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?

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.


More Ph.D. Puzzlement

The leaders of the American Historical Association (AHA) recently published a mini-manifesto, “No More Plan B,” that has received quite a lot of positive attention. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the authors want to stop seeing non-academic careers as “alternatives” (a term they see as usually implying “bad alternatives”) to tenure-track professorial appointments. They argue for a change in both the rhetoric and the emphasis of doctoral programs:

Grafton and Grossman cite data from the last year (and the last several years before that) in which more history Ph.D.s are entering the job market than there are tenure-track openings. Despite the talent of the new history Ph.D.s, “many of these students will not find tenure-track positions teaching history in colleges and universities,” they write.

Further, they say that people cannot simply wait for the economy to improve. “As many observers have noted, this is not a transient ‘crisis,’ ” write Grafton and Grossman. “It’s the situation we have lived with for two generations. And it’s not likely to change for the better, unless someone figures out how to work magic on the university budgets that lead[s] administrators to opt for flexible, contingent positions rather than tenure-track jobs. AHA supports and joins in efforts to convert contingent to tenure-track jobs — but it’s unrealistic to expect these to pay off on a large scale. We owe it to our students and to our profession to think more broadly.”

In this environment, Grafton and Grossman write that the idea of working outside academe needs to be basic to all discussions with graduate students, from the time they look at programs to their dissertation defenses. But history departments also need to consider “bigger” changes than just talking about options, and those changes, the statement argues, should include adjustments in the doctoral curriculum. “If we tell new students that a history Ph,D. opens many doors, we need to broaden the curriculum to ensure that we’re telling the truth. If the policy arena offers opportunities, and we think it does, then interested students need some space (and encouragement) to take courses in statistics, economics, or public policy,” they write. “Accounting, acting, graphic design, advanced language training: students thinking at once creatively and pragmatically have all sorts of options at our research universities. And of course there’s the whole exploding realm of digital history and humanities, and the range of skills required to practice them.”

Throughout the time students are in graduate school, they need to feel that their faculty members will support their choices to work in or outside of academe, they write.

I endorse wholeheartedly the call for faculty members “to stop looking down on those who build careers elsewhere.” I find it hard to imagine any advisor having such an outdated, narrow-minded, short-sighted and belittling attitude–but the anecdotal evidence does seem to be strong that many Ph.D. students run into this kind of silliness.

Where I still find myself puzzled, though, is over how  (and, to some extent, why) Ph.D. programs should be “broadened” to take into account the wide but at the same time rather nebulous list of other careers for which specialized academic training in a particular discipline is said to prepare people. It’s not that I don’t think Ph.D.s learn valuable skills: it’s that Ph.D. programs are also about content and about discipline-specific expertise as much as (if not more than) transferable skills of the kind invoked when the AHA’s James Grossman  cites investment banking as “the perfect example” of an overlooked match between training and career prospects:

“You have people who as part of their occupation need to be able to assess how two companies will get along in a merger. What does that require? It requires exactly the same conceptual framework historians use when we think about structure, human agency and culture,” he said.

Aside from the depressing notion that we should promote studying “structure, human agency and culture” on the dubious grounds that it prepares someone to facilitate corporate mergers, surely there is some difference in the conceptual frameworks involved? And even if there isn’t, to what extent are the time-consuming, intellectually demanding, and discipline-specific aspects of Ph.D. programs that are designed to professionalize–in the richest sense of that word–someone as a historian actual requirements for those other careers? Why, to put the question another way, would someone actively interested in a non-academic career chose the long and possibly circuitous route of getting a history Ph.D. on the way? An M.A., sure, but a Ph.D.? As one of the Inside Higher Ed commenters remarks,

While I applaud the AHA for acknowledging that there are good jobs for Ph.D.s outside academic departments they are still not quite getting it. If you take a look at those non-academic jobs, for how many of them would you say that the History Ph.D. is the best path to getting the skills and credentials needed to be hired in them? How many require a History Ph.D. Not many, I suspect. Almost all History Ph.D.s earned their degree because they wanted to become academic historians, not because the skills they developed would help them be good at something else.

From the perspective of graduate students,” another comments, “‘No Plan B’ is self-centered. If the objective is no longer a tenure-track teaching job (preferably at a research university) why not enroll in a graduate program (not history) whose purpose is to prepare students for these other livelihoods?” It has certainly been my experience that 100% of students I talk to who are applying to Ph.D. programs have academic careers in mind, and so I agree that there’s something awry in the way these arguments for seeing non-academic careers as something besides “alternatives” are being set up.

That said, it might be true that if Ph.D. programs were sufficiently redesigned, people would head into them with a wider range of intentions and expectations. It’s not clear to me, though, how we could reconcile that broader agenda with the standard demands of Ph.D. programs as they are currently constituted–which is, with a persistent focus on preparing students for academic careers. Indeed, in the 20+ years I have now been involved in graduate education, the strongest trend I’ve seen is towards academic “professionalization,” with workshops on everything from conference proposals to fellowship applications to academic job interviews, and ever-rising pressure to publish, attend conferences, and participate in professional groups and activities. Students whose first priority is an academic career need (or they certainly expect, and even, in my experience, demand) this kind of “support” to an extent that was barely imaginable 20 or 30 years ago. What would the new, multi-purpose Ph.D. look like?

The AHA’s proposal seems to be to re-tool Ph.D. programs, not by redesigning them from the ground up, or by streaming requirements based on intended outcomes, but by preserving all the essential academic elements while adding yet more requirements for both students and departments:

Yes, time is a problem. It already takes a long time—a very long time—to obtain a doctorate in history. We don’t advocate narrowing the historical work that constitutes graduate education in history. Nor do we agree with the well-meaning observers who suggest that graduate training in humanities fields could be made less onerous, and attrition reduced, by easing the requirements: for example, by cutting the dissertation down from the grub out of which a book should emerge into three or more articles that can be researched and written in one to two years. We leave the feasibility of shorter dissertations in other humanities disciplines for our colleagues to assess. In history, the dissertation is the core of the experience. It’s in the course of research that historians firm up their mastery of languages and research methods, archives and arguments; and it’s while writing that they learn how to corral a vast amount of information, give it a coherent form, and write it up in a way accessible to non-specialists. Most students learn the challenges and satisfaction associated with extended narrative and/or complex analysis only at this final stage.

Instead of cutting down the dissertation, departments need to find ways of keeping dissertation writers attuned to the full range of opportunities that their work opens. Why not incorporate preparation for the future into the later years of doctoral training? This might be the time for an additional course or two, adventures into new realms of knowledge that build skills for diverse careers. That such diversification offers an antidote to melancholy and writer’s block is merely a bonus, even more so if these explorations can also add texture or new insights to a dissertation. Departments might also consider workshops that explore the world of work, bring in speakers from government and other areas where many historians find jobs, and mobilize their networks of contacts as advisers for their students. Internships could provide even deeper experience, although care would have to be taken to integrate them into dissertation writing calendars.

 If they aren’t going to “ease” requirements by decentering the dissertation (as the MLA has already argued we in literary studies should ‘decenter’ the monograph in tenure and promotion cases), how are students going to manage to do more courses or internships in “the later years of doctoral training,” also known as “the years in which you try to finish your thesis before your funding runs out”? “Care would have to be taken,” indeed.

It’s true that disciplines vary, and it’s easier in some ways (even for me) to be “attuned to the full range of opportunities” that history students’ work might open to them than it is for me to see obvious alternative (sorry) applications for the specialized expertise acquired in an English Ph.D. program. (This is not, to be clear, meant to say I don’t see value in that expertise, just that I don’t find the ‘transferable skills’ argument very compelling as a reason to do the things a literature Ph.D. has to do.) Maybe, too, Ph.D. theses in history do train students to write up their research “in a way accessible to non-specialists,” which would certainly make them a better bridge to non-academic jobs than the English thesis usually is. Maybe a lot of things about the “Ph.D. Conundrum” are different in history. Still, When I read the AHA statement, I felt, no doubt cynically, that there is an elided step in the logic, a step where they say “we want to keep Ph.D. enrolments up.”

Giving Myself Permission

Among the many thoughtful comments on my post about the “PhD Conundrum,” one that really struck a chord with me is a remark by Joanna Scutts about “typical grad-student behaviors,” which she notes include asking for permission and working for praise. I would say that these are not grad-student behaviors only but good-student behaviors, in that they are typical among academically high-performing undergraduates as well: it makes sense that they appear in exaggerated form among graduate students (who were all strong undergrads to begin with) and are exacerbated by the grad school experience. I am surprised at how much I am still affected by the habits of asking for permission, the key difference at this level being that the person I really need to ask is myself. I’m also distressed at how much I seek praise for my work and feel disappointed in myself when it is not forthcoming: though I realize that my ongoing craving for external validation is inappropriate to my status as a qualified professional, that sense that if you do your work right you will get an A has never quite gone away. (I suspect that the years of being graded for our efforts set us up for the anxiety with which most of us look at our course evaluations.)

It’s the whole asking for permission thing that is most bothersome to me these days, particularly in the context of my writing. One of the payoffs I expected from my blogging is that I would shake off that nagging, doubting voice that tells me I’m not qualified or ready to write about something: that I haven’t read enough or done enough research, that my own opinion doesn’t count for anything unless it’s backed up and depersonalized and abstracted, that I haven’t justified or adequately theorized my approach. As a student, I found deadlines eventually forced me to write what I could, though I was often wracked with despair as I handed something in or presented it in seminar, sure it was a disastrous misfire. The feedback I got almost never (though not quite never) confirmed my worst fears, but somehow my confidence was never boosted. Since graduate school, I have hardly been the world’s most prolific scholar, but I’ve placed my pieces well and in general I’m satisfied that they are good work. Still, I usually declare something finished with a strange mixture of defiance and resignation, rather than satisfaction, and I have a terrible time starting to write something, because to do so I have to silence that voice. (Sometimes I try to drown it out with music!)

By and large I don’t hear that voice when I’m blogging, though, and that has been wonderfully liberating. It helped that I started my blog with no particular goals except to keep track of my reading: it was my space, and it was a kind of space outside the usual parameters of academic judgment. Also, blog posts don’t claim to be definitive or authoritative, the way academic writing does: when blogging, it’s OK (maybe even preferable) to show that you’re still thinking things through, that intellectual life is an ongoing process prone to discoveries, reversals, and confusions. By the time anyone besides my immediate family and friends was reading it, I was comfortable enough to just keep going as I had begun. Some early controversies in the comments set me back and made me more cautious in some respects (which is probably good, though I worry sometimes that the self-censorship I practice keeps my blogging blander than I am in other contexts). Overall, though, I have no inhibitions as a blogger that compare to the insecurities that slow me down when I write anywhere besides here in this WordPress box. My frustration is that the increased confidence I have found in my own voice and views as expressed here has not made a noticeable difference to my other writing. It feels as if I have given myself permission to write as myself, but only within this specific framework. Everywhere else, the old rules still apply! I notice this particularly when writing for Open Letters, where I have been encouraged to write more like I blog (this is not the only feedback I’ve gotten, and I think my co-editors are happy with the pieces I’ve done for OLM–but there I go again, worrying about external validation!). Even though OLM pieces specifically and deliberately are not supposed to sound academic, the minute I know I’m writing something official for publication, I get all serious and anxious again, laboring over every word. It’s nuts!

Yesterday I tried an experiment. When I decide to post on something here, my rule is: write it (online), tidy it, post it. No second-guessing, no (major) rewriting.  I think the longest I’ve spent on a post is 4 hours (oddly, that was the Sex and the City 2 post), but more often I write for an hour or two at most, and usually I’m pretty satisfied with the results–not that there’s nothing more to be said, or nothing that could be said any better, but I have said what seemed important to say, said it pretty clearly, and been myself. What if (I wondered) I wrote the review I’m currently working on right here in WordPress, pretending it was a blog post? Maybe at the very least in a couple of hours I’d have a draft I could work with.

Sadly, as my daughter pointed out, it’s hard to pretend to yourself, because you know too well what you are really doing. An hour or so in, I was not reviewing (as I would have been if I’d known it was really a blog post) but still taking notes. I gave up and pasted what I had into a Word document. What I need is not to fool myself into thinking I have permission to write: somehow, I need to believe it.

The Ph.D. Conundrum

I recently followed a link to yet another post giving advice on “what to tell your graduate students.” This is something I worry about a lot, not just for the Ph.D. students I currently advise but for the B.A. and M.A. students who come asking for advice and reference letters, so I clicked over with interest. This latest one, at Inside Higher Education, responds to an earlier piece by Lennard Davis in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Davis explains how he tells students the secret to their future success:

First I inform them of the current job situation, whatever that is at the time. I don’t sugarcoat the dismal nature, say, of today’s academic market. But I also say that I have had very good success in placing my graduate students. Then I make it clear that the first thing they need to do is start thinking about the minimum requirements for going on the job market.

They often look a little stunned to be getting a lecture about professional development when they have just come in to ask me if I’ll be on their master’s-thesis defense. But I think it’s not just the early bird who gets the worm; it’s the very, very early bird.

The next thing I do is set the bar for the minimum requirements in my field. To even get into the race, I tell students, you need three published articles, two or three book reviews, attendance and paper presentation at professional conferences, and, ideally, a contract for the publication of the dissertation.

As others (including some in the comments) have discussed, these days even a student who meticulously and miraculously accomplished all of these things still might not win the job lottery; Davis’s piece problematically implies that students themselves bear the responsibility for their success or failure on the job market, that if they only do everything right, they will be OK. Plenty of “very, very early birds” will go hungry because there are so few worms at all; the idea that the best, or earliest, are the ones who are rewarded is one of the more demoralizing aspects of a failed job search. Davis also shows a discomfiting anti-intellectualism, in the guise of pragmatism, in his suggestion that students should be “strategic” in selecting their thesis topics. His advice here is also not as practical as he makes out: academic fads come and go, and by the time the student has completed 3-5 years (or more) of research and writing on that trendy topic, the jobs might all be in a different area. With outcomes impossible to predict or control, I’d think the only certainty is that students should do work they are passionate about and think is intrinsically interesting and important, so that whatever happens on the job market, they won’t regret the investment of their time and passion.

I do think we need to tell our students something like what Davis says: they need to understand that there are very few tenure-track positions available, and that if they hope to be competitive, they have to professionalize and publish. But we shouldn’t tell them, or even let them persist in thinking, that there’s any formula that guarantees they will win. The majority of them will not end up in tenure-track positions. So what else should we tell them?  In the Inside Higher Ed piece, Christine Kelly offers a corrective to Davis’s essay, focusing in particular on what she feels is his belittling of non-academic options:

First, tell them that even if they follow all your advice and build a strong C.V., the reality is there are not enough tenure-track jobs for all the Ph.D.s, so many candidates will not receive offers. Let them know that if they do not get a tenure-track job they are not failures. . . .

Second, tell your students there are viable career alternatives where they can use their skills. Don’t suggest that their options are between a tenure-track job or a low-level dead-end job . . . Tell your students that while they prepare for their academic career, they should also explore their alternatives. While they are doing all the activities that may help them land a tenure-track job, they are also developing skills that will be useful in other professions.

Kelly’s piece seems sensible and level-headed to me, overall, especially her point about having “honest and open” discussions about career prospects and non-academic options. I don’t think I’ve personally ever belittled or shut out anyone who talked to me about non-academic options, but there is a sort of cult-like assumption within the academy as a whole that anyone who’s got anything on the ball intellectually ought to want to join us, and it would be better all around if we stopped imagining that our goal as departments is self-replication. One of Kelly’s comments points out that she “still seems to regard careers outside academia as consolation prizes when she talks about students who seek ‘non-academic careers when they don’t land faculty positions.’ What about those of us who wanted the PhD but not faculty position?”I agree that her phrasing reflects the assumption that the first choice of all Ph.D. students is a professorial career.

That said, I myself have never once met with a prospective or current Ph.D. student who wasn’t primarily interested in the Ph.D. as preparation for an academic job. At least in my field, in my experience, people want a Ph.D. because they want to become professors. They are the ones who see non-academic options as second-best, because that is not what they were aiming for when they started down this path. And if someone came to me and said they had different career goals but thought they’d do a Ph.D. along the way, I would discourage them.

It’s not that I see no portable value in the deep learning and intensive skills training acquired through graduate work in English. But at least as currently constituted, Ph.D. programs in English (at least all those with which I am at all familiar) are designed as professional training, and the profession they train you for is Professor. I’ve already written at some length about my dissatisfaction with the “skills argument” when applied to graduate school; here’s an excerpt from that earlier post:

[D]oing a PhD in the humanities will certainly enhance a student’s critical analysis and writing skills. But . . . 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, . . .  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. [2011 update: in fact, if you use it elsewhere, people typically stop listening to or reading you!] 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 grueling 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.

Arguments for treating Ph.D.s as reasonable preparation for non-academic careers continue to abstract general skills from the work we specifically ask our students to do, as if the particulars don’t matter. For instance, a colleague directed me to Kel Morin-Parsons’ essay “Infinite Hope – and for Us; or, Come on in, the Real World is Fine.” Morin-Parsons did a Ph.D. in literature but decided to seek out non-professorial options and, at the time of the article’s publication, was “the manager of the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program, part of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.” Morin-Parsons is very happy with her decision and urges those of us “who teach PhD students [to] think beyond the pointless dichotomy of a PhD put to ‘proper’ use in the academy versus a PhD ‘wasted’ elsewhere.” Again, I think it’s the students themselves at least as much as their faculty advisors who consider an academic job the ‘proper’ use of their graduate training, but setting that quibble aside, here’s Morin-Parsons’ case for the benefits of the Ph.D.:

the graduate programs made demands on us that developed tremendously applicable capacities. As most of us not only took seminar courses but taught or assisted with undergraduate courses, we all had experience in organizing teaching material, developing it and presenting it as lectures, managing people, and managing time. Added to this experience were the skills developed by all graduate students as they learn to conduct research—the gathering and analyzing of information and the transformation of that raw data into coherent pieces of writing. On top of all of this is the fact that those of us trained in literature can, as a rule, write well—something not always a given—and tend to understand the basics of good communication. In a world inundated with information and people trying to extract from the pile some genuine knowledge, a graduate degree in English literature can situate a person beautifully. What I have not yet mentioned is what underpins all of this—the deep and wide understanding of connections, narratives, and the world in general that comes with humanities education. This is not some sop to the high-mindedness of higher education in some degraded context; this is the thing that seals the deal for those taking the things they’ve developed inside the academy and applying them outside. I have grown to cherish more and more warmly a notion which, I think, we have largely lost sight in the early twenty-first century—that which proposes that a liberal arts education, as we once termed it, is to fit people not just for a particular institution but for the world. The long view of history and the insight into human action nurtured by such an education combine with the often incredible demands for production, organization, and analysis now made upon graduate students as they turn into well-trained scholars. The world needs this, and wants it—not just in the classroom but virtually everywhere else.

Though I don’t doubt she’s right that graduate students have and hone those core skills, what I’m missing is why Ph.D. work that also involves (and indeed explicitly prioritizes) expert knowledge of highly specialized kinds is the best way to “deep and wide understanding of connections, narratives, and the world in general.” I don’t actually think understanding of “the world in general” really describes Ph.D. work very well: this all sounds more like what we hope a good undergraduate liberal education will achieve. Maybe the subtext here is that undergraduate education can no longer be counted on to turn out good writers (not with classes of 1500, that’s for sure!) or a “deep and wide” engagement with ideas and narratives. But many specific elements of Ph.D. programs still seem to me not so much unsuited as unnecessary to the “long view and insight into human action” Morin-Parsons emphasizes. Is this really what preparing for comprehensive exams gives us? What about writing a thesis? I’m not saying that doing this work in any way makes Ph.D. students unfit for the world, but I have a hard time finding it reasonable that someone should deliberately undertake it if they have already ruled out academia as a career path. It’s too much work, not just for them, but for me, as I would have to treat them (unless we institute streaming of some kind) as pre-professional students. Their course papers would have to be just as academic as anyone else’s. They would deserve just as much time for coaching sessions before their comprehensive exams. Their thesis would still need to be defensible to a panel of academic experts, so I’d give their drafts just as much time, and guide them in the same academically-approved directions. I guess if they were self-declared non-academics I wouldn’t urge them into publication, but they couldn’t escape the pedagogical training or experience. Well, marking stacks of first-year essays is good for time-management, after all.

Now, maybe there are people who are happy to do all the specific components of an English Ph.D. with no intention of going into academic work, who find it (or imagine they will find it) intrinsically interesting and rewarding enough that they don’t mind deferring the start of their actual career for seven years or so. My disbelief probably stems from my own Ph.D. years, which were marked by unhappiness, self-doubt, and intellectual uncertainty. I actually had it pretty easy: I had an excellent funding package, a supportive supervisor, small classes, lots of flexibility in setting up my exams and thesis topic. And even so I can’t imagine anyone choosing to do a Ph.D. for the sheer intellectual satisfaction of it! But maybe there are such people, and if so, may they flourish as Morin-Parsons has. I do consider hers a good-news story (and it’s one that also takes a stand for values I share); I think it’s a story we should share with our current Ph.D. students, as part of our attempt at having those open and honest discussions Kelly mentions. They can do other things with their Ph.D.–in fact, most of them, by recent statistics, will have to–and they can be happy doing them. Happier even, perhaps, than their tenure-track or tenured friends, who are expected to do more and more for more and more students with less and less encouragement and support. We should do everything we can to encourage and help them (including, of course, steering them to the many websites and resources now available to guide and assist them, like Versatile Ph.D or Jo VanEvery’s Conscious Career Course).

Still, I wonder if a different kind of program wouldn’t make more sense for those who are really after the broadly applicable skills Morin-Parsons (and those I cite in the earlier post about the “skills argument”) focus on. Even in today’s difficult circumstances, we do need Ph.D. programs to continue training new professors (don’t we?), but we could conceivably work on streaming students into academic and non-academic tracks. However, not only are the logistics and the differentiated curriculum hard to imagine (how many academics would know how to proceed? our training has been of a different kind), but the Ph.D. means certain things, professionally, academically, so I’m not sure any single institution could just transform what they considered worthy of the degree. And what if students didn’t know, or changed their mind about, their desired goals? Maybe multidisciplinary MA programs could be devised to provide the enhanced “liberal education,” with a focus on ‘deep wide understanding’ of ‘the world in general,’ that Morin-Parsons talks about. They could include a lot of research and writing–not of the micro-specialized, often highly technical / jargon-filled kind we generate for academic publication (which has its own value, but is not of universal application or interest), but work aimed at smart nonspecialists, with lots of emphasis on editing and revision, and more focus on fitting people for ‘the world’ than (as per Davis’s advice) molding them for departmental positions.

And these remain, for me, hypothetical cases. Again, in my 16-year experience, I have only ever met with students whose interest in a Ph.D. is as a path to the professoriate. (In fact, almost all of the undergraduates are primarily interested in it as a path to a teaching career: undergraduates are often quite surprised to learn that the Ph.D. is primarily a research degree, and that the work they see us doing in the classroom, the work that inspires them to follow in our footsteps, is a fraction [and the least valued fraction, at that, professionally speaking] of the job we have.) Those who actually want to do something else are making different choices earlier on. It’s not easy to counsel someone to want something else, but that still makes more sense to me than encouraging students to pursue a Ph.D. because while they struggle through their specialized coursework, teaching, and research, acquiring deep literary expertise, they will also be, as Kelly says, “developing skills that will be useful in other professions.”

Writing and Life: Influential Critics

heilbrunSome time ago one of my most thoughtful readers (hi, Tom!) suggested I write about “a teacher/scholar whose work has had a significant influence on you.” I really liked this idea because, as I said in the resulting post, “It is impossible to overestimate the importance the right teacher at the right time can have on a student, though it may be impossible to foresee what will turn out to be ‘right’ ahead of time.” The teachers I wrote on included one from elementary school, one from high school, and one in particular among several who were important to my university years. At the close of the post, though, it occurred to me that the original question “may have been meant to elicit more about scholarly and critical, rather than personal, influences.” “I’m still thinking,” I concluded, “about that dimension of influence. No question, I have learned a lot from many teachers and scholars. But is that the same as having been ‘influenced’ by them? And have any of them actually inspired, moved, or motivated me?”

I’ve been thinking about those questions again recently because as I have tried to figure out what is most important to me to express as a critic (now that my long apprenticeship is over and I’m answerable primarily to myself for the future direction of my research and writing) I have identified two critics whose work indeed does inspire, move, and motivate me. More specifically, I have noticed that two critical books in particular repeatedly help me see and articulate what matters to me, or interests or challenges me, about many of the books I read, teach, and write about. One of these is Wayne Booth’s companionably plump and erudite The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, and the other is Carolyn Heilbrun’s slim but mighty Writing a Woman’s Life. Oddly, both were originally published in 1988. That means both were quite current when I started my PhD program at Cornell in 1990. But neither work–indeed, neither author, that I recall–was assigned, or even mentioned, in any course I took.

Booth’s book I discovered for myself when, soon after I earned tenure, I allowed myself to reconsider the focus of my scholarship, hoping to capture in my research the same excitement and urgency I felt in my teaching. I was dubious that I would ever feel much exhiliration pursuing increasingly esoteric projects about obscure women historians; I had done what I wanted to in that area with my thesis (which became my book). What I wanted to talk about was how and why novels actually mattered in our lives. I felt (feel!) that they do, profoundly, and I thought (think!) that one important facet of their significance is ethical. But I didn’t know how to talk about this in a rich way that would also be sensitive to fiction’s many other significant facets, including form, aesthetics, and history. The Company We Keep not only talks about exactly this, but it does so in Booth’s wonderfully engaging, unpretentious, open-minded way. It was criticism that talked about how we live in the world, and about literature as part of that living rather than something abstractly theoretical. Booth’s work was part of a wider debate about the ethics of fiction that included, among many others, Richard Posner, Martha Nussbaum, and, eventually, me: I published two academic essays as a result of this turn in my research (here’s one, in PDF; here’s the teaser for the other). The ideas it generated infused my teaching as well, particularly in a course I designed on ‘close reading’ that I will offer again, for the first time in 5 years, next fall. More recently, I wrote an essay on Gone with the Wind that attempted a “Boothian” reading of that problematic novel: an ethical reading that avoids (or so I hope) simplistic finger-pointing while accepting morality as a key aspect of literary evaluation. (Judging by the comments, not everyone was convinced! But I hope, in the spirit of what Booth calls ” coduction” [my favorite neologism!], some readers found themselves thinking about Gone with the Wind differently, even if they didn’t agree with me in all the details of my argument.) Clearly, Booth counts for me as an influential critic; I only wish I had read him earlier and been in a program where he and his interests had been prominent instead of–well, instead of much of what I was assigned.

I have a longer relationship with Heilbrun’s little book, which was given to me by my mother soon after its publication, with a lovely inscription noting that she had found it “interesting and provocative” and hoped we would talk about it “over tea.” It seems appropriate that Writing a Woman’s Life should have come to me in this way, as a gesture of shared interests and an invitation to intimacy and support, because that kind of female community and the strength it generates is one of Heilbrun’s major themes. Written relatively late in Heilbrun’s long career, its brevity is deceptive as it distills the accumulated insights of three decades of academic experience and feminist scholarship (for Heilbrun, often in a vexed relationship with each other). It’s wise, articulate, and insistent. I drew on it in formulating the central argument of my thesis and book, quoting from its first chapter, which is nominally on George Sand but is also on the difficulties and the vital necessity of finding appropriate ways to shape narratives of women’s lives. “Lives do not serve as models,” Heilbrun writes;

only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or changed, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.

She moves immediately on to an example from George Eliot, to the Alcharisi in Daniel Deronda, who vehemently “protests women’s storylessness.” She writes in the book about women who lived lives that chafed against the stories they knew, and about biographies of these women that did, or, more often, did not find a better story to tell their lives in. She writes about anger and courage, about love and compromise, about age and beauty, about Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf and herself. Writing a Woman’s Life is as much polemic (graceful and witty as it is) as theory, and it makes big claims supported by allusion and invocation rather than narrow claims defended by bulwarks of footnotes and metacriticism. It’s not, exactly, scholarly, but then it wasn’t exactly meant to be, because it’s a book that’s about living life as much as it is about writing it. “I risk a great danger,” Heilbrun remarks at the outset: “that I shall bore the theorists and fail to engage the rest, thus losing both audiences.” But Writing a Woman’s Life is never boring because it has all the urgency I wanted criticism to have. Though I didn’t immediately see it as a relevant book when I was reconsidering my own critical path, it’s urgent because it too is ethical criticism, in that broad sense of ethos that drives Booth’s arguments as well, and it’s urgent because it thinks it matters what and how we read: it takes fiction seriously because it sees reading as part of living, as shaping how we think and thus how we live.

I’ve found myself returning again and again to Heilbrun’s ideas about the limits of narrative forms and the problems of conceptualizing new stories (especially love stories) when talking with my students about many different novels, from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to The Mill on the Floss to Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi. Like Booth’s book, Heilbrun’s has been recurrently useful not so much in the details but in the lens it offers for bringing key problems into focus–or, to try a different metaphor, for the way it illuminates the problems I want to talk about. Reviewing a new biography of George Eliot that frustrated and disappointed me, I turned to Heilbrun for help in explaining why. I just turned to her work again while teaching Death in a Tenured Position, which was written by Heilbrun under her pseudonym, Amanda Cross. (In another odd coincidence, Death in a Tenured Position is dedicated to May Sarton, whose novel The Small Room I just read and wrote up for the Slaves of Golconda.) Looking at it again, and also reading with great interest and pleasure the essays in her collection Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, I found that after all these years, she more than most critics speaks in a voice I want to listen to. She’s infectiously passionate about the books and writers and issues she addresses, and she explains them sympathetically: her approach is inspiring, even, again, if we might differ on the details. Her  own story, also, with its brave ending, is moving in its effortful integrity. She was a controversial figure, but that in itself is motivating. As she says towards the end of Writing a Woman’s Life, those of us who are very privileged,

not only academics in tenured positions, … but more broadly those with some assured place and pattern in their lives, with some financial security, are in danger of choosing to stay right where we are, to undertake each day’s routine, and to listen to our arteries hardening.

“I do not believe,” she concludes, “that death should be allowed to find us seated comfortably in our tenured positions.” There, she is surely correct.

Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas

The Marketplace of Ideas is not as interesting as I thought it would be. One reason may be that it is part of a series intended, as series editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains, to “invite the reader to reexamine hand-me-down assumptions and to grapple with powerful trends”–that is, the books are not rigorous analyses aimed at specialists but accessible and deliberately provocative commentaries meant to bring a wider public quickly up to speed on debates about (Gates again) “ideas that matter in the new millenium.” At just over 150 small-scale, large-type pages, The Marketplace of Ideas is not anything like a comprehensive examination of the many issues it addresses, whether the rise of the modern university, the vexed history of the “liberal arts” curriculum, the changing aspect of humanities research, or the causes and consequences of the current appalling academic job market. Rather, it offers a briskly coherent account of some historical contexts of particular relevance to certain elite universities (he shows this narrowness of focus throughout, which, as other reviewers have pointed out, eventually undermines a number of his more general claims and complaints). Then he transitions quite abruptly to consider political homogeneity as a feature of the academy, and then, with another awkward transition, to offer some interesting but often idiosyncratic or, worse, facile suggestions about what ails graduate education in the humanities today and how to fix it.

Of the contextual section of Menand’s book, Anthony Grafton at The New Republic writes, fairly, I think,

Menand’s account is consistently even-tempered, and he resists all temptations to succumb to nostalgia or to launch jeremiads, even when both might be appropriate. He does not portray the university in the age of New Criticism as a paradise of Serious Reading, or denounce the new forms of scholarship that have grown up more recently as one great betrayal of truth and high standards. Instead he sings a song of sclerosis. Through all these changes, he writes, the basic system of disciplines and departments remained intact–a hard and confining carapace that proved impossible to break, however humanists squirmed and pushed.

I appreciated his discussion of the mixed blessing that is professionalism, something addressed from a more discipline-specific angle in Brian McRae’s Addison and Steele are Dead (a book I discussed here at some length). I also found his comments on the unsatisfactory realities of “interdisciplinarity” very interesting: “interdisciplinarity” is a buzzword often invoked as if it represents a panacea to whatever ails our individual, disciplinary, or institutional limitations, but Menand suggests, persuasively, that our obsession with it is a symptom of anxiety about “the formalism and methodological fetishism of the disciplines and about the danger of sliding into an aimless subjectivism or eclecticism.”

Overall, though, this “structural explanation,” as Grafton calls it, wasn’t really what I went to the book for; rather, I was hoping for an elaboration on the provocative excerpt published last fall in the Harvard Magazine, focusing on “the PhD problem.” There, he talked about the dramatic rise in the number of doctoral students even as the number of available tenure track positions (relative to the number of candidates) fell off drastically, the long time to degree for doctoral students in the humanities, and some ideas for unclogging the system by, for instance, making an article the standard for the Ph.D. rather than the book-length thesis. It turns out he gave most of the milk away for free here, and my thoughts on reading that material over in the book version were the same as what I said at the time (if he can make his writing do double-duty, I figure I can do the same with mine):

. . . I was struck by Menand’s passing suggestion that “If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship,” but this seems to me another of those ideas about changing “the system” (not unlike the MLA’s call to “decenter the monograph” as the gold standard for evaluating tenure and promotion files) that can never be addressed on a local level and so may never be addressed at all. Which department wants to be the first to say that they will award a Ph.D. without requiring a thesis? For that matter, which department could make such a change in policy without losing their accreditation or funding? Which department could independently assert its ability to evaluate the work of its members without the sacred stamp of “peer reviewed publications,” or at least giving equal weight to less conventional modes of knowledge dissemination? . . .

I was also struck by Menand’s remark that “Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark.” This certainly echoes my strong feeling for the last several years that English, for one, has become a field so inchoate that it is unable to declare and defend itself in any compelling way that all of its members can agree on–at least, not without resorting to unbelievably bland formulations (all the world’s a text!). How can we sustain a sense of ourselves as a functioning discipline under these circumstances? Though I don’t want to fall into conservative lamentation about the good old days when everybody knew what books were valuable and why (when were those days, exactly, and how long did they last?), anyone who has worked on curriculum reform (and probably everyone working in an English department anywhere has done so at least once) knows that the lack of an identifiable core is a practical as well as an intellectual problem. It’s a problem for us, as we try to define priorities in hiring as well as teaching, and it’s a problem for students, whose programs include so much variety it is possible to meet a 4th-year honours student and be more struck, somehow, by what they don’t know or haven’t read than by what they do and have, and certainly impossible to predict what experience or knowledge they bring to your class . . . . But what, if anything, to do about that? Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menand points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.

That last point about skills is something I have returned to recently, as I feel as if the pressure is mounting for humanities graduate programs to retool themselves as all-purpose training grounds for a (rarely specified) set of non-academic jobs. Here’s what Menand actually says on that issue:

The effort to reinvent the PhD as a degree qualifying people for non-academic as well as academic employment, to make the degree more practical, was an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation when it was headed by Robert Weisbuch. These efforts are a worthy form of humanitarianism; but there is no obvious efficiency in requiring people to devote ten or more years to the mastery of a specialized area of scholarship on the theory that they are developing skills in research, or critical thinking, or communication. . . . The ability to analyze Finnegan’s Wake does not translate into an ability to analyze a stock offering. If a person wanted to analyze stock offerings, he should not waste his time with Joyce. He should go to business school. Or get a job analyzing stock offerings.

As I’ve recently argued in response to just that kind of administrative “humanitarianism” (some might call it “pragmatism,” as well), I think there is indeed something fundamentally misguided about this trend to play up the skills set acquired during Ph.D. training, as if the content of the degree (and its specific constituent requirements, such as specialized comprehensive exams and a thesis) are somehow tangential. This “solution” to “the Ph.D. problem” sounds exactly like something an outside (non-specialist) administrator who doesn’t in fact care much about the content of individual disciplinary programs would propose, and our rapidity to embrace it, well-meaning though we certainly are (we really like our graduate students, in my experience, and want to help them), is in itself a kind of capitulation on the larger issue of the value of the work we specifically do (about which collapse of principle, see more here).

And here’s where Menand really turns out to disappoint, because with his throw-away line about the prospective stock analyst who should not “waste his time with Joyce” he (perhaps strategically) distances himself from one of his key audiences–not the skeptics or outsiders who already think that reading Finnegan’s Wake is at best a harmless (if bizarrely difficult) form of self-indulgence and at worst, yes, just a waste of time (and certainly not something that should be supported by public funding), but his fellow scholars and academics, the ones making decisions about curriculum and program requirement and advising undergraduate students to go on (or not) to Ph.D. programs, or Ph.D. students to complete (or not) their dissertations. How can they look for leadership to someone who doesn’t sound as if he thinks their work is important, whose suggestions for reform effectively trivialize it? He may well be right about Joyce as a means to that particular end, but why does he so blithly pass up the opportunity to explain why that work on Joyce might be vitally important to some other end not currently lauded or rewarded in the public culture he claims, in his closing peroration, must in fact be questioned and resisted by “the culture of the university”? He does spend a little time acknowledging what we have all gained: “the humanities,” he says

helped to make the rest of the academic world alive to issues surrounding objectivity and interpretation, and to the significance of racial and gender difference. Scholars in the humanities were complicating social science models of human motivation and behavior for years before social scientists began doing the same thing via research in cognitive science. That political and economic behavior is often non-rational is not news to literature professors. And humanists can hope that someday more social scientists and psychologists will consider the mediating role of culture in their accounts of belief and behavior. . . [Scholarship in the humanities] is pursuing an ongoing inquiry into the limits of inquiry. And it is not just asking questions about knowledge; it is creating knowledge by asking the questions. Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge.

That’s something, though that’s about all I could find, and it strikes me as pretty tepid and unconvincing, all very abstract and general and vague about how exactly those literary scholars achieved the insight (?) that “political and economic behavior is often non-rational,” and promising nothing more than that humanities scholars will keep on keepin’ on, being skeptical and questioning about, well, everything. What’s Joyce to them, then, exactly, anyway? But I wouldn’t be so annoyed at these moments if it weren’t for this one:

It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. . . . students who spend eight or nine years in graduate schools are being seriously overtrained for the jobs that are available.

I won’t get into the problem of his math (see the discussion at Historiann for some trenchant critiques). And I’ll concede that he means (I think) to be descriptive: it’s just true that the majority of jobs that are available for Ph.D.s in English right now are not at research-intensive universities or elite liberal arts colleges, or teaching specialized classes to majors and honours students in their fields. In a painfully literal way, then, he’s just telling the truth (though every time he talked about supply and demand I wondered why he wasn’t acknowledging the work of Marc Bousquet). But he makes it sound as if “teach[ing] poetry to college students for a living” is a pretty trivial occupation, one that really doesn’t depend on a base of specialized knowledge. What he doesn’t say, in this astonishingly dismissive remark, is that the eight or nine years people spend in graduate school are preparing, not just to teach Introduction to Poetry, but to rethink, and perhaps transform, how we teach poetry to undergraduates–not to mention what poetry we teach. I have only to compare the undergraduate training I received with what is standard in the curriculum today to realize what a seismic shift has gone on, in expectations, in contexts, in critical approaches. I had occasion to remark just this week, for instance, that when I studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in my own first-year English class, the term “Modernism” never came up. Never. We read Joyce but no Woolf, just as in my Victorian novel class we read Trollope but not Gaskell or Braddon, and the term “imperialism” never came up. Now, I suppose you could argue that a small cadre of specially privileged researchers could be off doing the kind of work the effects of which would trickle down to the peons in the classroom, but as Menand himself argues, the fewer people engaged in an activity, the less likely it is that its norms and paradigms will be challenged. And as Grafton argues eloquently in his own response to Menand, “all this takes time,” and “the vocation of scholarship is difficult.” I think there are some difficulties with Grafton’s emphasis on the academic life as a “quest,” but I really wish that, having grabbed people’s attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us. I’m not sure that someone who wants to be a stockbroker should finish a PhD either, but I’d rather have a stockbroker who reads Joyce (or Trollope or George Eliot) than one who doesn’t see the point of that stuff.


Workday Miscellany: Ph.D. Problems, Institutional Inertia, Graduate Teaching, and the Yoke of Marriage

I’m feeling a bit scattered this week. Here are some of the things buzzing around in my head.

1. It’s hard not to want to say something about Louis Menand’s much-linked-to post on “the PhD problem,” but what? Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I nodded emphatically at this statement:

The non-academic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic modes of thought, and had thereby acquired a little understanding of the issues that scare terms like “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” are attempts to deal with. And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction—and also if it had to deal with students who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo.

But I don’t really know how to assess some of his larger claims, especially the more sociological or statistical ones; I can’t even compare them to my own experience, really, because the information is exclusively about American institutions and I don’t know how closely the patterns he describes are repeated here in Canada–despite having spent two years as coordinator of our graduate program. One of the reasons is that the concerns of that position were, of practical necessity, extremely local: it’s a two-year stint by departmental policy, with an incessant stream of relatively small bureaucratic and advising tasks and intervals of intense labour around major fellowship deadlines and, of course, admissions. In the first year of the position the learning curve was steep and my dependence on our (exemplary!) office staff nearly total; the second year was slightly better but the end was already in sight. New initiatives? Policy development? Research into large-scale professional questions and how they might impact or play out in our tiny program? Not a chance: there was just no time, and frankly no incentive, to explore broader issues.

2. In a related vein, I was struck by Menand’s passing suggestion that “If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship,” but this seems to me another of those ideas about changing “the system” (not unlike the MLA’s call to “decenter the monograph” as the gold standard for evaluating tenure and promotion files) that can never be addressed on a local level and so may never be addressed at all. Which department wants to be the first to say that they will award a Ph.D. without requiring a thesis? For that matter, which department could make such a change in policy without losing their accreditation or funding? Which department could independently assert its ability to evaluate the work of its members without the sacred stamp of “peer reviewed publications,” or at least giving equal weight to less conventional modes of knowledge dissemination? (How far, as the MLA report suggested, has “peer review” become an excuse for farming out the job of scholarly evaluation to editors?) Anecdotally, conversationally, there’s plenty of dissatisfaction with the professional status quo and interest in making various features of it more flexible and more responsive to changing conditions in, say, publishing or employment. But this week, in a couple of different contexts, I was reminded again of how rigidly current practices are enforced by administrative structures that assume certain models for estimating academic productivity and value (for instance, fellowship competitions in which quantity of publications is taken as the only ‘objective’ measure of excellence, or research models that promote applications for large grants as if more expensive projects are both necessary and desirable). People grumbled about the implicit principles but the atittude appears to be “that’s the way things are now, and we’d better stay in the game.”

3. I was also struck by Menand’s remark that “Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark.” This certainly echoes my strong feeling for the last several years that English, for one, has become a field so inchoate that it is unable to declare and defend itself in any compelling way that all of its members can agree on–at least, not without resorting to unbelievably bland formulations (all the world’s a text!). How can we sustain a sense of ourselves as a functioning discipline under these circumstances? Though I don’t want to fall into conservative lamentation about the good old days when everybody knew what books were valuable and why (when were those days, exactly, and how long did they last?), anyone who has worked on curriculum reform (and probably everyone working in an English department anywhere has done so at least once) knows that the lack of an identifiable core is a practical as well as an intellectual problem. It’s a problem for us, as we try to define priorities in hiring as well as teaching, and it’s a problem for students, whose programs include so much variety it is possible to meet a 4th-year honours student and be more struck, somehow, by what they don’t know or haven’t read than by what they do and have, and certainly impossible to predict what experience or knowledge they bring to your class (in my 4th-year seminar on Victorian sensation fiction, I have students who have never studied 19th-century novels before–they have a lot of catching up to do, to participate effectively in some aspects of our discussions). But what, if anything, to do about that? Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menant points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.

4. All of this mental muddle is particularly distracting because one of the things I’m trying to get done is course planning for next term, and particularly the plans for my upcoming graduate seminar on George Eliot. When I first taught such a class (in 1997-98), I thought it was pretty obvious what I should do: graduate courses are training for professional work in the field of literary criticism, right? That shouldn’t have seemed so obvious to me then (I didn’t take into account, for instance, that Dalhousie’s program includes a ‘terminal’ M.A. and thus serves a student population that is not necessarily headed down an academic path), and it certainly does not seem so obvious to me now. But what difference does, or should, it make that there seem to me to be a number of uncertainties about the purpose of their degrees more generally, our seminar in particular, and even literary criticism itself? Is a (real or mock) conference paper a reasonable goal, or a paper suitable to be revised and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal? Should I diversify the requirements to suit a wider range of possible applications of scholarly expertise–say, a resource-rich website, an experimental hyper-text edition of a chapter, a paper aimed at a general audience, a portfolio of book reviews, a class wiki? Is it possible to accommodate such a range and still to ensure equal workloads and fair evaluation? I’ve been reading and rereading a swathe of critical articles in preparation for the usual “secondary readings” requirements but if I can’t even be sure myself what we need to accomplish in the class, how can I choose what they should read? Probably I’ll just do what I usually do, which is pick some articles that seem particularly useful or interesting, or that stand for some reason as key or classic pieces; require a couple of short response papers, a seminar presentation, and a term paper (of the usual academic variety). It’s tempting to reinvent the course–but it’s part of a whole system of requirements and expectations, and so there I am again, reluctant to deviate from local norms, to point out that most of them will never need to do academic criticism (or get a permanent job in which it is required of them for tenure) and so we should really find something else to do about what we read.

In the meantime, my classes seem to be going fine. I was particularly pleased with the lively discussion in the Sensation Fiction seminar the last couple of meetings; I think we have some real momentum now, having bulldozed through four major novels in preparation for the next phase of the course, which involves a series of workshops and then a series of student presentations. In the other class, assignments just went back and besides the inevitable angst and resentment that generates, I think most of them are behind on their Middlemarch readings. But I’m doing my best to keep the energy up and to give them ideas about how to make the most of the reading as they work their way along. We talked about Lydgate and Rosamond, and the “ideal not the real yoke of marriage” (a phrase actually used about Dorothea and Casaubon, but widely applicable in this novel). For a happily “married” woman, George Eliot could sure put her finger on just how and why marital relations can turn from bliss to pain. To my knowledge there are only two married people in the class; they seem to be the ones doing most of the nodding as I explain the process of disillusionment and then adaptation to reality the novel describes.