We Need Humanities Labs
"Solitude vivifies; isolation kills."
--Joseph Roux, Meditations of a Parish Priest, 1886
I wonder how an English professor would feel spending a week in a physics lab. Not about the scientific work, but about the frequent, ongoing interaction between students and peers, post-docs and faculty. Scientists see each other in the lab, if not daily, then at least weekly. They have frequent lab meetings, colloquia and interaction with scholars at other universities around joint research. During my graduate training in psychology at McGill University, especially in the research lab at the Montreal Neurological Institute, I spent hours hanging around the post-docs. I learned at least as much from them as I did from my interactions with my professors. The expectation was that I would be at the lab 9 to 5 or more, every day. I saw my adviser every day.
My curiosity about this hypothetical English professor’s reaction began after a discussion with my father, a professor emeritus in physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. As we chatted about my work as a dissertation and tenure coach, he expressed shock when I recounted how graduate students in English could go a month or more with no contact with their advisor. He estimated that his students usually saw him daily, and never went for more than a week without interaction with him, except when he was traveling. As he quizzed me more and more about the grad student experience in humanities departments, it became more and more clear to me that there is a deep divide.
In the humanities, outside of the classroom, this kind of easy and even semi-formal interaction is rare. The isolation for the grad student begins in earnest when the coursework is finished and the qualifying exams are completed. The fledgling ABD is nudged out of the nest, left to fly solo for long periods. The luckiest students have advisors who are mentors and insist on frequent meetings, which increase accountability and allow the student to learn how to think in a scholarly manner. The large majority, however, are left to flounder, some of them working as adjuncts far from the institution where they are trying to finish a Ph.D.
The students whose advisers organize monthly dissertation meetings get some help with the isolation. These meetings usually involve prior submission of one’s work, with a presentation and then feedback from peers and one’s advisor during the meeting. The opportunity to present one’s own work may come up only once every few months. For many grad students, most writing is accomplished in the days preceding submission of their work. I believe that these meetings are too infrequent and too formal to make up for the absence of ongoing interaction with other scholars.
Beyond these dissertation meetings, scholarly dialogue with peers or advisers is sporadic in most departments outside the sciences. In many cases, the adviser's expectation is that the student will request a meeting when the student is ready. Thus begins one of the vicious cycles of graduate school. The student, working in a void, measures himself against what he imagines his peers are doing. Often he finds himself lacking, and feels ashamed. So he puts off the meeting with his adviser. This increases his isolation and sense of inadequacy. He feels that he is floundering and going in circles. Without encouragement and deadlines, such students can languish for months, and even years.
As a dissertation coach, I’ve worked with many such students. The luckier ones are early in the process and not yet consumed with self-loathing and shame. Others have been at it for years and feel terrible about themselves. It is noteworthy that 80-90 percent of the calls I receive for dissertation coaching are from students in the humanities, social sciences or education -- all fields less likely to have a lab environment. The rest are writing their dissertation away from their university and find it difficult to work in that void.
Conferences and conventions offer important opportunities for scholarly dialogue, as do online blogs. However, there are limitations to conferences (too infrequent) and blogs. What I am advocating is injecting into the humanities department some of the freewheeling dialogue found in the halls outside the conference presentation or in some of the better scholarly blogs.
Why is there such a difference between the hard sciences and the humanities? An obvious reason is that science is best done in groups, due to the availability of expensive equipment and the need for collaboration to make elaborate projects work. Second, science is funded largely by grants, which contain within them the need for accountability. The person in charge of the grant will make darn sure that neither time nor money is being wasted, by frequently checking in with those doing the research and writing.
Barton Kunstler, who wrote "The Hothouse Effect: Time Proven Strategies of History's Most Creative Groups,” in Futures Research Quarterly, argues that organizations can grow into "creative hothouses," much as Ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence. If humanities departments were to proceed as outlined by Kunstler, they would go beyond counting their peer-reviewed publications, and move into creating lasting legacies and nurturing breakthrough thinking. Kunstler identifies the attributes of organizations likely to spawn such changes, including the following: "workers immerse themselves in others’ ideas and work, absorbing creative influences," and "mentor relationships abound." Clearly, it would benefit all the members of such a department, not just the struggling graduate students, to create an atmosphere that "spawns 'geniuses'" and "stands at the center of a wider cultural movement."
How will such changes occur in actual practice? Certainly there is not a need for more departmental meetings. Kunstler suggests that you "reevaluate the basic assumptions and methods of your discipline," and "challenge your most treasured paradigms." Those at the higher levels can begin by modeling the behavior they would like to see in others -- proposing informal discussions, sharing work with colleagues, discussing publishing with faculty from other departments, and seeking out a grad student or two to bounce ideas off of. If every professor advising graduate students made it a point to have a substantive conversation with one of his or her ABD’s a day, the picture for many grad students would change radically.
I suggest that graduate students begin at the grassroots level. They should suggest weekly meetings to peers, with the only agenda being the discussion of work in progress at an informal level. If they are geographically scattered, they can meet by phone -- there are free conference lines available. In my coaching groups there is a high level of closeness and support, even though none of these people have met in person. People should be encouraged to attend with partly formed thoughts, poorly written paragraphs, or just an idea they want to develop. The idea is to think of all such scholarly dialogue as a laboratory. Ideas are cooked up, thrown in the test tube, and mixed with human interaction, creativity and motivation. These experiments will produce better written and less painfully produced dissertations or publications, and might engender a "creative humanities hothouse."
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