January 9, 2012

Should the "digital project" replace dissertations in PhD programs?

Inside Higher Education examines the emerging trend:
Graduate students need to learn "what it means to write for the web, with the web," which is not the same thing, [said Rutgers English prof Richard E. Miller], "as making PDFs of your [print] articles."

Whether departments want it to happen or not, the form of scholarship is going to change, he said. Rather than avoiding that, scholars should consider the ramifications, he said, by redesigning dissertations. "Once you lose the monograph, what’s the future of the long argument?"
There's not much of a future for your English PhDs, monograph or no monograph, and you know it.  ← short argument.


MadisonMan said...

The best line in the linked-to article: Are we writing books for the 19th century or preparing people to work in the 21st?

Because an English PhD has so many job opportunities.

I was surprised that the head of Comp Lit at Harvard reports that now, the chapter of each Dissertation has to be discussed. I ponder all the changes insisted upon by my committee in each chapter I wrote back in the 80s of my own PhD and wonder what Comp Lit PhDs at Harvard skate away with before this change.

Perhaps someday Blogging will get someone an English PhD.

chickelit said...

I answer no to the question because there are positive aspects to longer, cohesive writing projects. But the works should be digitized and readily available to the public--especially at public universities or even at private universities if the dissertation was subsidized with public monies.

Whether many or few people read them is a different story.

KCFleming said...

Something needs to replace PhD programs, and their dissertations.

An average of nine years to earn a Ph.D.??!

In that timeframe you could be a surgeon, or a plumber, rather than a barista in debt.

How many humanities PhDs does the nation need? Five? Six?

Anonymous said...

Yes, they need the Web for a wider viewship for even more ridicule, scorn, and derision.

John Bragg said...

For insanely long fantasy megaseries with scores of characters, a nested wiki of some kind would be of value--an online Reader's guide. i.e. reading the new George RR Martin book, entering characters name, volume and chapter, pulling up what the reader is supposed to know about him/her by now.

TosaGuy said...

I would like to see a comparison of the length of dissertations done on in the age of the typewriter compared to those done on a computer.

Fewer things create more work for a person than a computer.

Paddy O said...

Officially starting to write my own PhD dissertation today.

If you're doing such things for anything other than the love of the subject and writing, it's a terrible process with bad prospects.

I don't, obviously agree, that such dissertations don't matter. But I do heartily affirm that there's a problem in the highly insular academic world.

Writing doesn't have to be bad nor boring. But being good and interesting isn't a necessary qualification for a PhD, so that's what tends to get written.

And it's the challenge for me. That there are some amazing academic writers out there is the encouragement.

But what do I know? I'm just starting my last stage of study. T

Nine year is indeed way too long. I'm hoping to be done with my dissertation draft after 4 years is the goal, graduate in 5.

edutcher said...


Granted, on the web, less is always more, but are they going to do away with teaching how to make a long argument entirely?

Sometimes 25 words or less just doesn't cut it.

WV "hamph" What Arthur Treacher would say after a saccharine overdose of Shirley Temple.

rhhardin said...

Humanities PhD's would be great if they actually taught humanities.

Instead they teach the Snow Queen.

Namely that every distortion reveals a truth.

Joe said...

My best friend just got his PhD; the process sounded like an intellectual jerk circle.

KCFleming said...

PhD dissertations should be done in haiku form.

Unknown said...

AS a veteran of higher ed admin, I would liken a dissertation to a legal brief. It's a different kind of writing than a web article; it's rigorous, and the point of producing it is to prove one can think that way. Now, only lawyers these days need this kind of training, so what are universities to do with these scads of students showing up with checks for tuition and mediocre skills, who hope one day for a university sinecure themselves? The committee members are delirious from scanning thousands of their pages every semester.
Practical degrees like the Ed.D. haven't helped much. Their answer? Dumb it down, like they have the master's degree, where only 15-20% of the students write a thesis.

Zach said...

My PhD thesis wasn't terribly onerous. I had written five or six papers by that point, which mapped more or less directly into thesis chapters.

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.

Might I suggest that the failure is not in the format here? A whole book's worth of analysis ought to useful or insightful to somebody, somewhere. If the MLA is having trouble with large numbers of book-length analyses that aren't useful to anybody, they need to clean up the field and start saying interesting things again.

David said...

First they have to learn to write in English, those English Phd's.

MadisonMan said...

My best friend just got his PhD; the process sounded like an intellectual jerk circle.

When you get a BS, you know quite a lot about a subject, and your breadth of knowledge of the subject is impressively wide.

When you get a master's, you know even more about a subject, but your breadth of knowledge is far, far narrower.

When you get a PhD, you know everything there is to know about the subject, but the breadth of knowledge approaches zero.

That's why Dirac Delta Functions were created: to describe how the knowledge changes from BS to MS to PhD. When you have a PhD, a has gone to zero :)

prairie wind said...

My kids are in middle and high school, years away from PhD dissertations, but their teachers very rarely ask them to write papers of any length. The teachers ask them to "do a project", which could mean creating a poster (middle and high school!) or writing a play or a poem, or producing a powerpoint presentation. Bad powerpoints are the only ones accepted. The kids had a teacher in grade school who taught them how to make a decent ppt...bulleted phrases, no more than three lines on a slide, and so on, so they know good from bad.

Making any kind of argument that does not rely on emotion is unheard of. I think the grad schools are simply asking for what they can get from today's students.

Zach said...

One guy on my committee (jokingly) told me that the target was 100 pages -- 90 looks like you're getting away with something, but 110 is for brown nosers.

The problem in the sciences is that you're most valuable to your boss in the last year or so before you graduate. Bosses know this, and some of them drag their feet about letting you leave. That didn't happen to me, but there were groups where that sort of thing went on. To combat against that, students and advisors had to meet and justify every additional year past 6 or 7. 9 years is just ridiculous.

Mike said...

I like it that most of the commenters here have not taken the route of disparaging PhDs in humanities fields. Much as I love Ann and Instapundit, I'm a little disturbed that a lot of the discussion about the "higher education bubble" generated by their blogs tends to revolve around the supposed uselessness of the humanities. Is this a lawyer thing? I wonder how many law students majored in English as undergraduates?

Anyway, this piece by Virginia Postrel (linked by Instapundit, interestingly enough) provides a useful corrective: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-06/postrel-how-art-history-majors-power-the-u-s-.html

Craig Howard said...

Dissertations will thus, inexorably, devolve into PowerPoint presentations.

Bullet points!

Joe Schmoe said...

I am thrilled that higher ed is actually discussing this stuff. There are 2 aspects to a thesis: to acquaint the student with the process of research and writing, and to add to the store of human knowledge. To me there's way more emphasis on the first, which has led to a lot of unread dreck relative to the second. I'm a fan of better-crafted information that actually might be read outside of the student's committee.

Final line in the article:
"We mentor people to be careful," she said, as graduate students and as junior faculty members. "If everyone is careful all that time, they are going to be careful after they get tenure. We have to change the academy."

Amen times ten.