A New Humanities Ph.D.
After Sidonie Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, took on the herculean task of asking the profession to rethink the shape of the dissertation, Arnold Pan at Post Academic took up the MLA’s call to respond. Among his suggestions was “legitimating non-academic options for Ph.D. students, beyond the more practical advice offered by the campus job center.” Much attention has also been devoted lately to what Bethany Nowviskie calls “#alt-ac,” the alternative academic track for humanities scholars.
But humanities education needs to do more than change the shape of the dissertation, legitimate non-academic jobs, or validate academic jobs that are not tenure-track teaching posts. The crisis in academic humanities, brought on by years of focus on nothing but turning out professor-wannabes, has to be addressed long before the job-placement stage. Long before the dissertation stage. We need to train Ph.D. students differently from the first day of graduate school.
If we value the humanities enough to teach them at the undergraduate level, if we believe that humanities education produces thoughtful, critical, self-aware global citizens, then we need to recognize that advanced training in the humanities cannot be simply the province of aspiring tenure-track faculty members. If there’s no prospect of a tenure-track job in the humanities, and humanities graduate programs train students for nothing but tenure-track jobs, how long can these programs be sustainable?
The current job crisis may be just the impetus graduate humanities education needs in order to recognize that what it has to offer is essential to this democracy, and essential to training leaders in a whole range of fields, far beyond academics.
As Pan, Nowviskie, and others point out, if most graduate programs devote a thought to "non-academic" careers for their Ph.D.s, they make very clear that there are indeed only two categories — academic and undesirable, i.e., everything else in the entire world. It’s that everything else we should be addressing, though.
Among my own friends I count a director of a state humanities council, a director of a university women's center, and a director of a state Center for the Book. Graduate work in the humanities has been absolutely essential to each of those professionals, in the sense that they learned writing, research, and analytical skills that they use every day. They discussed values, ethics, and aesthetics, and they applied abstract theory to concrete texts. They learned to develop complex arguments, to balance competing claims, to present clear positions. Yet in none of their graduate careers did any of them get any acknowledgment that such preparation might be of good use in any number of professional contexts. And in none of their graduate careers were any of them offered any coursework or workshops that focused on anything other than their academic disciplines.
What would a humanities Ph.D. program look like if it saw itself as preparing professional humanists rather than simply humanities professors? Courses from outside our departments could complement our intensive training in a chosen area of specialization. Deep work in a specialized area is most valuable, teaching us organization, research, writing, and often collaboration skills that are necessary in any humanities field. But how many of us, even in academic positions, would have benefited from a graduate course in organizational structures? In grant writing? In state and federal government? In arts administration?
A doctoral program that allows such courses to count toward the degree would be the stronger for it, I believe. If programs allowed two or three of these pre-professional courses in three years' of coursework, the loss of discipline-based courses would be more than made up for by the benefits of increased job prospects. Students who didn't want the courses needn't be force-marched into them, but the humanities departments would need to endorse the new approach. That will be the tough part -- getting faculty who might be unaware of these humanities-based professional careers to steer students in this new direction.
And it’s not just coursework that should change. Graduate student employment would need a shift in emphasis as well. Most grad student work in the humanities is teaching and research assistantships, of course. These jobs are not designed to prepare graduate students for careers as faculty members, though; they’re designed to teach the undergraduates at a very low rate of pay. But there are other jobs at the university, jobs that are equally designed to exploit graduate student labor but that offer training in a bigger variety of skills. When I was in grad school, I did survey research in the school of education and taught outside my department, in both the journalism school and the business school. I had friends who worked in administrative offices in women’s studies and African American studies. A guy in my department worked in the university’s foundation office and eventually went there full-time.
The one thing that all those jobs had in common, however, was that my home department neither placed us in the jobs nor recognized that the jobs offered anything of value to a humanities degree. Imagine a humanities department that assembled a list of jobs from all over campus and asked graduate students to consider what they might learn from each. Or, even better, a department that asked its graduate students to compile an electronic portfolio that collected work from both humanities courses and graduate employment. The portfolio could include an essay in which the student reflected on the skills and knowledge he or she was acquiring and the ways those things might be useful after the degree. It wouldn’t have to be a job portfolio, but it would have to ask the student to think about what he or she was learning, beyond the theory and content in the discipline.
A humanities department that really saw the value in placing thoughtful, well-trained humanists in government, nonprofit associations, and even business or the military, could shape a graduate experience around the idea of the humanist at large. Such a direction need not, and indeed should not, be a separate track. These wider opportunities and broader coursework should be available to all humanities graduate students. How much better would academics be in our committee work or as department chairs or in national organizations if we had been prepared in our graduate programs for those parts of our jobs that did not revolve around research or teaching?
We are beginning to acknowledge that the graduate training we offer in the humanities is simply not fair to our students, the vast majority of whom will never get tenure-track jobs in their disciplines. But the worth of humanities graduate education need not depend on the number of tenure-track humanists it produces. Graduate education in the humanities is an excellent preparation for many, many careers. But our students should not have to find those careers on their own, and they should not have to think of those careers as “non-academic” careers—the jobs we take when we can’t get the jobs we’ve been trained for. Humanities education needs to take itself seriously. We believe that undergraduate humanities programs produce thoughtful, informed, global citizens. Now we need to decide what we really want graduate humanities programs to produce.
Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts. She serves on the board of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.
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