Earlier this week, my Twitter feed lit up with news from the Farm — tweeted and retweeted links (most to this Inside Higher Ed story) and lots of chatter about a proposal put forward by a group of senior faculty at Stanford to make significant changes to the structure and funding of humanities PhDs there.
You can download the four-page proposal here. It is a provoking and thought-provoking document, and I would like to invite our readers to help me think through its implications. Overall, I find its rationale problematic, but I would be glad to hear other views. Indeed, I would be glad to know there is some other way.
The proposed changes outlined in the document include — among other things — requiring grad students to select an academic or non-academic career goal early in their studies, offering alternatives to the dissertation where appropriate to meet those goals, and drastically reducing the total time to degree to (ideally) five years. “Currently,” the report notes, “Stanford culture encourages students to take longer than five years with the help of prestigious dissertation fellowship competitions. We believe that financial support should be structured as an incentive to finish earlier, not later.” The plan proposes to speed the time to degree by fully funding students during summers; it will also require departments to set benchmarks that students must achieve in order to remain in the PhD program.
The reference to “Stanford culture” is telling. Those two words no doubt evoke a whole host of associations for the immediate audience to whom this document is addressed: professional identities, personal relationships, institutional structures and social norms, disciplinary traditions and academic expectations, genealogies of teaching and learning, all inflected and instantiated in particular ways unique to this university. Invoking “Stanford culture” here suggests that the issue at hand is first of all a matter of local concern. And of course that suggestion is correct: these are, at bottom, proposals for an intra-institutional policy change. Change the institution’s policies, change the institutional culture.
However, Stanford is part of the larger culture of academe. And within that larger culture, Stanford is a heavy hitter. Flagship university, marquee institution, cachet school — call it what you will, Stanford is one of a select group of institutions whose internal business — even when that business is undertaken with the view/hope of keeping things “in house”– often receives extensive attention and can be enormously influential in defining or redefining the idea of what a university is or should be, both within academic culture and beyond it. Moreover, this particular proposal seems to be part of an effort to broadly influence academic culture. The Inside Higher Ed news story frames the proposal as a follow-up to Russell Berman’s 2011 admonition to the MLA membership to “reform” doctoral programs by providing alternatives to the dissertation, teaching transferrable skills, and reducing the time to degree.
The shorter time to degree does not strike me as a terrible idea. It might sound draconian to Stanford students, but it sounds familiar — and possible — to me. I’m pursuing my degree at a public university that caps my funding at five years and requires that I carry a full course load and teach or TA every semester in order to receive funding. Relatively few classes at Stanford are taught by graduate students, and I presume that would not change under this proposal. So shortening the time to degree, without requiring additional teaching duties of the humanities PhD students, might save some money — though presumably it would only speed up the rate at which the university turns out PhDs for which there are no jobs. If educational reform is about anything these days, it’s about “efficiency.” But, as Leonard Cassuto has suggested, perhaps it’s better to figure out your (lack of) options sooner rather than later.
So table the question of time to degree; my biggest initial objection to the Stanford plan is the proposal for an alternate dissertation.
In the twitterverse (my handle is @LDBurnett — follow at your own risk!), I expressed some of my concerns and reservations:
Here I was referring specifically to the measure calling for PhD students to choose between academic and non-academic professional aims and shape their degree plan accordingly. Presumably, the dissertation would continue to be the chief “capstone” for those pursuing a traditional academic career. I wondered, would this path come to be perceived as the “real” PhD within academe and beyond it? Or, as the university graduates more students whose doctoral work does not involve the writing of a dissertation — a “more easily attainable” degree, as Rob Townsend put it — will that contribute to the oversupply of PhDs while diluting the (perceived?) rigor of the degree within academe?
My long-standing concern about standards and requirements for the PhD makes the conversation I had with Rosemary Feal about the Stanford proposal especially ironic. She invoked the fact that people complained of a decline in standards when Latin ceased to be a requirement for a university degree to imply, I think, that those who view the Stanford plan with reservations are simply being reactionary. This was my response:
It’s not an idle question. Barely a month has passed since Feal gave an approving nod to my post defending the foreign language requirement for PhDs, a requirement many would like to abandon. One reason people give for abandoning the foreign language requirement echoes some of the reasoning behind the changes envisioned in the Stanford proposal: graduates need a different skill set for the current employment market. Feal’s response to such arguments, linked above, did not take up the instrumentalist discourse of vocational training and lay out the case for foreign language study as a crucial job skill. Instead, she made explicit what the MLA statement on the issue assumes: a “utilitarian function should not be the primary factor in determining whether PhDs in English would do well to invest time in second-language proficiency.” This is an argument for intrinsic value, not market value.
However, if the entire idea of a PhD in English is recast in primarily utilitarian terms, the question of a foreign language requirement becomes moot. Or extinct.
Indeed, more than the specifics of the plan, the utilitarian rationale of the Stanford proposal bothers me the most. I grumbled:
Yeah, I got a little snarky at the end there. But the snark is a signpost for a sombre lament. University education at the undergraduate level has, by and large, become nothing more, nothing other, than a way of training workers to meet the labor needs of corporate capital. Whatever higher education used to be — or whatever we think education used to be, or ought to be, or against all odds somehow sometimes once managed to be — it is now primarily a certification for and acculturation to wage labor in the professional-managerial class.
That certification role has long been the domain of professional graduate programs and degrees. But now, it seems, the humanities PhD will be subsumed into that project as well. This might be a real gain for students looking for transferrable skills in an uncertain job market. But it seems to be a real loss for the University — not to Stanford perhaps, but to the modern American University with a capital “U,” now entirely (as opposed to mostly?) subservient to the demands of corporate capital. The hegemony of the market is complete.
So, as I said, I find the Stanford proposal problematic. But that statement as it stands is unfair to the professors who wrote this report and advanced these suggestions.
Look at the opening paragraph. Look at the compound question this faculty work group met to consider: “Can and should the humanities PhD remain centrally relevant — at Stanford, in the academy, and in an increasingly global and cosmopolitan 21st century society?”
Is Russell Berman, the recent past president of the Modern Language Association, really wondering if the training of literary scholars is still an appropriate task of the academy? Is Caroline Winterer, a preeminent intellectual and cultural historian of early America, really wondering if the Stanford history department should still train scholars for the professoriate? I doubt that these committed humanists have begun to question the place of the humanities at the heart — as the heart — of the modern university.
I think these professors and their colleagues are responding to two main external pressures.
First, and most admirably, the six professors who prepared this report are expressing and addressing a genuine concern for the future of their students. These profs see the realities of the academic job market. Not all of their students will find placement in tenure-track jobs; some of them won’t even find work as adjuncts. This is a wrenching reality. You spend years mentoring young people to take a place as fellow scholars in the academy, all the while concerned that there is no room for them. Most professors must find this distressing, and I don’t think there’s a shred of insincerity in these scholars’ expressions of concern for the future employment of their students.
However, it’s not a new concern in academe. In a paper presented at the 1977 Wingspread Conference on New Directions in Intellectual History, Henry F. May expressed a similar worry: “It may be that the irreducible independence of the historian explains in part what I find a poignant phenomenon: that able people still throng to graduate study in history even though they know that there are few jobs.” While it may be the case that students enter PhD programs today with a less realistic view of the academic job market than they did — or that May assumed they did — in 1977, it is clear that the phenomenon of humanities PhDs who can’t find jobs is not a new crisis. The authors of the Stanford proposal no doubt hope their suggested changes will address this long-standing problem. Nevertheless, I think they are responding primarily to a more immediate pressure.
Even at one of the most elite, prestigious, well-endowed research universities in the world, scholars in the humanities have to contend for and defend the “relevance” of their profession. The word “relevant” appears several times in the opening paragraphs of this document, but the idea to which it refers is not explicitly articulated or defined. Relevant to whom? Relevant in what context? Relevant according to what criterion?
Relevant according to the criterion of immediate financial cost. This document is addressing the question, How can we justify the “massive investment of time, effort, and money” that it takes to train PhD students in the humanities? And the document’s answer is, in effect, “We can’t.” As currently configured, the document implies, a humanities PhD at Stanford is not worth the cost. The only way to “remain relevant” — for in today’s higher education landscape, relevance is translatable into a dollar figure, with no remainder — is to cut costs.
It is difficult to say whether this document has been prepared in response to or in anticipation of a request from the University’s administration or the Board of Trustees to address the bottom-line costs of a humanities PhD. This proposal might very well be an attempt to “get out in front” on the issue before it is formally raised. That’s the approach Berman suggested: “I call upon the profession to recognize the need to make our doctoral programs affordable and accessible. If we do not change them, we may lose them.”
On Twitter, I raised the question, “Why are the humanists the ones wielding the ax?” Now I see that the ax has already been laid to the root of the tree. What these professors are trying to do, I think, is to deflect the blow as well as they can. But if the only way we humanists can manage to do that is to surrender to the logic of the market, master the language of austerity, and embrace the ethos of efficiency as our bedrock value, then I’m afraid we may have sold the farm and bought the ranch already.
Henry F. May, “Intellectual History and Religious History,” in New Directions in American Intellectual History, edited by John Higham and Paul K. Conkin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979), 105.