Toward the Future of Doctoral Education in Language and Literature Fields

Efforts to address four areas of concern are essential for sustaining doctoral study into the future: maintaining excellence, preserving accessibility, broadening career paths, and focusing on doctoral students’ learning needs and development.

Maintain Excellence

Our first concern should be to preserve academic excellence in our doctoral programs. Standards of excellence are strengthened through creative flexibility rather than strict constructions tied to particular forms—flexbility of the curriculum, of the dissertation, of preparation for professional careers. We can demand excellence in course work and in internships, in the seminar paper and in alternatives to the seminar paper, and in whatever form the dissertation takes. The scholarly boldness and imagination needed for a coherent intellectual project can be stimulated and strengthened by students’ gaining expertise in projects of all lengths; experimenting with different kinds of scholarly voices; trying different modes of dissemination; working alone and collaboratively. And the deep attention needed to be a humanist in the academy and to turn ideas into book-length projects, however composed, performed, or distributed, can be reinforced through rigorous conceptualization, research, and argumentation. Some scholars dazzle us with their magisterial tomes, some with their blinding insight in the essay, and increasingly some with their imaginative, multidirectional, and interactive multimedia engagement with an important question or cultural formation. There need not be only a single way to gain depth, expertise, scope, and credentials.

Preserve Accessibility

In the face of the post-2008 contraction of the academic job market, proposals to reduce the size of graduate education in our fields have been heard. The ostensible goal of such a reduction would be to realign the rate of PhD production with the number of tenure-track openings. While the logic of the strategy may seem at first clear, the task force believes it is misguided. Doctoral education is not exclusively for the production of future tenure-track faculty members. Reducing cohort size is tantamount to reducing accessibility. The modern languages and literatures are vital to our culture, to the research university and to higher education, and to the qualified students who have the dedication for graduate work and who ought to be afforded the opportunity to pursue advanced study in their field of choice. Instead of contraction, we argue for a more capacious understanding of our fields and their benefits to society, including the range of career outcomes. The task force’s response to the contraction in the academic job market is not a retreat designed to preserve a traditional paradigm. Instead we argue for transforming the paradigm by broadening professional horizons in the interest of preserving accessibility to a humanities PhD.

Broaden Career Paths

Far from diluting or eroding the status of the modern languages and literatures, the broadening we envision involves asserting the contribution that recipients of the doctorate can make outside the academy. Because career prospects for the doctorate recipient do not lie only within the academy, the focus of mentoring must expand to accommodate the spectrum of possibilities. The changing circumstances of language and literature study provide the profession with an opportunity to articulate clearly and ambitiously the multiple roles our field and our students can play to the benefit of society. It is therefore crucial that the field recognize the validity of the diverse career paths that students follow. A nontraditional career can carry the passions, habits of mind, and skills associated with language and literature study outside the confines of the academy.

The profession must make a strong case to the public at large and especially to prospective employers that our doctoral programs prepare students for career paths throughout society, not only in higher education. The MLA can play a leadership role through expanded advocacy.

Focus on Graduate Students’ Needs

Ultimately doctoral study is about the development of students, who pursue their intellectual and pedagogical interests while working with faculty members who teach and mentor them and with other graduate students. The structure of programs should facilitate that agenda while also preparing students for the range of career opportunities that may be available inside and outside the academy. In other words, graduate programs are for graduate students’ learning needs and career development. It is urgent that departments and faculty members convey their support for the diverse career paths that students choose in a changing job market. The profession should endorse a shift from a narrative of replication to a narrative of transformation.

The factors determining the size of PhD cohorts varies among institutions—sometimes including the budgets of MA programs, sometimes undergraduate staffing needs, and sometimes other considerations altogether—but the primary concern in determining the size of a program should be its ability to provide educational opportunities to the graduate students.

This shift will entail giving up the priority of certain inherited prestige structures that have defined the profession, but it can also mean upholding the mission that is at the heart of the educational enterprise.

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