Opportunities for New Directions in Doctoral Study

Several developments are reshaping higher education profoundly, challenging inherited practices and necessitating transformations in the character of doctoral study. We have mentioned some of them, focusing on the negative. Here we focus on some of the auspicious new opportunities for doctoral education in the twenty-first century.

Changes in Scholarly Inquiry and Communication

Scholarly culture is undergoing change driven both by models of collaboration in research and teaching and by digital technologies that enable new modes of composition, circulation, dissemination, and preservation of scholarship and research. Traditionally, doctoral programs in the humanities have largely been based on the paradigm of the single scholar who strives to reduce teaching obligations through fellowship support, prefers to work alone, and claims exclusive ownership of his or her results. In practice, of course, collaboration always takes place, whether in graduate seminars, at conferences and workshops, or through other exchanges with colleagues, but the model of the individual scholar has long stood at the center of the system. Today, however, models of collaboration in scholarship are emerging, and doctoral study in the modern languages and literatures must equip students with the skills to collaborate effectively.

Collaboration and teamwork are the norm in large swaths of the social and natural sciences. Collaboration is also the mode of many of the arts—theater, film, dance, and music. Humanities scholars can learn from our colleagues in these other fields as well as from colleagues in our own disciplines with a history of collaboration. Meanwhile, collaboration is being enabled by digital technologies, which facilitate more robust forms of scholarly communication. It has become much easier than in the past to share texts, provide comments, and engage in coauthorship. The paradigm of the isolated research scholar is losing its sway.

Similarly, the largely exclusive focus on the full-length print book is being called into question as more attention is paid to publications that are available online and that thus circulate with comparative ease. Although print books may be converted to e-books and traditional dissertations are regularly digitized, the digital environment is nonetheless inducing generic changes in scholarly productivity that reflect the electronic medium. Greater significance will therefore continue to accrue to writing for the Web, including, for example, short essays and middle-state and collaborative writing. New technologies allow work to be freely distributed, both once a work is complete and during the process of peer review. Sites such as MLA Commons support modes of communication that enable scholars to partner with distant colleagues. New genres, such as the academic blog, are gaining currency. These exciting developments require new paths of professional training and socialization for doctoral students.

Digital Scholarship and Teaching

In a related vein, the advent of new analytic tools and methods—from text mining to visualization, from distant reading to collaborative virtual research environments—has led to the rapid expansion of what is in fact an established community of practice, known today as the digital humanities. In addition, the sudden availability of large research corpora online is transforming how scholars in the modern languages and literatures undertake their research in unprecedented ways. The traditional hermeneutics of the individual work is not endangered; rather, it is augmented by digital technologies. But the collaborative, interdisciplinary, and interprofessional aspects of much digital scholarship do suggest critical transitions ahead for literary fields.

Bringing Our Work to Publics beyond the Academy

Today we have the responsibility to engage new publics in our work and to explain what we do—and why what we do is important—to new audiences. For our colleagues in history, the realm of public history is well established and familiar; programs exist that provide training in the field. There is also a well-established tradition in public sociology. The literary humanities do not have an equally visible tradition, although there is no lack of models and possibilities for reaching out to publics: distinct publics are drawn to cultural heritage institutions, libraries, and museums, which can provide vibrant sites for the literary public humanities and for interdisciplinary projects in the study of cultures. Projects in the public humanities frequently combine scholarship, teaching, and creative activity; they are often collaborative, engage with diverse communities, sometimes as cocreators, and consciously articulate their value to their publics. And today, the ability to challenge received notions of authorship and to bring our work to different and larger publics outside the academy is amplified by digital networks and social media; Web sites have become vital repositories for our research—with and for new publics. Many of our doctoral students consider their scholarship a public good and are finding ways to take their work to the public; they require the ability to speak in different scholarly voices to different audiences, including publics outside the academy.

Innovative Content

Recent decades have seen dramatic change in the content of study in the modern languages and literatures. That we have expanded the range of texts and authors studied, as well as the questions posed about both new and traditional works, indicates the profound revisions in our fields. Literary study has been enriched by various interdisciplinary openings, and doctoral study in the modern languages and literatures currently takes place in dynamic and intellectually exciting terrains and extends to cultural traditions across the globe. In general, innovative understandings of human experience, past and present, and of the challenges we face are emerging in the work of our scholars. Some of those challenges are pressing global issues—such as climate change and displaced populations—and new scientific developments (in cognitive science and in medicine, for instance), and they call for our consideration in our research, in the classroom, and in public forums. New interdisciplinary fields of study, such as that of affect and the emotions, benefit richly from our research. Scholarship in the modern languages and literatures today participates in and benefits from this wealth of exploration, which guarantees a fertile intellectual terrain for the future of doctoral study. Innovative content can also lead to structural transformations that afford additional opportunities, especially in programs for regional and transnational collaboration.

Decentered Disciplines

Doctoral study in the modern languages and literatures has grown rich and dynamic, given the expanding range of objects of study, methods, and interests. Ambiguity about the definition and scope of our disciplinary fields allows for an openness to interdisciplinary borrowings, leading to a rich array of intellectual opportunities.

All modern scholarship necessarily includes ongoing reflection on the fundamental constitution of a discipline; it benefits from reconsidering inherited practices and from posing new questions to generate new insights. The contemporary scholarly culture of our departments can combine radically heterogeneous disciplinary agendas with little consensus concerning disciplinary self-understanding. A single department may simultaneously include colleagues who argue for profound revisions of canons and methods, others who insist on long-held understandings of comprehensive coverage of national literary history, and still others who embrace ethnographic study of language acquisition. This decentering of disciplinary knowledge in our fields—a multiplicity of paradigms—characterizes our scholarship today.

As a result, scholarship in the modern languages and literatures is not constrained by any single and exclusively binding disciplinary vision. Faculty members frequently benefit from the opportunity to participate in interdisciplinary programs; that some have two or three academic homes generates more understandings of what constitutes the production of knowledge. Many doctoral students come to graduate programs having pursued interdisciplinary study and desiring to continue it. In this context of dynamically open fields of study, comprehensive intellectual coverage in the traditional sense is impossible. Instead, the decentered condition of knowledge affords contemporary literary scholarship the opportunity to pose new questions and to explore them with a tool kit enriched through borrowings from other fields and disciplines.

Increased Attention to Teaching

This report referred earlier to the general devaluation of teaching in the research university as well as to the precarious situation in which contingent faculty members find themselves at colleges and universities throughout the United States. Yet with the continuing escalation of the cost of education, parents, administrators, and legislators are asking for demonstrable evidence of student learning. While there are valid criticisms of certain strategies of outcomes assessment, the task force believes that we should draw in positive ways on this public energy to recalibrate or rebalance, where needed, the relation of research and teaching in our doctoral programs. Teachers of tomorrow’s undergraduates will come from the ranks of today’s doctoral graduate students, who need to understand the importance of teaching and to benefit from robust training opportunities.

Many of our doctoral students are drawn to teaching, whether they envision careers at research universities or at liberal arts colleges, regional universities, and two-year schools. In all institutional types, the emphasis on effective teaching will continue to grow, and only those graduate students with strong preparation as teachers will succeed. The tendency to devalue teacher preparation in parts of doctoral education is at odds with the ever-growing national pursuit of effective teaching that can optimize student learning. Dedicated and well-prepared teachers are crucial to the strength of our society. Our doctoral students need to know about the rapidly evolving landscape of higher education in the United States—one that includes online learning—as well as the comprehensive community colleges that serve forty-four percent of undergraduates in the United States and nearly half of all undergraduates of color (Bridging 3). In the United States considerable public attention is currently focused on improving education; doctoral programs that prepare scholar-teachers have an opportunity to contribute productively to this effort.

[Next: Toward the Future of Doctoral Education in Language and Literature Fields]