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Essay urges reforms for doctoral education in humanities

New Era for Ph.D. Education

January 9, 2012

Not all doctorate recipients will become faculty members, but all future faculty will come out of graduate programs. Do these programs serve the needs of graduate students well?

In light of the rate of educational debt carried by humanities doctoral recipients, twice that of their peers in sciences or engineering; in light of the lengthy time to degree in the humanities, reaching more than nine years; and in light of the dearth of opportunities on the job market, the system needs to be changed significantly. I want to begin to sketch out an agenda for reform.

The major problem on all of our minds is the job market, the lack of sufficient tenure-track openings for recent doctorate recipients. One response I have heard is the call to reduce the flow of new applicants for jobs by limiting access to advanced study in the humanities. If we prevent some students from pursuing graduate study — so the argument goes — we will protect the job market for others. I disagree.  

Let us not lose sight of the fact that the number of new Ph.D.s has already declined significantly, down about 10 percent from a recent peak in the 1990s. Because that drop hardly matches the 32 percent decline in job listings since 2007-08, the problem is not too many scholars: it is too few tenure-track positions. I fear that any call to reduce doctoral programs will end up limiting accessibility and diversity, while playing into the hands of budget-cutters. U.S. education needs more teaching in our fields, not less, and therefore more teaching positions, the real shovel-ready jobs.

Instead of asking that you lock your doors behind the last class of admitted students,  I appeal to those of you involved in the structure of doctoral programs to consider how to keep them open by making them  more affordable and therefore more accessible. Can we redesign graduate student learning in the face of our changed circumstances?

Reform has to go to the core structures of our programs. Let me share two pertinent experiences at Stanford.

Thanks to a seed grant from the Teagle Foundation, I was able to experiment with a program for collaborative faculty-graduate student teaching. In our umbrella grouping of the language departments, we set up small teams — one faculty member and two graduate students from each language — to develop and deliver undergraduate courses, against the backdrop of a common reading group on current scholarship on student learning and other issues in higher education. The graduate students developed their profiles as teachers of undergraduate liberal arts. Teaching experience is only going to grow more significant as a criterion in hiring, and we should, in our departments, explore how to transform our programs to prepare students better as future humanities teachers of undergraduates. I encourage all departments to experiment with new modalities of collaborative graduate student-faculty teaching arrangements that are precisely not traditional TA arrangements.

Support from Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning has led to an ad hoc project on "Assessing Graduate Education," a twice-a-quarter discussion group to which all faculty and graduate students have been invited. German studies graduate student Stacy Hartman organized an excellent survey of best practices, which has become the center of a vigorous discussion. My point now is not to dwell on the particular issues — teaching opportunities, examination sequencing, quality of advising, professionalization opportunities, etc. — but to showcase the potential in every department of a structured public discussion forum on the character of doctoral training. I advise all doctoral programs to initiate similar discussions, not limited to members of departmental standing committees but open to all faculty and graduate students. What works in our programs; what could be better?  

At nine years (according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates), time to degree in our fields is excessive. We should try to cut that in half. I call on all departments with doctoral programs to scrutinize the hurdles in the prescribed trajectories: are there unnecessary impediments to student progress? Is the sequencing of examinations still useful for students?

Accelerating progress to completion will, moreover, depend on better curriculum planning and course articulation, as former MLA President Gerald Graff emphasized in his convention address three years ago. We should plan course offerings with reference to student learning needs. Curricular and extracurricular professionalization opportunities could take into account the multiple career tracks that doctorate recipients in fact pursue — this means the real diversity of hiring institutions, the working conditions of faculty at different kinds of institutions, non-teaching careers in the academy as well as non-academic positions. Can we prepare students better for all of these outcomes? Finally, we have to reinvent the conclusion of doctoral study.  As last year's President Sidonie Smith reminds us, the dissertation, as a proto-book, need not remain the exclusive model for the capstone project. This piece is crucial to the reform agenda.
 

Bio

Russell A. Berman is professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. This essay is an except from his presidential address at the 2012 meeting of the Modern Language Association.

 

 

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