A Modest Proposal for Modest Proposals

Students should be encouraged to think in terms of hypotheses rather than theses, and research questions or problems rather than their putative solutions when it comes to dissertation proposals, argues Heather Dubrow.

December 1, 2016

"I've been taken aback at what passes for a dissertation proposal around here," a newly arrived colleague at a major research institution confided, lamenting the brevity and tentativeness of the documents that contented many other members of her department. In a comparable clash of assumptions, one member of an English faculty lavishly praised an extensive and painstakingly crafted proposal of some 25 pages -- while someone else intensely wished its author had been advised to devote much of the time spent on expanding and polishing that document to writing a first chapter instead.

Essays on such controversies, like the documents themselves, risk facile generalizations. How expectations for this stage of graduate education are established, and hence how they can be challenged or modified, changes from one university to the next -- with the overall policies that determine graduate study at the institution variously playing a significant and a minimal role. Generalizations about proposals also must address differences between policy and practice: individual committees often modify official doctrine. Indeed, as one veteran of thesis direction put it, “Whatever the requirements are, in practice they may vary greatly. In real life it comes down to the relationship between the student and the committee.”

Moreover, the role of the proposal -- if it plays a role at all -- obviously differs from field to field and from topic to topic within a given field, much as the needs of particular students within a given field may vary significantly. (For example, proposals are rare in mathematics theses, and ones based on previously performed or prospective experiments have their own protocols.)

My focus in this piece is on dissertation proposals in literature, especially English and American, though some commentaries are gleaned from classics and comparative literature as well. But such analyses carry with them many implications for other fields.

Less Is More

King Lear asserts that "ripeness is all," but with all due respect for that long-suffering monarch, that should not be the case with dissertation proposals. I recommend fruit in the process of maturing or even its seeds rather than their fully ripened successor. Such submissions will generally be significantly shorter than some alternative types of proposal, but length per se is a less important issue than the time devoted to the document and the degree of commitment to its arguments.

An overriding argument for more modest proposals is limiting time to degree, not least because funding often runs out before the thesis is completed, necessitating loans that are all the more undesirable in a job market that certainly does not guarantee academic jobs for even very promising students. Redefining expectations for this preliminary stage of the dissertation can help to counterbalance the pressures that prolong later stages, such as the assumption that graduate students will publish and participate actively in conferences.

But no less important -- though often less remarked -- is the second rationale: discouraging premature commitment to arguments that may require revision or even rejection as the project develops.

What, then, should this leaner, meaner proposal involve? To be sure, occasionally it will include and even rest on a firmly determined and persuasive argument: some projects, such as one making the case for the previously undiscovered influence of one text on another, are necessarily grounded on such a contention. But those projects should be the exception rather than the rule, if only because of the risk that such arguments may not pan out. When one works more intensively with the materials one had initially planned to include, as well as extending one's horizons through newly discovered sources, previously accepted arguments may well be qualified or even reversed.

Therefore, students should generally be encouraged to think in terms of hypotheses rather than theses, research questions or problems rather than their putative solutions. Changing one's earlier presuppositions is likely to prove more difficult if they are written in stone -- let alone engraved, as it were, in gleaming marble -- in a lengthy, time-consuming proposal. As one distinguished Renaissance critic who has supervised many theses put it, "If students think they have final arguments at the prospectus stage, they usually don't pan out, in my experience."

This revisionist conception of a proposal may be systematized in terms of the classic what, why and how. First, what questions will be asked? Responses here may well include methodological questions as well as ones specific to particular topics and authors. Second, why should we ask those questions now? Answers will involve positioning the project in relation to other work on this and related topics, examining how it builds on issues that currently interest other people and how it extends or challenges -- or, as is often the case, both -- their work. And third, how will I approach the questions in terms of materials I may consult and challenges I may need to meet?

This final question may well entail a limited list of texts that are likely to be discussed, but the adjectives likely and limited are crucial: many dissertators find that, as their project develops, some texts they had not anticipated including become significant and others in their original list are discarded -- either because they prove less relevant or because the project needs to be shortened. And for these and other reasons, a detailed and comprehensive chapter outline is generally not advisable.

This how also entails identifying certain problems that need to be anticipated and addressed from the get-go, such as accessibility of archival materials and the ability to deal responsibly with materials in foreign languages. But the how generally should not mandate the voluminous bibliography some departments now expect in a proposal: it need not be comprehensive, since it will develop and grow at later stages of the project.

Advantages and Challenges

A widespread acceptance of, as it were, such proposals for proposals will not only help the students write them more effectively but also could build collegiality among professors, thus benefiting both those dissertators and the department as a whole. It's unlikely that a whole department will agree completely on the care and feeding of dissertation proposals. But the fact remains that often now some directors or committee members are willing to accept a proposal that is promising but neither fully polished nor extensive, while others insist on many rounds of revisions.

Even though total accord among faculty members on these subjects may not be feasible, increasing the degree of agreement will certainly limit the problems faced by a student confused and unsettled by contradictory advice and expectations from her mentors. And establishing at least some measure of agreement among colleagues will facilitate another important potentiality of proposals: allowing the student to work fruitfully with all members of her committee, in so doing also at least delimiting the tensions among them that all too often arise, especially when the director's advice or demands are very different from those of other faculty members.

Yet certain fraught professional decisions will remain, perhaps even intensify, if the type of document I advocate becomes more widely accepted. In many departments, decisions to lighten expectations for the proposal per se have involved shifting some work previously done via that document to the qualifying or comprehensive exam itself.

In his influential revisionist study, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, Leonard Cassuto has argued for a shorter degree that prepares its recipients for careers outside the academy as well as within it. Pursuing that vision, he supports an exam that downplays what he terms the capstone approach (that is, an emphasis on general knowledge) in favor of the cornerstone (that is, a demonstration that the student can move from general knowledge to the specific topic of the thesis).

His study testifies to the growing acceptance of that model -- reporting, for example, that the American studies exam at the University of Maryland includes a paper designed as a first step to the dissertation proposal; English and film studies at the University of Alberta focus on the dissertation program in the exam in question; and the English department at the University of Pittsburgh defines its exam as two 30-page papers designed to enable the student to produce a prospectus rapidly and effectively. Similar changes, I add, are being considered in other programs. Cassuto's examples can also be supplemented by references to the many programs that still strive to balance the roles of capstone and cornerstone. One department, for example, structures its exam around four reading lists, two focusing on the thesis and the others more general.

In practice, however, preparation for the thesis may be privileged even where it is not explicitly or implicitly the core of the exam. The graduate director at one institution with a three-part exam, one of which was generally most relevant to the thesis, went so far as to question committees that had failed people because of dismal responses to fields other than the one on which they were writing their theses. Students who demonstrated their competence in the area most directly related to the proposed dissertation, he maintained, were fulfilling the main function of the exam and should be permitted to start writing it without further ado.

Changes in qualifying exams like those summarized above are overdetermined, reflecting not only redefinitions of the proposal but also preconceptions about the old ideal of "coverage" and older ideas of fields of specialization. Thus a comprehensive discussion of revised models for doctoral exams demands an article in its own right. But a briefer caveat is possible, indeed necessary, here. With all due respect to my colleague and friend Cassuto, our professional pendulum has swung too far in one direction on the issue of the relationship of these exams and the thesis proposal -- or, to put it another way, the pride in radical change, a swift and often feral inhabitant of our professional thickets, is running wild. These exams can and should encompass some preparation for the thesis, thus participating in a movement toward shorter and less time-consuming proposals -- but submerging or even erasing other types of training is a grave mistake.

I am not for a moment suggesting a return to the myth of a stable canon on which everyone can and should be tested. But our students need the foundations for projects they will undertake after the thesis. And we forget at our peril -- and theirs -- the demands and expectations of the types of institution at which students fortunate enough to get a job will be teaching. Often they will be asked to offer a range of courses both within their primary specialty and elsewhere. Their graduate training, including the exam in question, should prepare them for such responsibilities -- and for questions about that type of teaching at job interviews.

Speaking of the classroom, the kind of thesis proposal I am advocating will also help graduate students in English teach writing more effectively. Developing a cohesive and firm argument is generally more valuable in undergraduate essays than in dissertation proposals, and it is a skill their authors certainly need to master. But the models I recommend for such proposals can usefully remind composition teachers that their undergraduates -- like dissertators themselves -- risk marrying themselves off to decisive arguments prematurely, before fully considering the issues on both, or several, sides. For undergraduates as well as dissertators, a slower, more considered approach to potential assertions -- starting with, as it were, coffee dates and perhaps very gradually moving toward living together for a while -- should precede arriving at the altar with an unalterable argument.


Heather Dubrow is currently the John D. Boyd, S.J., Chair in Poetic Imagination at Fordham University. The institutions at which she has previously taught include Carleton College, the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Among her publications are seven monographs.


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