Graduate Training in the Humanities

Scholars in the humanities are having wide-ranging discussions about the purposes of graduate training. Should Ph.D. students be required to write a dissertation that is a book-length manuscript? (For the record, my answer is no.) What is the appropriate length for a Ph.D. program? (Russell Berman, MLA president, says 4 years.) How should we change professionalization to promote routes other than university teaching jobs? Or should we change professionalization, assuming it takes places in the first place? I recently completed my department’s annual practice of assessing students for admission to graduate school, and I think it’s useful to reflect on what makes a successful graduate application.

Good undergraduate students—stellar grades, outstanding GREs, and amazing letters of recommendation—do not necessarily make good graduate students. Frequently, the very qualities that made one a very good undergraduate student might work against the graduate school experience. When I read applications I’m looking for creativity and originality. I’m interested in candidates who can articulate a problem, something that nags or niggles them about a particular work (novel, film, video game, theoretical paradigm); can explain, no matter how tentatively, why what irks them does so; can begin to map a set of questions they would like to explore. I am more intrigued by the person who wants to study the significance of chewing gum in American literature than the person who wants to study race, gender, and sexuality: the narrowness of the former project can be expanded and nuanced while the generic vagueness of the latter simply feels flat.

In thinking about the qualities of the grad students I prefer, I realize how generalizable they are across multiple fields and professions: creativity and originality, problem-identification and problem-solving, stick-to-itiveness.

I’m concerned, as I have been for many years, about what happens to the very intelligent, creative, talented students we admit to graduate school every year.

Something bad happens.

By the end of year 5, 6, and definitely 7, and 8, the graduate school experience has so hobbled many students that they are unable to value themselves outside of a very narrow academic range. Strangely, the more we know, the more crippled we become. Insular. Uncreative. Unimaginative.

It is remarkable to me, for instance, how few academics choose to put their knowledge to work in locations other than the academy. While I certainly value conversations with fellow specialists, I am drawn to public forms of scholarship—to popular articles that will be read and will, perhaps, influence other people. To arguments that circulate beyond a limited range of elite, peer-reviewed journals. To open-access journals—I adore Feminist Africa, for instance.

Much of this, I hasten to add, comes from the histories that permit me to be in the academy and from the thinkers whose works continue to inspire me: bell hooks, Essex Hemphill, Cornel West, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Ngugi wa Thiong’o—the list is long. In different ways, these thinkers straddle the intellectual and the political, the semi-private worlds of thinking and art and the fully public worlds of education and politics. New(er) technologies have allowed more of us to explore these worlds—we won’t all get to be on NPR, but twitter and blogging and facebook (yes, even that evil) and other platforms enable us to bridge our semi-private and public worlds.

But too many of us forget this. We are unwilling to believe that we can do more than write peer-reviewed articles that will be published in elite journals and books that will be published by respected presses. I am not disparaging these things—after all, I also write articles and I’m working on books. Also, I’m wary of academics who disparage intellectual work as “arcane obfuscatory articles,” to cite a comment on the Chronicle. (You know, if you really don’t like reading academic articles, perhaps you really should not be an academic. While the idea of a Doc Martin is fun for a TV series, the idea of a doctor who cannot deal with the bodiliness of bodies is deadly.)

Regrettably, mandated cuts in graduate programs in terms of numbers admitted and years to completion (not necessarily bad things) put greater pressure on those admitted to graduate programs. If programs are only allowed to admit 8-12 Ph.D. candidates, those assessing admissions become overly-invested in particular candidates: we regularly receive over 200 applicants to our Ph.D. program and admit between 10-12. We cathect on students who resemble us—I’m genuinely delighted when I see the juxtaposition of queer and Africa or queer and diaspora, even as many things happen from admission through coursework. The student admitted to study queer Africa discovers a passion for digital romanticism. This is a good thing! Students should grow in unexpected ways.

Part of this growth should be to realize how graduate training provides what Kenneth Burke would term “equipment for living.” In my ideal world, those undergoing graduate training in the humanities would learn about the vast opportunities such training offers. They would learn, really learn, that the creativity and innovation and research skills and critical problem skills they learn, develop, and practice (this is a terrible sentence) enable them to thrive in multiple environments, not simply the university. Ideally, a more expansive vision of graduate training in the humanities would have other payoffs: fewer students on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, less disciplinary insularity, more collaborative labor and less “I’m a genius” methods of working, an expansive vision of one’s engagement with the world. While I relish the quiet of the “ivory tower,” Rapunzel needs to get out a lot more. And maybe build some stairs. Balding happens.

I had hoped this post would gain some focus. But between what I cannot say and should not say and really don’t have enough time to say. Well. Here it is.

3 thoughts on “Graduate Training in the Humanities

  1. Keguro, u know I have been a ghost reader for a while now. Dude, ur literary skills are enviable. It’s famo right here- u know wa-Nyambura. Hope my blog grows to be like urs.

  2. Keguro (there must be a way to reduce this to “Kegs”, which, I must admit, is tacky),
    As I read what you look for in PhD students, I saw that it was somewhat similar to what you pursue intellectually: the ability and confidence to explore connections and relations in those “peripheral” (this word is a serious catachresis here) areas of interest (which you sometimes refer to as “asides”). And also the willingness of a scholar to morph along the way, to take detours and get lost and be ok with getting lost and (you get the point).

    I’ve lost my train of thought. Only I remember a very bad critic once (this is very unrelated to anything you have written here) who accused MFA programs—particularly the famed Iowa one—of producing writers who wrote mostly for other people who’d been through that and other MFA programs (this is a terrible sentence). This, said bad critic argued, made writers produce writing that was not only awfully similar, but also a kind of “writing in a box”.

    What was I trying to say when I began commenting here?

  3. Asterix–all is well, as long as the sky doesn’t fall on your head!

    Kweli, I am interested in those “asides” and footnotes and endnotes and other places where much of what I study is most likely to live. It’s the out-of-fashion deconstructionist in me who insists on looking for blacks and queers in the most unlikely (and most familiar) of places. To that extent, I am *interested* in others with similar methods. Most faculty members look for people with interesting projects. The unfamiliar is good but other things come into play–the academy is what it is. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that someone who submits a haiku in place of a critical essay will get a serious look. We do write for each other and there are very good psychological (and other reasons) to favor students we believe will thrive. My train of thought seems to be following yours in winding around and such.

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