BOSTON -- It was hard to find any graduate students here, at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, who disagreed with the idea being put forth by many of the association's leaders that Ph.D.s shouldn't take 9.5 years to earn in language and literature fields (the current average).
And there was widespread enthusiasm among graduate students and many faculty members for a related idea of broadening the purpose of the doctoral education to include training for careers at academic institutions that are not research universities or for relevant work outside of the professoriate. But at a hearing on the ideas, it was also clear that not all of the professors who teach in graduate departments are ready to move away from the current way of doing business.
Russell Berman of Stanford University, who is leading the MLA's panel on the future of doctoral education while also advancing reform efforts at his home institution, said repeatedly during the session that there were more important things for doctoral education than "coverage," which is the traditional approach in which a graduate student must demonstrate familiarity with every key period or genre in his or her field. That means years of seminars and papers and material to be covered in comprehensive exams -- material that the new Ph.D. may never use, but that adds considerably to time-to-degree.
“What is common denominator in our field?” he asked. Berman said it was “attention to language, to literature, to be able to work with representational material in language, and to work with sustained and integrated argument for some time, but not for 10 years." He added that the common denominator was "a set of intellectual virtues that ought to be cultivated," but "not the canon, not tradition."
And he got specific, saying that if a doctoral student today takes 15 seminars, "most of that is literary and historical coverage and some of that is theory." So the question, he said, was "how much could one carve out," both to save time and potentially to add new skills having nothing to do with "coverage." He said that it was “a matter of shifting” requirements “from coverage driven" to "based on building skills,”
This was too much for one senior professor in the room. He challenged Berman, saying "you call it coverage to denigrate the tradition.... Just denigrating it as coverage is really unfair." He said that in German studies, his field, there are already people lacking sufficient coverage in their educations who talk about (he named one German thinker) who don't cite (he named another German thinker), and such work will spread without a comprehensive approach to training Ph.D.s. "We're insisting that they get coverage so that they have historical knowledge," he said.
Looking around the room during this exchange, it seemed that Berman would have won a vote on the idea, but it wouldn't have been unanimous. There was eye-rolling among some in the audience (generally from the younger set) during the defense of coverage. But there was also some nodding from several senior scholars.
Berman made the case for reform (as he has been for several years now) based on a variety of factors. He noted that the job market remains incredibly tight for literature Ph.D.s. Even those who land tenure-track jobs in academe, he said, are more likely to be working at teaching-oriented institutions than at research universities. Current doctoral programs are based on "replicating ourselves," he said, but this is unfair to graduate students since -- however brilliant their dissertations -- they aren't going to land jobs such as those held by their dissertation advisers.
“We shouldn’t be asking students to enter our programs unless we are fairly certain we are opening up career opportunities," he said.
So Berman and other members of the MLA panel outlined ideas for changing the doctorate. Replace coverage with more "generic" skills. Make clear to students that there is honor in using a Ph.D. to teach at a community college or a high school, or to work for a museum or another nonprofit. Embrace the digital humanities, which train graduate students for a range of careers while enhancing scholarship and teaching at the same time. Consider shorter dissertations (and forms other than mini-books). Add courses and training so that new Ph.D.s are skilled at teaching at institutions other than research universities, and so that graduate students have viable career paths outside of academe. (Notably, an idea not pushed by the committee was shrinking enrollments in graduate programs -- an approach advocated in private discussions here by many adjuncts, but that would result in less revenue for many graduate programs.)
Berman said he believed that the study of literature and languages needed the current departments and current programs. But if those graduate programs continue to produce the same kind of Ph.D.s, these departments will be at risk. By changing, he said, they will survive.
Many here -- especially graduate students -- were thrilled with these ideas. Many sessions here focused on "alt-ac" careers. But while "alternative" careers for Ph.D.s in the past frequently meant leaving academe, much of the discussion was about positions in academic administration, and several panels featured happy English and foreign language Ph.D.s talking about fulfilling careers -- jobs that may not be tenure-track or at an elite university, but that have job security, health insurance and decent salaries.
One graduate student in French at New York University told the open hearing that her only regret about these ideas was that she was just learning of them now, and that she wanted the MLA to do even more to promote these changes. Many professors said that Berman's ideas reflected a long-overdue realism about the mismatch between graduate education and the job market.
And others said that the obstacles to reform are not legitimate, but tied up in prestige. For instance, one professor here noted that the criteria used by the National Research Council to evaluate graduate departments are in large part based on research output. One professor in the audience noted that if a department focused more on teaching graduate students to teach, and embraced non-research related goals, it might go down in the NRC rankings.
Berman agreed. "The NRC doesn’t do us any good. If we hold that learning in our fields [is what matters], the NRC is doing us damage."
One professor at a public university -- in comments that might not please his president -- framed the issue this way. "Can we take advantage of administrative bloat at universities?" he asked. He noted that at his institution, the honors program has four positions held by recent English Ph.D.s, "all making good administrative salaries." Indeed, these are the kinds of jobs that were being much-discussed at this year's MLA, and many are excited about getting them.
Berman said that, for language and literature Ph.D.s to be competitive for these positions, graduate education not only needs to take less time, but to be somewhat different in nature. He and others said that doctoral students need to learn more about finance and management, and to have experience working with administrators, not just assisting professors with courses. Some in the audience expressed doubts, asking why people (especially those outside of academe) would hire an English Ph.D. over an M.B.A. or a J.D., and why those seeking administrative careers would go through a doctoral program (especially at current lengths of time) if they didn't want to be professors. But many others said that they believed their graduate students did in fact have skills -- ways of thinking, analyzing, communicating -- that were valuable far beyond academe.
But even amid that enthusiasm, some worried about the impact on current tenured professors. If graduate students are encouraged to work in positions other than teaching assistants, who will help with teaching, some asked.
One audience member said that if graduate departments create seminars on technology and nonprofit management, the professors in the departments could be hurt. "How many seminars are we willing to give up?" he asked. "Who is qualified in our departments to teach these new courses?" he asked. If the literature professors can't teach them (and he suggested that they can't), others would be brought in. If fewer literature seminars are offered and others are hired to teach nonliterary topics, "we are going to take more lines away from our positions."
While Berman was exceedingly patient in responding to most of the comments about the reform movement, he betrayed a bit of annoyance at this remark. The question for the MLA, he said, must be how to best serve graduate students, and must not be, "How can graduate programs best be structured for the lines of faculty members?"
To this, someone in the audience shouted "amen," and many others applauded.
Read more by
Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes
What Others Are Reading