Oh, That MLA Report

Here is the result of a multi-year initiative from an MLA-appointed “task force” of highly secure tenured professors and one “alt-ac” worker from the Smithsonian, on the state of U.S. humanities doctoral programs and what, if anything, should be done to change doctoral education in the United States in the face of a jobless hellscape.

I HAVE SOME THINGS TO SAY about this report, make no mistake. But as I compile them–with assistance, I believe, from trusted stats man “Adjunct Nate Silver”–I want to hear from you. Did you read the report? What parts of it WEREN’T utterly asinine (I, for example, liked the bit about how PhDs don’t have to be indistinguishable replicants of their advisers)? Which parts of it were the most out of touch? If the MLA actually wanted to affect positive change in the modern language disciplines, what’s a better way they could have gone about it?



39 thoughts on “Oh, That MLA Report

  1. Graduate students in the humanities (of which I am one) need more competent mentoring. As it is, nobody I know has become an “indistinguishable replicant” of his or her advisor because our advisors give us very little guidance. We need more instruction in research methods and professionalization. As it is, we flounder in the dissertation process because we are never given proper instruction in how to actually carry out a project of that magnitude, and when we hit the job market, our CVs are woefully inadequate because we have had little, if any, encouragement to publish articles or present at conferences. Humanities Ph.D. programs need more structure and more faculty engagement.


  2. I did not read it in close detail, to be honest, because I am too busy re-doing my dissertation. (HA HA sob) BUT, I have read some of the recommendations. I think MLA will have a hell of a time getting any program to implement any of its recommendations in a meaningful way. My program has already instituted a maximum of 5 yrs of support for the PhD if you come in with only a BA and 3 if you come in with an MA, but the professors have no incentive or inclination to do anything to make it so that we can actually graduate in 5 yrs or less. Case in point: me. I got NO feedback from my advisors ALL YEAR, and I submitted analyses continuously. Suddenly, in April, my diss was “crap” and had to be totally redone, and I was supposed to defend in May. My ire at this situation was met with contempt, my dept advisor had a major hissy fit and recused herself from my committee, and so now I am advisorless, working with a professor in another fucking country, and desperately hoping one of the other professors in my dept will take me on as an advisee so late in the game. So, we have new grad students coming in, with only 5 yrs of support, and NO changes to the curriculum, program design, OR attitude of the professors. The grad students are the losers here, because it’s “business as usual” for the program and the professors, but no changes that actually make finishing in that timeframe possible. You could, of course, take an extra year (or three), but that will be on YOUR dime, thank you very much. If you don’t want to go further into debt to finish, then you must not want it bad enough.

    Fuck all of it. It’s meaningless unless the MLA has any sort of power to DO anything, and it doesn’t.


    1. The MLA report looks to me like a lot of self-serving hot air about “broadening possibilities,” especially in view of stories like Lonely ABD’s. I wonder whether it would be possible for grad students to demand an academic/career bill of rights analogous to the labor rights grad students are increasingly demanding. An academic bill of right would include guarantees of things like competent advising and due process and suitable remedy when your advisor wants to ditch you. Grad students are roadkill after they graduate because they’re roadkill before they graduate. You shouldn’t have to rely only on luck to avoid getting flattened.


    2. I absolutely agree. There’s a “five year guarantee” (aka a five year clock) at my university as well, and a few departments have reduced classwork and other requirements to streamline time-to-degree, but those departments are in the minority. How are we supposed to finish in five years when we have to spend 3 taking classes and exams, do a full year of data collection and research, and then write up in a year…oh no, sorry, I meant a semester, because dissertations are due the first day of the semester we need to graduate, so as not to rush our committees too much. Really, it’s not shocking that almost nobody in the humanities and social sciences actually graduates in five years! And a lot of the time, the faculty strategy is to tell students, “get a Fulbright, then?”

      In the physical sciences, there’s continuous summer funding, less teaching, and usually only one year of classwork max, so yes, they do have a faster average finishing time. But that works against us too, because it even though the administration DOES recognize that that freedom to do research comes from being comparatively awash in grants at the department level, they still somehow want students to have the same level of efficiency in departments that can’t bring in millions of dollars, just without the money or time. Couldn’t we just try harder?!


      1. JESUS, one semester?! At least your program cut the coursework down to 3 yrs. It is still 4 in mine when you come in with a BA,and 2 when you come in with an MA, leaving 1 year to do prelims, data collection, analysis and write up. Oh, and you should be on the job market sometime in there. But you can take an extra (unfunded) year or two to finish, right? That’s no big deal, right? (Says the FULLProf who makes >$150K a year) Oh, but they are “discussing” reducing coursework to 3 yrs, but they have to hand-wring and have committees and meetings about this, meanwhile they are still admitting people on the 5 yr plan with no concrete plans to change the degree requirements.


  3. Shortening time to degree isn’t really going to happen by simply declaring that a dissertation must be defended in a certain amount of time. It looks good to say that your PhDs finish in seven years or less, but there are ways of getting that number down, such as only admitting people who have masters (five years for a PhD starts to look pretty average if you only admit people who spent two years getting an MA). There are two ingredients to shortening the time to degree: better mentoring and a living wage. Better mentoring means advisors who take time to read and comment on drafts, make expectations clear, and who know how to walk the line between guiding a student to a project while still letting it be her own. A living wage means that students have to teach at most one class a semester, and ideally can expect fellowships for a year or two. Universities that do provide sufficient material support have completion rates of 6-7 years, as opposed to a national average of nine or ten in the humanities.

    BUT all of that would mean an investment of resources in people that the corporate university has proved itself time and again unwilling to make. It would mean expanding the T/TT professoriate back to something like 75% at least and reinventing tenure so that professors can devote time to grad students and gain some actual benefit from doing so. It would mean that grad students have teaching loads that do not forbid completion. How likely is that to happen? Not very, at least not in the near future. Instead it is easy to see the recommendations that are least likely to change the status quo as the ones that get implemented. “Finish in five, or else!”

    And let’s make no mistake, the preservation of the status quo is what is at stake for most universities, if not for the MLA.


    1. “Universities that do provide sufficient material support have completion rates of 6-7 years, as opposed to a national average of nine or ten in the humanities.”

      – That’s not true, unfortunately. In my graduate program, we had 6 years of very good financial support, including summers. Good benefits. Plus we only had to teach 1 course per semester for 2 years. The rest of the time, there was no teaching at all. And the completion average was 9 years. I had to fight tooth and nail to let the school release me and let me go on the job market in 5 years.

      I believe such conditions should exist in all grad schools but they will not lead to faster time-to-degree.


      1. I have the numbers from a survey I recently read on time to a humanities PhD for the ivies vs. the nation, so the numbers I cited don’t come from nowhere. They are median averages. Anyway, my point was about “support” in a more holistic sense. In the case of my current home, many of us have had to deal with “unknown unknowns,” to quote Donald Rumsfeld. That is, timelines and procedures were not always clear, where if they had been, in some cases a year could have been shaved off the time to degree. For a lot of people slightly better advising would go a long, long way to a quicker degree. My fear is that only the cut in time to a degree will have a hope of implementation, with the result being that people get sent through the mill that much faster. The call to take teaching more seriously is one of the good parts of the MLA report, but will universities follow by allowing for professors to give more time to teaching and mentoring (part of which would mean giving fair pay, dignity, and job security to adjuncts)? I’m not holding my breath.


  4. Some of these proposals are good ideas taken individually, but taken together they’re just incoherent: Reduce time to degree while adding new training in technology, teaching, networking, government service, etc. Narrow people’s educational focus while encouraging broader cross-disciplinary collaboration and preparing them for a broad range of possible careers.

    Why do the people going into government or the nonprofit sector need an increased focus on pedagogy? Similarly, a program of study with narrow coverage may be useful for someone with a very specific non-academic career path, but it will leave future teachers ill prepared to cover the range of classes they’ll be expected to cover at teaching-oriented institutions.

    Also, the report mentions the adjunct problem but says too little about it. Until teaching jobs are staffed by full-time employees earning a livable wage, training people for teaching-oriented schools is a losing proposition.


  5. The MLA could put teeth in their recommendations if it wanted. It could bar programs from advertising in the JIL or interviewing at the convention if those programs don’t provide adequate support for grad students, treat their students badly, or don’t effectively guide ABDs to completion. Ph.D. programs in MLA disciplines are sensitive to shame in a way that AAUP-censored schools often aren’t. If the MLA published a list saying that, for example, UC Berkeley’s comp lit program was inadequately funding its grad students and forcing them to compete in a dog-eat-dog environment for their advisor’s time, I think the faculty might just think about changing the situation.


  6. I’m speaking as an outsider here–I’m doing a doctorate in history–but it seems that the MLA is one of the few associations that makes the AHA seem not so out-of-touch. (In general, doctoral studies in history make *EVERY* other field look speedy in comparison.) Derek Bowman’s comment above is spot on: taken together, these recommendations are incoherent, and they suggest an hesitance to grapple with deep systemic trends in higher ed.

    That said, I am intrigued by their recommendation to “reimagine the dissertation,” because this is an idea being bandied about by some historians, too. On the one hand, the skills shown–and scholarly contributions made–in a dissertation could be expressed through different media/means. On the other hand, these new types of dissertations (alt-dissertations?) would need the support of many faculty willing to expand the notion of what, exactly, demonstrates expertise and diligence in the humanities. Given the mixed messages in this report, it seems unlikely that such a shift would occur with much speed.


  7. I have to say, I hate this report with a passion. It sounds like it was created by arranging meaningless verbiage so beloved by administrators in a variety of inventive way. Any sentence I read just pisses me off. Just one example:

    “Departments should provide students
    with ways to acquire skills necessary to scholarship and future employment,
    such as collaboration, project management, and grant writing”

    – First of all, have we already accepted that “grant writing” should become crucial for the Humanities? Since when? Why are we buying into this ridiculous lie spread by greedy and useless administrators that we need to bring more money to the university? I have no interest in being in a grant-writing business because it isn’t like I’ve got a lab to run.

    And what do “project management” and “collaboration” even mean in this context? Graduate students in the Humanities will be assigned “projects”, like little kids in second grade?

    And how are any of these “skills” necessary for a career in scholarship? I’ve been quite successful in my scholarship without managing projects or writing grants.

    I could go on and on because the whole thing is offensive to me.


      1. Maybe it’s meant in the sense of “collaborating with the administration in the destruction of jobs and exploitation of colleagues.”


  8. “The director of graduate studies should be
    a leader of change who helps transform the program to meet the objectives
    outlined in this report. The placement officer needs to marshal expertise in
    nonteaching careers, alumni networks, and career development resources.”

    – This is the freaking MLA, for Pete’s sakes, we are supposed to be the best writers in academia. And all we can come up with is this stilted admin-speak? “A leader of change”? “Marshal expertise”? I want to throw up when I read this kind of crap.

    This makes me very angry.


  9. “…long-term academic job market that provides tenure-track employment for only around sixty percent of doctorate recipients.”

    I call bullshit. Or, more politely, [citation needed].


      1. I would love to know the real numbers. From my own personal stats that I’ve been compiling about my grad program (Yale), the number of people who ended up in TT jobs is a lot lower. And I mean, A LOT. We need to count those people who quit before graduating because of the intolerable environment in the grad school.


  10. The report implies that the problem lies in the “training” aspect of doctoral programs. Time to degree is not the problem; time to permanent employment is the problem. If anything, PhDs need more time, because they have to be mini-assistant professors to land a tenure-track job. Smaller PhD pools and more funding for graduate students are the answer. If the job market run can take three years, let’s lengthen time to degree to make sure the job-market-years are funded. The money the Mellon foundation used to fund the study should have been used to fund graduate students who need conference/research funding. (Here’s an idea: replace all those prestigious “post-doc” positions in the Humanities at R1s with actual t-t lines. Humanities professors do not need post-docs except to ride out the job market fluctuations.) Right now graduate training in the humanities is fast becoming “job-market” training. This report perpetuates this trend. This the worst MLA report I’ve read; many are superior,/class inflected, such as the one from 2007 that bristled that some professors actually have to teach a 3-2 load (too much says MLA). But this one is brain dead. Its aim is to save established t-t professors from having to read dissertation chapters from their graduate students who end up flunking the job test.


      1. “If the job market run can take three years, let’s lengthen time to degree to make sure the job-market-years are funded.”

        – And make sure people are actually allowed to go on the market when they are ready and not when they are no longer needed as a source of cheap labor for the department.

        “Here’s an idea: replace all those prestigious “post-doc” positions in the Humanities at R1s with actual t-t lines. Humanities professors do not need post-docs except to ride out the job market fluctuations.”

        – THANK YOU for saying this. I’ve been feeling like a voice clamoring in the desert because I’ve been saying this for years and everybody gets too scandalized.


  11. The suggestion to provide grad students with better teacher training is not utterly asinine, in itself. I loved teaching (as I know you did), and found a way to do it well (as I know you did), but it is bizarre and stupid that the majority of graduate programs throw their students in front of a bunch of other students with almost zero training. (My grad program actually had a ‘course’ in pedagogy. It was taught by a tenured English Prof who told us that educational theory was bullsh*t and asked us to read _The History Boys_, a play about an inspiring teacher who also happens to be a pedophile. Great.)

    So, it is gross that Universities by and large do nothing (or almost nothing) to train their teachers, whether they are grad students or new faculty. For the MLA to recommend that something be done is decent. HOWEVER, you and I both know that this recommendation is meaningless within a larger research culture that resists (and will continue to resist) change. Unless and until faculties start hiring Teaching-tenure-track positions AND putting them on par with research-tenure-track positions, and then maybe in 30 years there’s enough generational shift that these people actually have some sway and power in a department, few grad students are going to have the nerve and support to actually believe that teaching is worth their time, when everyone everyone else in the department is suggesting otherwise. And that (the large-scale hiring of teaching-tenure-track positions over adjuncts) sure as hell isn’t going to happen soon, or likely ever.

    As above, it comes down to these MLA recommendations being superficial and contradictory. Well done, self-congratulating task force. well done.


    1. You’re right, and it’s even worse than you suggest. The problem isn’t just that those who would prioritize teaching have maintain their beliefs despite having research-focused colleagues. It’s that those people are unlikely to be hired (or promoted) in the first place, because they won’t have the research credentials that make them stand out in a crowded field of candidates.


  12. I agree with posters above, this MLA proposal is incoherent. I think one possible solution for the MLA fields would be to encourage more terminal MAs. Programs should admit more MA students and then be absolutely ruthless in culling each cohort for the students who move on to the PhD. This maintains the flow of teaching assistants that the modern university requires, it gives more people a shot at graduate level course work in the humanities (which can be a good and valuable thing if it doesn’t consume too many years of your life), but it pushes most people out before they’ve invested too much time or become too specialized to move into other types of work. It would also reduce the pool of PhD holders chasing TT jobs, the basic supply and demand problem that no one wants to address.

    And maybe I just regret not quitting my grad program when I had done enough to get an MA.


    1. What’s done in German universities in my (STEM) field is to simply separate the MS and PhD. An MS is coursework and a minor piece of research, taking 2-3 years, and the PhD is a separate application, often done somewhere else, and takes about 3 years of dissertation only, with no exams and no hoop-jumping.

      This is a good idea because it removes the stigma of leaving with a non-terminal MS and turns it into a real degree instead of a consolation prize. It also makes the PhD a purely a place to test research chops instead of playing grad student. I might be romanticizing because I’m not in a German program, but it sure seems better than what’s done here.


    2. My program has a terminal MA, and it’s working toward getting rid of it. the president of my uni has terminated programs that only have terminal MAs and no PhD because, according to his office, they lower the uni’s rankings.


      1. The president of your university isn’t exactly wrong. Producing PhDs is good for university rankings, and producing MAs could be “hurting” the university if those MA programs are diverting funds that could be used to produce more PhDs. Of course this is one of those cases in which what is good for the university as a whole is not good for individual students or for fields with an oversupply of PhDs. As Saymwah points out, it doesn’t look bad to leave with a masters after 2 years. With no masters option, more people will wind up trapped in programs they would rather leave because there is no acceptable exit.


      2. Tom: I don’t disagree with you at all. I was just adding that because I see the likelihood of encouraging more terminal MAs as.. not great, given the atmosphere. MOAR PhDs! MOAR PRESTIGE!


    3. This is a great suggestion. What better way to reduce time to degree and increase access to humanities education than to prioritize fully-funded 2-year MA programs? This would also increase opportunities for interdisciplinary study, since you could string together 3 – 5 different MA/MS degrees in the time it ordinarily takes to get a PhD. This would also make it easier for those with alternative career plans to add an advanced degree without taking too much time away from developing the specific skills and experience needed by those careers.

      In short, this seems to better achieve almost all the goals the MLA says it is trying to meet.


  13. “The call to take teaching more seriously is one of the good parts of the MLA report, but will universities follow by allowing for professors to give more time to teaching and mentoring”

    – The MLA report makes it sound like the grad students now have to do the mentoring of the undergrads, too, because the Full Profs can’t be bothered to stoop to this menial task.


    1. In my program.. the FullProfs rarely even interact with undergrads, because we grad students teach a majority of the courses. I mean, they can’t even be bothered to advise their grad students properly (in the majority of cases), so why would they stoop to advising/mentoring undergrads? So, at least in my context, which I know is a sample of 1 and anecdotal, the MLA is right.


  14. We COULD do all that. Or we could, I don’t know, PAY ADJUNCTS A LIVING WAGE AND GIVE THEM SOME JOB SECURITY.


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