Monday, January 16, 2012

The Dumbing-Down of the Dissertation

by Scot Jaschik

The average humanities doctoral student takes nine years to earn a Ph.D. That fact was cited frequently here (and not with pride) at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Richard E. Miller, an English professor at Rutgers University's main campus in New Brunswick, said that the nine-year period means that those finishing dissertations today started them before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Kindles, iPads or streaming video had been invented.

So much has changed, he said, but dissertation norms haven't, to the detriment of English and other language programs. "Are we writing books for the 19th century or preparing people to work in the 21st?" he asked.

Leaders of the MLA -- in several sessions and discussions here -- indicated that they are afraid that too many dissertations are indeed governed by out-of-date conventions, leading to the production of "proto-books" that may do little to promote scholarship and may not even be advancing the careers of graduate students. During the process, the graduate students accumulate debt and frustrations. Russell A. Berman, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University, used his presidential address at the MLA to call for departments to find ways to cut "time to degree" for doctorates in half.

Read more: Inside Higher Ed

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