Changing the Ph.D.: a Tilt Toward Teaching

Ignored in a recent MLA report was a series of experiments that ‘demonstrate the emerging new character’ of doctoral training

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July 28, 2014

The report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature has attracted plenty of heated response since its release in May. Most of the debate clusters around the report’s recommendations that doctoral programs "rethink admissions practices," aim for a shorter time to degree, plan for "diverse career outcomes," and "reimagine the dissertation." Those recommendations are the lightning rods of the document.

Some criticism of the report is surely understandable. Among people concerned with contingent labor, for example, some argue that the report doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the adjunctification of the academic work force.

However, other accusations are hasty, or just plain incorrect. For example, some commenters have complained that reducing time to degree from nine to five years would result in the dumping of more Ph.D.’s into the already absurdly distended academic job market. But that’s not fuzzy math; it’s wrong math. The variables that determine Ph.D. production are the size of the incoming class and the rate of attrition. Time to degree, whether increased or decreased, doesn’t enter into it. It’s true that humanists are not generally trained as statisticians, but if we expect any credibility outside of our own qualitative neighborhood, we still have to get the math right.

Here’s an analogy that may help explain: Imagine two separate water tanks, each with its own faucet attached. One faucet is attached to a five-foot pipe, the other to a nine-foot pipe. If you fill the tanks equally with water (or students) and you open the faucets the same amount, both tanks will empty at the same rate. (Leakage—which here stands for attrition—also affects the amount of water that pours out, but it affects the comparison only if one pipe leaks more than the other.) Assuming equal rates of leakage, the only difference between the two faucets will be a slight pause before the water starts to pour out of the one with the nine-foot pipe.

Amid all of the debate over its recommendations, the report’s appendix has received barely a mention. But it deserves our attention because that’s where the nuts and bolts are. Nearly as long as the body of the report, the appendix contains descriptions of procedures in 13 Ph.D. programs in language and literature. "These are samples," according to the report, "that demonstrate the emerging new character of doctoral programs."

In other words, if we want to see what the proposed new Ph.D. might look like, we should look to these programs, which were selected for the report because they are already enacting some of its recommendations.

A word of caution: The 13 examples don’t spotlight every recommendation in the report. For example, the call to redefine the roles of graduate directors and faculty advisers goes largely unexamined in the 13 programs. And only a few of them center on alternative career paths. One program at the University of California at Davis, for example, has combined traditional and alternative academics within the university’s Humanities Institute, turning it into the hub for a myriad of career-services and professionalization programs.

The appendix gives the widest showcase to doctoral programs that variously prepare graduate students for jobs with high teaching loads. An exemplary Bay Area partnership between Stanford University and San Jose State University exposes cosseted Stanford students to the daily lives of professors who work in the straitened environment of an underfinanced and overcrowded state university. (That mentoring program has also been covered in detail in these pages.)

San Jose State, in the words of the Stanford English professor Jennifer Summit, who helped organize the mentoring program, is "more representative of American higher education" than Stanford is. Learning how most professors live keeps doctoral students from easily projecting themselves into the rarefied, research-centered lives of the professors who train them. A research-university job isn’t what life looks like for most professors—and graduate students need to know that, the sooner the better.

That kind of exposure is a form of teaching. In fact, all of the practices described in the appendix are about teaching. Most of the innovations focus on different stages of the Ph.D. program. The English department at Indiana University is among a handful of programs on display that have tried a new approach to the comprehensive examination. Indiana’s merges the exam with the dissertation proposal, and saves time to degree. The University of Washington’s division of Spanish and Portuguese studies has embraced new thesis formats (such as scholarly and creative portfolios, digital publication, or an exhibition) in pursuit of a "streamlined, interdisciplinary degree with an alternative dissertation model." The University of Michigan offers a certificate in digital media.

Russell Berman, the head of the task force and a German professor at Stanford, says that one goal of the MLA report is to "turn the dial a little bit" from research toward teaching. The position of that dial way over on the "research" side is one of the main problems with doctoral education in the United States right now. It’s been stuck at that end of the spectrum for a long time, and there are historical reasons for that. The Ph.D. began its American career in the 19th century as a degree linked to research. The new research-university culture that emerged in the early 20th century solidified that tie.

But as student populations at colleges and universities grew during the last century, the need for college teachers increased. Defenders of the Ph.D. didn’t want to see the degree watered down into a credential for mere college teachers, so when student populations peaked in the postwar era, they created alternative "professional doctorates," such as the Doctor of Arts (or D.A.) degree, whose holders might pick up the slack and leave the Ph.D.’s to their research.

Then the job market dried up in the 1970s, and Ph.D.’s changed their tune. They demanded that teaching back to save their jobs, and they got it. Professional doctorates dwindled as Ph.D.’s—who were now being trained to teach also—outcompeted them in the undergraduate teaching market. But Ph.D.’s still saw their true calling as research, even if its price was undergraduate teaching. Most of them still do. And why shouldn’t they? Academic culture consistently rewards the "scholarship of discovery" and publication over the "scholarship of teaching."

That’s a quick-and-dirty history (I’ll expand on it another time), but the point of the story is that American Ph.D. programs have long harbored a conflicted relation to teaching. It’s an ambivalence that we can no longer afford, so it has to change—especially in the humanities, where teaching and research may so easily and productively intertwine.

This report takes a few tentative steps in that direction, but in the end, the MLA is a professional organization whose power is limited to suasion. Suasion can help, but policy helps more. If we are to make our culture of teaching and learning into something sustainable in today’s climate, we have to turn that dial a lot further toward teaching. And soon.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Now on Twitter: @LCassuto.