Graduate Students

MLA’s Effort to Reshape Ph.D. Misses Mark, Some Say

June 04, 2014

The Modern Language Association’s proposals for reforming the Ph.D. in language and literature are being met with skepticism by some graduate students, adjuncts, and others who say the scholarly group is not effectively advocating for their needs.

Last week, in response to intensified criticism about the worth of humanities doctoral programs, the MLA released a report that acknowledged that the status quo is "unsustainable." The document, called "Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature," proposed ways of reshaping the Ph.D. without cutting back on the number of programs or degrees produced. Some of the report’s many recommendations called for reducing the time it takes to earn a degree, reimagining the forms a dissertation can take, and validating alternative career paths within and outside of academe.

One graduate-school dean called the report an "excellent assessment" whose "focus is on transforming the doctoral degree to make it more flexible, adaptable, and appropriate to student goals."

But some graduate students and adjuncts say an analysis of how the language and literature Ph.D. needs to change can’t be complete without a discussion of conditions for the growing ranks of non-tenure-track academic workers like themselves. They would have liked to have seen the MLA use the opportunity to advocate more for those groups.

"In focusing on tweaks and ‘innovations’ rather than on labor conditions, the MLA task force thus misses the point," Bennett Carpenter, a Ph.D. student in literature at Duke University, said in an email. "Alt-ac will not save us. The digital humanities will not save us. Only a concerted effort to transform the labor conditions of higher education can resolve the current crisis."

Mr. Carpenter, who helped organize an MLA "subconference" to coincide with the scholarly group’s annual meeting this past January, added, "The problem of academia is not a shortage of teaching positions," but "rather a superabundance of poorly paid teaching positions."

Russell A. Berman, who led the task force that wrote the MLA report, said he had received "many positive responses from graduate students, colleagues, and people I don’t know."

"The report states clearly that the precarious circumstances of contingent faculty threaten the entire enterprise of doctoral study," said Mr. Berman, who is a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University.

He added, "This is a report on the opportunities to change doctoral education, and we make a set of recommendations, all of which are designed, as the report states clearly, to give priority to serving graduate students’ intellectual and career-development needs."

The MLA has a long history of being "very outspoken in advocating for improved working conditions for adjuncts," Mr. Berman said. "The MLA has done that, continues to do that, and this report reaffirms that in the context of discussing restructuring of doctoral programs."

‘Oceans Apart’

Margaret Hanzimanolis, an adjunct at three San Francisco Bay Area community colleges, said she agrees with some of the items outlined in the MLA report, including a key recommendation that departments find ways to, where appropriate, shorten the time it takes to earn a Ph.D., to five years or less.

But ultimately, she said, the report is not an accurate reflection of the views of a large segment of the people who teach language and literature courses. She noted that no member of the task force that wrote the report is a graduate student or an adjunct.

"The perspectives of the adjunct and the full-time tenured faculty are absolutely oceans apart, and have been for 25 years," Ms. Hanzimanolis said.

Charles Caramello, dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland at College Park, praised the report and called it the product of a "committee of very smart, very thoughtful people."

The former English-department chair said, as the report does, that institutional support is needed in order to reduce the amount of time it takes to earn a Ph.D.

"Funding is critical to what the report is envisioning," Mr. Caramello said. "If a department is undertaking curricular reform for a more streamlined Ph.D., the complement has to be funding mechanisms that allow the student to complete the Ph.D. on schedule. It’s not easy, but it’s doable."

He also said that alternate dissertation forms could be risky for students if academic culture didn’t change to be more accepting of such projects.

"Search committees are used to seeing a traditional dissertation," Mr. Caramello said. "If you enter an academic search with a very different kind of dissertation, will you be at a disadvantage? That’s the question everyone is asking."