Something strange happens in discussions of graduate education in the humanities: we forget that graduate school is more than the dissertation. In fact, we forget how and why coursework matters and this is a terrible loss, especially given the changing nature of the increasingly rapacious academy. A quick scan of job listings over the past few years reveals that jobs require more and more skills: a digital humanist with experience in multiple historical and theoretical fields who is able to train seals over the weekend, for instance. With the rare exception of geniuses in the field who can master multiple historical and theoretical fields, teach exceptionally, publish effortlessly, and transform local and international institutions and organizations through brilliant service, most of us work in two to three fields, a blend of the historical and the theoretical, and, if we’re lucky, publish a reasonable amount. While some of us are lucky to work exclusively or predominantly in our fields of expertise, most teaching opportunities do not require expertise—indeed, job categories such as “World Literature” and “postcolonial literature” make expertise impossible. (The same is true of “American literature,” “African literature,” and a whole host of other fields.) Even if we do teach in our fields, it’s likely that we teach broadly rather than narrowly: I can teach a survey in African American literature and culture from the “beginning” to the “present,” as these things are termed, but my scholarly work focuses on a much narrower period.
Increasingly, jobs require the training we receive through coursework and qualifying exams. They require a broad base in knowledge. Yet, this broad base is strikingly absent in discussions of refurbished Ph.D. programs, even as it dominates job ads.
As we debate whether to move from the standard 250-400 page dissertation to alternative formats, we ignore the 6-12 (or more) seminar-length papers assigned in graduate school. At an average 20 pages each, this is a lot of writing. Much of it is exploratory, a lot of it not very good (if my own seminar papers are examples), but all of it builds critical, historical, and theoretical vocabularies and skills suitable for pedagogical uses. For many years, my best friend has argued that we need to find ways to account for coursework, especially given the relative weight assigned to it in U.S. programs. It distinguishes U.S. Ph.D. programs from U.K. ones, if my information is accurate. But we act as though the dissertation process is the only thing that counts.
Now, certainly, the dissertating process is unique. I am not arguing that it should not weigh heavily in job situations. Given that most of us approach the job market as we are dissertating or having just completed a dissertation, it makes sense that we should be interviewed based on this process. However, we are more, way more, than our dissertations. If we are to think about graduate training in the humanities, then we need to think about more than the dissertation. We need to consider the entirety of a graduate career.