In the early 1980s, Umberto Eco enjoyed a remarkable streak of beginner’s luck with his first novel, The Name of the Rose. An improbable international best seller, it was a pastiche of detective fiction filled with nods and winks at Eco’s own field of semiotics as well as his longstanding interest in medieval theology. Most of the intertextuality was removed when the novel was adapted for the screen in 1986, presumably to make room for Sean Connery.
But at the peak of Rose mania, many a paper was written trying to sound out Eco’s historical and theoretical echoes. (The pun was inevitable, even providential.) An essay appearing in Diacritics, the preeminent journal of literary theory at the time, even made a connection between the novel and one of Eco’s lesser-known efforts: “a handbook on dissertation-writing for the vast despised vulgus of Italian students,” namely Come si fa una tesi di laurea (1977). It was one of the very rare mentions in an English-language journal of another international best seller by Eco: the work now available as How to Write a Thesis, published by M.I.T. Press.
Roger Conover, the press’s executive editor, tells me that the handbook has been staple reading for a couple of generations of students in Europe and beyond. It was translated into 17 languages, including Russian and Chinese, before reaching English. Its closest Anglophone equivalent is probably Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff’s The Modern Researcher, originally published in 1957. But while Barzun and Graff made substantial revisions to their book across its six editions, Eco’s has remained in print essentially unchanged for almost four decades, apart from the introduction he added to the 1985 edition.
By then, Eco’s manual was being used in several countries and, he noted, by middle-school students as well as doctoral candidates. These developments did not surprise the author: “The methods necessary to conduct high-quality research, at any level of complexity, are the same all over the world.”
So why didn’t How to Write a Thesis come out in English in the aftermath of The Name of the Rose, when everything from Eco’s own thesis to his newspaper columns were being translated? I don’t know for certain, but the arrival (not to say invasion) of the personal computer on college campuses may have been a factor.
“A thesis is a typewritten manuscript,” we read at the opening of chapter one, “usually 100 to 400 pages in length, in which the student addresses a particular problem in his chosen field.” Barzun and Graff expressed skepticism about word processing in the fourth edition (1985) of The Modern Researcher, while Eco’s stubbornly un-updated handbook avoids the matter entirely. He devotes a solid 100 pages to the art and science of preparing index cards in the course of research, which is no longer the selling point it once must have seemed.
Even so, How to Write a Thesis remains valuable after all this time largely thanks to the spirit of Eco’s advice. It is witty but sober, genial but demanding -- and remarkably uncynical about the rewards of the thesis, both for the person writing it and for the enterprise of scholarship itself. Eco’s original target audience consisted of the influx into Italian universities of students “who, for example, work in the city clerk’s office in their hometown of only 10,000 inhabitants, a town where there are perhaps only newsstands that substitute for proper booksellers,” or who never learned “how to sign up for a library card, how to search for a book, or in which libraries to look.”
But remedial instruction in basic skills forms only a small part of the guidance Eco offers. Far more of the book concerns the higher cognitive operations involved in selecting and refining a topic for research -- one suitable given the time and the resources available to a student, but also challenging enough to demand sustained, intensive mental labor -- and then producing a text that is readable, cogent and even a contribution to knowledge.
Eco’s pages on the seemingly obsolete practice of taking notes on index cards prove to have more lasting value than the 21st-century reader might expect. The cards themselves are more than just a storage and retrieval mechanism for citations and quotations; the work of preparing and cross-referencing them is inseparable from that of finding and analyzing sources, primary and secondary. Notebooks are equally suited to such purposes. And I suppose many of the techniques could be adapted to screen-based devices. “At the very least,” Eco writes, “always work on homogeneous material that is easy to move and handle. This way, you will know at a glance what you have read and what remains to be read.”
Some of Eco’s advice is, if anything, even more valuable now, given the ubiquity and seeming omniscience of our digital tools. One paragraph in particular comes to mind:
“You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian, because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.”
Still true! The Association of College and Research Libraries ought to use this quotation in a poster. It also displays the wry tone that frequently makes How to Write a Thesis a lot more entertaining than its title might suggest.
Eco explicitly warns that his book is not meant for people seeking “to write a thesis in a month, in such a way as to receive a passing grade and graduate quickly.” But he does offer them a couple of possibly helpful suggestions: “(a) Invest a reasonable amount of money in having a thesis written by a second party. (b) Copy a thesis that was written a few years prior for another institution.”
He also explains that a successful plagiarist must exercise due diligence:
“It is better not to copy a book currently in print, even if it was written in a foreign language. If the professor is even minimally informed on the topic, he will be aware of the book’s existence.... Consequently, even plagiarizing a thesis requires an intelligent research effort.”
Eco’s humor never detracts from his serious intent. And anyway, even the sardonic pointers on cheating are instructive in their way. As William of Baskerville puts it in The Name of the Rose, “Learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.” Even when the tools on hand make it awfully easy to try.
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.