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From the President

An Agenda for the New Dissertation

Reprinted from the Summer 2010 MLA Newsletter

In my last column I presented a rationale for expanding the forms of the dissertation in languages and literatures. We will better prepare our graduate students to navigate a scholarly environment in which the modes of production are increasingly collaborative, the vehicles of scholarly dissemination increasingly interactive, the circulation of knowledge more openly accessible, and the audiences for which we compose purposefully varied. We will also better prepare them to develop supple and sophisticated pedagogies for teaching undergraduates whose habits of mind and attention, modes of learning, and repertoire of literacies are changing before us.

How might the dissertation be reimagined as an ensemble of forms? The most commonly proposed alternative to the long-form dissertation is the suite of (three or four) essays. A suite might involve a theme and its variations or include a set of distinct essays, probing different topics, mobilizing different analytics, employing different methods or theoretical frameworks. The emphasis would be on honing skills in the short form, precisely structured, persuasively argued, elegantly written, at once lean in purpose and compelling in the story told. Yet there are other forms that could be combined into an ensemble dissertation. Here are a few possibilities meant to suggest alternatives:
  • Composing, displaying, and linking a digital project potentially valuable to other scholars, teachers, and students. As Kathleen Woodward suggests, such projects might be conceived under the rubric of curation rather than argumentation.
  • Undertaking a collaborative project with other students or faculty advisers. Such projects might eventuate in a publishable essay, for example.
  • Translating an original scholarly source or literary work, reflecting as well on the practice of translation.
  • Pursuing a project of public scholarship, as sketched by Julie Ellison and Timothy K. Eatman in “Scholarship in Public,” possibly undertaken in a community outside the academy or addressed to issues of public policy.
In imagining possibilities, we have much to learn from our colleagues in rhetoric and composition, who have expanded the range of topics their students pursue and the methodologies they mobilize. However we configure the new dissertation, our committment must remain to the intellectual quality of the work, the rigor of the research, the elegance of conceptualization, and the significance of the intervention.

I know from responses to my earlier column that many are keen to see this expansion of forms; and from anecdotal evidence, I’ve learned that discussions about alternative dissertations are taking place on some campuses. I also know that introducing radical change in the concept of the dissertation and thus of doctoral education will not be an easy sell, because many see the current system as the only way to prepare students to write books (and get tenure).

As a former chair, however, I’ve seen many assistant professors begin their probationary period with the weight of the monograph dissertation on them. They have brought with them a demonstration of expertise, not the draft of a publishable book, no matter how bold or sophisticated or deftly written. They must refine the project’s conceptualization, condense the research apparatus buttressing their arguments, pare down those arguments to the essentials, and subordinate disagreements with theorists of reference. When all this is done, the assistant professor in pursuit of a book may be left with the equivalent of one or two articles worth salvaging, anxiety about not yet knowing the large argument, and a sense of disappointment that more of his or her work hasn’t entered scholarly conversations. Our doctoral programs could be preparing our graduate students to enter those conversations through multiple routes.

If we agree that an evolution in the dissertation is desirable, how can we make change happen? One or two departments could take the lead and pilot expanded forms of the dissertation. Directors of humanities centers and institutes across the country could inaugurate conversations about how expanded forms might fit into the vision of their institutions. Consortia of departments from peer institutions could meet to share concerns and assess options.

While colleagues in doctoral programs around the country begin serious discussions of this issue, the MLA can work to provide support for change, starting with an analysis of options and a tool kit for implementing alternatives to the monograph dissertation, as well as guidelines for evaluating forms of collaborative scholarship in the humanities. To that end, I am asking the Executive Council to appoint a Task Force on the New Dissertation. Since chairs will be the primary advocates for change and will need to make their case to deans, the MLA can sponsor workshops on the new dissertation at the ADE and ADFL summer seminars and at the annual convention. To track the experience of our graduates in the job market and in tenure-track positions, the MLA can plan for a longitudinal study of success and satisfaction rates of graduates of doctoral programs that have expanded the forms of the dissertation.

In its current form, “the dissertation is always looking over its shoulder,” as William Germano observes (14). Isn’t it time for it—for us—to look toward the future?

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Works Cited


Ellison, Julie, and Timothy K. Eatman. “Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University.” Imagining America. Imagining Amer., 2008. Web. 26 Mar. 2010.

Germano, William. From Dissertation to Book. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005. Print.

Woodward, Kathleen. Message to the author. 23 Dec. 2009. E-mail.

Some of the ideas in this column and the Spring 2010 Newsletter column appear in Sidonie Smith’s contribution to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s forum on graduate education (9 Apr. 2010).
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Sidonie Smith
2010–11 MLA President Sidonie Smith
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