Higher Education

humanities (in)decision-making

In The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman continues the discussion about the relative wisdom of entering graduate school in the humanities. In my mind, it comes down to this: getting a phd in the humanities (9.3 years on average) takes so damn long that it is almost impossible to measure the cost and benefit of it. I could give you my personal story, but as Rothman points out, personal stories aren't worth much in trying to make these decisions. All I'll say is that I didn't have a good reason to go to grad school, but once I was in, I became very strategic in relation to the job market. In our department, it seems like many people finish in 7 years, but they may have come from an MA that took them 1.5 years to finish, which would put us around the national average of 8.9 years from the start of grad school. The average age of a Phd recepient in English is 33.7, which happens to be about the time that I learned I had been tenured (which only points to the limited value of personal stories).

The challenge of making a purposive decision in entering a humanities doctoral program and the near-decade it takes to get the degree are symptomatic of a general decision-making problem across the disciplines. The problem is that doctoral education pretends to be about professionalization, but never really gets there. Instead, the humanities confuse hyper-specialization with professionalization. I've written about the woes of hyper-specialization before many times here. If we could avoid hyper-specialization, I think it would be conceivable to finish in five years rather than nearly nine. What that would mean is that those first three years of coursework and qualifying exam preparation would need to be much more purposeful in terms of the dissertation to be written. One would be introduced to the research methods and theories that would be taken up in the dissertating phase, and one would get a clear sense of the field. Most importantly, one would need to be taught how to write a dissertation (it isn't magic). In an English phd program, one would probably read the equivalent of 150 books in those 3 years and about half of those during preparation for exams that should be specifically tailored to one's research project. After having spent 3 years reading, discussing, and writing about this large corpus of texts, you then have two years to write that dissertation. Now the danger is that after having done all that work, one is tempted to embark on an entirely new project that requires reading another 100 books (or so). I think this temptation stems from the fact that people enter the humanities because they are interested in reading and research but not in communicating or composing knowledge.

There is also some strange notion at work about what knowledge is and how it is made. In my view, it is a perfectly acceptable heurstic to say, "I have read 150 books. Now I am going to write my dissertation based on the 3 years of research I have done. As such, I am going to limit my works cited to those books, plus a maximum of 25 more." Then one goes about organizing chapters based around those texts.  The sense of cohesion and mastery that a book or dissertation displays is always a rhetorical trick. It seems to me that this is what I learned when writing my dissertation: to take things I'd already written and make them appear as though they went together. And of course they did go together, in the way that a line can be drawn between any two points. I guess it was a trick I had learned on a smaller scale writing seminar papers, where I would take a few quotes from the course texts and stitch them together with my own writing.

But somehow it doesn't happen that way for most dissertation writers and I'm not entirely sure why, except to say that I think it has something to do with the general purposelessness of the humanities. Without a purpose, research can continue interminably. There is always more to read, other questions to ask, and so on. It is as though one becomes beguiled by one's own rhetorical trick into believing that there is something more, some deep hidden secret, some inspired master idea, that drives the text. Sure, we feel these things from time to time, those flashes of insight when everything seems to come together in our minds. But that's just a trick of the light; the mind doing what the mind does. I mean, I trust those intuitions inasmuch as I find they are reliable in predicting my ability to put certain ideas together, to compose knowledge, but I don't believe they are in the text. It makes more sense to say that knowledge is composed rather than discovered.

I think that if one approaches these matters purposively and pragmatically they remain a fair amount of hard work but they cease to be these quixotic journeys. So why don't we do it that way? Why does it take years rather than months to write a dissertation? I would guess it has to do with the value placed upon experience rather than results. This is what Rothman is expressing: one cannot get a good handle on the value of a humanities doctoral degree because one can't get a handle on the experience. I think that's completely the wrong way to look at it though, it does explain why it takes people so long. There's no ineffable expereince in writing a disseration; what you're feeling is the product of sensory deprivation as a result of not seeing the sun for weeks on end. The problem is, I fear, that graduate programs are structured to reinforce this notion rather than to dispel it.

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