U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Farm to Market: Can the Stanford Humanities PhD "Remain Relevant"?

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: 

Might Stanford reforms foster a two-tier system, problematizing [the] value of [a] PhD in either market?

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:

Interesting question, Rosemary. Brings up the issue of foreign language req[uirements]: “learn it before you apply”

Or will the foreign language requirement be dropped for “non academic” plans?  Sigh.

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:

Why not just admit fewer PhDs?  Why fund PhDs for [the] private sector? Stanford PhD as Voc Ed for Silicon Valley? 

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.”[1]  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.

[1]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.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. your discussion is thoughtful and useful.

    i’m sure this has been said elsewhere, but it does seem to me important to point out that squeezing the TTD, while good in many ways, also has the effect of transferring substantial burdens onto the students themselves–like you say, learn the language before you apply, on your own dime–which will partly, it seems to me likely, reinforce preexisting structures of privileged. maybe this isn’t much in the face of the growing consensus (! – Anthony Grafton at the very least doesn’t contest the claim in a recent NYRB piece) that american higher education in general sharpens inequality rather than combating it.

    i suppose in the end, looking at things from entirely within academia, it seems to me clear that the problem is over-production of phds caused by bad incentive-structures. departments want to have a doctoral program if they possibly can, since other resources and institutional prestige come with this. the IHE piece said academia was a guilt rather than shame culture–this is true for students, maybe, but not for professors. who wants the shame of admitting that you have no business granting phds to people who will never get jobs?

  2. I find the whole “production line” mentality in educational matters problematic. The Stanford proposal reads like a business memo detailing the new business strategy being disseminated to the various business divisions justifying the new speed up of the product line.

    As for the “relevancy” argument, it seems that this document returns us to the same themes that were discussed in your earlier post, “Professing History: Not for the Faint of Heart.” It also reminds me of the debate among economists and “very serious people” about the causes of unemployment in the wider society. Is it structural, meaning that American workers lack the skills to be employed? Or is it a lack of demand, and the economy is in need of further stimulus. What does the fact that only 50% of the class of 2011 have acquired full time employment say about the relevancy of a college degree?

  3. I find the idea of relevance at once limited but powerful. I can imagine the administrators and probably a few faculty at Stanford looking longingly at the wealth and, in a many ways, creativity of the Silicon Valley and wonder what the relationship of the humanities is to this dynamo. At the same time, I imagine many of us can remembers humanities faculty, either as teachers or mentors, who had such excellent critical radar that they demonstrated how to detect weaknesses in any kind of arguments. So the relevance of reading a poem to developing an IT start up is not immediately apparent unless you consider how few people can do either all that well. As Cam notes above, the Stanford question has broad implications for the future of that university as a whole, and probably for all elite universities that feel compelled to plug into the e-world.

  4. Once you get into the habit of defending the Humanities by inventing some way that they’ll grow the GNP you’ve given up the game. At this point we’ve obviously given up the project of creating a human world that is something better and different than what goes on in the marketplace. Indeed, we seem to be determined that every aspect of the world will become part of an endless struggle for wealth and power since, apparently, there aren’t any other credible values in this Darwinian tide pool of a society. The curious thing is, there is no practical necessity at work to justify our project of becoming barbarians. We’re choosing it.

  5. Apologies to all for my belated response to these thoughtful and incisive comments. Let me take ’em in order…

    Eric, your comment about how higher ed reinforces inequalities is well taken. While the change at Stanford means that their traditional PhDs will face less competition for jobs from members of their own cohort, as some self-select for the “alt-ac” degree, the ultimate effect might be to make a traditional Stanford PhD even more prestigious. The “value differential” in a two-tier degree system at Stanford is affordable for Stanford students. That is, even with an alt-ac degree, a newly minted Stanford PhD could still participate in the prestige economy of higher ed. If other institutions emulate this plan, their students won’t have so many options.

    Cam, thanks for the link. I had seen that article, and it seems to me that this Stanford plan is almost designed with Silicon Valley in mind. I suppose the proposal could be seen as a sort of “trojan horse” strategy for insuring that the humanities have a future by finding a way to strategically embed humanists in the ranks of the info-entrepreneurial elite. But the anti-viral programs of the Grid are not to be underestimated.

    Brian, I agree on the tone of the document. It is framed — sincerely, as I suggested above — as a way of helping students. But it reads like a Taylorist manifesto. Instead of being on the cutting edge, it’s almost as if Stanford is one of the last Ivory Towers to fall to the engines of Efficiency and Progress.

    Ray, I’m guessing that the humanities at Stanford don’t have to look longingly at the wealth of Silicon Valley; I’m guessing they get plenty of it, directly or indirectly. But you may be right — this may be a bid for some “innovation” funding. I saw that the chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation was named to the Stanford Board of Trustees this week. So “education reform” might be on the agenda of the university as a whole, and might explain the techno-biz jargon of the document, with its talk of “relevance.”

    James, I am pondering a follow-up post based on your comment. For now, all I can say is, “Amen.”

  6. On further reflection, I’m afraid my “Amen” here might be problematic. Depends on how much license I’m willing to concede to myself as a historian. At the moment, I’m tempted to take Haskell’s “objectivity is not neutrality” — the phrase, not the tome — and run with it. (I’ll get to the tome next week.)

    But for the sake of my professional development, it’s probably a good idea to practice viewing Stanford’s latest bid to Transform Education As We Know It with as much ironic detachment as I can muster — which, on most days, is quite a lot.

    • I sympathize with your reluctance, which offers a teachable moment. At this juncture, there’s never a time when it is appropriate to contest the economic/instrumental approach to education, at least if you are a historian or social scientist and not just some guy sounding off on a comment thread. From my point of view, though, the most troubling thing you wrote was the original “Amen” because that response, despite or because of the fact that it was sincere and spontaneous, showed how hard it is for even some guy sounding off on a comment thread not to come across as a purveyor of edification.

      A while back I engaged in some discussions about another educational problem we’ve got here in California: the loss of funding for art and music programs in our public high schools. I made a series of arguments for retaining these classes, but the only one that anybody seemed to hear was that there was solid evidence that art and music classes made it considerably more likely that kids would stay in get their diplomas, and therefore be more valuable to the economy as future workers. The argument that didn’t work, though it provoked an occasional Amen, was that the high school years are a tremendously important part of everybody’s life and that cultural activities such as art and music hugely enhance them. They don’t need to pay off later to be worth funding, especially since promoting the quality of life for our children, all our children, is a concrete way of creating and maintaining social and political solidarity. But how do you make this point without sounding like you’re delivering a sermon?

  7. James, your discomfiture at my “Amen” is well-taken. I do have a penchant for deploying the rhetoric of evangelicalism in a metaphorical sense. For the paper I gave on “why history matters,” I used the rhetoric of William Lloyd Garrison as an entry point for reflecting on the vocational identity of the historian. In fact, I am planning a follow-up post on what I referred to in that paper as the “pastoral work of the historian” — though I might not frame it in exactly those terms.

    My own concern is to avoid becoming entangled in polemics about the history and destiny of higher education. This is hard to do, because everyone in academe who writes about the history of the university is a “participant-observer” in the institution about which we write. In this case in particular, because I am a Stanford alum, I need to be all the more careful to keep my personal feelings about the past, present, or future of that university separate from my critical assessment of these proposed changes to the program, which have their own historical context and cultural significance and which I should be able to discuss apart from any sense of “personal” connection to the school. I think I did that fairly well in the post, but I gave myself free rein in the comments.

    I’ll have more to say about this — “this” being the challenge of writing about the university/academe while being a part of it — in future posts, I’m sure. In the meantime…

    Preach on, brother! 😉

  8. Just saw this link in my Twitter feed, courtesy of @HumanatStanford:

    Silicon Valley Needs Humanities Students

    In copying out the link for this comment, I notice that the headline now displaying on the webpage does not match the language of the link. The link itself reads, “why you should quit your tech job and study the humanities.” And the reason for doing this, it seems, is that studying the humanities could make you a better and more successful project manager.

    That the article is well-intentioned is clear from its closing paragraph:

    For tech entrepreneurs and managers, there is no “right” major or field of study. While having a degree in slinging code may present a short-term advantage at startup time, it may comprise an equally important disadvantage if the degree came at the cost of other critical “soft leadership” skills required to focus, lead and grow companies. So, it’s time for Silicon Valley to get over its obsession with engineers. And, if you run a startup, hire that psychology PhD. You may get a lot more than you bargained for.

    That the value of humanities PhDs has been reduced to what kind of competitive edge they can offer to savvy entrepreneurs is equally clear from that paragraph.

    What I ought to think about all of this is not yet clear. I’m working on it.

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