Changing the Dissertation Will Not Save the Humanities or Some Other Nonsense
Let’s say we get rid of the monograph-style dissertation or that we at least open up the range of possibilities. For a while now, at least since David Damrosch suggested it in We Scholars, the obvious alternative has been a series of linked articles, which together would add up to something like the same amount of work previously required by the dissertation.
The first thing to say is this: no they won’t. The monograph dissertation is a kind of writing for which most PhD students are critically unprepared (see Hayot 36–46). It is several times longer than anything they’ve ever written in their lives. It requires a level of psychological concentration and attention, as well as intellectual management, of a radically different order from the one required for articles. Articles are deeper and more complex, richer than seminar papers; monographs are all these things, and eight times longer. (As always, we are speaking of ideals here.) So we’re not talking about an even trade.
But even if that’s all true, it answers the wrong question. The question is not, “What should we do to make sure people who get a PhD in the future are doing the same amount of work as the people who get one today?” The question is, “What is the right kind of work, done competently, for which we should award someone the PhD?” To answer that question, we need to ask what the PhD is for.
Leave aside for the moment the idea of careers outside the academy, or indeed of careers at all. What the PhD says is that someone can (A) do original, publishable scholarship in their field and (B) teach university-level courses appropriate to their training. (I know that for some folks the second claim is arguable, but I don’t want to argue about it here.)
Now, everything depends on how you frame (A). For instance, if I say, “Do original, book-length scholarship in their field,” then you can’t do without the dissertation. So already, by leaving out “book-length,” I have framed the situation so as to make a collection of articles a possible substitute. But if I put “book-length” in, we have nothing to talk about.1
So we want people to show that they can (A) do original, publishable scholarship in their field. The monograph dissertation has traditionally been taken to fulfill this part of this formula. We know that it has not done a perfect job; all the work most students have to do to turn their dissertations into books suggests as much (as does all the advice about how to do it). So it’s not as if the system we have right now has a perfect relation to the outcome the PhD is supposed to guarantee; plenty of dissertations never get published. At the same time, we must recognize that the system has produced a great deal of success, including many wonderful first books.
Our goal would then be to find another system that would at least do equally well, that would testify to our desired outcome at the same or better rate than the current one. The point would be not to have to replace the system we have but to have two options, recognizing that even if the outcomes in terms of the profession were identical, the systems might have very different outcomes for students. The monograph is hard for reasons that have as much to do with psychological qualities and personal luck as with intellectual ones; a system that does not put that kind of pressure on its writers would allow people for whom it is difficult to write books, but who are perfectly capable of producing publishable, article-length scholarship, to earn PhDs. The argument then would be that, if our agreed-upon goal is to give PhDs to people who can do original, publishable scholarship, a system that has an article option and a monograph option would make a difference not to our capacity to meet our pedagogical and professional goals but to our capacity to make those goals accessible to a wider variety of people.
All this falls apart if you don’t think that a collection of articles meets whatever threshold for original, publishable scholarship you have. If you have such a threshold, it’s likely to involve something like a sense of length or weight, an idea that someone should make a sustained contribution to a single field, as some tenure language has it. Here I want to urge you to give that up. Why should you care whether someone contributes to one field or to four? There are limits, after all; no one will write twenty articles in a career on totally different subjects. So … what’s the objection? That someone who publishes an article on Shakespeare and another on Matteo Ricci can’t be totally serious about either Ricci or Shakespeare? If the work is publishable and peer-reviewed, presumably it’s serious; or you could read it yourself and decide. But knowing in advance anything about its seriousness seems unlikely.
All this explains how I, who write books and believe in books, have come to think that we need to get away from the requirement of the monograph dissertation while leaving it as an option. Notice what I have not said: I have not said that books are old media, or tired, or only read by a few people; I have not claimed that any new system will have to open itself to the public humanities or be published digitally; I have not argued that we need to do this to save the humanities or to make them relevant again. My only claim is pedagogical and professional: given how hard it is to write a monograph, the current system favors lucky people. It would be better if, minimally, and as long as the new alternative met the fundamental demands measured by a PhD, we allowed for two kinds of luck (for it is lucky, too, to be able to write articles). Better for our students, and better for the profession and for scholarship.
Why Probably No One Will Do Anything
I say that a collection of articles can prove that someone can do original, publishable scholarship as well as a dissertation. But of course I don’t know, and neither do you. No one will know until someone tries it. And right now the main thing keeping people from trying it is that no one wants to be first.
No one wants to be first because they are afraid that it will seem as if they have relaxed standards. In this way the monograph dissertation threatens to become a Veblenian good, the kind of thing that certain institutions retain because they can afford it and because affording it allows them to display their wealth.
That is not what leadership is, or what courage is. Having convictions means having them even if it hurts. My guess, honestly, is that making this kind of change would not hurt that much anyway, that it could enhance an institution’s reputation as much as damage it. But even if not: what does it hurt? Your reputation, because your reputation is a proxy of your university’s? Your department’s inflow of graduate students? I suppose it might, though I could see things going the other way. What about their professional outcomes? Well … yes. That might happen. Because the major disadvantage of writing a collection of articles for the PhD will be that it makes it difficult for the student to get a job at a place that requires a book for tenure.
So it may all come down to a collective willingness to change tenure requirements, which would require, in turn, our recognizing the fact that tenure requirements are not, as some seem to imagine, either historically immutable or out of faculty control. In an era in which so little feels like it is in our control, and in which it feels so hard to imagine how to open up the corridors of social power to a wider variety of people than before, the really fantastic news is that these are changes that departments and faculty members can make, this very year, if we are interested in improving things, and brave enough to do it.
- On a similar note: why “publishable”? Because, for all its sins, the publication process is a measure of the capacity to participate in an institutional dialogue. I assume that PhDs are not for training intellectuals dissociated from any institutional structure but for training people who can participate in national and international regimes of scholarship, for which peer-reviewed publication forms an important gatekeeping function.↩
Damrosch, David. We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. Harvard UP, 1995.
Hayot, Eric. The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities. Columbia UP, 2014.
Posted May 2017