved a master’s degree, not a doctorate. “Clearly, something about the structure of education in the humanities is broken,” he said, suggesting a system redesign that calls into question the function of a doctorate in teaching higher education.

But old notions about the academy are hard to break, and some of the biggest adversaries of change may not be its oldest members. Those most likely to resist changes to the perception among graduate students that every seminar paper is a “proto-article” and dissertations are always “proto-books” are graduate students themselves. And even though Bérubé said a growing emphasis on alternative academic employment, or “alt-ac,” will be a part of reforming graduate education in the humanities, he noted that the professional desires of graduate students waiting for tenure-track positions are hard to redirect (many graduate students only want to be professors). He pointed to the “Occupy MLA” Twitter feed -- which blames the organization, in part, for poor academic jobs prospects -- as one example.

Still, he predicted there will be fundamental changes to the dissertation process within the next several decades. Curriculums also should be redesigned to emphasize collaboration, but the question will be how it’s valued by future employers, and by institutions themselves. Collaboration “runs up against the barriers of the institutional reward system,” Bérubé said.

Bérubé also said time to degree needs to be examined, both to get graduates out on the job market sooner and to reduce student debt. Unlike taking on graduate debt for jobs in the medical or legal professions, which likely offer immediate job prospects, he noted, humanities graduates can’t afford to “gamble” with the $25,000 debt, on average, they incur. He noted that Stanford University recently announced efforts to compress its humanities doctoral timeline to five years from the average seven, in exchange for year-round support for students. Bérubé said the idea holds merit (not every English Ph.D. candidate has to read Ulysses, for example, he quipped), but wondered whether such funding could follow at other, less-endowed institutions.

He also said he worried whether those departments most open to program structure change, particularly alt-ac, “might find themselves eliminated in the next strategic plan.”

In response to one audience member’s question about the role of the academic department in resisting change to traditional program structure, Bérubé said getting rid of departments would be a “bureaucratic nightmare.” But he said that “interdisciplinarity” will play a crucial role in reforming graduate education in the humanities, in part because it will prepare graduates for a greater array of employment, both inside and outside academe.

In response to another question about limiting graduate school admissions, Bérubé said reductions that were too extreme could eventually lead to programs reserved for the economic elite who can afford to spend close to a decade studying with no guarantee of employment. “That’s not the future anybody wants…. That’s the dilemma.”

Despite all the bad, Bérubé said graduate education in the humanities still holds value and is more vibrant than even a decade ago.

“Every year we realize how little work has been done,” and how much more there is to do, he said. As such, he said, the most important debates about graduate education will take place within individual institutions, which are responsible for graduate students. And when students are taken care of, he said, “the fields created and validated by doctorates will take care of themselves.”

 

 

 

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