Defending MLA Reform Plan

July 21, 2014

The Modern Language Association report on the Ph.D. in languages and literatures has already succeeded in sparking a lively debate. Some commentators have welcomed the report’s general findings, while others have taken issue with its specific recommendations. Beyond these differences, a broad consensus has emerged that the current situation is unsustainable, and this recognition is key to moving forward. The relationship of doctoral education to the deteriorating conditions of the academic workforce demands transformative changes. If doctoral study is to thrive in more than a handful of elite institutions, the profession as a whole and at multiple levels must adopt a reform agenda. The urgency of change was the premise of the task force report, and change is what the critics of the report also demand.

The agreement goes even further. Like its critics, the members of the MLA task force that produced the report point to the persistently weak job market and the importance of advocating an increase in tenure-track positions. The report similarly criticizes the casualization of academic labor and the poor working conditions of most contingent faculty members. This advocacy stands explicitly in the tradition of the MLA, which in recent decades has analyzed and criticized these developments while providing resources such as the Committee on Contingent Labor’s two recent projects: “Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members” and a 2013 special issue of the ADE and ADFL Bulletin on contingent labor. I know my colleagues on the MLA Executive Council are committed to pursuing  activism in this area and leading the scholarly association network toward collective action .

Yet the report does more than call for advocacy. It also calls for change within graduate programs, and this is where the consensus breaks down. Some critics of the report have staked out the position that the MLA should focus primarily on job market and working conditions issues and not on the academic programs in which our members teach and study. While the task force report underscores the importance of the labor question, it also recommends that the MLA engage the profession in considering internal reforms to serve graduate students more effectively. The difference between what the report says and what its critics argue is particularly clear on three points.

First, some complain that the report does not call for deep cuts in admissions to doctoral programs. Only such cuts, they argue, could address the weak job market in which there are more qualified candidates than tenure-track positions. In contrast, the task force report insists on maintaining accessibility to doctoral programs: Qualified students with an intellectual dedication to the fields of language and literature should have the opportunity to pursue advanced study. Access to higher education is a hallmark of a democratic society, and it is the precondition of diversity in our fields Still, if critics want to call for the closing of programs, which programs, one might ask, should be eliminated? How will closings not end up disadvantaging public institutions, where the majority of first-generation college students study? Calls to shutter departments rather than reform them most likely will play into the hands of university budget-cutters. The scope of the humanities in higher education in the United States already faces significant reduction. We should be fighting for the humanities rather than closing off advanced study, the key to their sustained presence in colleges and universities.

The labor market critics are proposing what amounts to a guild protectionism: by reducing access to doctorate education, the limited pool of degree holders will be guaranteed abundant and better jobs. This strikes me as a gross miscalculation that will only end with diminished opportunities for all students. In contrast, the MLA report envisions humanities education with a potential for growth in response to the expanded intellectual scope of our fields as well as to society’s changing needs in classrooms and beyond.

A second flashpoint of dispute is time to degree. The report recommends that departments design programs that can be completed in five years and provide sufficient financial support for students to do so. Some commentators have viewed this time frame as an assault on quality. The point, however, is that currently around half of doctoral students take more than a decade to complete the Ph.D., which represents an enormous investment in time with limited prospects for return on the academic job market. Furthermore, there are no legitimate grounds for median time to degree in humanities fields to be significantly longer than in doctoral programs in the natural and social sciences.  There would be nothing wrong for humanities scholars to adopt potentially more effective educational practices from these other fields. We language and literature faculty members need to develop and share new ideas for mentoring students, and departments need to ask how programs might be designed more effectively. As the appendix of the report demonstrates, some departments are already leading the way through reform initiatives that integrate the intellectual demands of humanistic study with a prudent rethinking of program structure.

A third point involves career outcomes for graduate students. It should be obvious to all faculty members that, as the MLA's 14 studies of Ph.D. placement make evident, at best only about half of new modern language doctorate recipients find tenure-track positions in the same year that they complete their degrees, and under 40 percent when academic job opportunities contract, as they did in the 1990s and have again since 2008. (Figure 2 in "Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 1" shows the summary findings for all 14 surveys, 1978 to 2010.)

Departments have an obligation to make this clear to applicants, yet such candor alone does not absolve departments of the responsibility of providing students with opportunities for professional development that can serve them well on multiple career paths. That is why the report points to possibilities such as curriculums designed to develop transferable skills, enhanced engagement with technology, and more effective use of other resources found throughout the university. The report also underscores the importance of pointing students to diverse career possibilities, not by singling out students for job-market tracking, but instead by engaging the graduate student community in exploring a widened career arc.

Doctoral recipients have a rich set of skills — in communication, research, and leadership — and those who do not find a tenure line should not have to settle for poorly compensated contingent positions. Those who view a job as a college professor as the only legitimate outcome of doctoral education fall into that labor market trap. That’s why the report emphasizes the importance of discussing the broad range of career paths and providing students with the resources they need to expand their employment horizons.

Nonetheless, doctoral study should not be viewed exclusively as the pursuit of a career-oriented credential. It must also involve an intellectual passion for languages and literatures, as defined by our evolving disciplines. This is the foundation of successful graduate study. The qualities cultivated through intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing are not just transferable to other careers; they are valuable in their own right, just as it would be valuable to our culture as a whole — and particularly to the future of the academy — to have highly educated professionals who appreciate scholarly thoughtfulness and humanistic perspectives working throughout society. It has been pointed out in the public discussion of the report that many of its recommendations are not new. The academic community has been talking about these issues for a long time, and change is already under way. Time to degree is coming down, and some departments are initiating salutary program modifications. The profession has reached a tipping point, and the time has come for broad-based change. Doctoral study in the humanities fields contributes to the quality of society, it answers individual students’ desire for intellectual depth, and it is a vital piece in the intellectual diversity of universities. If we want to preserve it, we need to reform it.


Russell A. Berman is professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. He led the task force that produced the MLA report.

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