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From the President

Beyond the Dissertation Monograph

Reprinted from the Spring 2010 MLA Newsletter

The bleak environment for higher education has led some to call for the elimination of doctoral programs at all but elite private and Research I universities. This is not the direction we should go. The richness of doctoral education remains the distinctiveness of programs serving different missions and communities and preparing future faculty members for careers at various kinds of colleges and universities, from tribal colleges to multicampus urban universities, from religiously affiliated colleges to regional and flagship state institutions. In graduate education, the direction to go is to redefine the mission of the humanities doctoral degree by reimagining the dissertation, as David Damrosch, Louis Menand, and members of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion, among others, have urged us to do.

To be sure, there are reasons for our investment in the dissertation monograph. It is our shared measure of “promise,” a demonstration that students can complete the arduous work of conceptualizing, researching, organizing, and arguing important interventions in their fields. It is performative, a sustained set of acts through which rigorous habits of mind are practiced and internalized. It lays groundwork for the “tenure” book, the absence of which reduces the likelihood that junior faculty members will be tenured. If graduate programs introduced alternatives to the monograph dissertation that appear to erode the primacy of the monograph, would skeptics deem these options an assault on the standards in humanities education? Would candidates entering the current job market without a traditional dissertation monograph be severely disadvantaged?

But consider. Do we disadvantage our doctoral students and our profession if we do not begin to expand the forms the dissertation might take, and do so now, in this time of unrelenting turmoil? There are ethical reasons to do so. The inflationary rise in the cost of higher education has led to a rise in the debt level of graduating students. The extended time to degree (now at a national average of nine years in the humanities) has, for decades, negatively affected women’s decisions about family planning, especially as deferral extends from the years of graduate school to the probationary period for tenure-track faculty members. Apart from ethical and practical issues related to time to degree, several intellectual considerations of the quality and relevance of doctoral education motivate its redress: the failure to attract diverse cohorts of students, the changes wrought by the digital revolution, the acknowledged limitations of overspecialization, and the imperative to rethink knowledge production in the context of our networked, globalized world.

The lifeblood of our profession is its rich diversity. Overinvestment in the dissertation monograph, as Menand has recently argued, results in “a narrowing of the intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field” (153). If our programs are to be successful in recruiting and admitting students of color, first-generation students, and returning adults, we need to define scholarly structures that allow them to imagine themselves as future professors of literatures and languages. More flexible dissertation models (with the potential for a shorter time to degree) would offer students an opportunity to pursue research projects with the potential to benefit communities of affiliation.

Digital media and computational technologies are radically transforming how knowledge is produced, communicated, and evaluated. The digitalization of scholarly work in the humanities brings new modes of research; new formats of presentation; new networks for communication; and new platforms for organizing knowledge, orchestrating argument, and visualizing intellectual exchange. Doctoral students in the modern languages will increasingly create and use digital archives and invent multimodal forms of scholarly presentation and communication in the next decade. Why should the dissertation remain inflexibly wedded to traditional book-culture formats?

Experimenting with new media stimulates new habits of mind and enhanced cultures of collegiality. Future faculty members in the modern languages and literatures will require flexible and improvisational habits and collaborative skills to bring their scholarship to fruition. In this environment, the pleasures of deep reading will be challenged by and joined with the new pleasures of distributed readings across networks, as N. Katherine Hayles has suggested. Requiring the dissertation monograph as it is now defined (as a singular and solitary venture) will leave students unprepared for the increasingly collaborative scholarly world of the future and for new ventures in collaborative public scholarship, which seeks to link those in the academy to intellectuals and communities outside it.

Colleges and universities are recalibrating the balance of teaching and research for faculty members, and yet the time and stress involved in completing the dissertation monograph now absorb the psychic, affective, and intellectual energies of doctoral students, often at the expense of preparation for teaching. Our students will be disadvantaged if they do not graduate from doctoral programs as skilled teachers, adept at engaging classes of various sizes and different mixes of students and versed in scholarship on student literacies and learning environments (see Porter). Furthermore, they will need facility in digital composing, melding words, images, moving images, and sound. Many of them will produce digital scholarship that doubles as teaching tools, requiring sophisticated pedagogical approaches to concept design and platform use.

Finally, in reaction to overspecialization and the crisis in scholarly publishing, many talk of the importance of our work reaching a larger public. In response, Kathleen Woodward has suggested that we “conceptualize our work as public goods (and not just professional scholarly products).” By introducing new forms of the dissertation, we would encourage doctoral students to experiment with different scholarly voices and styles of address and to route their work through different learning communities.

Reinventing the humanities dissertation is an urgent challenge for us, not a retreat from the crises we confront. In the upcoming months I’ll suggest some alternatives to the monograph and outline steps we might take to make change happen. I invite you to join in this conversation over the next year about expanding forms of the dissertation.


Works Cited

Damrosch, David. We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes.” Profession (2007): 87–199. Print.

Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.

Porter, Catherine. “President’s Column: (Re)Defining Productivity.” MLA Newsletter 41.4 (2009): 2–3. Print.

“Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion.” Profession (2007): 9–71. Print.

Woodward, Kathleen. Message to the author. 23 Dec. 2009. E-mail.
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Sidonie Smith
2010–11 MLA President Sidonie Smith
© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.