How to Save the Humanities Ph.D.? Kill the Doctoral Seminar

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By George Justice

It’s finally time for professors to abolish the doctoral seminar in the humanities. I mean the seminars for Ph.D. students that are taught by professors in their own departments. Not because we hate teaching the seminars or students hate taking them — many of us cherish the memories of seminars we taught and took. But such nostalgia has prevented us from facing the facts on the ground in 2021 for most of our doctoral programs:

  • Decreased funding across the humanities has reduced the number of students who can be fully supported for the five to six years it continues to take to finish the degree.
  • A proliferation of subdisciplines has altered the size and coherence of doctoral programs in the major fields.
  • Add to all of that a terrible tenure-track job market in the humanities that has demoralized graduate students and professors alike.

I have become persuaded that our reliance on doctoral seminars — as a central feature of doctoral training — is a major structural impediment to the significant change we need in humanities doctoral training. Our strong belief in our right to include doctoral seminars in our teaching schedules has led to a “my stuffism” that damages students’ lives and careers, and perverts the mission of humanities departments that offer doctorates.

Professors in too many humanities departments, instead of making bold changes in the structure of American doctoral education, are hardening into interest groups barking for students in “their” areas, with faculty members desperate to preserve ownership over the decreasing resources that support a dwindling number of students pursuing unmarketable doctorates.

“My stuffism” pervades all aspects of doctoral programs — from admission through dissertation completion — and reflects a narrowing of scholarly interests that also infuses faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion. Breaking the proprietary hold that professors have over their seminars, students, and subfields will allow our doctoral programs — and our doctoral students — to thrive, even in today’s very challenging circumstances.

What’s wrong with the doctoral seminar?

Most doctoral programs require two to three years of coursework. Course topics are chosen based on a mix of faculty interest and seniority. That is, most research-active professors take it as a given that they should, on a regular basis, be able to teach a doctoral seminar built around their particular scholarly expertise. The idea is not just that students will learn some subject matter but, more important, will learn how to think and do research from a significant figure in the field.

When that approach worked in the past, it worked incredibly well. Some of the doctoral seminars I took at the University of Pennsylvania remain among the most exciting group intellectual experiences I have ever had. I remember the feeling of coming out of a seminar with, say, Peter Stallybrass, whose expertise was outside my field but whose mind and willingness to engage with students made those class periods rich in a way that truly can’t be replicated in other structures.

But in a humanities department, to sustain an appropriate number of excellent seminars across subfields requires a doctoral-student cohort of a certain size. I teach at Arizona State University where, for example, my department now brings in five students a year to pursue doctorates in American and English literature. What that means: At any given time, we have 10 to 15 students taking doctoral seminars. To be most effective, seminars need 10 to 12 students, so our program can reasonably offer only two or three doctoral seminars each semester. Yet we have 30 faculty members with expertise and interest in teaching these seminars.

The numbers simply don’t add up: We don’t have enough doctoral students to offer them a coherent experience — either in terms of subject-matter coverage or training in a full range of methodologies. And the same is true of many other doctoral programs in humanities departments nowadays.

Moreover, most Ph.D. programs allow doctoral students to take master’s level classes or, in some cases, upper-division undergraduate courses to fill out their schedules — even after they’ve already earned the M.A. themselves. At that point they are fish out of water: If Ph.D. students are taking master’s level courses to remedy subject-matter deficiency, they would be better off with lists of independent reading of primary texts and scholarship. If they’re just trying to use M.A. classes to meet doctoral course requirements — well, that’s the definition of “filler,” and not really necessary for the Ph.D.

Here’s an idea. What if we re-envisioned our Ph.D. programs in the humanities along the lines of European doctoral education? That is: Offer two years of well-designed, coherent, master’s level coursework, and then give students three years to do research and produce an original dissertation project. It could take a variety of forms, including, but not limited to, the standard written dissertation.

No, I would no longer get to offer my doctoral seminar on Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen (“Clarissa, Camilla, and Emma,” the most fun I’ve ever had teaching a course). But I would get to teach well-designed courses at the graduate level, I could mentor students’ research projects, and I might have the opportunity — see below — to lead cohorts of doctoral students in professional-skills courses during their three-year research stint.

Master’s level education is thriving, particularly in online programs structured to meet students’ needs, rather than cater to the research interests of professors. The best of the online master’s programs result from team effort — with faculty members making collective decisions about the knowledge required for the degree, and designing a set of repeatable courses that lead to that degree. Thus, the master’s could provide intense subject-matter coverage along with well-taught research skills.

Of course, most M.A. programs attract students who want only a master’s, and pay tuition — they typically have full-time jobs, and the online structure of the master’s program allows them to work and study at the same time. The scale of, and revenue created by, online master’s programs allows for real production value, with courses undergoing revision on a periodic basis to keep them fresh and authoritative.

For students who know straight from their undergraduate education that they want to earn a Ph.D, we could offer tuition waivers for their first two years of master’s coursework, and teaching assistantships to provide a stipend. Then these students would be automatically admitted to the three-year doctoral-research program.

Revamped graduate programs — with robust master’s level education followed by three years of intensive research and writing — would make better use of our limited resources and better prepare a smaller number of doctoral students for career success after grad school.

And this structure could even enhance program cohesion. Those three years wouldn’t lack for cohort experiences: Departments could design first-year, second-year, and third-year “seminars” focusing on research skills, teaching skills, and job placement. We could require doctoral-student attendance at department lectures and other events, and acculturate Ph.D. students as future colleagues rather than subservient students. These experiences would — much more than the current system of doctoral seminars that leaves students too exhausted to attend outside lectures — reduce the “my stuffism” by continually exposing students to the community of scholars and creators with interests across the humanities.

This could be a win for both the students and for our departments. Other aspects of department infrastructure would benefit from more intense participation of doctoral students while they pursued individual research projects with an engaged doctoral committee.

Some readers might see this suggestion as “administrator speak,” since this proposal would save universities money and, to some extent, diminish faculty autonomy. Yes, I was a graduate dean and then a humanities dean. But when I talk to my faculty colleagues in English, I don’t hear a lot of pride in the quality of our doctoral degree. And nary a defense of the professional outcomes for new Ph.D. recipients. My colleagues rightly love teaching doctoral students, but our program, like most humanities doctoral programs I’m familiar with, is losing coherence and effectiveness as it shrinks.

The same is true for professors in many Ph.D.-granting humanities departments: We love our students and their commitment to our fields, but we don’t really believe in our programs.

Certainly there are other daring, innovative ways — including internships, group research projects, and stronger collaboration with K-12 education and community colleges — to revitalize doctoral education in the humanities. Now is the time to experiment with structures that put Ph.D. students at the center of their own education.

George Justice is a professor of English at Arizona State University and formerly the university’s dean of humanities.

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