MLA, doctoral education, and the benefits of hindsight


The MLA has released a task force report on “Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.” Primarily it recommends

  • engaging with technology
  • reducing time to degree
  • rethinking the dissertation (see the bullet point above)
  • emphasizing teaching
  • validating “diverse career outcomes” (my personal favorite)

Not coincidentally, my own department has decided that next year we will have extended conversations about our own doctoral program. So I suppose you could say the report is timely, and that it’s recommendations are interesting and provocative, even to those who might not agree with them. Personally, I think they would have been more interesting 15 years ago, when the Internet was still in its cultural infancy, it would have been forward-thinking, prescient even. 10 years ago, when the web was everywhere and social media were starting to take off, it would have been smart and strategic. Today it’s more a case of 20-20 hindsight.If we had started down this path a decade ago, today we would have doctoral programs like the ones imagined in the report. Of course ten years ago most doctoral programs didn’t have the faculty with the expertise or will to deliver such a curriculum. As far as that goes, I doubt many doctoral programs have such faculty today. The good news (not really) is that there isn’t really any point spending the next 3-5 years rebuilding a graduate program for students who will graduate in 2025 with the goal being to prepare them for the demands of teaching today.

The prospects for doctoral study in modern language and literature are far, far worse than that. I am not going to get out my tarot cards and try to predict the future, but I don’t think it’s a big stretch to imagine that continuing increases in network speed, processing speed, data storage, and mobility will transform literacy as radically over the next decade as they have done in the past decade. What continues to mystify me, and this report is no better, is that literary studies continues to demonstrate what I can only call a willful ignorance of the fact that it is forever tied to print culture.  Will the humanities continue to study print culture as a historical phenomenon? Sure, I guess. But the difference is that 50 years ago, we were in a print culture and this study was connected to the literacy of everyday life. And now it’s not. And, as the report notes, we’ve gone from 1000 new assistant professor ads to 600 such ads a year (n.b. according to the Rhet Map project, 167 of those ads in 12-13 where in rhet/comp). And yes, it was precipitated by the recession, but what’s the explanation now? The explanation, as best as I can understand it, is that the entire institution of higher education is being forced to rethink itself and question all of its practices.

That’s a good explanation, but I’ll offer another one that focuses more on our own disciplinary actions. Here is what the report says about embracing technology:

Some doctoral students will benefit from in-depth technological training that builds their capacity to design and develop research software. Some will require familiarity with database structures or with digitization standards to facilitate the representation and critical editing of documents and cultural artifacts online. Still others will need to add statistical literacy to their portfolios. Still others will need to understand the opportunities and implications of methods like distant reading and text mining. Programs should therefore link technology training to student research questions, supporting this training as they would language learning or archival research and partnering where appropriate outside the department to match students with relevant mentors or practicum experiences. Because all doctoral students will need to learn to compose in multimodal online platforms, to evaluate new technologies independently, and to navigate and construct digital research archives, mastery of basic digital humanities tools and techniques should be a goal of the methodological training offered by every department.

This is not solely a matter of the application of new methods to research and writing. At stake is also increasingly sophisticated thinking about the use of technology in teaching. Future undergraduates will bring new technological expectations and levels of social media fluency to the classroom, and their teachers—today’s doctoral students—must be prepared to meet them with versatility and confidence. Students who understand the workings of analytic tools and the means of production of scholarly communication in the twenty-first century will be better able to engage technology critically and use it to its fullest scholarly and pedagogical potential.

Fine. I can agree with that, but I don’t think this will do us much good because I don’t think it will go far enough. In the end we will still be left with doctoral students who essentially want to do the same kind of work as their professors and what I think we are seeing is that there will be very little future in that kind of work. This reads to me as the “DH will save us” kind of argument. As the report states elsewhere “The traditional hermeneutics of the individual work is not endangered; rather, it is augmented by digital technologies. But the collaborative, interdisciplinary, and interprofessional aspects of much digital scholarship do suggest critical transitions ahead for literary fields.” This is still an argument for saying we need to augment our programs, i.e. make sure students can learn about technology by taking courses in other departments. Maybe that’s a pragmatic and necessary step. But that’s not what this is about.

It’s not the methods of literary study that are the problem. Unfortunately it’s literary study itself. The reality of the job market and the undergraduate English major is that we don’t need hundreds of new professors each year to study and teach literature, regardless of the method or degree of technological savvy they bring with them. Instead we hire these graduates as adjuncts into writing curricula that we have spent decades deprofessionalizing and devaluing precisely so that we could give those jobs to TAs and fill our graduate programs. And now that pyramid scheme has finally come to an end.

Arguably, someone in 2025 will have disciplinary expertise to study and teach digital culture in the way literary scholars study and taught print culture in the 20th century. Possibly those digital scholars would be able to build curricula and student interest that would sustain legitimate academic careers (maybe even tenure if such a thing still exists then). But the reforms described here won’t produce such scholars. Well they could, but they won’t in any systematic way.