What graduate students in the humanities should learn (opinion)

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For my last semester of teaching this spring and as a prelude to retirement, I taught a graduate religion seminar. Except for a practicum on teaching higher education in the humanities, I had not taught a graduate class in 10 years. A combination of factors—including my stint as associate dean and my deference to my colleagues’ preferences—had kept me away. But perhaps most of all, I had focused on undergraduate teaching because of persistent doubts about the direction of graduate education in an era of few jobs.

Initially, I returned to graduate teaching simply because my department asked me to, and because I thought it would be an enjoyable way to end my teaching career. I selected a dozen books on contemporary American religion that I had been wanting to read and looked forward to discussing them with smart people from different backgrounds, as our graduate program was mostly attracting students who were focused on Buddhist, Muslim, Africana and biblical studies. I put together the list and left it at that.

But as the semester approached, I started having doubts about the value of such a class. This would certainly be a fun final seminar for me to teach, but if I taught the course the way I planned, I feared I would retire without having bequeathed something genuinely useful to my last group of students.

I started thinking again about what the course I was inventing could contribute to improving the sorry state of graduate education. I had just spent five years as the associate dean in the college of liberal arts trying to do something about the macro issues plaguing doctoral studies. My goal was to make changes to the culture of graduate education. I agreed wholeheartedly with the scholars who were suggesting that graduate education in the humanities and humanistic social sciences wasn’t working. The list of problems was long:

  • Too much of the focus was on research while not enough was on teaching.
  • There was inadequate awareness that teaching could take place in many contexts, not just higher education.
  • Not enough attention was being paid to the recruitment and retention of underrepresented cohorts.
  • The time to degree was way too long.
  • It was well past time to admit that not enough tenure-track jobs were available and that Ph.D. students should not be disdained if they either did not seek or would not find one.
  • There was too little support for graduate programs becoming more public-facing and less insular in order to make the knowledge that faculty and students produce valuable to the broader society.

My list of solutions was long, too. It included:

  • Requiring a teaching practicum for all students in their first year in the classroom to counteract the message that only research mattered and to improve the experience of our undergraduates.
  • Inviting outside speakers who were creating a new vision of graduate education to meet with small groups of faculty members who were interested in these new trends and might help me carry them forward. (I was particularly grateful to Leonard Cassuto for his public presentation and private consultation in 2016 when I was getting started with this initiative. Many of the changes I was able to initiate were based on his ideas.)
  • Hiring a director of graduate studies who was a strong public advocate of career diversity and who had already demonstrated leadership on this issue as a graduate student and in her activities with our learned society.
  • Supporting the monthly programs that she ran, which included a strong focus on recruiting and retaining students of color, as well as applying for (though not receiving) grants to finance those efforts.
  • Setting up a committee to review graduate programs that ultimately resulted in stronger financial support for students and a recalibration of assistantships for each department.
  • Using external program reviews to encourage departments to lower their credit hours and simplify exam requirements to shorten time to degree completion, which they all did.

By the time I left the dean’s office at the beginning of the pandemic, I was proud of the part I had played in helping transform graduate education.

But while I was in administration, I had only been looking at the big picture. I had not thought about graduate courses specifically or the doctoral curriculum in general. What would the seminar-level micro change be that would continue to advance those macro goals?

Teaching whole books seemed like an unlikely solution to the problem of graduate education. Academics who are thinking about the issues I was working on in the dean’s office argue that longer-form writing like the dissertation is an impediment to speeding time to degree and an unnecessarily burdensome task that many students just can’t complete. They claim the dissertation is only driven by the pre-professional requirements of the monograph for tenure and promotion at research universities—jobs that are out of the reach of most graduate students today. Therefore, they recommend replacing it by experimenting with other formats—such as a series of articles, a graphic novel, a web-based collaborative project. Katina Rogers, for example, argues that those formats are preferable because they have greater value in their potential to translate to public audiences.

Yet I remained convinced that the traditional dissertation and the book it may become do and will matter. Accessibility and clarity of writing and contributing to public understanding of religion and other humanities disciplines are important. But can’t the scholarly monograph and its cousin the academic trade book also meet those goals?

I decided that ensuring students think about their dissertations in such a way would be something my course could contribute. And since they have all already chosen to pursue a Ph.D. knowing about the requirement to write a dissertation, it stands to figure that it is something they will still want to do.

Ultimately, the skills—and confidence building—developed during the dissertation process function as a precursor to well-written and argued scholarly monographs and academic trade books, including even the excellent ones that authors have published making those very arguments against the dissertation. The opportunity to write an original book-length work on a topic you are the expert on is too valuable to abandon.

Indeed, despite their critiques, those who are questioning the value of the traditional dissertation also laud the skills gained through planning, writing and researching a book-length work. Consider Cassuto’s advice to doctoral candidates who were having trouble focusing on their projects during the pandemic. He highlights the value of the dissertation process, even though he has questioned its ultimate purpose:

Skills … vary by field and training, but the one skill that all Ph.D.s share is a sophisticated ability to work with information: to create, gather, analyze, manipulate, and synthesize it—and, perhaps most important, to teach it.

Your dissertation displays that sophistication. But the process by which you gain skills and savvy with information matters more than the dissertation itself. Your thesis is the most consequential part of your graduate education, not just a document that proves you’ve completed it. You learn while writing it, and that’s part of the reason it can take a long time to finish. The skills you gain while writing a dissertation form the foundation of your professional life—no matter where it takes place—and remain useful for much longer than the content of your specialized subfield will.

Considering both the students’ interests in reading and writing monographs and the values of writing the dissertation, I made a plan to teach a course that would help students get ready to make their contribution to the world of books. I asked myself: What would they need to know about books, both reading and writing them, that would help them get through this process?

Graduate courses have rarely emphasized the kinds of skills graduate students need to navigate the process of writing a book-length work—from figuring out how to become part of a scholarly conversation to understanding the ins and outs of publishing. Why not try to create a course that would meet those needs and give students a sense of what they might achieve as writers, whether or not they scored that tenure-track job?

In a follow-up article, I will describe the course, how it worked and the results—and what lessons they revealed about what we should be teaching graduate students in the humanities today.

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