No, Your English Dissertation Isn’t “Research”

The big question in hiring somebody right out of graduate school is not about the person's research but whether he or she can deal with teenagers who have never read serious literature and don’t particularly want to, writes Bruce Fleming.

May 6, 2016

I’ve recently completed a stint on the English department hiring committee of my home institution, the U.S. Naval Academy. I’ve read hundreds of written applications for positions in our undergraduate institution, and over the 29 years I’ve taught there I’ve seen dozens of those invited to campus to present themselves and what they do.

What we do at Annapolis is a little different than at many undergraduate schools -- a combination of community college with more esoteric studies. We do offer an English major and honors major, but we still primarily exist to teach the required two-semester English writing-and-literature introduction to freshmen, who by and large are bad writers. (Our average verbal SAT scores, for those who still think in these terms, are about 630, with many in the 500s and even 400s.) What we do at that level is basic. Many freshmen (called “plebes” at Annapolis) assure me that “you can say anything you want about a poem” and have never heard of iambic pentameter. They write papers with no clear thesis and full of mistakes ranging from sentence fragments to utterly misused words to verbs that don’t agree with subjects and modifiers so misplaced the reader gets the opposite information of what was intended.

It sounds depressing, but welcome to reality. Still, we are hiring for tenure-track jobs, and all but a very few hires do subsequently get tenure. So our situation is attractive in today’s beyond-abysmal job market -- not to mention the fact that our campus is pretty and our students at least overtly respectful and snappily, if uniformly (get it? -- it’s military!), dressed.

All our candidates write letters and send CVs and writing samples, and a tiny fraction of these arrive to give us presentations that always highlight and explain their “research” in graduate school (or beyond for those out for a few years). This is almost always on the pattern of “Concept X borrowed from theory Y is applied to works A, B and C that have something in common: time, author, country/group of origin, leading to this result: Z.”

Some are more clever than others; the most aha-inducing of them pull an unexpected rabbit out of a hat. These works show that certain a widely held view is in fact untenable, with the clear subtext of: come to my class and read these works the way I teach them to be led inexorably to this conclusion, too. Well, I always think, that kind of limits the people who will see the world that way, doesn’t it?

These applications and presentations are the more predictable in that the concept X that is applied to A, B and C is chosen from the same short list of thinkers who have dominated English graduate programs for the last 70 years (in case you need to ask: anti-imperialistic, anti-realistic and anti-phallocratic). It’s astonishing to me that the thinkers who were riding high when I first entered this business in the ’70s still hold a death grip on young minds. In all that time, we haven’t gotten beyond the magical pairing of Derrida, who taught us that the world was really a written text taught in a classroom (no prize for saying why this is so attractive to literature professors) and Foucault, who gave marginalized groups a vocabulary for showing how texts had wrought their marginalization (and so how attacks on these texts could, apparently, reverse that situation). It’s all about texts. You are freed by my class: read my dissertation, hire me!

Perhaps it’s my Fulbright time at the Free University of what was then West Berlin that taught me to be suspicious -- from my journeys over the wall to East Berlin and by following its literary life -- of the necessity of giving a sheen of legitimation to everything by quoting from the short list of what the Party viewed as approved thinkers. There in East Germany, it was Marx, Engels and Lenin. Now it’s the cargo cult of Derrida and Foucault, the bringers of the gospel having long since departed.

The big question in hiring somebody right out of graduate school is thus always: Can this person come out of the graduate school bubble enough to deal with teenagers who have never read serious literature and don’t particularly want to? Can she deal with the fact that nobody she’s talking to (except the three people who come to listen to her paper at the Modern Language Association conference) has ever even heard of the people who seemed so important to her for so long?

Some Ph.D.s can, some can’t. Since, to balance the books, research universities rely on graduate assistants teaching undergraduates (as well as on the gypsy scholars post-Ph.D. that most of these graduate students will become), many are, in fact, aware that there is a world of the uninitiated out there and they have to be able to talk to them, too. But to a person, they let loose in their letters and presentations for jobs, talking -- they seem to believe -- to the one set of people who will understand the importance of their “research.” Advice from the MLA often suggests they should, after all.

The word is borrowed from science, as indeed is the pretense of adding to a store of knowledge; this is the basis of their conviction that we should hire someone who has wandered in realms of gold. Their dissertation wasn’t just an intellectual exercise to see if they could stand the slog, it was research adding to knowledge. Of course this is nonsense. What we do in literature graduate programs isn’t research and the result isn’t knowledge.

The nature of real (scientific) research is that it’s reproducible. Other people can run the same combinations and get the same results. And the idea of research assumes that they would want to, because doing so answers a generally shared question. What we’ve found is a fact about the objective world that all are, or should be, interested in.

The point of writing a literature Ph.D. dissertation, however, is to combine idea with example so as to reach a conclusion nobody has ever gotten before and that nobody will ever get again. That’s because followers’ “research” will be on new examples or with other ideas chosen from the short list of party-approved thinkers. (And when they’re out of favor, they’re out! Remember William Empson? The craze for Wallace Stevens?) Nobody tries to apply the same thinkers to the same texts to see if we get the same results. That’s because you showed your originality by achieving surprising results. Now it’s the turn of the new gal to show her originality. Fireworks: one after the other. Pretty, sure.

The notion of research in literary studies is an untenable combination of faith in Romantic genius with a scientific vocabulary. Besides, one of the clever tenets of the party line in almost all English graduate schools is that there is in fact no such thing as objectivity. Nietzsche and then Derrida are supposed to have slain that dragon for all time, and Foucault is held to have shown that facts are a whip the dominant power uses to keep the marginalized in their place. So how is what English Ph.D. students do anything other than simply keeping themselves amused and their universities in low-cost undergraduate teachers?

It’s no wonder then that English graduate programs, lacking any other basis, hold their own meta paraphernalia to be the basis of objectivity. If you write an article that appears in the MLA listings, you are real and have added to the store of knowledge. The paradigm of the humanities is the ultimate imperialism. Esse est percipi (by us), as Bishop Berkeley would have said. We think of ourselves as creators: we have caused things to exist by writing about them for a journal that is indexed. What if nobody reads it? Students are going to work for McKinsey and so by definition don’t care? We rarely ask this question. If those who do merely pat us on the back for our “brilliant insight” or “trenchant analysis”? What is this but a thumbs-up like on Facebook?

Showing what happens when I alone apply arbitrarily chosen X to arbitrarily chosen A, B and C is not research. I grant it’s facts, as a journal of my moods would be facts. But who cares? It doesn’t prove anything. My lawn has many blades of grass; I have only the most cursory knowledge of it. I could study it all; I could devote a lifetime to it. Why not? Just don’t ask others to care.

Let’s say that one day your Ph.D. adviser makes the revolting discovery that poetry in Borneo before 1850 is an “undertheorized” neglected field. Go for it, she says to the hungry graduate student. To me the lawn looks like a lawn, spotty here, lush there. I have no knowledge of which blades go in what direction, if there are patterns, if square inch 22B differs from 22A, or anything. My ignorance, indeed our ignorance, of the specifics of my lawn is abysmal. This is clearly begging for research. And poetry in Borneo before 1850 is also the subject of a dissertation. But only from a specific theoretical viewpoint! Which the candidate then presents to us in Annapolis.

Nobody will ever reproduce this: first, they don’t care about my lawn, and the point of focusing on poetry in Borneo in 1850 from this one point of view was that others weren’t doing so. Second, the larger issue applicable to others isn’t clear, and third, because the lawn changes and the viewer is a particular one, the research can’t be reproduced. Nobody will ever check the results of either my studies on my lawn or Bornean poetry because they were my personal views of a manifold that nobody else cares about -- one with no connection to the world except the fact that this grass too exists, or that we can place Borneo on an objective time/space grid.

We in the humanities have an erroneous view of science if we believe that what we do is scientific. Most fundamentally of all, nobody cares. Not true in science. Science may be objective, but it too has the subjective basis that others have to care. Certain projects get funded for specific reasons because they seem useful, now or later. There is just too much knowledge in the world to go after it all.

There has to be a reason for scientific investigation -- and for research in the humanities too. It’s high time we started looking for the reasons. And they have to go beyond getting us a Ph.D., a job or tenure. Nobody but us cares about that, just as nobody but me cares about my lawn or what I say about the blades of grass that constitute it.

Remember that when you apply for a job: nobody but you (OK, never say nobody) cares about your research. The question is, can you deal with sleepy students? Do you know what the point is of dragging them through Shakespeare or Toni Morrison? The skill set required for enlivening a classroom is something else entirely. You have to know why you bother. And they don’t teach that in graduate schools.

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Bruce Fleming has taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987. His numerous books and shorter pieces are listed at

Bruce Fleming

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