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.