David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

Save the Dissertation!

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Image: A Blickensderfer 5 (ca. 1916).

In 2009, Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia University, called out a graduate student in his own department in order to advocate for a rethinking of the dissertation. Too many dissertations, Taylor said, reflect “limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems.” To exemplify that irrelevance, he wrote, “A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.”

When I read that, I had two thoughts. First, how dare a tenured professor mock his own department’s student in any context, let alone in The New York Times? And second: That dissertation sounds interesting.

Five years later, the pressures to redefine the dissertation are even stronger and my love of deep scholarship hasn’t changed.

The newest attack on the dissertation comes with good intentions, genuine concern for graduate students, and a lot more kindness than Taylor’s. Nevertheless, if put into practice, the Modern Language Association’s Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature threatens to undermine the process that we have long relied on to create scholars. And it does so without really putting something new in its place. Moreover, it implicitly accepts the Taylor critique that we have to reinvent the humanities (or at least MLA fields).

The report, which has received a lot of commentary, contains many recommendations, such as adding new kinds of training, more emphasis on teaching, and a shorter time-to-degree (limiting the time from bachelor’s to doctorate to five years). To do more in less time requires subtracting something, and this group has focused on the dissertation.

This isn’t the first time the MLA has argued for reimagining the doctoral thesis. In 2010, then MLA president Sidonie Smith argued against the monograph as the sole way of thinking about a culminating dissertation project. She suggested curated digital projects, translations, public scholarship, or collaborative work resulting in articles. The members of the 2014 MLA task force picked up on those same themes in their report. While they are careful to emphasize the necessity for a “capstone research project,” they want to push aside the notion that writing a “proto-book” is the only way to get a Ph.D.

It’s true that we could, and probably should, restructure graduate school to respond to changing conditions in higher education. But the Ph.D. process still needs to show that a transition has taken place—from student to scholar. For many people, the dissertation actually works pretty well in effecting that transformation.

My path through graduate school was long and twisty. I changed fields. I wandered. I collected incompletes as if I were trying to assemble a matched set. I endured a brutal cycle of historiography classes and encountered professors who doubted I would make it. On one occasion, a professor returned a paper to me ungraded, because he thought that seeing the mark that I deserved would depress me.

What saved me was, in fact, the dissertation. I found an old set of books in a sub-basement of the library. Their topic—narratives of relic theft out of Constantinople in the 13th century—was at least as esoteric as the footnotes of Duns Scotus. I was hooked. I wrote an essay, a piece of my master’s thesis, and then a dissertation proposal. I got a grant and found my identity as a scholar while walking between the Marciana library and the church of San Marco in Venice, thinking about the interactions of ideas, space, and objects, and trying to articulate those thoughts in a little apartment on the Street of Paradise near the church of Santa Maria Formosa.

My transformative experience, however idiosyncratic, did not happen by accident or luck. It emerged by design out of the nature of a humanities dissertation program. Moreover, such experiences can only be expected to take place within graduate school. In order to succeed, I needed the time to wander and to fail. In my first jobs, I surely did not have that kind of time and don’t think I will again for at least another decade.

I know I am privileged to have a tenure-track job. But even back when it looked like I might never find that job, I recognized that, no matter what path my career took, the experience of researching and writing a dissertation had permanently changed my identity. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I certainly wouldn’t have traded it for more technical training and fewer years of available funding.

None of this means that we ought to make all graduate students write a proto-book. As educators, we are constantly reminded that it’s the outcome, not the process, that should matter. If there are better ways to reach the outcome that I am calling, “becoming a scholar,” then that’s fine.

But I’m skeptical, given the other recommendations in the report, that a reimagined dissertation within an accelerated framework is going to permit people to stumble toward becoming scholars. Instead, the new regimes will support students who arrive with a clear plan and a narrowly focused topic in a field with which they are already familiar. I worry that we will lose the wanderers who might find something new and surprising.

Any programmatic decision will have consequences. If we fully fund summers for graduate students, then stipends will cost more money. If we follow the European model and cut coursework, then that will transform staffing considerations for graduate-training departments, leading to fewer jobs across the board. Moreover, most American undergraduates actually need a lot of coursework when they enter graduate school, thanks to the broadly based arts-and-sciences curriculum most U.S. colleges require (and I support).

Here’s my recommendation: If senior scholars in MLA fields believe there are fully viable alternatives to the book (and I am not talking e-books) that can replace the outcomes of scholarship, both intellectual and professional, then please go produce them. Apply for grants, promotions, sabbaticals, distinguished chairs, outside offers, and the other markers of our prestige economy based on nonmonograph work. If those efforts succeed, publicize that widely.

But don’t expect graduate students to risk their careers by leading the reform. Before reimagining the dissertation, you go first.

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