From the Department of False Analogies: reforming professional training in the humanities?

Did anyone else hear this interview with Louis Menand on All Things Considered last night?  On the one hand, he gave some important context for understanding that the academic job crisis in the humanities is nothing new–like Historiann, he sees it as directly linked to the halt of the massive institutional expansion of higher education after the 1950s and 1960s.  But then he beats (once again!) on the dead horse of the years-to-degree for most humanities Ph.D.s, and says something astonishingly stupid:

[Prof. MENAND:]  The other piece of it, which is even more amazing to me, is that the time it takes to get the PhD has been increasing steadily since the 1970s so that the median time to get a PhD in a humanities discipline, like philosophy, English, art history, is nine years. Half of people who get PhDs…

[Host Robert] SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MENAND: …in those fields take more than nine years to get the degree.

Now, if you think that you can get a law degree and argue a case before the Supreme Court in three years, get a medical degree and cut somebody open in four years, why should it take nine years to teach poetry to college freshmen? And there are a number of factors involved in that. One obviously is the job market. Another is the fact of part-time hiring. That is, a lot of graduate students teach college students, and they do it quite full time for very little money because they are still enrolled as students in their institutions.

(Riiiight–because there’s so much more money to be earned by adjuncts who have taken the Ph.D.?)  But, back to the silly comments about attorneys and physicians:  who here thinks that all you need to be a doctor is to go to medical school for 4 years, and then hang out your shingle?  And who here thinks that there are lots of 25 year-olds right out of law school who have argued cases before the Supreme Court

Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Now, I realize that in addition to being a Professor of English at Harvard, Menand is also a writer for the New Yorker, where glib and superficial is the house style these days.  But Professor, please:  you might be happy to be cut by a sawbones right out of medical school, if a back-alley amputation is what you’re after, but the rest of us probably prefer to be treated by licensed and boarded physicians.

As many people know by the time they’re adults–especially if they watched a lot of ER and Law & Order back in the 90s–graduating from medical school and law school just signals the end of one phase of a young doctor or lawyer’s professional training.  All licensed and boarded physicians in the U.S. must complete an internship and residency of at least three years (for primary care medicine, like family practice, pediatrics, and internal medicine), or more (from 4-6 years) for surgical sub-specialties, not to mention 3-year fellowships that many doctors undertake for the extremely high-stress and high-skill subspecialties (such as intensivists).  During residencies and fellowships, the doctors in training will treat patients, but only under the supervision of the attending physicians.  So any licensed physician who will treat you as your physician of record outside of a teaching hospital will have anywhere from 3 to 10 years of training beyond medical school, which also means that ze has passed extensive medical board exams in each of hir specialties or subspecialties order to get a license to practice.   Attorneys don’t have as much formal postgraduate professional training as physicians, but they too must pass state-by-state bar exams.  I would think that a clerkship with a federal judge or state or U.S. Supreme Court justice would be useful, if not absolutely de rigeur, before arguing a case before the Supreme Court of the U.S., but those of you with more knowledge of legal education, please feel free to chime right in.

So, a responsible comparison of medical and legal education to Ph.D.s in the humanities suggests that graduation from medical school corresponds with a humanities student completing hir coursework and qualifying exams–what we in the biz call “ABD” (All But Dissertation) status.  That’s the point at which people can shift from functioning mainly as students to functioning as professionals in training–and functioning like a professional in the humanities means conceiving of and completing a major research project  on your own–what we in the biz call “writing a dissertation.”

Now, Menand’s larger point is a reasonable one:  should we insist that all college instructors have Ph.D.s, let alone Ph.D.s that take 9 years to complete?  It would deserve a serious hearing, if there were anything like a shortage of Ph.D.s and a corresponding surfeit of jobs that need filling.  (In fact, as many of you can testify, lots of men were hired in the 1960s ABD, and many of them achieved tenure and promotion even without ever completing their doctoral dissertations!  That’s how many jobs there were and how badly professors of the humanities were needed.)  But that’s not the world we live in, not for the past 40 years anyway.  So, saying that the time-to-degree for humanities Ph.D.s is the biggest problem in American universities today is like saying that the biggest problem with the banking industry today is that Goldman Sachs and other investment banks require that their secretaries and administrative assistants have college degrees.  True, requiring that degree to do secretarial work might be unnecessary, but it’s rather beside the point, don’t’cha think? 

0 thoughts on “From the Department of False Analogies: reforming professional training in the humanities?

  1. Perhaps I am missing something crucial here: but isn’t long time-to-completion an effective dis-incentive to prospective PhDs? If we shorten time-to-completion, we end up with more PhDs, not fewer, and worsen the job-market-crisis-numbers? How can Menand simultaneously support a) shorter time-to-completion and b) hiring non-researchers as university teachers as a combined remedy for the job crunch? Both moves would seem to churn out even more candidates for each position?


  2. It tells you a lot about yesterday that I’ve only just checked in here! Anyway, I’d echo Tony Grafton on the British system. At 16 (after GCSEs) you narrow yourself to 3 or maybe 4 areas, where you prepare AS and A levels) You go to university to read History (or English, or whatever, but I’ll talk about history, because that’s what I know), and you do very deep reading in the fields where you do “papers”. So as an undergraduate, you wouldn’t worry about a science or math requirement, or gen ed.
    It does mean that if you go on for an MA/MPhil, and Ph.D., you move into research pretty quickly, because you’ve spent lots of time in your chosen area. You already know the historiography.

    The flip side of this is that my sense has long been that my British colleagues tended to have narrower foci/knowledge than we did. Back in the dark ages when I did my thesis, I was the one who had read Annales stuff, for instance, and not just Past and Present. I may cringe about teaching survey courses — western civ, world, etc — but doing sure does make me think in new ways about my work. (Oh, and my colleagues in Britain would rarely teach both political and social history of our field.)

    One of my friends offered the analogy of a driver’s license as the Ph.D. It says you know how to do the work, and you’re OK on the road. You don’t yet drive a big rig, though…. I use that to get students to let up on their expectations of writing the greatest ever work of history as their dissertation.


  3. Tom, you’re right that the long time-to-completion is a dis-incentive but I’d argue that it eliminates prospective applicants in a way that perpetuates the academy as a place for the white and wealthy. Shortening the time required would indeed increase the pool of people but would likely create a more diversified academy. I also think it might make it easier to leave academia if/when things don’t pan out; it’s less of a life investment that must work out. (Again, if there are any useful comparisons, maybe something akin to an MFA??) That being said, shortening time-to-completion rates (if possible) should only be done in tandem with other things that have been discussed up thread.



    I’d read ’em!


  5. Also — speaking as someone whose dissertation is taking longer than I’d like to admit / calculate — I’d like to echo the observation that many ABD folks need to teach to pay the bills. Personally, I have tenure at a CC — with a 5/5 load, big classes (many caps = 50 — which is just wrong!!) and no TA. I’ve also been plugging along at the dissertation because it will make me more mobile — either in terms of getting administrative jobs, or if we decide to move elsewhere for hubby’s law job.

    The other thing I’ve noticed, as I’ve been on several searches both in philosophy and other fields, is that many folks are awarded MAs without the breadth of graduate level coursework necessary to be a good hire. In the US system, that kind of breadth most often comes with a Ph.D — or, at least being ABD. I don’t want someone with a narrow focus in my department, as those folks won’t be happy with their teaching load — and, since I like to teach nearly all the classes, I don’t want to be stepping on any toes when I select “their” classes in the schedule rotation. Also, I want every member of the faculty to be able to contribute to revisions of course outlines. That just doesn’t happen when you get awarded an MA based on a number of hours in the discipline — and no requirement that those hours be distributed in a meaningful manner.


  6. Though the commentators, as usual, have it exactly right, as a former practicing appellate lawyer (and a newly minted humanities Ph.D), I cannot resist adding my two sickles.

    My view: generally, young (experience, not age) lawyers rarely have much of an opportunity to participate in oral argument or serve as lead author on briefs for important appellate cases. Indeed, why would they? Miscanthus is exactly right on the state of just-licensed lawyers, and passing the bar is such inadequate preparation for practice that it gives rise to the maudlin joke, ‘the most dangerous creature in the country is a lawyer who just passed the bar exam.’

    For an important appellate case that is set for oral argument at a federal court of appeals or the USSCT itself, the clients are frequently paying ungodly sums of money for the most elite appellate shops. Appellate litigation is extraordinarily difficult to do well, and engaging attorneys who have some kind of credibility with the court is critical in important cases. What kind of sophisticated party — b/c, contrary to popular belief, constitutional law cases involving powerless litigants are a minuscule percentage of the cases actually heard by upper level state and federal appellate courts — who has spent enormous sums of money just to get to an upper level appellate court is generally going to be in favor of vesting most of the responsibility for preparing the case and the argument to an inexperienced attorney?

    It does happen, but it is exceedingly rare, IMO. I don’t know how long it takes an attorney to get a USSCT argument, but given some of the above, I actually think ten years is probably on the conservative side. Many fine appellate lawyers will not even sniff a USSCT case in their entire career.


  7. Daniel Goldberg and Miscanthus, I really appreciate your insights. Having no lawyers in the family, I was unclear on the details but was pretty sure I could call bull$h!t on Menand’s claim that all it took was a law degree to go up before the USSCT. As the saying goes: necessary, but not sufficient.

    The questions raised by Tom, thefrogprincess, and Philosopher P around time-to-degree and the value of the Ph.D. are all related to the question of adequate funding for graduate students. If Ph.D. programs accepted only the number of students they could fund, and guaranteed them 6 years of funding, then I think we’d see the time-to-degree shrink. The time-to-degree, as many others have noted, is largely related to the need-for-money while finishing a dissertation. Regular faculty have no authority over their own budgets and so can’t solve the humanities job crisis on their own, but we do have authority over whom we admit to our graduate programs, and on what terms.

    I have seen students be terribly blithe about having to borrow money for grad school, even for an M.A.–they don’t know what that debt will look or feel like 8 years down the road, when they’re 30 rather than 22. I know that when I’ve sent students into Ph.D. programs (3 in my entire career), discussions of funding were first and foremost. I made sure they thought about the programs at year 4 or 5 or 6, not just the alluring offer made for year 1 or 2.


  8. Pingback: Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas » Novel Readings - Just another WordPress weblog

  9. Pingback: Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

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