Not everything is institutionalized via time to degree

Dear John,

Requiring a five year PhD would certainly prove consequential for the humanities disciplines. Would it make them more “relevant” as the Stanford authors claim?

I’m not exactly clear what that term means in context. Clearly, the authors think that relevance equals employment outside the university. There is also an assertion of what humanities PhD’s should be relevant to: “an increasingly global and cosmopolitan 21st century society.”  And, as you point out, departments are asked to redesign “curricula to prepare PhD’s for a diverse array of meaningful, socially productive and personally rewarding careers within and outside the academy.”  The rhetoric of “relevance” allows readers to imagine that nebulously defined social goods (“meaningful,” “productive,” “rewarding”)  can be appraised by means of metrics like time to degree, job placements, and starting salaries. The equation is obviously fallacious. As numerous PhDs, JDs, and MBAs of our acquaintance will testify, one can complete one’s degree on time, immediately find a well paying job, and still not be engaged in activities one regards as particularly “meaningful,” “productive,” and “rewarding.” It has been the job of the humanities to consider such questions of value. They will undo themselves by treating job placement stats as equivalent types of questions. This doesn’t mean that humanities disciplines shouldn’t contemplate a shorter time to degree, just that they have to stick up for the difference between such metrics and questions of social value, lest they lose their professional distinction.

Would the five year PhD encourage humanities disciplines to refocus on questions of social value by requiring them to pay more attention to the professional world outside their boarders?  Maybe. It could be a productive jolt, and the parts of the disciplines in which we seem to be most interested may be poised to take advantage of  it.

Would such an effort necessarily expand job opportunities for humanities PhDs and thus secure the positions of those who train them? I have doubts.

We might consider why the strategy of reducing PhD output did not work. I think we have both found Marc Bousquet persuasive on this question:

shrinking the supply wasn’t working, and could never work, because administrations retain total control of the “demand” for labor—in many disciplines, administrations are perfectly willing to use faculty without doctorates. For that matter, a lot of the work formerly done by faculty is done by persons without an MA or, increasingly, without a BA. In the absence of meaningful regulation, studying the academic labor system as a “market” in tenure-track jobs has little validity.

In different ways, both the Stanford authors and Menand sidestep Bousquest’s challenge to about the entire academic labor system (as opposed to the faculty “job market”). Stanford simply treats as a matter of fact that only a fraction of Humanities PhD’s will secure tenure track jobs without going into the whys and wherefores. Menand encourages his readers to imagine that English professors control admission to their profession in the same way that doctors and lawyers do, whereas there are significant differences in the ways these professions and institutional fields are organized and regulated. (There is no scholarly equivalent of the Bar Association, for example.) Both the Stanford authors and Menand invite us to imagine an ever-larger pool of  humanists credentialed to move across a porous border between academe and industry. Who will regulate this flow and thereby set the market value for humanities PhDs?  It seems likely that humanities PhDs themselves might not have that much to say about it.

I have a lot more to say about this, but I’m going to stop to call attention to another matter.

You left to me the task of pointing out the most important part of Menand’s article (from the point of view of our project). Apologies in advance for the lengthy quote:

The hinge whereby things swung into their present alignment, the ledge of the cliff, is located somewhere around 1970. That is when a shift in the nature of the Ph.D. occurred. The shift was the consequence of a bad synchronicity, one of those historical pincer effects where one trend intersects with its opposite, when an upward curve meets a downward curve. One arm of the pincer has to do with the increased professionalization of academic work, the conversion of the professoriate into a group of people who were more likely to identify with their disciplines than with their campuses. This had two, contradictory effects on the Ph.D.: it raised and lowered the value of the degree at the same time. The value was raised because when institutions began prizing research above teaching and service, the dissertation changed from a kind of final term paper into the first draft of a scholarly monograph. The dissertation became more difficult to write because more hung on its success, and the increased pressure to produce an ultimately publishable work increased, in turn, the time to achieving a degree. That was a change from the faculty point of view. It enhanced the selectivity of the profession.

The change from the institutional point of view, though, had the opposite effect. In order to raise the prominence of research in their institutional profile, schools began adding doctoral programs. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent. On the one hand, a doctorate was harder to get; on the other, it became less valuable because the market began to be flooded with Ph.D.s.

This fact registered after 1970, when the rapid expansion of American higher education abruptly slowed to a crawl, depositing on generational shores a huge tenured faculty and too many doctoral programs churning out Ph.D.s. The year 1970 is also the point from which we can trace the decline in the proportion of students majoring in liberal-arts fields, and, within that decline, a proportionally larger decline in undergraduates majoring in the humanities. In 1970-71, English departments awarded 64,342 bachelor’s degrees; that represented 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, including those awarded in non-liberal-arts fields, such as business. The only liberal-arts category that awarded more degrees than English was history and social science, a category that combines several disciplines. Thirty years later, in 2000-01, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields was 50 percent higher than in 1970-71, but the number of degrees in English was down both in absolute numbers—from 64,342 to 51,419—and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, from 7.6 percent to around 4 percent.

Note the indicative collapse of the difference between “humanities” and “English.” Note also that disciplinary hyperspecialization increases the number of credentialed professionals while decreasing their market value and interest to undergraduates. We think that–despite the culture wars–this is because English was obsessed with defining its object rather than explaining what its object does. Right? What changes about this picture once other humanities disciplines are admitted to it?





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