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SEATTLE -- The average humanities doctoral student takes nine years to earn a Ph.D. That fact was cited frequently here (and not with pride) at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Richard E. Miller, an English professor at Rutgers University's main campus in New Brunswick, said that the nine-year period means that those finishing dissertations today started them before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Kindles, iPads or streaming video had been invented.

So much has changed, he said, but dissertation norms haven't, to the detriment of English and other language programs. "Are we writing books for the 19th century or preparing people to work in the 21st?" he asked.

Leaders of the MLA -- in several sessions and discussions here -- indicated that they are afraid that too many dissertations are indeed governed by out-of-date conventions, leading to the production of "proto-books" that may do little to promote scholarship and may not even be advancing the careers of graduate students. During the process, the graduate students accumulate debt and frustrations. Russell A. Berman, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University, used his presidential address at the MLA to call for departments to find ways to cut "time to degree" for doctorates in half.

And at a standing-room-only session, leaders of a task force studying possible changes in dissertation requirements discussed some of the ideas under consideration. There was a strong sense that the traditional model of producing a several-hundred-page literary analysis dominates English and other language doctoral programs -- even though many people feel that the genre is overused and frequently ineffective. People also talked about the value of digital projects, of a series of essays, or public scholarship. Others talked about ways to change the student-committee dynamic in ways that might expedite dissertation completion.

"We are at a defining moment in higher education," said Kathleen Woodward, director of the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. "We absolutely have to think outside the box that the dissertation is a book or a book-in-progress."

The MLA's discussion of the dissertation is in some ways an outgrowth of a much-discussed report issued by the association in 2006 about tenure and promotion practices. That report questioned the idea that producing monographs should be the determining factor in tenure decisions. When the report was released, many MLA leaders said that the ideas the association was endorsing also called for reconsideration of graduate education, and especially of the dissertation.

As part of the process of encouraging change, the MLA recently conducted a survey of its doctoral-granting departments. Among the findings:

  • 62 percent of departments reported that their graduate schools have guidelines for dissertations, but most of those guidelines are general, dealing with issues such as timelines, composition of committees and so forth, and not dictating the form of a dissertation.
  • 33 percent of departments have written descriptions of what kind of dissertation is expected of graduate students.
  • Minorities of departments have specific rules authorizing nontraditional formats for dissertations, and even smaller minorities of departments have approved a dissertation using one of those formats.
  • Of those with traditional dissertation length requirements, the range of minimums was 150 to 400 pages. Most maximums were 400 to 500 pages.

Nontraditional Formats Permitted and Used in Dissertations in English and Other Language Departments

Format Policy Permitting Its Use Format Approved in Last 5 Years
Digital project 10.4% 3.4%
Creative nonfiction 8.8% 6.8%
Suite of essays 8.8% 5.7%
Fiction or poetry 7.7% 6.8%
Translation 7.7% 3.4%
Public scholarship 4.4% 3.4%
Portfolio 2.2% 2.3%
Collaborative work 1.1% 0.6%

Sidonie Smith, professor of English at the University of Michigan and a past president of the MLA, said that the survey results demonstrated the potential for change. She said, for example, that many department leaders have in the past said that they would consider changes in dissertation requirements but for the rules of their graduate schools. In fact, there are very few graduate schools that would block change, she said.

Further, she noted that while the percentage of departments that have explicitly authorized nontraditional dissertations is small, they provide evidence that such alternatives are possible. Finally, she said that the survey showed that relatively few departments provide explicit information to graduate students on what is and is not possible. That lack of information, she said, "is disturbing."

While much of the talk here was about digital formats of scholarship, some of the possible changes in the dissertation process could also be helpful to graduate students pursuing a traditional, 250-page work of literary analysis.

David Damrosch, chair of comparative literature at Harvard University, described a reform recently instituted there that grad students in the audience seemed to find ideal. The department has started requiring that every single chapter of a dissertation be discussed, as they are produced, in a meeting attended by the author and all three committee members. Further, the department staff -- not the student -- sets up the meeting. (This is in contrast to grad students sending off copies, and receiving suggestions or silence from committee members individually.)

Damrosch said that many graduate students are delayed when some committee members don't read chapters in a timely way, and then go on to offer "totally contradictory advice, months after a draft has come in." Forcing everyone on the committee to meet in person, Damrosch said, shames them into reading the chapter on time, and to working out a common set of recommendations for the grad student.

"People are forced to focus," he said, and doctoral students "get coherent advice." The resulting revisions are much more likely to solve any problems, so that the student can keep moving forward.

More Than PDFs

Miller, of Rutgers, stressed that opening up students to digital work was a responsibility for humanities departments, given the way people increasingly communicate information. Graduate students need to learn "what it means to write for the web, with the web," which is not the same thing, he said, "as making PDFs of your [print] articles."

Whether departments want it to happen or not, the form of scholarship is going to change, he said. Rather than avoiding that, scholars should consider the ramifications, he said, by redesigning dissertations. "Once you lose the monograph, what’s the future of the long argument?" he asked. "What is the life of the mind is going to look like when it’s no longer stored on the page?" The answers will become clear when those about to become professors or public intellectuals are set free from the traditional dissertation, he said, and are encouraged to produce digital works.

Several also noted that the digital projects that might replace traditional dissertations may well be more oriented to teaching than are most monographs -- and that such an emphasis would reflect the reality that most graduate students will be finding jobs focused on teaching, not research.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, professor of media studies at Pomona College and director of scholarly communication at the MLA, said that much more needs to change than simply telling graduate students they can prepare dissertations online. Graduate students who are doing digital work are "being given very mixed messages” from faculty members on such questions as whether they should let dissertation drafts circulate digitally in advance. Some faculty members approve of what is common practice among those who work online, while others frown upon it. Some warn graduate students that if they do so they will have a tougher time finding a publisher, while others say that online discussions about one's work can "help demonstrate that there is an audience."

Digital publishing is more collaborative than the traditional model, she said. "It's a shift from thinking about individual discrete products of scholarship" to "a more constant process of communication."

Further, these shifts require changing the way professors think about their graduate students' careers. When she has talked to many professors about the shift away from monograph dissertations, Fitzpatrick said, many seem to feel "anticipatory remorse," and think they are somehow hurting their graduate students' future careers by not encouraging them to produce what could become a book. "The problem with this is that the career this graduate student will have looks different from the careers we have expected," she said.

"It should be our jobs to support new kinds of work," she said. And for faculty members trained before the digital era, she said that means a responsibility to "learn how to read in new formats," not just to look for linear arguments over hundreds of pages.

Fitzpatrick made a comment in closing that inspired several of the questions from the audience. She said that she recently gave a talk at a digital humanities center and a graduate student told her about a project, and the dilemma of whether to approach it as a book-length writing project or a digital work. "I blurted out to do the risky thing," the digital project, Fitzpatrick said. But she quickly found herself wondering if that was wise, given that she didn't know about the support this graduate student would have. So she amended her advice a little. "The thing you have passion for is the thing you should be doing," she said. "But make sure somebody's got your back."

Grad Students as 'Canaries in the Coal Mine'

The questions from the audience were notable in that they didn't challenge the central premise of the speakers that scholarly communication is changing, and that the traditional dissertation shouldn't be the only option. But people were clearly worried about whether anybody would support graduate students during this transition period. Even with all the enthusiasm about digital humanities, many grad students or junior professors fear that it only takes one Luddite member of a dissertation or hiring committee to squelch all kinds of creativity or careers.

One graduate student asked whether the digital projects would simply be added on to already full workloads. He said that it felt like graduate students were being asked "to do double the skills in half the time."

Damrosch said that faculty members needed to replace some traditional assignments with different kinds of work. He said, for instance, that in one of his courses, he has replaced one of the major papers students were required to do with a wiki instead.

The director of graduate studies at a university -- referencing the idea of having a graduate student's back -- asked if that was really possible for anyone on a graduate committee to do. How, she asked, can an adviser today be sure that a student who does a digital dissertation will do well on the job market? "Are we asking our graduate students to be canaries in a coal mine?" she asked. Another person asked for data on how people with nontraditional dissertations do in the job market, and was told that there aren't enough people to know.

Still another professor in the audience said that the changes being discussed will happen only if elite universities make them first. "Elite universities have to have everyone's back," he said. "Harvard has to change first" because, if it does, "then my provost ... will say it's O.K."

Smith, of Michigan, said that she understood the concerns about encouraging people to break out of traditional models of scholarship. But she said she worried about the idea of saying people need to be cautious until they earn tenure. "We mentor people to be careful," she said, as graduate students and as junior faculty members. "If everyone is careful all that time, they are going to be careful after they get tenure. We have to change the academy."

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