Higher Education

the humanities phd: Louis Menand and the perils of (anti-)professionalization

One of my colleagues shared Menand's article in Harvard Magazine on "The PhD Problem." In many ways it is a familiar story, or at least it should be by now…. familiar enough that we probably can't call it a "crisis" anymore. Too many doctoral programs, too many grad students, too many PhDs, not enough jobs. Menand points his finger at "specialization," and I can see his point. With almost hyper-specialization and the proliferation of scholarly production (two trends feeding into one another), writing the dissertation becomes an increasingly esoteric act, and increasingly disconnected from the actual work that most assistant professors will do.

Here's an interesting tidbit though. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be a 23% growth rate in post-secondary teaching jobs between now and 2016. The same site reports 72,000 people teaching in English. This growth is predicated on expected retirements and increased enrollments. Of course, who knows how many of those jobs will be in English or how many will be tenure-track. But the point is that the BLS expects post-secondary education to be one of the main areas of growth in the near future. So perhaps the question should be how English Studies can capitalize on that.

As Menand and many others point out, the weak point in English Studies is the number of undergraduate majors, which has seriously diminished. Perhaps we make a common historical error when we imagine that our appropriate place in the university coincides with the moment when we were our biggest.  We can blame the decrease in majors on capitalism, on the increase of market forces in university culture, the privatizing of higher ed, and related forces that have led college students to leave English for business, etc. That's fine. I agree that if we lived in a culture that more highly valued English Studies then more students would major in English. I suppose one strategy is to try and change the broader culture to be more amenable to the work we already do. The mirror strategy to that would be to try to change disciplinary culture to be more relevant to the world beyond the department, conference, and academic journal. I'll leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide which strategy has a better chance of success. However, I will say that short of developing a time machine, we should imagine that turning back national values to what they were when English was more popular is not going to happen. Regardless of the strategy you choose, I suggest you select tactics that remain faithful to time's arrow.

However we slice it though, the bottom line is that without majors there are and will continue to be fewer tenure-line jobs. There may be increasing demand for general education, but that will not produce tenure-line jobs. English can fade away like the elves in Middle Earth and go to live across the sea with Art History, Philosophy, and Comparative Literature where the departments are small. It's a noble existence. English can look back on its brief historical moment when it rose to prominence in the university and then bravely turned its back on that future in order to remain true to its passions.

But if our desire is to continue to draw in thousands of graduate students and run massive general education programs, then we will need to increase enrollment in our undergraduate major.

And to me the issue is professionalization (or the lack thereof).  Menand describes our problem with professionalization in the following way:

Professors are not themselves, for the most part, terribly practical
people, and practical skills are not what they are trained to teach.
They are trained to teach people to do what they do and to know what
they know. Those skills and that knowledge are not self-evidently
transferable. The ability to analyze Finnegans Wake does not
translate into an ability to analyze a stock offering. If a person
wanted to analyze stock offerings, he should not waste his time with
Joyce. He should go to business school. Or get a job analyzing stock

Specialization is something we know well. It is what we have done for a while now. Major in English, and you get a specialized set of skills as an interpreter of literary texts and writer of interpretive essays. Maybe you get a taste of rhetoric or creative writing. Generalization is gone. There is no general "learning to write." There is no general humanistic experience to acquire. All that is left is specialization… without professionalization. The advantage of specialization is that one does not have to ask what it is for. Specialization is for itself. This is the case right up through graduate school. Specializing in a particular author/period/whatever prepares one for nothing other than continuing to study that subject and perhaps to get a job where that specialized skill is necessary to getting hired. The funny thing is that once you get that job, that specialized skill is not going to be that important to your daily work. It might be important to publishing but the daily activities of teaching and service are often disconnected from specialization.

Menand argues that the height of that specialization and the major obstacle in graduate education is writing the dissertation.

What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in
graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are
available. The argument that they need the training to be qualified to
teach undergraduates is belied by the fact that they are already
teaching undergraduates. Undergraduate teaching is part of doctoral
education; at many institutions, graduate students begin teaching
classes the year they arrive. And the idea that the doctoral thesis is
a rigorous requirement is belied by the quality of most doctoral
theses. If every graduate student were required to publish a single
peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would
probably be a plus for scholarship.

One could argue that the dissertation is evidence that a grad student has the ability to write a book, but the larger reality is that scholarly monographs are becoming an economic impossibility. So maybe Menand has a point. (Besides I think it is amusing that even with English grad students the complaint that "students cannot write" remains alive. Can we just get on with it and realize that professors can't write either?) That said, I don't agree that the fact that we have TAs means that we should assume such grad students are fully qualified to teach undergraduates. The TA experience is an important part of teacher training, but if we viewed doctoral programs more as professionalization and less as specialization, we would recognize that additional coursework in teaching wouldn't hurt. This isn't to say that TAs are "bad" teachers. It's simply to say that pedagogy is something that one learns and that we can teach it.

And then there are two other points. First, we have an entire category of service and administrative work that can occupy 15-50% of one's job. And of course we all bitch about it, mostly because, for some reason, we don't think this stuff is part of our job, even though we all know that it is. Advising, mentoring, assessment, curriculum development, and other committee work are all integral parts of the job. One could also think about service to the discipline, like serving as an asst. editor for a journal. Yes grad students get some experience with this by sitting on committees (at least some do). And I'm not saying that necessarily there should be a course on this stuff, but it would be helpful to have some programmatic way of making sure students received training in these areas. Second is all the non-scholarly, professional writing that academics have to do: strategic plans, proposal memos, grant applications, classroom observations of junior faculty, recommendation letters etc. It couldn't hurt to get some experience in such genres in grad school.

Menand makes similar arguments about the need for professionalization. I think it is important to note that specialization and professionalization ought not to be opposed. Once upon a time, before hyper-specialization, when academic culture and demographics were very different, when the discipline itself was quite different, specialization and professionalization were essentially the same thing. But the two diverged 30 years ago or more, and we've come to a point where we almost see learning to be a professional as a betrayal of our ideological commitments to specialization.

Menand concludes:

The world of knowledge production is a marketplace, but it is a very
special marketplace, with its own practices, its own values, and its
own rules. A lot has changed in higher education in the last 50 years.

What has not changed is the delicate and somewhat paradoxical relation
in which the university stands to the general culture. It is important
for research and teaching to be relevant, for the university to engage
with the public culture and to design its investigative paradigms with
actual social and cultural life in view… But at the end of this road there is a danger, which is that the
culture of the university will become just an echo of the public
culture. That would be a catastrophe.

This seems to be the red-baiting of English Studies: that by professionalizing, that by modifying our curriculum to reach out to students, that by making connections between the research we do and the everyday civic, social, and professional concerns of students and others, that we will "become just an echo" or that we will become pawns of transnational capitalism or something. However, I'd like to think that we are smarter than that (stroke, stroke), that we can find a third role other than inefficient, fading hyper-specialists or the desperate dupes offering classes in any pop cultural thing we think students might like. I think, if I may, that we can be more rhetorical, more persuasive, more communicative, and more pedagogical.