Essay critiques the MLA report on graduate education
Don’t Capitulate. Advocate.
We write as a group of concerned scholars in response to the recent Modern Language Association report on doctoral study in modern languages and literatures. We appreciate the efforts of the committee that produced the document and understand the reasoning behind several of its individual recommendations. At the same time, we feel strongly that this document misses two crucial opportunities: (1) To articulate the underlying structural conditions of the crisis it describes (including but not limited to dramatic cuts in education funding, the deep and ongoing reductions of tenure and tenure-track jobs, the systematic exploitation of adjunct and graduate student labor, and the expansion of senior administrative ranks); and (2) To campaign actively for the value of the scholarly practices, individual and collective, of its members. We are not opposed in principle to the ideals of innovation, expansion, diversification and transformation advocated in the report, but we are concerned that these ideals may operate as buzzwords that detract attention from a more fundamental problem: the devaluation of academic labor and the marginalization of humanities scholarship and expertise. We call upon the MLA to advocate rather than capitulate.
Of the numerous responses to the MLA report, many have been critical of its call for doctoral programs to take into account the bleak realities of the academic job market; other responses have congratulated the MLA for its virtual admission of defeat. We take issue with the sense of capitulation that hangs over the report. Whereas we share the committee’s “concern about the future of humanistic study” and its recognition of “structural problems” in higher education, we worry that the report accepts “doubts about the legitimacy of doctoral study” as its starting point.
The report incorporates rather than disputes the frequent and often ad hominem attacks on the legitimacy of the humanities, suggesting that we should change to meet those criticisms rather than challenge them. Its conclusion that doctoral training must be reformed “to bring degree requirements in line with the ever evolving character of our fields” remains unsettlingly passive toward the realities of such an “evolution.” Yet without a more active response from the largest professional humanities organization, the casualization of academic labor and devaluation of humanities scholarship will only increase. Instead of “responding” to these conditions with unrealistic recommendations for change, the MLA should work to combat and change them.
Although we are well aware that no single professional organization has the power to undertake structural changes throughout all of higher education, part of the MLA’s mission is to set the terms of public discourse about the study and teaching of languages and literatures. A language borrowed from the world of business administration — flexible, adaptable, deliver, evolving — pervades the report. Upon what economic realities are such demands based? Year after year there are more students enrolling in colleges and universities in the United States, which implies a greater demand for well-trained, full-time faculty.
And yet each year there are fewer and fewer full-time faculty positions. The MLA report inadvertently justifies this situation rather than redressing it. Where else beside the humanities and social sciences can we hope to find a longer-term vision for higher education? We applaud the MLA recommendations that seek more fully to recognize the public contribution of humanistic scholarship. We take issue with the implication that “nontraditional careers” would be located “outside the confines of the academy,” as those of us who work primarily within the academy do not necessarily feel “confined” by our positions. Moreover, such language itself contributes to the perception that the academy is irredeemably divided from the “real world” — precisely the division we should be working to efface, as it contributes to the devaluation of academic labor, as well as the difficulties that humanities Ph.D.s often face in finding alternative positions.
Two of the primary reforms outlined in the MLA report are a reduction of time to degree and a new, inter- and paradisciplinary approach to training. Both of these, jointly and individually, appear to us as sources of potential erosion of scholarly values.
The MLA is right to point to the financial burdens that an extended period of time to degree presents to graduate students, particularly given the precarity of the academic job market. The report calls on departments to “reimagine the dissertation” as a way to reduce time to degree. This raises several concerns for us about the function of a non-traditional dissertation. Along with the recommendation to “abandon expectation of comprehensive coverage,” it seems possible that a reimagined dissertation would be less than what is now expected — and less valued. For those who seek alt-ac careers, would a non-traditional dissertation be any more of an asset? As long as departments continue to be structured by literary-historical fields and tenure continues to be tied to monographs, a non-traditional dissertation seems likely to do a great disservice to students on the job market and the tenure track.
This concern is compounded by the increased burden placed on doctoral students in the calls for inter- and paradisciplinary training and more teaching. With the report’s recommendations for collaboration across disciplines, sustained work with professionals in libraries, museums, IT, and administration, as well as significant training in new digital methodologies, we cannot see how time to degree could be reduced without abandoning training in the study of literatures and languages themselves. Moreover, such new career training places increased burdens on graduate program faculty (directors, in particular). The report somehow expects faculty to provide training for students in areas where faculty themselves may not be adequately trained. Moreover, the MLA’s recommendation that Ph.D. programs “use the whole university” by seeking out non-faculty with diverse expertise to mentor graduate students does not address whether and how these individuals are to be compensated for this substantial additional demand on their labor time.
Furthermore, interdisciplinary scholarship, done well, requires mastering multiple disciplines, something for which most doctoral students do not have the time — or funding — even under current conditions. The report calls for “sufficient teaching opportunities…accompanied by course work, practical experience, and mentoring.” Again, leaving aside how graduate student teaching is bound up with the deterioration of full-time faculty employment, this stipulation also increases rather than decreases time to degree.
The national average of 9+ years to complete a humanities degree seems shocking and insupportable to many, and we are certainly not advocating that graduate students routinely remain in school for a decade or more. That said, the MLA report’s emphasis on reduction of time to degree would potentially homogenize the variety of intellectual pursuits essential to doctoral education, and would put pedagogical and research training into greater tension. There are a variety of factors that extend time in graduate school, from language acquisition to archival research to precisely the sort of pedagogical and alternative/extra-disciplinary training that the MLA report advocates. Moreover, the report’s lack of guidelines for how program administrators are supposed to balance an increase in areas of Ph.D. training with a sharp reduction in time to degree makes this into something of a hollow recommendation.
We are also concerned that the report focuses upon the “professional” need for program redesign at the expense of programs’ intellectual needs — and at the expense of labor issues. While the MLA is clearly responding to the bleak outlook for full-time professorial employment, it suggests adjusting ourselves and graduate education to that “reality,” rather than calling for a broad-based critical and potentially transformative engagement with current conditions. This seems to stem from two issues: a focus on elite Ph.D. programs and a failure to link various issues of teaching to issues of academic labor.
Behind the question of whether Ph.D. programs can be said to “devalue” teaching is the link between graduate teaching and labor practices. While we agree that it is crucial for graduate students to be well-trained teachers, this aspect of graduate training cannot be severed from academic labor conditions. Too often the instrumental use of graduate students as teachers is pushed by (the ever-growing ranks of) senior administrators to justify expenditures in the form of stipends and tuition remission and to provide cheap labor in the place of full-time faculty. Graduate student teaching is a significant part of the contingent labor problem that plagues universities in the 21st century. While the report acknowledges the issue of contingent labor, it is too frequently bracketed from the rest of the salient points.
In an effort to engage positively with the report, we offer here a list of suggested steps faculty — and the MLA — can take to deal with the structural issues we face, rather than simply accommodating ourselves to the devaluation of our disciplines and of academic labor.
1. Public advocacy. This could include speaking about these issues in classes, in meetings, in public forums; writing op-eds; insisting that senior administrators consistently justify the hiring practices of the university, not only in terms of faculty hiring, but also of administrative and professional staff. Of particular importance would be to obtain and circulate the Adjunct/Tenure faculty ratio in departments and at universities.
2. Independent metrics. We propose that the MLA designate a task force to develop a more viable set of “outcomes assessment” guidelines and metrics for evaluating the success of humanities graduate programs. This was Gerald Graff's platform as MLA president in 2008, but remains under-implemented and relevant today.
3. Reduced program size. Short- and possibly long-term reductions in admissions so that cohorts are smaller and have summer funding. Propose alternative curricular strategies for sustaining smaller graduate cohorts: e.g., reduced teaching credit (rather than cancelation) for under-enrolled graduate seminars; team-taught graduate seminars, and so on. Here we expressly disagree with the MLA report’s refusal to consider recommending a reduction is cohort size; we find this impractical to the point of irresponsibility. To accomplish expanded training in fewer years, it is imperative that Ph.D. students be given additional support and funding. Already-strapped programs will simply be unable to find the resources to increase funding and support without reducing cohort size.
4. Organized labor. Actively support the unionization of part-time/adjunct faculty, support that should stretch across all ranks of faculty. We acknowledge that certain aspects of organization must come from contingent faculty, but we insist that for broad structural changes, institutions like the MLA as well as tenured and tenure-track faculty must be involved in the process to change the culture of higher education. For the MLA, this might include speaking out against anti-union colleges and universities.
5. Alt-ac integration. Reimagine alt-ac as a fundamental extension of the sphere of the humanities — rather than as an alternative to it — in sustaining intellectual environments. This means: advocacy in the classroom, the association, the department, the scholarly network, the publishing “market,” and the university itself. Extend the scope of humanities research throughout the education system, arts and cultural organizations, and such — occupying, rebuilding, and refitting existing ones as well as infusing public discourse. We affirm the report’s insistence on recognizing the broad diversity of career paths — not simply to provide Ph.D.s with more access to jobs but also as a means of infusing and transforming public discourse with the aim of revaluing an expanded vision of intellectual labor in the humanities.
6. Direct action. The academic labor situation is clearly at a breaking point which cannot be remedied by the MLA alone. Structural transformation will require action on many fronts — strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach, including work across universities as well as within individual institutions.
The MLA report offers as its motivation the “persistent criticism from within the academy and from a larger public” that doctoral study has received. If there is one thing that scholars in languages and literature are trained to receive, interpret, and produce, it is criticism. It is time for the MLA and its members to take a strong stand against the political and institutional forces that threaten the humanities’ growth, in order to maintain and reimagine the institutional and intellectual environments in which we all can thrive.
The following are the authors of this essay:
- Hester Blum, associate professor of English, Pennsylvania State University
- Sarah Chinn, associate professor of English, Hunter College of the City University of New York
- Brian Connolly, associate professor of history, University of South Florida
- Jonathan P. Eburne, associate professor of Comparative Literature and English, and Director of Graduate Studies for Comparative Literature, Penn State University
- Joseph Fruscione, editor of the “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts” column at Inside Higher Ed (formerly of George Washington University)
- Jennifer Greiman, associate professor of English and director of English graduate studies, State University of New York at Albany
- Jeffrey Insko, associate professor of English, Oakland University
- Dana Luciano, associate professor of English, Georgetown University
- Justine S. Murison, associate professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Lisi M. Schoenbach, associate professor of English, University of Tennessee at Knoxville