MLA Report on Doctoral Education in the Humanities


MLA Report on Doctoral Education in the Humanities

I attended an interesting dicussion today on the (controversial) MLA report advocating significant structural changes in humanities PhD programs.  Don Bialostosky, chair of English, moderated, and the two featured speakers were Dennis Looney (now working for MLA) and John Stevenson (Grad Dean, Univ Colorado Boulder).

The report argues in fairly blunt language that the academic job market stinks and will never recover to its pre-crash levels, that  9 years to complete the PhD is way too long, that PhD programs have to move away from the model of "replication" (training students exclusively as research professors) to a model of "transformation" for a variety of careers, that the dissertation itself should be reimagined as more than just a proto-print book, and that single-author books should no longer be made the standard for hiring and promotion.  Many of the changes advocated in the report (incorporating collaborative research and teaching into grad programs, emphasizing public engagement, revising traditional area coverage curricula) are precisely what HAA's constellations aspire to do.  I was therefore surprised to hear that the report, released in Feb., had come under strong attack from several quarters.

I've attached my notes in PDF form but here are a few of the issues I found most interesting and perplexing in the discussion:

Reducing time to degree may be laudable, one person argued, but the reality of the job market now is that the most successful students are taking years of pre-docs and post-docs, dragging out the time they spend before they hit the job market so that they can beef up their cv's with publications and even a book contract.  How is someone who steamrolls to a PhD in 5 years supposed to compete with them?  I do know of many people who have used external pre-docs for this purpose, not to speed their degree but actually to lengthen it so they can work on articles and other projects.  Postdocs do something similar on the other side of the degree.  In other words, the incentive structure works against the goal it is supposed to be supporting.

Similarly, the incentive structure in research universities works against many of the report's recommendations.  Scholars in the humanities who are doing the new sort of work that the report advocates, geared toward collaboration and public engagement, tend to land in nontenured jobs if at all.  Value is still defined by the single-authored monograph.

Dave Bartholome of the English Dept made the interesting point that the problem of the "contingent" work force in academia is a direct result of the reduction of teaching loads for tenure-stream research faculty.  At Pitt teaching loads for tenure-stream faculty way back when used to be 4-4 for everyone and were reduced first to 3-3, then to 2-2, to make increasing time for research production.  His point is that we lack credibility if we lament the rise of the contigent work force when that work force arose to subsidize our own research time.

The MLA report is available here:


  • Agency
  • Graduate Work


Thanks, and a request for a thought

Thanks for posting this great information, Kirk. I wonder--while all of this is laudable, in what way do you think that academics will be actually capable of retooling their students to take up different roles in society? Even those of us who focus on the power of digital tools still use those digital tools in order to study the humanities. We don't teach SPSS, unless one might need it for studying, say, Monet (not money :)). So, what role can someone who has dedicated to their life to history--just to name a discipline--play in helping someone younger than they are to apply history in a totally different context than the academy?

Good question!  We cannot of

Good question!  We cannot of course directly train students for jobs or professional worlds we don't know and understand.  But I do think:

a) we can expand our model of what constitutes a legitimate "placement" by giving equal value and validity to non-academic careers.

b) we can train ourselves and our students to engage with nonacademic publics, to be able to explain ourselves and our work to them, which is a first step, but a crucial step, toward using academic skills outside the academic bubble.  For example, I have to explain myself to the staff of Allegheny Cemetery just to get in the door and do my research there; I have to make my work matter to them and figure out how my agenda might help theirs.  The more we put ourselves and our students in that position, the better we train PhDs for the world outside the academy.

c) we can emphasize pedagogy and technological savvy, both of which transfer to many different domains.  

d) we can emphasize collaboration instead of isolation, which will help prepare students for the way of the world outside academia (and actually help prepare them for academia too because that is where the train is heading).

e) In general we can try to help students become more intellectually nimble and flexible, to understand how to make connections to fields outside their own expertise, to learn how to work effectively with others -- to be smart in the ways that professionals have to be smart to thrive in a constantly changing environment.

For sure. I think all of

For sure. I think all of these points are truly important. I also think that it sometimes happens that, in the rush to have a shorthand for things, "retraining" can lose some of these very valid complexities...

I've never really thought

I've never really thought that I "trained" students.  I can train students how to look at a site or object in certain ways, or how to decipher 19th-century handwriting, or how to find archival sources.  But in the larger sense I've never been comfortable with the word training, because writing a dissertation or becoming a scholar or teacher goes so far beyond these more narrow if useful protocols that can be taught through systematic procedures and repetition.  Job training implies that a profession has certain identifiable skills that can broken down and taught in a clear sequence.  So if you go through training X you are "qualified" to do job Y.  But we all know that is not how it works in practice, probably not for any job, certainly not for writers and teachers and educators and curators and administrators.  Since grad programs never really trained students for academic jobs in the first place (i.e. for the real work they face in the classroom or department meetings or in publishers' offices or in front of their own computer screen), we certainly aren't going to be "retraining" them.  That's not to say that education is worthless.  Quite the opposite -- true education is much different from training.  Education helps teach certain habits of mind -- ways of communicating and interconnecting, approaching and solving problems, raising questions, attending to detail.  We can help inspire students and prepare them for the road ahead, but ultimately they will have to use that educational experience in their own unique way to meet whatever challenges their careers throw at them.