Transparency and reform

What kind of “consumer information” should doctoral programs in the humanities provide to prospective students? Pursuing a PhD is not like smoking: the warning against entering graduate school might take the form of the nutrition information on packaged foods rather than the dire warning of impending disease and death that we put on cigarette packages.

At the annual meeting of the Association of Graduate Schools (AGS) in 2011 I gave a short talked about the information on student outcomes we should provide for the public. I used the website of my PhD alma mater, the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, to make a (negative) point about what we should NOT be doing. First, I looked up the page on alumni that Penn, like most doctoral institutions, maintains. On the site there was a (to me) strange sentence providing a placement “rate” and arguing that the Penn data were pure: ONLY tenure-track placements at colleges and universities count as placements for the doctoral completers tracked by the department.

It’s true that the past few years of Penn English PhDs have gone on to impressive institutions. I followed a link to an older and less impressive era: 1994, when I myself finished my PhD. I noticed a number of names that were not familiar to me, a number of people I considered in different classes (they began either before or after me, with some overlap), and a few of my cohort. The information was a bit old: I was listed as associate professor and associate dean (I tried not to resent that my ascension via loss of the prefixed “associate” had not been reflected on the site). And, both from personal knowledge and from taking an hour to look everyone up on LinkedIn as well as googling them, I could see that the information was sadly out of date.

LinkedIn, on the other hand, turned out to be a wonderful repository of information. I traded the fascinating careers of colleagues, some of whom started tenure-track jobs (the only kind worth mentioning, as the headnote had sneered) and then accepted other employment, some of whom always had either para-academic or non-academic work, and the small number of others of us who had more or less conventional academic careers.

I pointed out that the organization of the website suffered from a couple of flaws: it should group people according to when they begin together rather than when they end (we could see how long it took them!); the site should register how many students began and did NOT complete in those years (without, of course, mentioning them by individual name); and the site should track how the careers of us humanities PhDs actually progress.

The news from Penn English was actually good news. Those of us who finished in 1994 have had extremely interesting, productive, and engaged careers. My colleague at Penn, Andy Binns, who was in the audience, accepted the ribbing with good grace. After all, Penn English is no worse than nearly every other graduate program in this regard.

Our programs are small enough that we should be able to track our students accurately and extensively, including those who never manage to finish their degrees. Accurate data from the past twenty or thirty years would provide incoming students with a full story. That full story can’t be captured in a “placement rate” or in a list of best-case outcomes. Instead, it should bring to life the wide range of interesting, if occasionally unexpected, career tracks taken by those of who pursued a burning interest in our subject matter in graduate school.

If the data were accurate, complete, and presented outcomes for a wide range of years with accuracy and detail, prospective students could better assess their desire to devote a number of years to PhD work.

Real information–transparently and openly provided–could drive the change my previous entry hopes to see in our curricula and program structures. But that change shouldn’t come only from our charitable sense that we could make our programs more humane (while retaining rigor). That change must come from students, who have a lot to tell us if we’re willing to listen.

There have been some graduate student comments on previous entries. Students, please let me–please let all of us–know what you’re thinking.

Should students enter PhD programs in the Humanities?

I don’t want to enter the increasingly heated debate over whether talented undergraduates should be encouraged or discouraged from pursuing graduate study in the humanities. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue–as a director of graduate studies in an English department recruiting large PhD cohorts (achieving mixed placement records); as a graduate dean; and, in a few weeks, as a dean of humanities overseeing humanities schools/department with a number of PhD programs. Instead of weighing in on whether students should or should not come to graduate school in the humanities, I’d rather focus on the responsibility that we–those of us who mentor students, create and maintain curricula, and profit from graduate student labor (and the luxury of teaching small doctoral seminars as a major percentage of the work we do)–have to change what we do. If things remain as they are–prospective students should absolutely beware. And that’s because we have shirked our duty to make our programs as productive for students as possible. Our loyalty has primarily been to ourselves and to our “field.” We need to re-orient our doctoral programs to our students and to student success. We need to listen to students to help understand what that “success” might entail.

Also–we need to retire at reasonable ages so that jobs come open! I don’t hear a lot of talk about this issue. A retired faculty member can certainly continue to excel in teaching or research–but can do so at a very small cost to an institution, which can then use the faculty line on other priorities, including new tenure-track faculty.

What would a “student-centered PhD program in the humanities” look like?

I hope others will add their thoughts. My opening ideas are unsurprising:

*an actual, structured curriculum
*reduced time to degree: five years maximum beyond the BA, but preferably four.
*flexible dissertations–flexible in both topic and format
*better training for careers in a wide variety of teaching environments
*deliberate exploration of non-academic career possibilities

Our goal must be to empower our students to do great work. I don’t think that’s how most of our current programs function.