I’ve got a crush on your dissertation

Today in Vitae I have a piece that runs a bit against the grain of my other writing, at least on the surface. I believe we need to do a lot of things differently in terms of graduate education. I believe in change because the status quo – long graduate trainings, little professional experience, the enduring belief in the meritocracy – these things enable adjunctification and the damaging aspects of the academic prestige economy.

But I love scholarship.

I wrote the first draft of today’s essay in mid-June. I was neck-deep in copy-edits, going through my 90000 word book (a pretty standard length, for those readers not in higher ed), line by line, working closely with a smart and meticulous copy editor from Penn State Press.

A few days before, I had spoken to my mother, also an academic (yes, I’m one of those kids). She was just trying to get the shape of a new project, thinking about how to craft the book.

And just before that, I had read a chapter draft from a friend. The chapter was packed with new information to me, but it still needed some conceptual shaping. It was a gorgeous work-in-progress, with the work so visible to the reader, but with plenty left to do.

And I thought, I love research.

As you’ll see from the essay my road through graduate school was never smooth. What I leave out from my narrative is a year of writers block. I had a first marriage and she left me on Friday and I mostly lost the ability to write. I found it again while in the archives. But even before that my road was rocky and my current position as a working professor was never assured – because it’s not assured for anybody. But for all the things I might change in graduate school, the process of the dissertation, no matter how hard it was (and it was very hard), is not really one of them.

Having recently read the MLA Report, I thought – yes, we might be able to make a stripped down degree and award PhDs – but right now, the way we train scholars is through the dissertation process. There might be a better way. We could definitely build new patterns of collaboration, new ways to publish, all sorts of different kinds of approaches to respond to the shifting nature of the publication economy and academic hiring practices, and so forth. The dissertation could be shorter, maybe, or more of a draft towards a book and less of a finished project.

I just want to see other models work before we test them out on the most vulnerable.

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