Boulder English Looks Like a Leader in National PhD Reform Debate

by John Stevenson
At the end of May this year, the Modern Language Association released the “Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.Press coverage, which has been extensive, invariably calls the report “long-awaited,” and it was indeed highly anticipated, and for a number of reasons. As I hardly need remind anyone reading this, by general consensus we are living through a time when three problems have converged: first is the crises surrounding academic employment—there are more people looking for faculty positions than there are positions available; second is the expansion of the time it takes to earn a PhD in the various modern language and literature fields, with close to half of all students taking ten years or more, and with an average time to degree of about nine years; third, and more distantly, in the background, there is the conversation by a skeptical public about the humanities as a whole and their place in higher education.

We might conflate these three points of anxiety into one question: why take a decade to pursue a degree that may not in the end provide a career and which, moreover, involves the study of a questionable body of knowledge? While the MLA Report was never intended to untie all the strands of that knot, its attention to the problems of the design and utility of doctoral study in some of the most important humanities disciplines has been widely seen as an attempt, by a large and influential professional organization, to come to grips with this crises and to offer guidance for the future—how should language and literature doctoral study find its way out of the perilous position in which it now finds itself?

The Task Force Report does not advocate for—does not really even discuss—the solution that some have insisted on: that higher education create more tenure-track jobs, thus alleviating the mismatch that has grown up between the number of jobs available and the number of job-seekers in pursuit of them (the Report calculates that gap at 60%–that is, six jobs for every ten who seek academic employment). Departments by themselves cannot solve that problem, and the Report aims to address issues that departments can solve. And it explicitly rejects the path that many others think would solve the employment crises: a drastic reduction in the number and size of doctoral programs, a shift that would, again, try to align the number of positions with the pool of applicants. The Task Force believes that such a step would result in an unacceptable loss of access to doctoral study, especially for underrepresented populations.

Rather, the Report focuses primarily on two issues: first, given present reality, how should departments redesign doctoral work, and second, what will students be able to do with their degrees, assuming that the mismatch between degrees awarded and academic jobs is likely to be permanent? The Task Force avoids being too prescriptive about what a twenty-first century PhD curriculum should like, emphasizing instead what appears to be its foremost priority, reducing time to degree to an average of five years, thus virtually halving what has become the norm. The Report’s language is blunt: “Departments should design programs that can be completed in five years.”

Beyond that, the Task Force relies on articulating principles rather than a specific design, urging the abandonment of “comprehensive coverage,” and replacing a literary-historical model of curriculum design with “new forms of scholarship and new models of preparation.” More emphasis should be placed on training doctoral students as teachers, since the great majority of the faculty positions that do exist are not in research institutions. The dissertation, we are told, should be “reimagined” so as to break the requirement free of its exclusive current definition as a proto-monograph; suggestions include “a suite of essays,” research-based Web projects, “translations, with accompanying theoretical and critical reflection,” and public humanities projects. The vagueness that is undeniably inherent in the Report about how the five years will be spent anticipates the contentiousness that seems to emerge when faculty discuss curriculum, and tacitly acknowledges that each program must forge a revised PhD program in its own way.

Such new degrees will prepare graduates for a number of careers, in academia of course (no one seems to question the necessity of the PhD as the fundamental credential for such work), but employment elsewhere as well, and the Report emphasizes the importance of graduate programs providing “professionalization” opportunities such as internships, so as “to provide access to a wider range of career paths.”

It is a notable feature of the Report that it is not terribly explicit about these alternative careers—what might they be? Beyond noting that “Humanists active throughout society demonstrate the value of advanced humanistic study,” the Task Force is mostly silent. Such a gap reflects, no doubt, the absence of detailed information about the many students who have earned PhDs and then gone on, often with great success, to pursue work outside the academy. Several organizations such as the American Historical Association and the Council of Graduate Schools are now engaged in a concerted effort to gather such information and see what lessons can be learned. The Report urges every doctoral to track its own students. What we do know is the PhD holders enjoy the lowest level of unemployment of any segment of US society—even though that rosy number does include all those in non-tenure-track academic positions, many of them in decidedly non-rosy circumstances.

The English Department here on the Boulder campus has already taken some very bold steps to reform its doctoral program, and many of those changes align nicely with the recommendations from the MLA. Our PhD is now explicitly designed to be a five-year program and changes in course and exam requirements reflect that goal. The Department has also committed to full funding for its doctoral students for those five years and has tried to build in periods when it provides students with non-teaching support so that time for necessary research and writing is available. Boulder English continues its long record of ensuring that its graduate students are well-trained in the essential art of good teaching. Our record of placing our students in good academic jobs is one we can be proud of, as our students have obtained tenure-track positions in just the last year in excellent schools such as Michigan Tech, SUNY-Cortland, and the University of Toronto.

I have been a faculty member in this department for over thirty years, and I am now entering my sixth year as Dean of the Graduate School. Graduate students and their success are my job, but they are also something I care deeply about. The MLA Report on Doctoral Education will, I hope, help galvanize long-overdue discussions in every department with a PhD program in language and literature. We can, I believe, no longer run our doctoral programs in the way that we have for many years. The reforms must reflect the will of the faculty in individual departments but some principles should be universal. Those of us privileged enough to work in departments such as our own have a deep responsibility to recruit students who have the ability and the drive to succeed, to give them the training they need and deserve, and to send them into the world of work prepared and eager for long and productive careers—whatever work they choose.

If you have read this post, thanks. If you have a response of any kind, I would love to hear it.

Leave a Reply