Higher Education

role your own (post)disciplinary future

That’s a pun, not a misspelling. The question is, what role do you see for yourself as a academic in 2025? Why 2025? Partly because we like numbers that end in 0 or 5, and partly because by then our entering doctoral students, with their 7-10 year journey toward a phd ahead of them, should have a had a few good whacks at the job market. In other words, we should be thinking about 2025 or thereabouts as we think through the reform of doctoral programs, especially since any reform will take a few years, at best, to take hold. Besides, it’s easy, too easy really, to criticize the MLA. It’s a lot harder to find alternatives, other than shutting down or dramatically shrinking the current enterprise.

About a decade ago, Ann Green and I co-wrote a chapter in a collection called Culture Shock and the Practice of Profession: Training the Next Wave in Rhetoric And Composition about our time as doctoral students in the experimental phd program at SUNY Albany in the mid-nineties. Berlin wrote about our program in Rhetorics, Poetics, and Culture and Steve North later wrote Refiguring the PhD in English Studies which was largely about our program in “Writing, Teaching, and Criticism.” While the program produces some fine graduates (ahem), it imploded because, in my view, it demanded inter- or intra-disciplinary (depending on how you think of the various parts of an English department) collaboration on the part of faculty who were simply not capable of pulling it off.  In short, there was too much personal and professional antagonism in the department for it to work. I’m not sure if the department was unusual in its antagonism. I just think that in most English departments working together is unnecessary. 10 years ago when we wrote that article, the main point as I recall was that if you want to “reform” a discipline, you shouldn’t really make graduate students pay the price for that reform. That is, as long as the available jobs are traditionally defined and expect traditional training, then that’s what doctoral programs should provide.

So you need to begin by reforming the job market. That is, let’s hire different people. If we want the kinds of scholars that the MLA reformers describe then let’s hire them and while we’re at it, let’s change the way we tenure them too. And if we are going to do that, then we are going to change the kinds of courses we ask them to teach, which means reforming undergraduate curricula. Those things probably go hand-in-hand. Propose a new curriculum in your department and create a hiring plan to deliver it. The MLA report suggests that doctoral programs should encourage a diversity of outcomes for jobs beyond the academy, but maybe we need that diversity within departments as well. In my mind all of these things are part of a single puzzle:

  • reform and diversify the major to attract more students and expand the idea of what expertise in “English” might mean in terms of professions.
  • more students is the best argument we have toward sustaining and maybe building the job market
  • a strengthened undergraduate major will increase the value and viability of the MA
  • those things together create better conditions for doctoral programs which will need to be reformed in terms of content to meet the needs of this new disciplinary paradigm and might also be reformed in terms of some of the pragmatic concerns raised by MLA (time to degree, technology training, etc.)

If you think about it that way, the question is where to we get the students from? Think about this. In the last decade, according to NCES, the total number of 4-year grads has remained fixed (around 52K a year nationally), while the number of Communication majors has grown nearly 20% and Psychology majors has grown more than 30%, which is to say that psychology has roughly kept pace with the overall increase in the number of graduates. My point is that a four-year psychology or communication degree, while more professional sounding maybe, doesn’t exactly provide a qualification for a specific career. English used to be a place where students could learn valuable communication skills, get to know something about different cultures around the world and through time, and get some insight into how people tick. We used to think writing literary interpretive essays would give you the first. And we thought reading literature would give you the other two. But we don’t see it that way anymore. So instead students go to communications and psychology for the same thing.

In theory, by curtailing our disciplinary focus on literariness, we might be able to shift the perception once more. If we can move toward the digital then we can regain our claim to teaching communication skills for the average, entry-level professional career. If we are willing to expand greatly the media we study, I think we can still offer some of the most interesting content in terms of aesthetic experience and insight into other cultures/times. And I still think that rhetoric offers us an excellent pragmatic approach to understanding how people tick. I’m not saying that we can do what psychology, communications, or business do, or that we would want to. I’m just saying we could offer a comparable curriculum that might bring back some of those majors. In 90-91, when I got my English BA, English and Communications each represented 4.6% of the total grads. Today, Communications still represents 4.6%, while English is at 2.9%. (As it happens, at UB, communications is five times the size of English in terms of degrees conferred, so part of this is local as well.)

Here’s the thing. I’ve been a tenure line professor for 15 years. I’ve taught first-year comp, technology for teachers, grammar for teachers, creative writing, technical writing, business writing, literary theory, intro to literature, digital writing, poetics, media theory, videogame studies, TA teaching practicum, speculative realism, digital humanities, and those are just the ones that come to mind. There is no book or article that I have taught more than 2 or 3 times in my academic career. I’ve gone from teaching HTML to Dreamweaver to Flash back to HTML/CSS then to video and audio, then to social media and likely in the future on to some other coding. So I don’t have a problem imagining that my English department contemporaries should also be called upon to learn, grow, and shift their areas of expertise. That’s what this is going to require.

Once we do that, this more capacious doctoral program that MLA is proposing will resemble more what departments are doing.


One reply on “role your own (post)disciplinary future”

Alex, thanks for remembering we wrote that piece. I’m going to share your blog with my dept. I think too much of how we (my dept.) think about hiring (and what courses we need to teach) is determined by some idea of coverage (and traditional English studies) that will leave us, in 2025, with no students.


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