Graduate education

The humanities Ph.D. is a calling, not vocational training (essay)

Georgetown University recently announced plans for an English Ph.D. tailored to non-university careers, reflecting ongoing deliberations within the Modern Language Association about what to do about the anemic employment market.

In their important, humane contribution to the same conversation, “No More Plan B,” the American Historical Association’s Anthony Grafton and James Grossman argue that, at a time when the employment market for history Ph.D.s is dismal, historians with Ph.D.s have high-level skills that should be recognized by employers. Some evidence suggests, not surprisingly, that Ph.D.s in the humanities are already thriving in the private sector.

These conversations reflect the efforts of concerned academic leaders to find ways to deal with the human cost of declining faculty positions in the humanities (and, one might add, in the natural sciences).

These proposals are controversial because, to their detractors, they turn graduate education in the humanities into job training. At a time when the liberal arts are threatened, and when many policymakers are emphasizing narrowly vocational goals over a broad general education, this is not an unreasonable concern.

Graduate education in the humanities cannot be defended because it prepares people for any job. That’s not what brings students to graduate school. Students enter graduate school because they love their subjects. They have had good teachers who have inspired them to see the world in new ways. They have learned to ask the kinds of questions that only the humanities can answer. They have been converted.

We therefore cannot treat the humanities Ph.D. as a high-end professional credential — an alternative to the M.B.A. When we do so we corrupt what graduate study in humanities is for. Unlike the undergraduate major, which is intended as broad preparation for life, the graduate degree is designed for those who wish to engage in deep study in order to enter professional work in the humanities.

Instead, I propose we think of graduate education in the humanities as closer to ministerial education. We must prepare students not just with the knowledge required to understand their field, but with the skills necessary to carry out their ministry in the different places to which they might be called. By imagining ministers instead of M.B.A.s, we might be able to find a language that makes it possible to reform graduate education without giving in to vocationalism.

Addressing Supply and Demand

Before reforming graduate education, however, we must not forget the primary issue faced by the humanities: the structural problems that plague the university.

On the demand side, we must expand the number of tenure-line positions in the humanities across the nation and resist the deprofessionalization of teachers and professors.

On the supply side, institutions that prepare graduate students must recognize that, too often, graduate students are valued for their cheap teaching labor. This is not to suggest that individual faculty members do not invest their hearts and souls in mentoring graduate students, but instead that universities have underinvested in tenure-line faculty. As Marc Bousquet pointed out, in some ways graduate students are the waste products of the system, their value to the university used up when they receive their degree.

Focusing on structural solutions would help those called to the humanities find university positions.  If the jobs are not there, however, the answer may not be to continue to overproduce Ph.D.s and market them to private employers, but to curtail production. Unlike the undergraduate humanities major, which is part of a general liberal arts education and needs no vocational justification, the graduate program is designed to lead students to meaningful employment.

Humanities as a Calling

Students come to graduate school because of their passion for the humanities. We must respect what brings them to us. We must refuse to see them as budding entrepreneurs; they are ministers committed to spreading the gospel of the humanities. We must prepare them for the ministry they came to undertake, whether in schools and universities, in government, or in other organizations.

For most humanities Ph.D.s, the primary work will be teaching. Humanities Ph.D.s teach at the secondary and college levels, but humanities programs have been relatively disengaged from the task of preparing teachers. We have allowed teacher preparation to take place almost entirely within education schools, but there are many reasons why liberal arts programs should be more involved in preparing teachers.

Moreover, the cost of the split between secondary teachers and professors has been significant. In the history profession, as the AHA’s Robert B. Townsend makes clear in his book History’s Babel, the division between professors and other historians has devalued the daily ministry of most historians, led to an overemphasis on scholarship, and denied secondary school teachers opportunities to engage in the life of the discipline.

Even if most humanities graduates’ primary task will be teaching, we should not denigrate scholarship. Too many policy makers and commentators have suggested that humanities research does not matter. It matters greatly, both in the public sphere and in the classroom. To sustain scholarly inquiry, we need scholars around the country and world engaged in research and capable of critically assessing each other’s work. We need to ensure that humanities graduates at all levels — in K-12 schools, museums, local societies, media, universities, and government — have the space and time to engage in scholarship and be part of the conversation.

Reforming Graduate Education

If it is deemed necessary to reform graduate education, we must always keep in mind that we are preparing humanities ministers. To keep this first and foremost opens up alternative ways to reimagine graduate education.

We might, in addition to or instead of the Ph.D., offer a doctorate of humanities (like the JD or MD), a four-year program that would offer a solid academic education, require a significant work of scholarship in the form of a publication-worthy thesis, but also provide practical skills to help young humanists enter the humanities fields at various levels in different kinds of organizations. The doctorate of humanities could be interdisciplinary or field-specific, as different institutions and programs and the needs of scholarship determine appropriate.

To get a sense of what this would look like, we need only examine the curriculum for the M-Div at Princeton Theological Seminary, in New Jersey. The degree “is designed to prepare students for the diverse ministries of congregational leadership, for further graduate study in theology and related disciplines, for various types of chaplaincy, for mission work at home and abroad, and for other forms of church vocation. The curriculum is planned to provide the flexibility and independence consonant with a broad theological foundation.”

Students are expected to take coursework in Biblical studies, history, and theology. But academic work is insufficient. There is also a “practical theology” component to help ministerial candidates learn how to preach, educate, and perform pastoral care. Finally, the program requires “field education” under practicing ministers. At Princeton Theological Seminary, without reducing or diminishing academic preparation, candidates are taught to use their academic knowledge to carry out the very important work that they will undertake as ministers.

A similar combination of academic and practical education could prepare graduate students better for their jobs as teachers, but also for work in the public, nonprofit, or private sectors. Such a degree would be more portable, and as a result, it would also reduce the human and financial cost for those who cannot find professional humanities work and move on to other careers.

There is no reason to believe that this will reduce the quality of humanities scholarship. A four-year doctoral degree with a serious research component should prepare graduates for research as well as other kinds of work. After all, most ministers do not need Ph.D.s, nor do most lawyers or MDs. They need an education that enables them to undertake their daily work with thoughtfulness, the skills to make them effective at it, and the ability to engage in scholarship.

In many ways, that seems like what the proposed Georgetown English Ph.D. seeks to do. It would create a four-year program for students who already have an MA, provide a strong academic foundation, require a significant work of scholarship, and also provide field experience in an organization that promotes humanistic endeavors.

In conclusion, we need to continue to move forward on two fronts. The crisis of doctoral education is, to a large extent, a crisis of the university. We must continue to emphasize the need for more tenure-track hiring in the liberal arts. Nonetheless, there is a good case to be made that graduate education in the humanities could be more expansive, not because we need to bow down to the anti-intellectual forces reshaping higher education, but because we can better prepare graduates for the diverse ministries that they could serve.

Johann Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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