Should Graduate Students Blog?

blogger-logoOn Thursday I’m speaking to our graduate students’ “professionalization” seminar about academic uses of social media, particularly blogging. I’ve given related talks a few times now, but this is the first time I will have led a session about blogging specifically for an audience of graduate students, for whom some of the issues I typically address have somewhat different implications. Thinking about this, I was reminded that last spring Leonard Cassuto (with whom I had a couple of initially testy but ultimately amicable exchanges about the place and value of academic blogging) asked me for my thoughts about whether graduate students should blog. He was working up a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the question that, as far as I know, never ended up in final form — at any rate, I didn’t see it, and he never got back to me to ‘preview’ his use of any quotations from my reply, which he had promised to do. I thought I might as well “repurpose” the response I sent him, as I had taken some pains over it, so here it is, lightly updated. I’d be very interested in any responses, qualifications, objections, or counter-arguments, not least because they will help me refresh my own thinking about this as I head into Thursday’s seminar.

Should Graduate Students Blog?

Should graduate students blog? That’s a tricky question with at least two important aspects to it. One is whether graduate students should blog with the specific aim of advancing their professional academic careers (that is, improving their chances of getting tenure-track work). Another is whether they should blog for its intrinsic benefits.

These are not, of course, entirely separate questions: some of the things that can be gained from blogging (greater ease and confidence in writing, experience with the give-and-take of post-publication peer review, connections with other people in your field but also with a wider audience, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, freedom to experiment with topics and with voice) can contribute to professional success by making better scholars, teachers, and intellectuals of us all. It can also inculcate work habits conducive to producing more conventional publications: regular bloggers can all testify to the ever-present awareness that the blog needs to be fed!

But it would be naive to ignore that blogging (for some good and some bad reasons) is not yet widely recognized as a legitimate form of academic publishing and that the case for it as productive academic work at all remains a difficult one to make. Graduate students aspiring to tenure-track positions hardly need to be told that for most hiring committees, the crucial measure of their competitiveness as candidates will be the number of conventional peer-reviewed scholarly publications on their c.v.–and the more prestigious the venue, the better. Though blogging one’s research projects can be a useful stage en route to achieving those conventional publications, or even to finishing the dissertation (Scott Kaufman’s Acephalous blog was once the place to look to see this in action!), in itself it is not the same thing and will almost certainly not be valued in the same way. And maintaining a good blog takes time–not necessarily or exactly time away from that kind of clearly marketable scholarly work and publication, but time that might be better used to focus directly on finishing that thesis and getting those lines for your c.v. There are definitely risks involved, then, in deciding to blog.

That said, blogging is increasingly acknowledged as having a place in the overall ecology of academic scholarship. Graduate students who choose to blog should by now be able to make a thoughtful and well-supported case for the value of that effort as part of their overall scholarly portfolio. I think a crucial point is that this case needs to be backed up by faculty members who can explain, to their colleagues and to administrators, the role blogging can play in developing original scholarship as well as in knowledge dissemination and outreach. Those of us who have used the protection of tenure, for instance, to experiment ourselves with alternative modes of writing and publishing need to be advocates for graduate students who take the risk of doing less conventional kinds of work. (See, for instance, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s piece on supporting students working in Digital Humanities, which is not the same thing as blogging but raises many similar issues, including how such non-traditional work can be recorded and evaluated).

There’s one more angle that’s maybe worth considering: with tenure-track positions so rare, graduate students may look at blogging, not just as an activity related (however equivocally) to their potential academic careers, but as one way of turning their skills and knowledge outward from the academy. Though this can hardly be counted on, blogging can help someone establish an identity and a following that might create new kinds of opportunities–in online journalism, for instance, or in other ways not strictly imagined at the outset. Again, there are risks in investing time and effort in something without a clear professional pay-off, but just what that profession or pay-off might be should certainly no longer be defined in solely academic terms. Aaron Bady, proprietor of the blog zunguzungu and one of my former colleagues at The Valve, comes to mind as a good example of someone who has established a significant online presence.

So, do I think graduate students should blog? I do think they should consider it, because I know from my own experience how intellectually beneficial blogging is and how it creates contacts and opportunities. It would be hypocritical of me to recommend against graduate students engaging in work I believe to be good for us and for our profession. But I think they need to be aware that as far as I can tell, my view remains a minority one, and they should think carefully about how they manage their time and about what kind of blog, if any, might serve them best. Defining a niche, for instance, might be important; collaborating in a group blog might be a way to spread the work around (see, for instance, The Floating Academy, whose contributors would be good people to ask about blogging — I’d be happy if they weighed in here). If graduate students do decide to blog, I think they should be ready to explain clearly how doing so contributes to their professional development and to the advancement of understanding in their field, and I think we should listen to them and find a responsible way to evaluate the value of the work they’re doing. (Blogs are just a form, after all; their value and impact depend on how that form is used, on what it is used for. We should be well past the point of generalizing about blogging as such.)

I certainly don’t think we (t-t faculty, administrators) should expect or demand that graduate students blog, at least not until we’ve normalized giving professional credit for blogging: that just adds one more thing to the already daunting set of expectations they labor under.

What do you think?

Catching Up

When I said I was posting my review of Crewe Train a bit early because I had another big deadline coming up, in a way I misspoke. It wasn’t exactly my own deadline, although I was involved in it: a Ph.D. student I have been supervising defended her thesis on Friday, so my part of the event (reviewing the thesis and preparing questions for the exam), though time-consuming, was not nearly as important as hers! I’m happy to report that the defense was very successful and, aside from some odds and ends of paperwork and the submission of the very final copy, she and I are both done. I am very pleased for her: she should be proud of her hard work and its results. However ambivalent I may be about recommending graduate school as an option, there’s no question that the graduate students I have worked with over the years are some of the best and smartest people I know, and once they have made the commitment to do these degrees, I do my level best to be helpful and supportive.

In some ways, though, I have to admit that in recent years graduate supervision has been harder for me to do. The advice I have to give students based on what I know to be the standards and conventions within the discipline and profession is often not congruent with my own doubts about those standards and conventions, and my aversion to reading some kinds of academic criticism has only worsened as I spend less time doing it myself, making it tricky to coach students to write it! For these reasons, among others, I have been cautiously scaling back my role in our graduate program. As of yesterday, though, that contribution includes supervision of four completed Ph.D. theses and 16 completed M.A. theses. We had a celebratory dinner at Estia for the candidate and all six members of the examining committee. A small point, or maybe it isn’t so small: we couldn’t help but notice that from the external examiner on down, we were all women.

Preparing for Friday’s defense took up a lot of my time and energy last week, but there was routine class business to get done as well. I managed to return a set of papers in my first-year class, which was really worth the extra push so that they weren’t hanging over me this weekend. My conscience needs a break! In Mystery & Detective Fiction we were working through Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. I know he doesn’t consider it his best, and in many ways it is also atypical, but it teaches awfully well because it is so deliberately literary–not to mention terse. Still, I’ve been wondering if next year I might take a chance on one of the longer ones and cut something else from the reading list. It’s such a challenge in that class finding the right balance between providing variety and overwhelming the students with too many different books. My own view has usually been that most of the books we read aren’t really complex enough to require a lot of classroom hours, so just taking longer on them would be counterproductive: we’d go more slowly, yes, but also feel that less was happening, that we were discovering less. The books are not particularly long or difficult reads, either, and I figure they can sub in easily enough for whatever leisure reading students might otherwise be doing! It’s hardly punishment to “have” to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Indemnity Only, right? But students do often remark that there are a lot of books to keep track of. I might cut An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (even thought it’s a personal favorite) and put in Fleshmarket Close or The Naming of the Dead. Actually, since these are both in the 400-page range, I’d probably have to cut something else too. Well, something to think about. In the meantime, they write a mid-term on Monday which will be my next marking chore.

In the Somerville Novelists seminar, we have moved into the collaborative projects phase, and I’ll admit, I’m a bit worried. I had a sinking feeling last week that though we had been doing very well with our discussions of the individual novels–better and better, in fact, as the weeks went on–I had not done a good enough job keeping the larger frameworks of the course in view, or preparing the students to feel confident with the meta-level questions I’ve been hoping we’d address. I did some intervention once I realized that they were still thinking mostly in terms of local or close reading issues, and as I see the draft material starting to appear for their wiki projects, I think it worked. I also felt that they were tense and uncomfortable approaching their independent and collaborative projects despite the careful and detailed instructions and rubrics I’d given them. My intention was to make sure they had enough information about basic structures and expectations to think creatively and even have some fun working within them. What I’ve been feeling is that they still find them unpleasantly open-ended. I decided that I had to stop responding to this discomfort with yet more specifics. I tried to demystify the Pecha Kucha assignment by preparing one of my own–it worked better than intended, because if anything, I think they were underwhelmed by my efforts!* And now I want to keep out of their way a bit. We have one more group session, to discuss some secondary materials most of which we read before, as we were starting up the course: I’m really hoping that now they will feel ready to engage critically with this criticism, bringing their own sense of the material and its (and their) priorities to what these scholars have said and done about it. And then we don’t convene again until the first of their presentations: I’ll be available for consultations, and I hope they’ll take advantage of that, but otherwise it’s over to them.

In book news, I did manage to putter through Sue Grafton’s latest, ‘V’ is for Vengeance. I didn’t have much to say about it, but what I did say is here. I’ve been reading with interest the other posts on Crewe Train and resolving to make The Towers of Trebizond my next Rose Macaulay read, and I’ve started Wide Sargasso Sea for my local book group, which meets next Saturday. I have been feeling frustrated that nothing I’ve read recently has been really transporting, and when I’m done with Rhys I think I might either buckle down and get a lot more of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon read or start on Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which has been beckoning to me from my TBR shelf–along with Anna Karenina, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and Colm Toibin’s The Master. All of these look very tempting…but I worry that the last weeks of term are exactly the wrong time to commit to a book that really deserves my full attention.

*Speaking of those efforts, here are the slides. You’ll have to imagine the commentary that went with them! For this assignment we’re allowed two exceptions to the “1/1/5” rule, to demonstrate literary style.

Honourable Estate

Letters to a Friend

A dear friend has been de-cluttering–a foreign concept to those of us with pack-rat archivist tendencies. She wrote to find out if I’d like back the letters I’ve written her over the years. I didn’t figure they contained much of interest, just everyday meanderings and updates, but they go back a pretty long way and I’m already sorry that I haven’t done well keeping track of letters people have sent me (my grandmother, for instance, was a great letter writer, but I have very few letters of hers, though I don’t remember ever deciding not to keep them)–so I said sure, send them along.

I received them last week and have been poking through them with a mixture of disbelief, amusement, and nostalgia. Was I ever that young? Did I really think those were topics of interest, or books or movies worth commenting on? Wow, I was earnest about school for a while–and I was sure excited when my first article was published–but I had forgotten how early in my time at Cornell I started muttering about whether academia was really right for me. I used a purple pen sometimes? That’s embarrassing! On the other hand, my handwriting was much better back then. I wrote a whole letter while sitting in a seminar? I thought that in the olden days, before smart phones and the internet, students always gave professors their full, undivided, respectful attention!

Then there’s the odd experience of reviewing my own life. The earliest letters are from the summer of 1989, before my final year at UBC. That summer I started work on my Honours essay, wrote my GRE, and started seriously planning my grad school applications (“I’m almost as nervous about getting accepted to grad school as I am about not getting accepted!”). Say Anything was just out (“I don’t like watching perfect romances too much these days ….”). For some reason I had resolved to read more American literature and was finding The Scarlet Letter dull, but I was thrilled by Carlyle’s “Characteristics.” There’s a whole long paragraph about my soon-to-be advisor’s book Shaw’s Sense of History and how excited I was that “it is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind for my own paper.” To my dismay, it had a major printing error in it (“pages 53-84 are MISSING and pages 21-52 are reprinted in their place!”)–but I took heart: “if Oxford UP can make mistakes, why should we be so paranoid about doing things right?” (That’s still a good question!) In general, that was a buoyant time for me. Looking back on it in 1993, I wrote “In my last two years at UBC I felt sure of my direction and I was clearly on the right path.” That’s not a feeling that had lasted: “now … I’m worried both about my performance and about my stamina, not to mention my future prospects.”

The letters tell the story of that shift from certainty to confusion and, sort of, back again, as they carry on with reasonable steadiness through my Ph.D. years and my first couple of years in Halifax. What a lot of changes she and I went through in that period! Her story would be hers to tell, of course. As for me, I endured my emotionally and intellectually traumatic first year at Cornell, struggling not just with the academic work but with being myself, or even figuring out who I was, so far from everyone who knew me. I was lonely and homesick and perpetually intimidated.

By the middle of my second year, I was somewhat more confident academically (though unhappily dependent on external validation), and much more settled personally: I met my husband-to-be in the summer of 1991, and we got engaged in December. In my third year, I was married. I also taught my first independent class, a writing seminar of 17 students: it’s “very writing intensive,” I reported, “and that means a lot of grading … e.g. 16 or 17 [papers] a week.” Ha–those were the days. I enjoyed the teaching right from the start: “I like it better than going to graduate seminars: so much less pretentious!” Perhaps I was thinking of the student who interjected into every discussion, “Oh, but that’s so Godwinian!”

Actually, it’s the continuities that surprise me the most as I leaf through these pages from my past. There I am in 1990 complaining that Blue Velvet immerses us too much in the dark side of life, and here I am today making the same objection to Madame Bovary and the Patrick Melrose novels. There I am, again and again, waiting for someone else to tell me whether my writing is any good. There I am, year after year, wondering if I’m cut out for the academic life but loving enough about it to persist. “If someone offered me a job in publishing right now, I’d probably take it,” I say, but of course nobody did (because nobody does!) and so I stayed on the path I could see most clearly, and through a combination of inertia and luck (and, of course, some pretty hard work) I ended up, well, here.

When I first looked at these letters last week, I kept thinking, “Oh, if only I could somehow have told myself what I know now. The things I would do differently!” But it doesn’t take much hard thought to realize that wishing to apply one’s hindsight in this way is not only futile but also illogical. It’s not as if I could make a different decision at one point and yet keep everything else the same, after all, and life is such a complicated tangle of interconnected things. The possible world in which I leave Cornell to pursue a job in publishing, for instance, is also one in which, among other things, I don’t have my children–not that I wouldn’t have had any children, but I wouldn’t have had the ones I actually do have. And how can I wish them unmade?

I’m not one to believe that everything happens for a reason. I think we just do the best we can, and make the best sense of things we can, as we go along, and time passes, and things change one way or another. Though by and large their details are mundane, my letters are a part of this process, a sorting and filtering of experience. “I have been reading ‘The Prelude,'” I wrote to my friend,

and it seems only fair that if every detail of Wordsworth’s life is considered interesting enough to suffer through in hundreds of lines of understated iambic pentameter, my own humdrum existence deserves at least a few lines of commonplace prose!

Self-reflection doesn’t necessarily lead to self-knowledge, or to anything of wider import, but I’m glad to have had this chance to look back and rediscover what I had to say about my life. And, more than anything, I’m glad to have had such a true and loyal friend to say it all to. Knowing that someone is out there who cares enough to read all the “gory details”–well, that’s about the best thing there is.

This Week at Work: Reflections on Our Research Culture

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYYesterday I received a reminder from the Mellon Foundation about a follow-up survey they are doing of people who did Ph.D.s supported by Mellon Fellowships.  I remember how exciting it was when I learned I had won one of these fellowships, which was both generous and prestigious. I had mixed success with my actual Ph.D. applications–indeed, I was rejected by many more schools than accepted me–and I’ve often thought that the crucial factor in my winning the Mellon was the interview. I was (am?) more charming in person than on paper–it’s something about my sense of humor, I think, which apparently doesn’t carry over much into my writing!

In any case, winning a Mellon Fellowship made me a more attractive target for the schools that had offered me places: I ended up with the luxury of comparing complete five-year funding packages from a couple of excellent schools, and the even greater luxury of comparing these North American alternatives to using a Commonwealth Scholarship to go to the UK. In the end, I chose Cornell, starting in 1990 and finishing in 1995 with job offer in hand–job offers, in fact: while my job market success was also mixed and I got a lot of rejections, when I got close, I did pretty well (speaking of rejection, though, I’ll never forget the message telling me I was not offered the job I wanted most of all, which hit me like an emotional bomb when I read it in the dank basement computer lab where, in those olden days, I had to go to check my email–would it have been so hard to give me a phone call so I could have absorbed the blow in private?). Anyway, I chose Dalhousie, and (though I have made a few attempts over the years to move on) here I still am today.

Dal_MarionMcCain_BuildingThe Mellon survey focused primarily on career paths and job satisfaction. Most of it was pretty easy stuff (how many peer-reviewed articles did you publish before tenure? what kind of pre-tenure mentoring did you get? were there explicit expectations about the kind or quantity of publications you’d need for tenure?), but towards the end there were some more open-ended ones, and the very final one proved a real poser: If you had to do it all over again, they asked, would you do the same? Same degree, same school? Same degree, different school? Different degree? Or no Ph.D. at all?

Maybe this would not have been such a stumper of a question if they’d asked it on a different day, but yesterday was kind of a tough day for me at work. It’s not that I was busier than usual or overwhelmed with new tasks or dealing with confrontational students upset with their grades, or dead-ended on a writing project or behind in my class preparation. Rather, it was a day (one of many recent days) in which different priorities clashed in the department and I ended up feeling that more and more, we are steering by (or allowing ourselves to be steered by) the wrong values. There are a lot of moving parts behind the motions we have voted on recently, but the net effect is that a majority of the department has carried through an agenda by which we will reduce class offerings at all levels and increase class sizes at the undergraduate level, in order to bring our nominal teaching load down and thus clear more time for research during the academic term.

macke woman readingI emphasize that last clause because we have dedicated research time already (the spring and summer terms, when we do not regularly teach undergraduate classes, as well as our sabbaticals); the argument was being made for the importance of making more time for research while teaching, and thus the new plan deliberately favors reducing our contact hours and prep time. We’ll remain individually responsible for the same number of students, so any time savings won’t come from reducing our grading. Now, I find marking assignments as tedious as the next prof. What I don’t find tedious or want less of is face time with my students. My hours in the classroom are almost the only hours during which I have no doubts about my answer to the Mellon Foundation’s question. It’s true that class prep can be relentless, and in the middle of my heavier teaching term, I’m too busy with it–too overwhelmed by it, in combination with the marking–to do anything ambitious regarding other research or writing projects. Not nothing at all, but nothing much. But class prep can also be  intellectually stimulating, and often is itself research, or feeds into ongoing research interests: I didn’t like the presumed opposition between teaching and research that dominated the arguments for the latest motion.

The problem is that this pitting of two of our essential tasks against each other is in large part a consequence of the pervasive research culture promulgated especially by administrators who talk about “productivity” and “output” in terms of grant dollars pursued and won, and of quantity (rather than quality and significance) of (conventionally peer-reviewed) publications. Tomorrow, for instance, we are invited to a “presentation” on “trends in FASS [Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences] research performance.” Let’s just say I will be pleasantly surprised if the emphasis is not squarely on those kinds of quantifiable measures. Everyone I’ve spoken to about it fully anticipates that the event has been set up as an occasion to chastise us for our failure to measure up, both to other faculties on campus and perhaps also to comparable faculties at other universities.

But the conversation we should be having is about the adequacy of the measures, about the damage they do and the absurdities they create. We should be talking about whether it’s really a good use of time for a humanities scholar to spend weeks, months even, on a grant proposal for a program with a success rate of below 25%; we should be talking about the culture of greed and hypocrisy and cynicism that has been created by the pressure to ask for more and more money whether you need it or not, because big grants bring prestige (and support graduate students–and that’s another can of worms right there); about the flawed logic of trying to get grants because the university relies on its share of them to cover ‘indirect costs.’ We should be resisting the pressure to increase our research productivity according to such ill-fitting measures, and we should especially resist chipping away at our curriculum and at our undergraduate students’ educational experience because we want to look like the kind of “productive researchers” the university seems exclusively to recognize and reward. I don’t measure my “performance” as a scholar exclusively on my output of specialized peer-reviewed publications, or on my success at competing for external funding, and I don’t think my university should either. Here too, there are a lot of moving parts, and the funding challenges universities faced are not something I take lightly (or understand completely, given their intricacies). But that doesn’t change the oddity of trying to twist and bend humanistic inquiry into something that looks like scientific research, and of treating us as failures precisely because we don’t do expensive projects.

woman-writing-1934Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s no point in our doing our research. I don’t think it’s a waste of time; I do think that there are both intellectual and social pay-offs from our efforts to understand the world better by way of understanding its literature. But I do think we produce enough of it already. I don’t think Mark Bauerlein makes a particularly fair or coherent argument about its excesses, but I also don’t think we need to “protect” more time to produce more of it faster. I actually think we should slow down and produce less of it, especially in conventional forms. How much “output” is enough? It’s not the quantity that should matter. How much research time is enough? If we let go of the artificial urgency fueled by the kind of presentation I’m looking forward to tomorrow, I think we’d find we already have enough time.

Now, to be fair, we haven’t exactly decimated our program, and we still have plenty of classes on the small side. But the pressure is undoubtedly upward. Big classes are routine elsewhere, I’m told, and a lower teaching load for full-time faculty is also the norm at other “research institutions.” But is this a good thing? Is this the way we want our resources distributed? Well, judging by yesterday’s voting, the answer for a lot of us is ‘yes.’   I understand why, but I feel that we’re in pursuit of a model of success or excellence that I just don’t believe in anymore. Sometimes sitting with my colleagues I feel like a nonbeliever in church! And it’s a church in which two things are sacrosant: our research, and our graduate program–in the interests of which we have made all of the recent changes to our overall curriculum.

And this is why the Mellon survey question was so hard to answer. How can I be sorry that I’ve been able to pursue this career, which in many ways suits me so well? How can I regret that I can dedicate my time to things I not only think are really important, but love? In what other job can you be paid to spend hours and hours a week concentrating on literature, and working with bright, eager students to nurture their love of reading and their interest in the kinds of questions it opens up? But the other values of the profession have troubled me from the start of my Ph.D. work, and the systems of incentives and rewards, and of prestige and reputation too, skew very far in one direction. How can I not feel I’m out of step and perhaps unsuited for the career I chose when I can’t commit myself wholeheartedly to two of its central pursuits?

If I had the choice, would I do the same again? Today, I’m not sure. But ask me again  after my small group discussion of Great Expectations on Friday. I bet my answer then will be “of course!”

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.


This Month in My Sabbatical: Marching On!

I feel as if March was a reasonably productive month, sabbatical-wise. Let’s see:

Graduate Supervision and Advising: This is one part of my ‘regular’ workload that doesn’t go on hold during a sabbatical (or during maternity leaves, just by the way). This month I received thesis installments from all three of my continuing PhD students. I also met with two of them, one in person, one by Skype, to discuss the progress of their thesis writing and do some long-term planning. I alsomet with a former PhD student who withdrew from the program about 18 months ago but has been wondering about returning. I find this part of my job a disconcerting mix of pleasure and pain. These are all wonderful young women–smart, accomplished, hard-w0rking, and just plain nice. So the pleasure comes from spending time with them, learning from them, and doing my best to support and improve their research projects. The pain, of course, comes from worrying about their professional situations. I have been, I think, very clear and direct with them, encouraging them to prepare to be competitive for academic jobs but also to consider other options–I’ve sent them links to a range of online discussions about graduate school in the humanities (including Thomas Benton’s infamous Chronicle columns as well as this one from Hook & Eye) and to some of the many sites addressing PhDs about non-academic options. In one case I think there is actually no intent to pursue a tenure-track academic position anyway; in another, options will be limited by geography, which makes the likelihood of a tenure-track option just that much smaller. But in that case, presumably if there was a local opening you’d still need to be competitive to have a shot, and in the case of the other continuing student, Lennard Davis’s advice is probably good to share–except what he doesn’t say but should is that it is perfectly possible to work insanely hard to do all the things he says, and you still might not win the job lottery. He also seems a bit sanguine about the pace of academic publishing: it’s all very well to submit things, but from submission to acceptance can take months or years. The hardest conversation, from my point of view, was the one with the student considering coming back. “You escaped!” was most of what I really wanted to say to her, along with what I more or less said, which is that a PhD in English is no kind of safety or default option. It seems attractive (if, and that’s a BIG if) you can get steady funding, because it’s a known world with clear expectations, work you’ve already trained for, and genuine intellectual rewards. But you could well end up, four or five years from now, right back in the difficult situation of trying to figure out what else to do–only by then you’ve invested heavily in your specialized training, including comprehensive exams and the huge chore of writing a thesis–not to mention trying to publish and otherwise pump up your c.v. (These are the features of the PhD program that make it difficult for me to accept the whole “it doesn’t have to be seen just as preparation for academic positions” argument. Sure, it doesn’t have to be, but if it’s not, what is the point of this intensive training in narrowly specialized fields and the hard, hard work of thesis-writing following stringently academic models? Unless we introduce streamed PhD programs, these will remain key components, and streaming is impossible as long as luck remains such a big factor in who actually gets a shot at the tenure-track when it’s all done.) In the end, as I told her, it’s her choice, and I understand it’s a difficult one. All of this (plus reading La Vendee, which is the subject of one of the thesis chapters now in progress) took up a fair amount of time but also, almost more significantly, a lot of mental energy this month. And the next pieces of chapters are already landing in my in-box, so on it goes! I’d be even more busy with graduate students if I hadn’t refused to take on any new MA supervisions: this is thesis proposal / first chapter season, and then the writing heats up heading into May and June. Usually I have at least one, and some years I have had as many as three. When my sabbatical ends, I’ll come in as second reader on a couple of theses, I expect, but it is a relief not to be juggling these meetings and drafts at this point.

Soueif Project: I did some relevant reading, reviewed my research notes, and drafted some new pages for the academic paper I’m trying to produce on Ahdaf Soueif. Then, prompted by reflections about how dissatisfying this work felt when Soueif’s current speaking and writing is all directed towards the Egyptian Revolution, I took the advice of some of my commenters and let myself address that new context in a separate piece, “A Novelist in Tahrir Square,” which appears in this month’s Open Letters. I wanted to use the time and thought I’ve given to her fiction, connecting its ideas to the sense of broader changes in perception and understanding that accompanied the Revolution. It was very challenging distilling the overflowing details of the novels and of my own notes and ideas, but I felt pretty good about it when I finally sent in the revised version (I appreciate very much the input I got from the other editors at Open Letters–though of course any lingering stupidities or infelicities are all my fault). I hope this will have settled me down so that I can appreciate the academic project for what it is: as some of you said, no one piece needs to do or be everything.

Filing and Stuff: I did quite a bit more of my electronic file sorting. I do think it will be helpful when I begin to put my course materials together for 2011-12 that I have eliminated a lot of redundancy and put lecture notes, handouts, quiz questions, exams, and assignments into a system that doesn’t require me to remember in which year, or in which course, I did that group exercise on Felix Holt or whatever. The problem turns out to be courses that aren’t themselves really focused on a particular genre, period, or author. My materials for Close Reading, for instance, will stay all together for now: the lectures and worksheets and assignments I devised on Middlemarch for that course are so different from the ones I use in my Victorian novel courses that I think it’s easiest just to leave that as its own category.

Reading: I have blogged about most of my reading for this month–except The Transit of Venus, which I will write up later today, as the discussion gets underway at Slaves of Golconda. The highlight has definitely been Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Most of my reading was not strictly work-related (though, as I’ve often noted here, you never can tell–wouldn’t an honours seminar on the ‘Somerville Novelists’ be cool, for instance?). The coming month will be different, though, as I’m moving on to another of my sabbatical plans, which is catching up on criticism in my field. In January I took some recent monographs out of the library, but I think this is not actually the best way to proceed: many scholarly books now are just so specialized that the rest of us don’t really need to know that much about their subject. The case has been made a few times recently, I think, that many books in the humanities are artificially inflated essays–the introduction is crucial for making the argument, but then the chapters offer variations on the theme rather than essential development or elaboration. I really do think this is true, and I wouldn’t exempt my own book–though I suppose it hardly counts as recent (© 1998). There’s nothing wrong with the chapters, but there’s really no necessity to my choice of novels to discuss in the context I’d established–they were the ones I wanted to discuss, as much as anything. In any case, I’ve decided to try a different strategy and last night I downloaded a whole bunch of book reviews (and a few articles, but mostly reviews) from the past several years of Victorian Studies–71 PDFs, in total. Going through the reviews will alert me to books I may wish to read, or at least leaf through, in full, but it will also give me a sense of what people are up to, what is trending, and so forth. (I’m sure there are people who do this kind of upkeep on an ongoing basis. Obviously, I’m not one of them! But maybe I’ll find a good routine for it in future–this is something that my iPad will be very helpful for, for instance, as I can load the PDFs into GoodReader and page through them at my leisure.)

Paperwork: Finally, this month I confirmed my intent (or, I should probably say, my hope!) to participate in a panel at the British Association of Victorian Studies in Birmingham the very first weekend in September. I can’t be absolutely sure I can pull this off until I find out what level of funding I can get, especially at the rate air fares are going up. I do think it would be a really good professional opportunity for me, though, not just through my own participation but for what I expect will be the quality of the rest of the conference, so I’m going to give it a good try. I have had some pretty bad conference experiences in recent years, so I’d love to go to one that might help me feel excited about “my” field again.  In aid of that, I’ve begun assembling the necessary paperwork to apply for a travel grant.

And so, onward, with all of these tasks and also with some pedagogical planning, as book orders for the fall are due soon, which means I have to commit myself to my detective fiction list as well as my first round of 19th-century novels, for the Austen to Dickens course. . . .

The “Skills” Argument Sounds Even Worse When We’re Talking about Ph.D.s in the Humanities

[See also ‘The PhD Conundrum‘]

The most recent issue of University Affairs includes these remarks in a letter from Robert Stainton, a philosophy professor and associate dean at UWO:

Notably, there is a new and crucial role for graduate degrees in the humanities. In the 1960s, undergrad enrolments grew exponentially because Canadians recognized that a high school diploma was no longer sufficient. Nowadays, the master’s degree has become “the new BA.” The PhD, in turn, raises a student’s critical analysis and writing skills to the level required for the most intellectually demanding careers.

Well, again, yes, doing a PhD in the humanities will certainly enhance a student’s critical analysis and writing skills. But, again, and even more so than in an undergraduate context, don’t the particular specialized demands of a PhD make it an astonishingly indirect and inefficient way to master those skills? Most PhD students in the humanities complete at least a year of coursework, to increase the breadth and depth of their expertise in the materials and methodologies of their field. In English, that will almost certainly include not just sustained attention to literature from the medieval to the contemporary period, but also exhausting (if not, probably, exhaustive) engagement with esoteric theorists and critics of all persuasions. One goal is to become reasonably fluent in a style of argumentation and writing that is not universally practised, as anyone who has ever coached a student initially trained in, say, Dr. Stainton’s field, philosophy, to do work in literary criticism (as I have) would know. A related goal is mastery of, or at least familiarity with, a vocabulary that really has little or no place outside the academic study of literature. Then follows a year of really intensive reading in preparation for a set of qualifying exams. Precise requirements vary: at Dalhousie, our exam lists are field-specific and teaching oriented. The exam itself is a gruelling combination of written essays and an oral examination–aha! writing to deadlines and oral presentation skills! And of course the final phase is the production of the thesis, a 300+ page document demonstrating your ability to first create and then resolve a critical ‘problem’ or ‘crux’ that hasn’t yet been addressed, or at least not from your unique angle. Anyone who has revised a PhD thesis into an academic book knows that even that step requires changing almost the entire tone, not to mention the supporting apparatus, of the original work, and probably expanding its scope.

If writing a thesis isn’t even altogether good preparation for writing a scholarly book, it is surely disingenuous to discuss it as if it’s a reasonable task to undertake if what you are eventually going to do is become a public servant, a school teacher, a lawyer, the administrator of an NGO, a novelist, or a small business owner. As for the seminars and the qualifying exams, again, it seems to me a mistake to talk about them as if they operate according to the same principles or serve the same purposes as undergraduate courses. PhD programs in the humanities are professional programs, same as MBA or LLB programs : they train people to become professional literary critics, or philosophers, or academic historians. They aren’t a somewhat more elaborate kind of intellectual finishing school. Precisely because the work they demand is so much more specialized, esoteric, and obscure to people on the outside looking in, we need to be particularly clear about defending them on the grounds that that work itself has value. Ideally, that value would be more than (though it would include) the need for professional self-replication.

Now, the same issue of University Affairs includes an entire article dedicated to the proposition that the solution to the job crisis for PhDs is to include more diverse professional training as part of a PhD program’s offerings. My own Dean of Graduate Studies is quoted:

According to the 2006 census figures, 31 percent of Canadians with PhDs who were employed full-time held jobs as university professors. This was little changed from 2001, but down from almost 36 percent in 1986.To be sure, a good portion of those who end up in non-academic jobs do so of their own volition. Dalhousie University’s surveys of graduating doctoral students show that about 40 percent intend to work within academia and the rest in industry, government and non-profit organizations, says Carolyn Watters, dean of graduate studies.

Still, she adds, universities don’t do nearly enough to make students aware of non-academic career options and to train them for these positions. “Really, all we train people for is to be another Mini-Me,” says Dr. Watters, president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. “As faculty members we should be more sensitive to the fact that not everybody is going to be like us.”

Dr. Watters is right, both about the “Mini-Me” syndrome and about the need to stop imagining that all of (or even most of) our graduate students are headed down the academic path. But what to do about that? As another interviewee points out, academics aren’t in a position to “give knowledgeable advice about non-academic careers because most of them have only worked in academia.” But even that practical obstacle, which can be somewhat mitigated by bringing in outside experts with real-world experience (ahem: is there going to be funding for departments to do this? people outside the academy often have the odd idea that they should be paid for speaking elsewhere…) is only part of the problem. The actual degree requirements will continue to emphasize the arcane and highly specialized discourses of the academic field. They must do this, because after all, we do need to train up more professors (don’t we?). Sure, we can add, as apparently Western has, a week-long seminar on “Preparing for Non-Academic Employment,” but what’s one week, out of what is on average a seven-year undertaking? And how are we justifying those seven years, to ourselves and our students, if most of the work to which they will be devoted is not in fact in any way essential preparation for what will come next?

There’s the intrinsic merit argument, of course: the experience itself may in some ways be intellectually exciting and personally fulfilling, and there’s the satisfaction of contributing to one’s field and to the larger project of expanding the horizons of knowledge and understanding. Given how oriented most PhD programs are towards professionalization, though, I expect that to most graduate students those lofty ideals sound like–well, like lofty ideals. Most PhD students I know, including myself, have found that graduate school dampens rather than nurtures their idealism. The article quotes a PhD now working “in the private sector,” as saying he “has no regrets about getting his PhD and would happily do it all over again. I wonder how many recent PhDs in the humanities would say the same.