Give them the freedom to think

April 19, 2002

UK humanities degrees fail to prepare students for an academic career, complains Ralph Strehle

It would be premature to claim that research in the humanities is under threat. But the picture is not a rosy one.

One reason is that undergraduate and postgraduate studies are out of tune. The former is based on acquiring managerial and representational skills, the latter on sustained and complex thought. Of course, the two could inform each other in useful ways, but at the moment they don't. The disjunctive relationship has serious repercussions for the international competitiveness of humanities research in Britain - a fear that has recently been addressed in the Arts and Humanities Research Board's review of its postgraduate programme.

It has become standard practice to conclude a PhD in most humanities-based subjects within three years. This is enforced by individual college regulations as well as funding bodies such as the AHRB, which withdraws its financial support after that period. In the specific field of contemporary literary theory, often informed by the complex and difficult relationship between French and German philosophy, this stipulation requires a research student to possess a considerable fund of analytical skills and in-depth knowledge before embarking on a PhD project. Ergo : a degree of expertise in a pre-selected research field; knowledge of foreign languages; and conversancy in different types of thought are to be acquired during one's undergraduate years. But it is here where the emphasis has moved from providing a necessary tool-kit for academic thought to furnishing students with the representational and managerial skills needed outside academia.

Of course, I do not disapprove of the use of modern technology in classrooms and the idea that universities should cater for purposes other than their own. PowerPoint presentations, web-research and time-management have become necessary constituents of undergraduate education, and rightly so. But when such "innovations" have an adverse effect on the ability for rigorous intellectual thought and if there is no time to acquire such a mode of thinking during one's MA or PhD, then trouble looms large.

Take an example from the field of gender studies: undergraduate students talk with ease about how heterosexuality can be defined only via its differentiation from homosexuality. From this, they say, it follows that homosexuality can no longer be regarded as degenerative and secondary but lies at the heart of the constitution of heterosexuality. Most of them, however, will not be able to identify the argument the way it is expressed in theoretical texts - as the logic of "derivative inversions".

The lack of understanding here cannot be attributed solely to laziness and indifference. What is equally important is the design of undergraduate courses. These are aimed at providing a general overview, improving the ability to cope with deadlines and to mould a limited amount of information into a semi-coherent argument within the scope of a 2,500-word essay. In short - time-management. In Germany, some first-year students read one book, give a presentation and do a 10,000-word essay. One year, one book. The German system may have its faults but in the UK undergraduate degrees in the humanities prepare for all kinds of professional careers but academic ones.

If, consequently, a PhD is indeed to extend the boundaries of knowledge, and if the current undergraduate degree structure is to remain in place, postgraduate students must at least be given the necessary time to develop the skills needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive and international academic environment. In the light of the recent AHRB review, which considers "the improvement in rates (three years) at which students submit" theses as a sign of quality rather than the number of theses that actually make it to the publisher's and which, above all, promotes the creation of "links with employer representatives" in order to cater for their non-academic needs, there seems little room for optimism.

Ralph Strehle is a teaching assistant in the department of English and German at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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