In Brief: Two Takes on Reforming Graduate Education

I hope to write more about my response to each of these very different calls for reforming graduate education, but since I’m not sure when I’ll be able to, for now I’ll just quote a bit, link to them, and invite comments. I think that my response is something like this: both are right that real structural change would be good, but Nowviskie’s proposal makes me uncomfortable by going so far away from the kind of work I’m familiar with (and that drew me into graduate school and now characterizes my teaching and writing life), while Berman’s leaves me dissatisfied because it avoids issues of intellectual substance in its emphasis on time to degree, a goal to be pursued by “required courses with clear benchmarks and learning goals,” and its overall tone of business-school-like pragmatism. In both cases, I like the emphasis on new forms of knowledge dissemination and alternative forms of publishing, including Berman’s reiteration of the need to rethink the dissertation and the dominance of the monograph (like the weather, this is something people keep talking about, with no perceptible effect). Here are the two links, with excerpts:

Bethany Nowviskie, It Starts on Day One

Here’s a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the humanities and creating a generation of knowledge workers prepared not only to teach, research, and communicate in 21st-century modes, but to govern 21st-century institutions.

First, kill all the grad-level methods courses.

Kill them, that is, to clear room for something more highly evolved — or simply more fruitful — to take their place. Think: asteroids clobbering dinosaurs. Choking weeds ripped from vegetable gardens. The fuzzy little nothings and spindly cultivars in this scenario, squinting cautious eyes or uncurling new leaves into the light, are:

  • those research methodologies and corpora (often but not exclusively gathered under the banner of the “digital humanities”) that address hitherto unanswerable questions about history, the arts, and the human condition;
  • and the new-model scholarly communications platforms we can already recognize as promising replacements to our slow and moribund systems for credentialing and publishing humanities scholarship and archiving the cultural record on which it is based.

Russell Berman, Reforming Doctoral Programs: the Sooner the Better

Departments should design regular course series that expeditiously prepare students for examinations. Such organized curricular design is vital to achieve an accelerated time to degree. It is a common practice in some social sciences for entering students to face an articulated set of required courses with clear benchmarks and learning goals.1 In contrast, in some literature fields, annual course offerings vary in accordance with individual faculty predilections. Instead we should design a curriculum for student learning needs. Graduate students ought to be able to complete course work in two years. This realistic goal depends on effective management of both faculty teaching responsibilities and student course enrollment.

We need to design a wider array of capstones to doctoral programs and to move beyond the traditional dissertation. In literary studies, the nearly exclusive form of completion is the dissertation, which has come to mean, effectively, a draft of a book manuscript. We maintain this expectation, despite the crisis in academic book publishing. Let us be honest: most academic books, especially those derived from dissertations, have little distribution. . . . Technological change and the digital humanities suggest other shorter genres of scholarly writing; moreover, such genres might be able to bridge the gap between scholarship and the public, which has hurt us so badly in the current wave of budget cuts.


2 thoughts on “In Brief: Two Takes on Reforming Graduate Education

  1. litlove November 18, 2011 / 7:09 pm

    Oh! Were they suggesting that alternatives to the dissertation should exist? I confess that I read both of those proposals and understood not a word they were saying: ‘an articulated set of required courses’? ‘new-model scholarly communications platforms’? I have been out of the loop for too long! If I’m understanding what it’s saying, I do not like at all that second one, which sounds like my worst nightmare: teach just what will be examined, make it seamless, no creative or analytic or lateral thought required. Cambridge students have got worse and worse over the years at saying ‘is what you’re telling me strictly necessary for the exam?’ which is a hopelessly anti-educational concept. We make a bed of nails for ourselves the more we squash intellectual curiosity and make it about hoop-jumping instead. As for the first one, aren’t there already alternatives to dissertations? My friend, currently working towards a PhD in sociology, must publish three articles instead, and they form her final submission. Perhaps that’s just a UK thing. Or perhaps I haven’t understood the proposals, which is entirely possible! 🙂

  2. Rohan Maitzen November 18, 2011 / 9:07 pm

    @litlove, I agree about the ‘teaching to the test’ implications of Berman’s suggestion here, and I also really can’t see how anyone could generate a set of “core” requirements for a discipline as vast and fragmented as literary studies has become.

    I think non-monographish options for PhDs are accepted in some fields, esp social sciences, but certainly the model I think is absolutely dominant in North American English depts is a pre-book, and the closer it is to publishable, the better. Those who remark that it is hypocritical or unethical to recommend changing this without simultaneously recommending or even guaranteeing changes in hiring and tenure requirements are spot on. This is why I find it so difficult to imagine a change that would work: the interlocking systems of incentives, rewards, and expectations are so complex.

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