“A good dissertation, is a done dissertation” – And nothing else matters?

In February 2017, Kathleen Woodward, director of the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington and professor in the Department of English, offered the seminar “Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times – A Microseminar with Sidonie Smith.” Graduate students from the departments of English, French and Italian Studies, Spanish and Portuguese Studies, and Germanics discussed various readings, including the Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (2014), Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (2015), Kathleen Woodward’s “The Future of the Humanities – in the Present and in Public” (2009) and Bethany Nowviskie’s “Graduate Training for a Digital and Public Humanities” (2016). The seminar also framed the visit of Sidonie Smith, Director of the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan and Professor of English, to the University of Washington, which included her lecture “Manifesto for the Humanities after 2016: What Do We Want to Become?”

In the microseminar’s last meeting, Kathleen Woodward tasked our group to formulate two changes we would like to see implemented in doctoral education.

“What is a dissertation? What does my dissertation look like? Four chapters with an introduction? Who is my audience? My advisor? My committee? Other scholars? The public? Has my training as a graduate student prepared me for it? Or has my training nothing to do with writing a dissertation?” – While these questions were on my mind before I took my PhD exams, I never really posed them, neither to myself, nor to my advisor or to my faculty. Now, a few years later, I realize that graduate students in many departments at various institutions do not seem to pose these questions, either. This phenomenon correlates with the absence of dissertation descriptions on departments’ websites. Why? Because there is an assumption that everyone knows what a dissertation is: it’s a 200+ page word document that has four to five chapters with an introduction and perhaps a coda – isn’t it? Yes? Maybe? Well, whatever a dissertation is, what I have heard most often from various sides is: “It’s what will get you the job.” I have heard this so often that a) I do not ask anymore the questions I posed above and b) I have started to believe that anything else in my graduate education does not matter anymore when it comes to facing the job market.

But, really? Nothing else matters? Not my training as a teacher, my experience giving talks at conferences, writing seminar papers, participating in classroom discussions and workshops, giving presentations, co-organizing a conference panel, organizing workshops or taking microseminars like this one? All these experiences have shaped me as a graduate student and, I believe, as a future professor. But the rhetoric around graduate education and which parts of it are relevant seems to eliminate everything but the dissertation. Yet, despite its importance, the dissertation is built on questions that are never asked – in other words, on a culture of assumptions. So, what can be done?

First, I propose to rethink the PhD requirements. Of course, as the Report of the MLA Task Force shows, there is a need to reimagine the dissertation. The task force lists various alternative models of the dissertation that are not chosen arbitrarily, but rather are a response to the changing modes of scholarly communication: “Examples of an expanded repertoire are a suite of essays on a common theme; Web-based projects that give evidence of extensive research; translations, with accompanying theoretical and critical reflection; public humanities projects that include collaboration with people in other cultural institutions and contain an explicit dimension of research; and the treatment of texts in terms of their pedagogical value in classrooms” (MLA Task Force 14). If the dissertation model is updated according to these changes, I argue that also the requirements that lead up to the dissertation need to be re-evaluated: the number of credits for course work (for instance, reducing them by half) and the foreign language requirement that often seems to be just a list item that needs to be ticked off and does not relate to the student’s research and teaching. I am not advocating abolishing the language requirement – by all means, if a student’s research requires the knowledge of another language then she should be able to learn this language – but I propose that there should be alternative choices to fulfill a requirement that is intended to foster research and teaching. I imagine a series of three 1-credit seminars, each seminar covering a different aspect of professionalization: 1) Public Humanities – “How to Reach Publics in addition to Academic Audiences”, 2) Digital Humanities – “Digital Humanities for Reading” (paralleling the “French/German/etc. for Reading” courses; this seminar would give an overview of DH, its questions, tools, pedagogy, practitioners, platforms etc.), 3) Administration – “How to Read a Budget and Other Admin Questions for Scholars” (personally, I have the least knowledge on this, but I have heard from many professors in their first or second year that they wished they had known about this side of the profession before starting a position). Other seminar topics could include “Undergraduate / Graduate Pedagogy”, “Publishing”, “Multiple Career Horizons” etc. Each seminar would be comprised of five to six meetings throughout an academic quarter, each meeting accompanied by some relevant readings. Ideally, the seminar leaders, speakers and participants would come from various departments so that issues within and outside a specific discipline could be addressed. Humanities Centers, for instance, could take on the coordination of such seminars, because they already bring together different departments in their current work. Graduate students would be required to take these seminars before their PhD exams, which would give them a chance to include what they have learned in their dissertation prospectus. Maybe the dissertation will have a DH/Public Humanities component, but, more importantly, the student can make a more informed choice about what form her dissertation will take on. Plus, through a series of interdisciplinary speakers from other departments, from the library and possibly form off-campus, the student would have a chance to find mentors for her dissertation project outside her department.

This brings me to my second proposition: While it is certainly great to rethink the dissertation, to offer different dissertation models and have them listed on a department’s webpage, it will not resolve the issue of a culture of assumptions that prevails in many departments. “The assumption is that writing a proto-monograph is the only form of preparation for writing a long-form book. The assumption is that a monograph dissertation needs only a modest amount of revision to become a book. The assumption is that the monograph dissertation is the only predictor of future success as a humanities scholar. The assumption is that all this is understood by doctoral students and doesn’t require articulating” (Smith 130). This quote by Sidonie Smith stood out to me when I was reading her book Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times. Even if each model of the dissertation is described in depth and includes a few examples, it remains necessary for each graduate student (and also for each graduate student advisor and faculty member) to still ask: “What is a dissertation, what is it for me?” If both graduate students and professors keep various ways of communications open (quarterly or yearly meetings with all graduate students, individual meetings etc.) a graduate student in her second year of study will be able to better understand and formulate a project that fits her research interest, her writing style and her advisor’s and committee’s expectations. It would not be necessary anymore to play a guessing game with each chapter draft or relying on hearsay about what makes a good dissertation. I have often heard: “A good dissertation, is a done dissertation.” While this is true, I would also like to also hear: “A good dissertation is built on communication, not assumptions.”