On the MLA Task Force about PhDs: Two Things On My Experiences

The MLA released a report today, “Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (2014).” The CHE reported about it here, “Ph.D. Programs Should Change but Not Shrink, MLA Says,” Inside Higher Ed here, “5-Year Plan,” Alex Reid blogged about it here, “MLA, doctoral education, and the benefits of hindsight,” there’s been lots of stuff on Facebook, Twitter, and I am sure more is coming.

I’ve blogged lots of stuff before about how the problems of academic employment for PhDs in the humanities are largely about supply and demand and I don’t think anything– including the steps this report recommends– is going to do anything about that anytime soon. Some of what the MLA report recommends– for example, alternative formats for dissertations, an emphasis on technology, and an emphasis on preparing PhD students to be teachers– seem a lot like what many (most?) students in composition and rhetoric are doing right now.

But I’m not going to go there now; instead, I want to focus on two aspects of the proposal based on my own experiences as a PhD student back in the mid-1990s.

First, the issue of time toward degree. I finished my undergraduate degree in four years, mainly because I never switched majors, I got a fair amount of credit from “CLEP” tests, and I went to summer school a couple of times. I finished my MFA in creative writing in two years because it was at the time a two year program (with two years of funding) and because I was kind of burnt out on going to school and I wanted to get out. I took a break (more on that in a bit) and then I finished my PhD program in three years because that was how much funding I was guaranteed, I settled on a dissertation topic in my first year, I took summer courses, I cut a lot of corners (“a done dissertation is a good dissertation” was my mantra), Annette and I didn’t have to worry about kids and the like, and because I worked my fucking ass off, pretty much every day/all day for three solid years. So, from freshman year to PhD hooding was nine years, with a three year break in-between.

Now, I will admit my experiences are probably not typical, but this speed is not the result of me being so brilliant. Far from it; ask anyone who knows me. Rather, I finished my BA in four years and my MFA in two years in part due to good timing and luck, and I finished my PhD in three years because I was determined and worked hard. Arguably, I might have been better off taking a fourth year to work on my dissertation, but I have no complaints given how everything is turned out.

Anyway, my point is this:  there is absolutely nothing the MLA as an organization or PhD programs can do to make students finish more quickly.  The sad truth is there are really only two reasons why students take too long to finish their PhDs. One is the job market in various fields is so shitty that there’s no point in finishing quickly– or for that matter, finishing at all. I don’t think the MLA report addresses this issue in any way.

The second reason is a little more abstract, but I saw it again and again as a PhD student and I see it now: a certain not insignificant percentage of students in PhD programs do not have the ability to “get it done” in any timeframe, not three years, not five years, not 100 years. Period. It’s not that these folks aren’t smart– that is usually the least of their problems; it’s just that they are incapable of sitting down and just finishing. Some folks have shitty and sabotaging advisors. Some are unreasonable perfectionists and feel like they need to read everything on their topic before they can begin to write. Some of these folks have some kind of mental block/depression/anxiety/illness/or other problem that essentially causes a breakdown. Some are just lazy, though that’s something they probably don’t see in themselves. The road to hell is paved with all kinds of ABD students trying to get one more chapter done.

In terms of the issue of “alt-ac” careers, as in “broaden career paths” and “validate diverse career outcomes:” this is silly.

I don’t teach in a PhD-granting program, but if I did and a potential student came to me and said “I’m thinking of getting a PhD in English so I can pursue a career in writing government grants or advocacy in the arts world or writing technical documentation or (insert non-academic job here),” I’d say “you are in the wrong program because the only reason you’d get this kind of degree is because you want to pursue an academic career, ideally as a professor.” At best, the alt-ac path for PhDs in English is a “plan B” for those who can’t get an academic job.

But beyond that, the vast majority of academics just don’t know anything about careers beyond academia. I had a “real” job once upon a time. Between 1990 and 1993, I did temp office work and I had a “real” white-collar job where my title was “public relations representative” but what I really did was more or less tech writing and desktop publishing. I haven’t had a job outside of academia in over 20 years, and as far as I can tell, my experience is unusual in that most of my colleagues have had zero employment experience outside of academia: that is, most of the folks I work with went from their undergraduate program to their graduate program with perhaps a few stops at service jobs along the way. They don’t know anything about the “alt-ac” track.

As Steve Newman said on Facebook, “Do we have any dependable data that the skills we teach in doctoral programs transfer to this variegated range of careers? If not, we had better see if there is any and if that doesn’t pan out then 98% of the tt faculty in English, myself included, need to take 3 year sabbaticals to acquire the knowledge and skills to train grad students properly for alt-ac. ” I don’t know Newman, but I think he’s spot-on. Ask a tenured or near-tenured professor about whatever it is that they specialize in and be prepared for a long long answer; ask this person about how to get a job of any sort outside of academia, prepare for a lot of silence.

Academic Freedom/Speech and Its Consequences

Lately, I’ve been reading/skimming some interesting higher ed news stories about academic freedom/academic free speech. A lot of my reading has been about the crazy stuff going on in Kansas and that state’s Board of Regents’ rules that try to rein in the use of social media by faculty and everyone else. The go-to place for news on this, IMO, is Philip “Nine Kinds of Pie” Nel.  For example:

But it’s not just Kansas, of course. Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman has a piece in Slate Free to Be a Jerk” where she applauds the court victory of Mike Adams, a UNC-Wilmington professor who argued successfully that he was denied promotion to full professor based on his views. A quote:

[…]Adams’ application for promotion to full professor in 2006 was allegedly denied on the basis of his public engagement. Despite my distaste for Adams’ dumb ideas about feminism, diversity, and homosexuality, I’m glad that Adams sued the university, and am delighted that last month he won, in an important ruling that (for now) preserves a vestige of academic freedom in this country.

For although I find his views as repugnant as many found the anti-NRA tweet of University of Kansas professor Don Guth (whose kerfuffle resulted in one of the most restrictive social-media policies in all of academia), Adams’ spirited public engagement should have helped, rather than hindered, his bid. There’s precious little academic freedom left (what with fewer than 10 percent of American professors currently enjoying tenure)—but it sure as hell should include the freedom to be a schmuck.

Then there’s the whole series of craziness at the University of Saskatchewan that (as I understand it– I haven’t been following this one that closely) came about when the Provost fired Professor and adminstrator-type Robert Buckingham and had security escort him off of campus because Buckingham spoke out against a reform/reorganization plan. That apparently backfired. Badly. As recapped in The StarPhoenix article “University of Saskatchewan president Ilene Busch-Vishniac fired,” Buckingham was rehired, the Provost “resigned” (it seems to be a classic “did he fall or was he pushed” scenario), and then, as the headline suggests, the president was sacked.

Of course I am all about academic freedom and academic free speech. Of course of course of course. Nel is completely right in all of his criticism of the Kansas Board of Regents and the ridiculousness of their policy. I don’t know enough of the details about the Adams case or the mess up in Canada, but of course I’m in support of the wronged and fired here, and by the way, I’m encouraged by the developments in North Carolina and Canada because it is evidence that academic freedom is winning out in the end. Hopefully that will be the result in Kansas as well.

That said, it seems to me there are a few things we need to remember about the reality of such thought police policies and the limits of free speech, even for academics.

Continue reading “Academic Freedom/Speech and Its Consequences”

If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues

A few days ago, Marc Bousquet posted on Facebook a link to “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments: The false promise of the digital humanities” by Adam Kirsch and published in the New Republic.  Kirsch obviously doesn’t think highly of digital humanities and technology at the expense of the feel and smell of paper and the old-fashioned magic of old-fashioned reading, and Bousquet obviously didn’t think much of Kirsch’s critique. Bousquet posted on Facebook about the Kirsch article twice for some reason; to quote (can I quote Facebook like this?)

Technology Is Taking Over English  http://t.co/d21kSd5opr Ahistorical & stupid cuz comes from a lit-dh discourse bypassing rhet-comp. Duh.”


“DH added strawberries to breakfast cereal! The era of breakfast cereal is over! Moral panic in lit makes it to TNR: http://t.co/d21kSd5opr

I agree with Bousquet: Kirsch’s piece is wrong, but it’s more than that.  I think it is in places almost perfectly, exquisitely wrong. To me, it’s like a rhetorical question that falls flat on its face because of Kirsch’s many assumptions about the problems of the digital and the purity of the humanities. And this made me realize something: it’s time for me to admit that I’m actually a digital humanities scholar/teacher and have been all along. It’s time for me to put aside petty arguments and differences (I’ll get to that below) and jump on that bandwagon. Continue reading “If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues”