Resources: Against the monograph dissertation

Here is a collection of resources for my latest piece. People who are arguing to move to dissertation away from the monograph model.

The recent MLA report is the catalyst. It reads:

Reimagine the dissertation. An extended research project should remain the defining feature of doctoral education. Departments should expand the spectrum of forms the dissertation may take and ensure that students receive mentoring from professionals beyond the department as appropriate.

  • This report is building off of former MLA president Sidonie Smith’s writing against the monograph dissertation as the sole way of thinking about a culminating project.
It reminded me of Mark Taylor, chair of Religion at Columbia, mocking his own department’s students in the NYTimes in 2009, singling out someone working on Dun Scotus’ footnotes. He wrote:

Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.

  • That piece engendered lots of commentary and criticism (I’m focusing on ones that talked about Duns Scotus and the dissertation, rather than Taylor’s other ideas. Here’s a big Chronicle overview. Here’s a piece on “What’s the matter with footnotes?” Natalia Cecire weighed in here
  • Here’s Terry McGarty applauding, “All too often having doctoral students is a means to an end for faculty who just want free help.” Also, he notes, Einstein didn’t need a thesis adviser, so why should anyone else?
  • Taylor turned his op-ed into a book, Crisis on Campus. I haven’t read it. Reviews say it’s provocative but thin in terms of data. Taylor’s an interesting guy, but mocking a grad student in the NYTimes is the very definition of punching down.

Ted Steinberg followed up Taylor by advocating “Death to the Footnoters:”

The idea of graduate students running around writing doctoral dissertations as if they were living in the Middle Ages would be funny were it not for the fact that thousands of such students are today squandering their very best years, squirreled away in the archives writing treatises about as likely to be read as documents with titles such as Erring: A Postmodern A/theology3 or Altarity4 or “nO nOt nO” (admittedly works written by Professor Taylor himself in an earlier, perhaps more medieval time in his life).5 Almost inevitably, Taylor concludes, the monograph is a “financial failure” and the dissertation process itself a “rite of initiation [that] produces little of lasting value.”

I got a lot of responses to my blog post asking how people view their scholarship, but this is its own thoughtful piece from Geoff Schullenberger. He’s interested in seeing the dissertation re-framed, but cautions:

Count me skeptical that the monograph dissertation is the only way to achieve intellectual rigor and commitment. It seems to me that the main reason it has come to be seen as such is the “job market”: when a search committee is reviewing ten zillion applications for a position, they need to have a discrete “product” to evaluate. For the same reason, it seems unimaginable that the dissertation can be reformed without a broader reform of hiring practices and, along with it, a systematic effort to address the exploitative regime of academic labor. Otherwise, the result will be essentially what Schuman alludes to with her “Executive Literary MBA” quip: a two-tier system in which people who want to go on the tenure track still write dissertations in the current mode, while those destined to “alt-ac” trajectories write a “reformed” dissertation, which is viewed condescendingly by the tenured but tolerated because it’s the price they have to pay to keep their TAs, RAs, and graduate seminars intact.

Odds and ends:

  • A 2012 IHE piece on the MLA thinking about the dissertation. 
  • More to come here as I find things.

One Reply to “Resources: Against the monograph dissertation”

  1. Rob Barrett says:

    I'm not convinced by Schullenberger's linking of the monograph format to the needs of search committees: such committees never read more than a cover letter, an abstract of the overall project, and a chapter (or two) of the project. The dissertation-as-monograph seems to have been enthroned long before the current academic job crisis began in the 1970s, and it's the drift across the profession toward published monographs as the gold standard of P&T that has strengthened that monopoly, at least in book disciplines.

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