What is Institutionalized via Time to Degree?

Dear Mark,

I want to table for the moment one thing you noted and follow up (obliquely perhaps) on another.

The point to table:

Public Culture has been fairly unusual in allowing images to share conceptual space with arguments (as opposed to being objects that prose necessarily interprets).

I think this is vital for us, and thinking across media this way is something I want to talk more about. How does Public Culture do it? What does it mean that they do it and others do not? Etc.

The point to follow up:

To intervene on these questions requires not simply identifying and defending alternatives but actually institutionalizing them, which means learning to work with engineers and policy wonks.

Institutionalizing without identifying alternatives for what intellectual practice (for us most specifically humanities intellectual practice) should look like might not be a non-starter though. Certainly, you and I think we need to understand why it is important to talk to engineers, policy wonks, experts from other disciplines, and even professionals involved in profit-making businesses. (The latter sort of collaboration has been anathema for humanities types for a goodly while. Along with the images item above, I’d like us to think more about why exactly.) But how to do this? What institutional carrots and sticks are available?

What about time to degree, which is probably the primary way we humanists currently talk about the viability of the PhD in the humanities?

Consider “The Future of the Humanities PhD at  Stanford,” which got blurbed in an article on Inside Higher Ed this week called “The Radical New Humanities Ph.D.” (a couple of days after it was published this piece remains high up on the site’s most read list).

The professors behind the Stanford statement argue that they are in a position to overhaul the PhD because they have the financial and cultural capital to do so. No doubt. They are guided by these two goals:

1. Rationalizing the investment (on the part of students and the university), by reducing time to degree (TTD).

2. Redesigning graduate curricula to prepare PhD’s for a diverse array of meaningful, socially productive and personally rewarding careers within and outside the academy.

Almost all of the proposal document concentrates on 1., leaving 2. to departments. The proposal requests more secure year-round funding so that students can be students full time during the summer months, mandates times for various sorts of exams (comprehensive exams by the 3rd year, for instance), and asks departments to involve themselves in “serious” review of students completing their second year of course work to decide who goes forward and who gets a terminal MA.

Although in its goal of 5 years to degree for PhD students the proposal does not deviate that far from the perhaps more usual 6 year goal at all sorts of other universities, the proposal does break ground in the way it devalues (by taking time away from) the dissertation. The report suggests that “prestigious” dissertation fellowships have kept Stanford students around for longer than five years, and that such money should be shifted to the full-time, 12 month funding plan that would make pre-dissertation work more robust. What that pre-diss work shall be and the form the dissertation produced in a shorter time shall take will be determined at the level of the department.

In response to the question, “Can and should the humanities PhD remain centrally relevant – at Stanford, in the academy, and in an increasingly global and cosmopolitan 21st century society?” The proposal answers, yes, and it will take less time in school to achieve this relevance too. Or, yes, and the way to make sure is to get students their degrees faster.

This is Louis Menand’s argument too. He observes that humanities programs spend more time training their PhD students than the sciences and social sciences, and concludes as a result:

What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are available….

The moral of the story that the numbers tell once seemed straightforward: if there are fewer jobs for people with Ph.D.s, then universities should stop giving so many Ph.D.s—by making it harder to get into a Ph.D. program (reducing the number of entrants) or harder to get through (reducing the number of graduates). But this has not worked. Possibly the story has a different moral, which is that there should be a lot more Ph.D.s, and they should be much easier to get….

If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.

I wonder whether such a relatively simple matter as shortening time to degree might have even more radical effects. Or, I wonder if there is a way to ensure that shortening time to degree makes it impossible to reproduce a discipline like English in its current form.

How could tightening time to degree be helped to lead students (and their professors) to engage in different kinds of research and especially in more collaborative research? Since we would no longer provide time for every student to write a book of their own, what would encourage us to help them start working together more? Would shortened time to degree require fields with higher bars of entry (because they have language requirements, archival practices that are difficult to acquire, etc.) to rethink their fashion of mandating all participants in a field have all the skills instead of distributing those skills across a team?

What do you think about this small step towards institutionalizing a different sort of intellectual practice?

John

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One thought on “What is Institutionalized via Time to Degree?

  1. Pingback: Ah, to train a “humanities workforce.” » Humanities after Hollywood

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